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Queenstown: Snow & So Much to Do!

Sunday:  Franz Josef to Queenstown

It was an early start to our day, as we had a lot of ground to cover making our way south along the west coast and into Queenstown.  As we left Franz Josef, the skies began to part and we got a better view of the snow-capped peaks surrounding the glaciers.

As we continued south along SH6, we passed through the smaller and lesser known Fox Glacier, and then continued towards Haast, a small community that would represent the shift from south to east on our drive and towards the Southern Alps and officially New Zealand “snow country”.  Here we took a short break and viewed a short film on the region which was not only informative, but provided even more amazing examples of the rugged, remote, and beautiful country that we have been traveling through for the last 3 weeks.

As we worked our way through Haast Pass, Wanaka, and the Crown Range, we finally arrived into Queenstown.  All along the drive, the vistas were sweeping, snow was everywhere (but the road, thankfully) and the sights were turning to that of a huge tourist and adrenaline capital. Queenstown is heavy on skiing and snowboarding in the wintertime, transitioning to mountain biking in the summertime.  Year round though one can participate in a wide variety of activities from skydiving (12, 15, or 18,000 feet), bungy jumping, bungy swing, ziplining, paragliding, parasailing, gondola, luge, white water rafting, boat cruises (duck and scenic), jetboats, wine tasting in the Central Otago region, and the list just goes on and on.

We arrived and checked into our accommodations for the next 3 nights, and got right to work choosing activities for our time in Queenstown.  We were fortunate to get three activities into our itinerary, and it was a good cross section of adrenaline (Jet Boating), unique (Steamship trip to a active sheep farm), and culinary (Wine and Cheese Tasting) without forfeiting our travel insurance (skydiving and bungy just about void our coverage).

Our accommodation hosts took care of all the reservations and within minutes we were getting ready for our first activity:  A steamship cruise on the TSS Earnslaw, an authentic steamship built in 1912, to take us on a scenic cruise at sunset to the Walter Peak Farm, a working sheep ranch with over 20,000 sheep, along with a carvery buffet dinner at the homestead.

We walked down to the waterfront, where the Earnslaw was making its way back to the dock from a previous cruise.  With towering mountains on each side of the harbor as the sun began to set, it was a chilly, but great place to begin the cruise.  As we boarded the vessel, we were joined by a few tour groups, but the total numbers didn’t exceed 100.  The ship could have easily handled twice that, so it was quite comfortable.  A huge closed in (read: warm) main cabin had large tables with cushioned bench seating, along with a small bar for most passengers, but if you had the inclination, you could head out to the bow of the ship and face the elements, which included a cool evening and winds across the front of the ship.  As this was a fully functioning steamship, the interior was quite comfortable as the steam helped to heat the vessel from the inside out!  In addition, in the center of the room there was an opening to the deck below where the engineer and two deckhands were physically loading coal into the furnaces to power the ship.  You could also see the turbines and the steam pumps actively move the ship in all directions!  It was quite a sight!

As the new directions were sent from the bridge to the engine room, you could hear the traditional bells clang as the bridge orders were provided to navigation dials mounted on the walls.  Once new directions came in, the room sprang to life with members of the crew immediately adjusting knobs, turning handles, stopping and starting the coal fires, and getting the ship to adjust to the new directional commands.

It was a great 40 minute trip over to Walter Peak, and we arrived to our destination just after the sun had set.  We all moved from the ship to shore, and a short, 2 minute walk later, we had arrived at the main house of the property, where we would all be dining for the evening.

Beautifully carved wooden tables, fireplaces, and old world charm filled the place as we walked into white tablecloths, local flower centerpieces, and a very considerate wait staff.  The evening began with hot bread rolls and homemade vegetable soup.  From here, the carvery buffet was an all you can enjoy affair with roast lamb (almost as good as mom’s but not quite!), beef, curry chicken, vegetables, roast potatoes, yorkshire pudding, salads, antipasto trays, shrimp, mussels, and more!  After everyone has suitably filled their plates (and stomachs), the desert buffet provided apple crumble, hot date pudding, pavlova, double chocolate cake, fruit salad, and eclairs.  Then, just to top of this massive undertaking, a huge cheeseboard of local NZ cheeses is set up along with coffee and tea service.

Thankfully, a few minutes later, a guide from the sheep farm, an older gentleman with a wicked sense of humor begins to make his way around the tables letting us know that a farm demonstration would start in 20 minutes time (and to complete stuffing our faces before it starts!) and to slowly make our way over to the demonstration area, just across the property from the dinner.  Right on time, the group heads over to a bright shed area, complete with heat lamps for the cold, clear evening, and everyone takes a place amongst rows of wooden benches.

Our guide introduces us to the first star of the show, one of their eye dogs.  An eye dog is a specially trained dog that excels in rounding up sheep from far distances without the use of a bark.  Barking is sometimes needed in sheep herding, but for the most part only serves to spook the sheep and can sometimes slow down the process.  Highly responsive, the dog showed off a number of its tricks, but then came the main event — into the pitch black darkness the dog fires off at a quick pace — and returns with half a dozen sheep.

The dog (and our guide) proceed to walk us through the basics of sheep herding and the dog is impressive with its capabilities.  The final step of the first demonstration is to herd a few of these sheep into the pen, as it is time to shear!

Our guide quickly reviews all of the keys points of shearing and then moves right into the main event — shearing a sheep is quick business and the entire process takes less than 3 minutes.  Surprising how mellow the sheep is in this process, nearly catatonic once placed into a sitting position to complete the activity.  In just those short minutes, nearly 10 pounds of wool had been taken off this sheep to reveal a surprisingly small sheep remaining without that heavy and thick wool coat.

Our guide did a fine job and answered all questions from the audience as we slowly made our way back to the ship and made the return trip home.  It was a great first day in Queenstown and tomorrow, its time for our double adrenaline rush at Skippers Canyon Jet Boating and some wine and cheese tasting in the Central Otago region.

Monday:  Queenstown

Up and moving in the am, we were out and walking downtown to meet our driver and guide at 8:50am for a trip into Skippers Canyon, a location about 22kms outside of Queenstown for today’s adrenaline rush — High Speed Jet Boating!

Little did we know that when our driver arrived in a converted 4WD military transport vehicle, that we would actually be getting a 2 for 1 special on the adrenaline.  The drive to Skippers Canyon, we came to learn, is handled on a treacherous, dirt/gravel road about 6 inches wider than the vehicle itself with sheer cliffs on one side and a jaw dropping drop on the other side to the valley below.

Though the drive was indeed intense, it was a lot of fun — our driver was extremely knowledgeable about the area and handled the drive with ease.  Once you make your way through the scary description, the ride itself is immensely enjoyable and affords million dollar views of the backcountry as you drive your way into an area that only houses six (yes, just 6) permanent residents.

With the hustle and bustle of Queenstown behind us, our group of 8 completed the drive into the canyon and came upon the Shotover River, a thin ribbon of crystal clear water, in some places less than 6 inches deep, carving its way through and to the dock for the Skipper Canyon Jet Boat.  Once we arrived, we were provided with beanie hats, thick gloves, life vests and thick plastic spray jackets to go on top of the warm clothing we were already wearing…  Why you may ask?  Well, at 10:15 in the morning in the depths of the canyon, the air temperature wasn’t much more than about 5-7 degrees C (41-45 degrees Fahrenheit) and once you start moving at 80+ KPH, the temperature starts heading downhill fast.  Just for good measure, take a face full of ice cold river water and now you begin to really hope that adrenaline starts to kick in!

Our jet boat driver arrived in smooth fashion a few moments later, speeding down the narrow channel and completing a perfect 180 degree parallel park job to the dock and allowing us on-board.  From here, the throttle was opened all the way up, and we literally flew upriver for about 15 minutes, dancing from side to side, flirting with rock outcroppings, and throwing at least half a dozen 360s which were a lot of fun…  We were able to get a bunch of video of the experience and are pulling it together to share shortly.

Once we turned around at the midpoint, we were now running downstream and we could travel even faster!  It was a great ride, and felt extremely safe and enjoyed every second of the experience.  We were returned to the dock, nearly frozen, but fortunately our faces were stuck in a position of excitement and all smiles from the entire group.

From here, we got to see a very small, but still extensive museum of antiques and artifacts pulled from Skippers Canyon during the gold rush days of the 1860s.  We were also warmed up with some hot Milo, tea, and coffee, along with some oatmeal raisin cookies.
We headed back to the beast (our transport vehicle) for the drive back into town and said farewell to Skippers Canyon — a memorable and exciting time on the Shotover River!

After we returned to a normal body temperature, we climbed into the car and took off for a quick tour of 3 local wineries and a cheesery (that’s really what its called!)  Natalie tried wines at Chard Farm, Gibbston, and Amisfield and we both shared an amazing cheeseboard at Gibbston.  It was a great afternoon in the sun and got us back for a dinner of Butter Chicken in our communal kitchen and then off to bed for a 7:30am start to the bottom of the South Island, touring the Catlins, and making our way to Dunedin!

More pictures online at The Photo Page!

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