Wednesday, February 24
We had agreed to meet Andy and Andrea later on in the day in the city of Queenstown, situated on the shores of another large lake some distance south of Wanaka. We took a scenic backway (Crown Range Road) linking the two centers, enjoying the cowboy-like western scenery along the way - Ranchlands, tawny grasslands, bare, sun-dried peaks. We crossed over the highest paved road in all of New Zealand at Crown Range Summit pass (elevation 1076m / 3530ft), then descended down into the Kawarau River valley and soon were driving through the outskirts of Queenstown.
It was still early afternoon, so we decided to spend sometime exploring the small city.
Nestled along the shore of fjord-like Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown bills itself as the home of outdoor adventure excitement. In addition to the lake, the town is virtually surrounded by peaks, most notably the prominent Remarkables Range, where there is apparently excellent skiing during the winter months. Mountain Biking, climbing, skiing, mountaineering, surf-boarding, sailing, bungee-jumping, power-boating - Queenstown claims to have it all.
The town center was bustling with cars and foot traffic. It was a dense mix of shops and promenades, sprinkled here and there with an older heritage building. The small but pretty waterfront had some nice lakeside parkland and a small dock area where an old-tyme steamer took tourists out for rides on Lake Wakatipu.
Jenn and Pu decided to wander around town; Caroline, Brian, Lori and I decided to head up a chairlift system that headed directly out of the town center to "Skyline Queenstown" - a multi-purpose recreation facility that in the summer hosted a downhill luge run. Well, not a real luge run - more of a downhill gravity-assisted go-kart track.
The cost of the luge run was actually quite reasonable - so long as you went for multiple runs (4 runs was almost the same price as 1 run). We took the gondola up to the Skyline Chalet, perched on a shoulder of Ben Lomond, the small mountain that towered over the north part of the city. From here, we got our safety gear and took another short gondola ride to the start of the luge run. Behind us was a fantastic view down to Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.
Skyline Queenstown Luge Run
Since I'm generally amenable to things related to racing, I found the downhill luge-ing fun. Each run was essentially mini kart-race. Brian skilfully managed to keep ahead of me on the last run after I made an unforced error with my luge kart's braking system. The man's got some competition in him!
Queenstown and the Remarkables
After descending back down to Queenstown's downtown, we reunited with the Pu, Jenn, Andy and Andrea. One of the highlights of Andy and Andrea's stay in Queenstown had been a scenic plane ride over to Milford sound, along with a short cruise in the fjord. This had allowed them to visit this major attraction despite it having been cut out of our overall group's schedule.
Next, we began preparations for the last phase of our trip: two days along another of New Zealand's Great Walks: The Routeburn Track.
Normally, the Routeburn Track - which crosses the Serpentine Mountains separating the Queenstown / Lake Wakatipu area from the Fjordlands (where Milford Sound is located) area - is done as a 3-ish day traverse. During planning, however, we could find no practical way to manage the logistics (which involved long 5-hour shuttle rides between trailheads) of such a crossing with our group, given our available days. Instead, we opted to do roughly half of the track as a there-and-back. This greatly simplified logistics, and required no shuttling.
After a quick Queenstown grocery run, we headed north along the shore of Lake Wakatipu, along an extremely beautiful stretch of highway called the Glenorchy-Queenstown road. It was a winding roller coaster of a journey above the milky-blue waters of the lake and below the peaks of the Richardson Mountains. I believe that this stretch of highway is another on the list of New Zealand's top five drives. If that was true, then we had so far completed three of the five on this trip!
Our destination was the little town of Glenorchy, situated at the north end of the lake. Lori had managed to secure us some accommodation here, placing us only about thirty minutes' drive from the eastern trailhead for the Routeburn Track. We would therefore be well-positioned for the start of our hike the next morning.