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Queenstown and Central Otago
Adventure Centre Of The South Pacific"
Queenstown and Central Otago is one of my favourite places in all the world - a region of stunning alpine scenery and dramatic landscapes, of high-adrenalin over-the-edge activities, but also of quiet beauty, of gentle retreats where you can just sit and be at one with the natural world. And it has its secrets and surprises, too.
One surprise is that, despite huge increases in tourist numbers passing through, Queenstown, the heart of the Lakes region, has not become one of those tawdry touristy places that reek of fast-buck rip-offs.
I've been going there since the late 50s and while, sure, it's changed, somehow it retains its essential village atmosphere. But if you hanker for something quieter, stay in Arrowtown, 20km away, or Wanaka.
Let's start with the adrenalin:
Probably top of the list is bungy jumping - that opportunity to take what is otherwise a fatal leap hundreds of feet into a fast-flowing river canyon. Perhaps it's the attraction of the dark side of our humanity - tempting the unthinkable. To actually go ahead and jump! You can the little jump - the one that is most commonly seen - but there are others that make that look like stepping off the kerb.
Higher? - how about parapenting which consists of leaping bird-like off the side of a steep mountain and floating to earth on a parachute.
Then there's tandem hangliding or tandem parachuting,(freefalling from 8000 ft - are we high enough yet?? - and floating down from 5000ft. Or parasailing - riding a parachute behind a speedboat. And you don't even get wet!
Maybe something a little less hair-raising? Flightseeing is a biggie in this region. If you think it looks good from ground level you should see it from above. If you don't want to drive to Milford sound why not fly? The trip is as spectacular a flight as you'll get anywhere in the world.
Helicopters are a natural air transport mode in mountain terrain like this and it's no surprise therefore that heli-flightseeing has been developed to a fine art here.
Let's return to earth for the next round of heart-stopping shopping. First up is jet boating - most famous is the Shotover Jet and it's still the premier ride in town. But there are others, each offering something different.
River-rafting is the other big on-water action attraction. One that takes nothing from the environment but excitement.
Let's get off the adrenalin mainline and find out about some of the more sedate, but perhaps more subtle attractions in town.
Probably best known is the TSS Earnslaw, the graceful old Lady of the Lake - a vintage steamship that has been preserved and now earns an honest living steaming to and fro on Lake Wakatipu.
Walter Peak Station is one of the most historic of high country runs in the country. In its heyday it spread across 170,000 acres, carried 40,000 sheep and had 50 full time employees. Now you can see sheep dogs working, watch a shearing and wool spinning demonstration, ride Robbie the Scottish highland bull and get in among the sheep, goats and deer.
How else may one take the waters? Cruise aboard the M.V.Yvalda a beautiful 48 foot classic twin-screw, ketch-rigged motor launch. Or go sea kayaking. Ummm. Shouldn't that be Lake Kayaking? Anyway, do it with Queenstown Sea Kayaks.
While you're on the water, fancy a spot of fishing? Local fishing guides will take you river or lake fishing for brown trout, rainbow trout or quinnat salmon.
Experience Middle Earth with tours trips taking in key locations in filming "Lord of the Rings.local locations provided the spectacular backdrops to much of the action in Peter Jacksonšs 'The Fellowship of the Ring'; The Ford at Bruinen, The Misty Mountains, Isengard and Lothlorien, better known locally as Skippers Canyon, Macetown and Paradise, to name a few.
You can also do tours into the old gold workings up Skippers Canyon and Quad Bike rides on Queenstown Hill.
OK so let's get back on dry land. I guess golf is to land as fishing is to water. So if beating the daylights out of gutta percha (or its new-tech equivalent) is for you, hi (or is it heigh) off to any one of three local courses. There is a super-hazard here. The "One They Don't Tell You About". The scenery. Damned difficult to concentrate on the shot with a backdrop like that, don't y'know.
One of the real surprises of this region, so far south - almost on the 45deg South line of latitude - is that the area produces fine wine. There's a l;ine of top-of-theline wineries that line the Gibbston Valley. .
Queenstown in winter adds another dimension to its outdoor image - skiing. It's the country's No 1 ski resort - though the guys at Mt Ruapehu in the North Island would vigorously contend for that title. Four major ski areas are within easy reach - Coronet Peak and The Remarkables (the two local fields), Cardrona (about an hour's drive away) and just across the valley from Cardrona is Snow Farm New Zealand which has Nordic style cross-country skiing.You can also heli-ski some of the harder-to-reach slopes.
Of all New Zealand's many landscape faces, I think Central is probably the most dramatic in its almost lunar-like rock formations. It's a place of extremes - the coldest place in the country during the winter, the hottest in summer.
A home to orchards producing apricots, peaches, and especially (to me anyway) cherries, but also to several wineries of note in the Clyde area.
Another of Central's mining towns - but not much of the old area now remains, The historic precinct was flooded when they built the Clyde Dam, further down river. However, several of the original buildings have been retained and restored as part of the Old Cromwell Town project. Worth the trip down there.
In it's 150 year history it's been a mining town, an orcharding centre (still is), a construction town (while they built the monstrous Clyde Dam nearby) and now a tourist centre. But it lies just off the main fast road from Alexandra to Cromwell and thus retains a quiet village air.
A number of wineries have started up around here, taking advantage of the long, hot, dry summers. Burgundy-style varieties do particularly well here. You can visit a number of vineyards including Black Ridge, Springvale Estate and William Hill as well as vineyards in the Cromwell area including Felton Road, Olssens, Bannockburn Heights and Mt Michael.
The Central Otago Rail Trail runs from Clyde to Middlemarch is a 150km trail that follows the line of the old Otago Central Branch railway. You can walk it or ride it - on a mountain bike, a trailbike or a horse. Takes three to five days riding, a lot longer on foot. But you can also do just a single day ride on the most interesting sections.
You've got to work at it to get to this tiny hamlet - but it's worth it. Don't tell too many people about it, you'll spoil it's quiet backwater appeal.
It was a mining town that slowly fell into decay. The last settlers walked out in the 1920s. But in the 1960s a new breed of pioneers walked back in - and kept it just as they found it..
Haven't been there for a year or two now and things may have changed. A growing stream of the curious tends to do that. But when I was last there you could still stroll into the old Post Office building and read the posters dating from the First World War.
Nearby is St Bathans Lake - an unearthly green colour. It was created by the landscape-ripping process of sluicing for gold. The chemicals in it give it the colour. Take the camera.
But the real attraction is the Vulcan Hotel. If you don't mind basic accom. then this is one of the must-stays on your visit. It's as old as the hills, built of mud. The walls are about two-feet thick. And the company at the bar is local and colourful. You'll find St Bathans off Highway 85 between Alexandra and Ranfurly.
A New Zealand Travel Guide is written by David Morris and published by
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13 March 2012