Queenstown is a place I've always associated with high-octane, adrenaline-infused madness. It's screaming at the end of a bungee cord, screaming as a jet boat spins in circles on a river, screaming as a giant swing swoops across a gully. And then there's wine to wet your sore throat at the many beautiful vineyards that grace the Central Otago countryside.
I find myself in Queenstown for work, and in a quiet dilemma, being halfway through a pregnancy and unable to partake in the things I'd usually do down here. I decide to get to know the region by foot, instead. In the days between work I have been exploring trails around Queenstown that don't require a lot of gear, and more than half a day away at a time.
I am growing ungainly — long hikes with heavy packs no longer suit me as I lug a small baby in utero around. Instead, I'm after walks where I can just take a water bottle, some sunscreen and a camera, but still feel I've gotten to know the region. Luckily, Central Otago is an embarrassment of riches for your feet.
The Sawpit Gully track in Arrowtown is an 8km loop that will set you back a good three hours, pace-dependant, and it is worth every moment for the changes in terrain you experience as you move along. Starting in the old Chinese settlement in Arrowtown, where the miners lived and worked over a hundred years ago, (and where you can take in some of the old cottages and landmarks) the track takes you up through a forest trail lush with natives and birdsong.
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I chose to walk the trail in a counter-clockwise direction, and the path steepened as I cleared the trees and progressed to a rubbly dirt track and a more barren landscape. It's a steep climb for the first hour, and I'll blame the baby for the number of pit stops I had to make to catch my breath. Each time I paused and looked behind me, the views of the valleys and mountains revealed themselves anew, as if the region had begun to take off its clothes piece by piece.
Emerging from the dirt track into an open saddle full of tussock all tawny in the sunlight feels like a triumph, and a small side track will take you up to a steeper summit if you're up to it, where the Remarkables wrap around you in their late-summer glory. From there it's an easy amble downhill into a softer, greener wonderland, with the burble of a stream running beside you, and little meadows everywhere. In the space of hours, the landscape has told you a story about the region and its ecosystem, and when you come out at the Arrow River gorge, with that water running strong, it feels like the perfect punctuation mark to a beautiful sentence about what the land has to say.
If you're after a flatter, easier walk, Lake Hayes is a good one and very accessible for the most part. A simple loop track of about two hours takes you around the perimeter, and the cool breeze off the lake is a treat because the sun is still hot and high down here. Out on the water, boats of kids learning how to row offer a good distraction — the call of the coxswain over the loudhailer feels like a personal cheer squad employed just for you.
There are swings scattered around the lake for kids (or pregnant women) to play on, and many places to sit and just take in the view. It's an easy walk, but one that feels satisfying, completing a perfect loop and emerging in time for coffee and morning tea down the road in Arrowtown, where I can highly recommend the Arrowtown Bakery and their marvellous pies.
You can walk the Kawarau River in both directions, and it seems to change with every variation in weather. If you walk from Frankton to Queenstown it's a good 8km, and the path follows the curve of the river and its soft braids. The willows hanging over the banks are some of the most wonderful I've seen — ancient, heavy and silent. The river is the deepest, most luminous navy blue, lifting to soft turquoise and emerald green in the shallows.
It's worth leaving early and walking all the way into Queenstown for breakfast. Bespoke Kitchen, right in town, is fast becoming a favourite, and full to the brim with their incredible baked goods, you'll be able to manage the walk back again. As you get closer to Frankton, you'll no doubt hear the screams of passengers on the jet boats shooting along the Kawarau towards the Shotover River. Their giddy, terrified voices will reach you long before the boats come into sight.