One of New Zealand’s most scenic roads leads to Glenorchy, gateway to Paradise in the beautiful mountains of the South Island.
Top 10 lists are beloved of travel magazines and I am thinking, as we negotiate the 44 km road that leads from Queenstown to Glenorchy in the South Island of New Zealand, that this would certainly be amongst my top 10 drives if I were compiling such a list.
It is short but sweet, revealing a world of majesty: Wakatipu lake at Queenstown is serene and magical, but as one swoops along its eastern bank to its head near Glenorchy, the high peaks of Mt Earnslaw and Mt Alfred at its northernmost end are revealed in all their magnificence. New Zealand in July can be washed out, brown, lacking colour, but these mountains are sufficiently high and dramatic that this is irrelevant and ones eyes are drawn to their snow-capped peaks and the dark gullies that lead down to the water below. Stop at Bennett’s Bluff at Km 25 for the best view of all: over silvery waters and scattered islands to the jagged pinnacles beyond.
Nearing Glenorchy, one passes the imposing gateway to Blanket Bay Lodge (PO Box 35, Queenstown Road, Glenorchy 9350; +64 3 441 0115; www.blanketbay.com; doubles with full board from $950), widely regarded as one of New Zealand’s best boutique lodges. Its prices are out of our league for this trip but I can vouch for its superb location and it has an award winning chef.
Glenorchy is a pleasant low key village, far removed from the hurly burly of Queenstown. Mull Street has a few cafes, the atmospheric Glenorchy Hotel (+64 3 442 9902; www.glenorchynz.com), and a couple of galleries. If you have ever wondered on how many uses there are for a dead possum - on every Kiwi’s hate list - visit the Glenorchy Fur Product shop (+64 3 442 7772; www.glenorchyfur.co.nz) - I like possums but the $2000+ bed throws are rather divine!
On to Kinloch
Roads here really do lead to Paradise though my favourite stop is Kinloch. From Glenorchy, the road flattens, swinging inland, and now neglected trekking horses stand hairy coated in the muddy fields while cattle gather for hay. Crossing the Dart river, past jumbled glacial hills, you reach the western side of the lake: a final swoop through beech forest and the Richardson ranges on the left and the Humbolt to the right emerge under feathery leaves.
Kinloch Lodge is at the head of the lake, an old fishing lodge dating back to 1868 (862 Kinloch Road, Kinloch, Glenorchy). Shared room $30; cosy flash packer doubles from $80; ‘heritage’ B&B doubles from $278 with breakfast). It fits pleasantly into the landscape, a low wooden lodge which adroitly combines backpacker accommodation with comfortable B&B. The owners could not be more friendly or helpful and produce good food from their cosy all-day café, including great set dinners at $45 for 3 courses. It is a peaceful spot in which to relax or fishing rods and kayaks can be hired: you will soon feel a million miles removed from the rat race.
Wander along the head of the lake, looking south towards Queenstown and again your breath will be taken away. This area also houses what must be one of the Department of Conservation’s most scenic campsites (self register on site, $7 per adult; details of all their campsites on www.doc.govt.nz) and on a still starry night there is no better place to appreciate the heavens: I am convinced that they are brighter in New Zealand than anywhere else.
Exploring the mountains
Kinloch is a great base for day walks: the Lake Rere circuit at 4-6 hours is a microcosm of all that is lovely about walking in this part of the world: beech forests, waterfalls, rushing rivers, lakes and fabulous mountain scenery. It starts from the Greenstone carpark a little further south from the Lodge; it is worth taking a picnic and lingering at the pretty lake.
Another superb day walk which will give you a taste for the Great Walks of New Zealand is that to Routeburn Falls Hut on the Routeburn Track. First of all it is an easy 2 hours walk along a dramatic river gorge of rushing waters to Routeburn Flats Hut from where you can explore the north branch of the Route Burn, a landscape of beech and tussocks with a fine view from the head of the valley. However, it is worth persisting another hour to the Routeburn Falls hut from where the mountain views are stunning.
Overnight in the wilderness
If you really want to get away from it all and enjoy the peace and solitude of the mountains, you can stay in these huts. Hut tickets are $15 a night/adult (Great Walks huts are more expensive in summer and need booking) or the 6 month pass is $90 - great value if you are staying a while - and can be bought from D.O.C offices. (Department of Conservation, 38 Shotover Street, P.O. Box 811, Queenstown 9348; +64 3 442 7935; www.doc.govt.nz).
The huts have mattresses so only a sleeping bag and food has to be carried, which is easily doable for an overnight walk and it will give you an entirely new perspective on the mountains: in the winter one can find oneself entirely alone and it is like having ones own private mountain lodge. The huts have a wood burner too though the nights can still be cold: however, that will make the Kinloch Lodge hot tub doubly appreciated on ones return!
We do the Greenstone/Caples circuit which is an easy 5 days walk, staying in well spaced and scenically located huts. It is one of the walks which is usually possible in the winter as it only involves one pass of 947 m which is not often too snowy for access. This is a scenic circuit along valley floors with pretty rivers, crossing a steepish pass which leads through beech forest to the sub-alpine vegetation at the top.
A road to remember
Paradise really does exist here, though the valley is named after the picturesque local duck rather than any celestial abode. The road sign states: Paradise (No Exit). It is a rough gravel drive to the end, though passable in our basic hire car and a pleasant walk further will lead along the river on the Rees-Dart track. This area featured heavily in the Lord of the Rings films and if you are a fan you will find no end of tours willing to point out the landmarks. Dart River Jet Safaris are a popular way of exploring the rivers here, their jet boats leaving on a variety of daily trips from Glenorchy (+64 800 327 853; www.dartriverjetsafaris.com).
At the end of a week combining the delights of the mountains with the Lodge’s fine food and hot tub, we admit that we could think of nowhere finer to spend the time. The Lodge has the motto ’you’ll wish you could stay longer’ but this could equally apply to the entire area: I always keep the image of that road in my mind’s eye when I want to think of peaceful places: it really does lead to my own little bit of Paradise.