A ride through Isengard

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January 16th 2007
Published: July 23rd 2008
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Omarama to Glenorchy

The 170km from Omarama to Queenstown take us gently back towards the mountains. The road passes through Tarras, a tiny blip on the map which gained worldwide fame (well, almost) as the home of Shrek, a naughty merino sheep who was found in 2004 having evaded the shears for six consecutive years and, as you might expect, looking quite alarming for this fact. The hapless creature, having avoided capture for so long by hiding in caves, was caught and promptly shorn of his fleece, which weighed in at no less than 27 kilograms (enough wool, I am told, to make twenty suit jackets).

Queenstown has a spectacular location: on the shores of squiggle-shaped Lake Wakatipu, the town sits against a backdrop of soaring, snow-capped peaks. Queenstown has developed into New Zealand's undisputed backpacker capital which, in theory, would be enough to keep us well away. Bungee-jumping, jetboating, skydiving - you name it, you can do it in Queenstown. The town is heavily marketed as a destination for "adrenalin junkies" - although I can think of better reasons to travel halfway around the world than to throw myself out of an aircraft, there are several places of interest to us in the surrounding region and Queestown makes as good a base as any for exploring them.

We've booked a room at Scallywags, a hostel located just out of town on one of the steep hillsides that hem Queenstown in against the lake. The Hyundai can barely cope with the gradients, even in first gear, and I am a little aggrieved at having to reverse park into the hostel's drive, which is at least a 20 degree slope. Run by an ex-nurse-turned-professional-bungee-jumper (as you do), the hostel is - as always - extremely comfortable, well-equipped and cheap. Like all of the hostels we've stayed at so far, Scallywags is a member of BBH (Budget Backpacker Hostels), a loose association quite similar to YHA but without the regimented, boy-scout atmosphere. Hostels are open to everyone, and really make you wonder why you would spend an extra £100 a night just to have the end of the loo roll folded into a point.

After a quick lunch at the hostel, we hop into the car and drive to Arrowtown, a historic gold-mining town a short drive from Queenstown along the spectacular Shotover Gorge. The town's olde-worlde architecture, dating from the goldrush years and resembling that of a town in the American West, makes Arrowtown a popular location with visitors. We visit the local museum, which houses a fantastic collection of 19th century bits and bobs, before going for a gentle walk along the Arrow river, which starred as the river Bruinen in Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring. The banks of the Arrow are rich in history, too. In the second half of the nineteenth century, southern Otago played host to New Zealand's biggest goldrush, attracting vast numbers of hopeful prospectors from Victoria's dwindling goldfields in Australia. Thousands flocked to Otago, and within a few years the goldfields were more or less exhausted. Like a cloud of locusts, the prospectors moved to South Islands soggy West Coast, where new deposits were discovered near the town of Hokitika. To fill the vacuum, the New Zealand government actively encouraged the immigration of large numbers of Chinese miners, mostly from Guangdong Province. Although the Chinese prospectors usually had to make do with claims already extensively worked by New Zealanders and Australians, they prospered. Relations with European New Zealanders were initially peaceful, although both groups lived apart, the Chinese establishing a small settlement on the banks of the Arrow, whose remains are preserved today in memory of this interesting episode in the country's history. As the gold ran out, mining became less and less profitable, until eventually most of the Chinese immigrants returned home to China, many with not inconsequential fortunes.

On the way back to Scallywags we stop at a supermarket to top up supplies, and have our first experience of something very typically Kiwi: self-service mussels. New Zealand is famous for its huge green-lipped mussels, and most supermarkets here are equipped with a large plastic tank through which water constantly circulates. The tank is full of live mussels, which can be scooped out of a hatch at the bottom - at bit like the pick'n'mix sweeties at Woolworths. With a nice big bag of the beasties in the boot, we return to the hostel - there is a barbeque on the small terrace behind the house, although judging by the cobwebs it hasn't yet been used this season! Perfect for cooking the mussels on. We brush off the dust and enjoy a tasty supper of barbecued green-lipped mussels washed down with a bottle of Mac's wheat beer, the Kiwi answer to Hoegaarden, and a very nice one, too.

We wake up the following morning to stunning blue skies, and head out of town along the shore Lake Wakatipu towards Glenorchy, a place whose name brings to mind - quite appropriately - the Scottish Highlands. Indeed, as we drive northwards to Glenorchy, we are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of the huge, snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps. The brilliant blue hue of the lake enhances the beauty of the view. Glenorchy is the end of the road - the paved road, that is. There are very few passes across the Alps, and there isn't one here: the tarmac abruptly ends here, giving way to gravel roads that penetrate a little further into the foothills. Living in the United Kingdom, when you encounter an unsealed road you expect to be a short one, because it usually is. Not so in New Zealand, where unsurfaced roads can go on for tens and tens and kilometres. We follow one of these roads further north from Glenorchy, following the winding course of the River Dart, to the start of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand's many world-famous walks. It is 32km long, and without the slightest piece of camping equipment on us we are going to walk only the first short portion of the track to the Department of Conservation hut at Routeburn Flats - a 15km or so round trip. The full track can take nearly four days to walk, passing over a saddle in the Alps at well over 1200m. Although the two ends of the track are "only" 32km apart, the mountainous geography of South Island is such that the distance between them by road is something of a detour at over 300km!

This part of South Island, which straddles the Mount Aspiring and Southland National Parks, also played a big role in Peter Jackson's trilogy - that of Isengard, home of Saruman. The walk doesn't disappoint - swingbridges, waterfalls, rapids roaring through deep gorges, cool, damp beech forests. After a couple of hours at a leisurely pace, we come to a stunning, flat-bottomed valley wedged in between the mountains - the Routeburn Flats. The DoC hut here is large, sleeping some twenty people. For an instant we regret not being able to camp here overnight, but without any gear we'd be foolish to. Anyway, call us soft, but the prospect of running - and hot - water at Scallywags appeals a lot more than a DoC "long drop loo". After a nice rest on the grassy banks of the shallow, pebble-bottomed river that winds peacefully across the flats, we head back to the head of the track and to the car, and thence back to Queenstown and a hearty supper of salt beef - these 15km walks don't half make you hungry.

The next day we're back in the car driving along the shores of Lake Wakatipu once again - this time we stop and park in Glenorchy, where we've arranged to go on a two hour hack on horseback along the Dart and Rees Rivers. Dart Stables is a very well-organised operation (we've come to expect nothing less in New Zealand) that has no doubt benefited immensely from the Rings trilogy, as fans of the film flock to Glenorchy to see the extraordinary, living film set that are the Southern Alps around here. We are no exception, and have an absolute whale of time fancifully imagining ourselves as Merry and Pippin, riding though Isengard. The scenery is truly utterly breathtaking, the delta of the River Dart against the gorgeous, snow-capped backdrop of the Alps. We've been taking riding lessons back home for a good few months now, and we're reasonably comfortable - although the fact that the horses are quiet and friendly helps no end. Occasionally though, the ride takes us across the rivers - there is something about fording a river on horseback that taps into our "inner explorer"...it's hard to explain, but it's a lot of fun. Back home we're only just learning to canter (well, learning to make the horses canter) and I give it a go on my mount, Zodiac. Fun as well - in rather terrifying sort of way - although Zodiac apparently does not like being behind any other horse and insists on biting the horse in front's bottom, so I have to rein him in and content myself with some trotting. Which, admittedly, is probably just as well as my backside won't be thanking me for this in the morning. The hack will definitely go down as a highlight of the trip - under wide, bright blue skies, the sense of freedom was fantastic.

That's it for Otago. After a last night at Scallywags in Queenstown, we skirt Lake Wakatipu all the way down before passing into Southland. Or, to use a more precise - and infinitely more evocative - name...Fiordland. What wonders await us here?

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