Otago: A winter's tale

By Fergus Blakiston

Fergus Blakiston rekindles his love affair with Central Otago.
Queenstown Mall is a perfect spot to while away the early evening before heading out to dinner.
Queenstown Mall is a perfect spot to while away the early evening before heading out to dinner.

Dusk on Bob's Peak. The setting sun shines down the long, deep valley occupied by Lake Wakatipu. Out on the lake, the steamer TSS Earnslaw cuts its way into Queenstown Bay, scoring a triangular wake on the glassy surface of the water. One by one, the lights of Queenstown, tucked against the foot of the hill below us, begin to appear. The steamer's whistle echoes across the hillsides above the town.

Away to the east, the ramparts of The Remarkables stand bathed in golden light from the last rays of the sun: sheer, shattered rock faces, gleaming with ice. The sky turns to a deep indigo blue and a pale, almost translucent moon peeks over the ridgeline as another day ends in Central Otago.

My wife Linda and I are in Queenstown celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. We have five days to ourselves. Five winter days in which to explore this corner of Central Otago. Having grown up on a sheep station near Glenorchy, at the head of Lake Wakatipu, Linda is on her home ground. In the years since our marriage we have visited Queenstown many times but this is the first time we have been here without our two daughters.

Winter in Central Otago is a season of wonderful afternoons. The baking temperatures of summer - when waves of heat make the landscape shimmer and wobble, and the air is heavy with the scent of rosehip and sage - are a distant memory. Occasional splashes of autumn russet and gold still linger on the trees. But the afternoons, though dazzlingly bright and warm, are also short. By the time we have ridden the Skyline Gondola back down to town, night has fallen and the air is brittle with frost.

Queenstown by night is busy. We choose a bar with a roaring fire and a crowd of patrons.

There is a pool table and music. Later, after a quiet dinner in a warm bistro on Shotover St, we stroll arm-in-arm along the lakeshore beneath a sky so encrusted with stars they seem to overlap.

Next morning, after a late breakfast, we drive up the lake to Glenorchy. The sealed two-lane road is a vast improvement on the gravel track Linda remembers from her childhood. We stop at Bennett's Bluff, where a look-out provides a spectacular view of the mountain ranges which dominate the head of the lake.

Below us, on the northern shore, the homestead of Mt Creighton Station, where Linda grew up, stands on a headland overlooking a trio of low islands in the centre of the lake.

Glenorchy used to be an isolated hamlet, serviced once a week by the TSS Earnslaw, which brought supplies and mail from Queenstown and returned laden with wool from the stations and scheelite (tungsten ore) from mines hewn into the hillsides above the lake.

The farmers and miners who lived here were tough and self-sufficient.

These days, however, Glenorchy has been discovered by tourism. You can get excellent coffee and food, paddle a sea kayak on the lake, take a jet-boat ride up the Dart River or a helicopter flight into the depths of the surrounding mountains, or go on a horse trek with Dart Stables.

We wander around for an hour or two while Linda reminisces about her childhood in Glenorchy - riding ponies, attending the local school, the annual rough and tumble Glenorchy Races - then drive over to Kinloch, on the far side of the lake.

This tiny landing-place, with its view down Lake Wakatipu, was formerly a boat-building centre. Timber from the thick, dark-green beech forests, which still cling to the towering mountainsides above Kinloch, was perfect for building and maintaining the many boats which once plied the lake.

Today, the charming Kinloch YHA Hostel caters to hikers walking the Greenstone Track.

The midday sun has warmed away the frost so we sit at an outside table drinking superb coffee and watching the antics of the local ducks. Later, en route back to Queenstown, we stop at a tiny, secluded bay for an afternoon picnic of cheese, crackers and champagne spread out on a tartan rug beside the lake.

The following day, we drive over the Crown Range - switchback turns and hair-pin corners hanging on the flanks of tawny, rumpled hills - and down the narrow, shaded Cardrona Valley to Wanaka. It was here, in 1994, that we spent most of our honeymoon.

We have booked a luxury unit at the Edgewater resort, the same place we stayed all those years ago.

In contrast to Queenstown's hype and hubbub, Wanaka retains an air of quiet solitude.

The town's location, slightly off the beaten tourist track, means development has been slower and more controlled.

Vineyards cover the rounded, sunny ridges running down to the southern shore of the lake; long rows of slender Lombardy poplars and graceful weeping willows frame the hem of shingle along the water's edge.

The north-facing aspect of Wanaka makes its climate much warmer than Queenstown's.

The frosty mornings don't bother us (we can stay in bed) and the days soon warm into mild afternoons. We spend our time exploring the coves and bays of the lake: places like Glendu Bay with its backdrop of vertical hillsides and the beautiful Bremner Bay, a short walk along the shore from town.

And when we have had enough exploring we can easily repair to one of Wanaka's many fine eateries and cafes. Our favourite place is The Landing, an upstairs restaurant and bar commanding a splendid view of Lake Wanaka and the jagged, glacier-hung mountain ranges at the head of the lake.

On our final afternoon in Wanaka, we sit at a cafe table on Ardmore St drinking buttery Central Otago chardonnay under a perfect blue sky. Across the street, a plum tree is draped with delicate pink blossom: a prophecy of the spring to come.

Central Otago in winter is a place of short, sunny days and long cold nights. But we don't mind. Long winter nights are perfect for honeymooners; and perfect for us too.

We move inside to a couch beside the fire, order another glass of wine each and watch the day end.

- Herald on Sunday

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