A must in Queenstown is a leisurely journey across Lake Wakatipu and an afternoon made special by a Highlander called Dougal, writes Michelle Langstone
The TSS Earnslaw is something of an icon in Queenstown. I've seen the Edwardian steamer in the harbour every time I've visited, tethered and breathing smoke from its bright red stack as people pour on and off it, and I've always thought it was a novelty ride around the lake, and not much more. It turns out I was very wrong.
The TSS Earnslaw is a trip back in time, a beautiful, functioning piece of history, and a vessel to transport you to afternoon tea on a high-country station, where you will meet and develop a crush on a Highland beast named Dougal.
From the moment you step aboard the steamer — the only remaining passenger-carrying coal steamer in the Southern Hemisphere — you feel you're somewhere special. The boat, once nicknamed The Lady of the Lake, was built in 1912 and has been beautifully maintained — the kauri woodwork gleams as if lit from within, the paint on the trim is bright and tidy, and the stairs to go below decks are steep enough to feel a bit treacherous, making exploring the ship a thrill.
You can clamber around on metal grills in the heart of the boat to watch the engine be fed, the pleasing smell of hot grease and coal singeing your nose. It's incredible to see an old engine like that still working. You can duck into a saloon below decks, and consume snacks and drinks in fine style as the Earnslaw carries you across the lake towards Walter Peak, a journey it has made many times — the boat used to carry passengers and cattle out to the farm stations in the early part of the 20th century.
Walter Peak high country station is a working sheep and beef farm of just over 24,000ha, and its pretty homestead hugs the lake edge, the garden nodding with flowers, the willows hanging their heads low. You can choose between a barbecue lunch at the house, or a farm tour and afternoon tea, with a chance to wander the property, take in the shearing sheds, and feed some cattle. Whichever choice you make, you'll be met with a smile and a wave — the farm workers look genuinely happy to be working in such an idyllic spot, and as you gulp in the fresh breeze coming off the lake, with the sun on your face and the expanse of land wrapping around you, it's hard not to feel delighted. It's a truly beautiful and unique property.
Two-thirds of our boat's passengers dispersed to the barbecue lunch, leaving a group of mostly parents and kids (and me) to explore the property. Our guide was Peter, who lives in a cottage up the way, and at his heels, two short-haired collies Sky and Spree, who expertly rounded up the group and led off to show us the grazing paddocks and the livestock.
There were calves very willing for an ear scratch and a handful of pellets, adorable black-faced sheep, who came hurtling down the hill when they heard us coming, and some very chatty alpacas, who kept giving the kids a fright with their baleful honking noises.
And then there was 9-year-old Dougal, one of the station's Highland cattle, whose girth is so tremendous it's hard to describe in words. Feeding him involves forgiving him for a lot of slobber, but he's so charming it's worth it to end up with an arm that looks like you've been attacked by Slimer from Ghostbusters. I was not the only person reluctantly parting ways with his company, such was his allure.
After we washed off the saliva, there was afternoon tea. I made a beeline for the cheese scones, which I can report are sensational, if slightly small. I feel it should be a rule that all scones measure the size of your palm. There were date scones too, with ruby-coloured jam, and bowls full of cream, tiny lemon tarts, and shiny pieces of chocolate slice. Hot cups of coffee and tea were on hand, and sitting on the veranda admiring the lake and watching kids turning cartwheels on the lawn was an excellent way to pass time.
Post-afternoon tea we were shepherded to an arena to watch the dogs wrangle some sheep. Working dogs are always extraordinary, and their bond with Peter was beautiful to watch. All up, it was about two hours on the farm — plenty of time to get a sense of the property and its inhabitants. I went back for a second pat of Dougal before jostling with the crowd to get a starboard window seat on the way home, where I rested my head on my arms and watched the beautiful central Otago landscape slip by us, as we chugged back across the lake.
DETAILSBook a lake cruise on the TSS Earnslaw through Real Journeys. realjourneys.co.nz