Queenstown To Glenorchy Tour
Maori tradition talks of the Rakaihautu commander of the Uruao canoe digging the Southern Lakes with his magical spade (ko). The mountains were abundant in resources not found on the coast including several species of Moa, bird life, vegetation and stone.
As the Moa became extinct in the 16th century the Kati Mamoe tribe migrated into the southern mountains and by the 18th century had a permanent settlement in the Wakatipu area. During this time Kai (ngai) Tahu also migrated south and successfully challenged the resident tribes for the mountainous lands and lakes.
Many archaeological sites are known in the Dart and Rees valley. Artefacts and middens show a wide roaming Maori population some sites located on routes for trans-alpine party or seasonal coastal visitors.
Nephrite Jade (Pounamu) was collected from the Dart and Routeburn. The Dart jade source, revealed in oratory from tribal elders, is now protected in the National Park. The beautiful green stone reflected mana, prestige and power on its owner. It was used for tools, decoration and as gifts.
Further challenges from northern tribes disbanded the populations of the area and as the European explorer Nathaniel Charmers found his way inland in the 1850s there were few seasonal tribes in the area. Charmers was guided by Reko, a Maori, who knew the old trails.
1857 saw John Turnbull Thomson, Otago chief surveyor, capturing images of the land in his watercolours, as he surveyed to promote the division of the land for pastoralism and settlement. David McKellar, a sheep farmer, explored the head of the Wakatipu basin in 1858 and two years later William Gilbert Rees stocked the river flats of the Dart and the Rees valley with sheep. The first settlement was a shepherd hut occupied by Alfred Duncan and George Simpson who worked for Grant Gammie and Rees, the initial owners of the North Run Holding.
The pursuit of grazing lands continued and was closely followed by those in search of gold, timber and road ways. The gold rushes of Central Otago in 1862 bought a wave of prospectors to the district. Alluvial mines emerged at the Oxburn, Precipice and Rees Valley. The Dart dredge operated for a short time at Dredge Flat.
Glenorchy town was surveyed in 1864 by G.M. Barr but up until 1885 the only buildings in it were J.K. Birley’s hotel and store and the head quarters of North Station which had passed into possession of John and Thomas Butement. At Mill Creek there was a large timber mill operated by J.W. Roberston & Co.
The 1870’s saw the first steps toward a visitor industry with the establishment of a hotel at Kinloch run by R.C. Bryant offering guests experiences around the Routeburn.
Iconic figures such as the prospecting wandering handy man Bill O’Leary, the British son of gentry, Joseph Fenn, and the home grown hotelier, mountain climber and guide, Harry Birley, characterized the tough independent nature identified with the head of the lake, along with the welcoming warmth and hospitality characterized by the Aitken family at the beautiful remote Paradise.
Walking, riding, camping and guided climbing were the main attractions. The township and area consolidated with the building of post offices, small schools, a lending library and mission hall. Land tenure changed with the onset of rabbit plagues, the depression years and subdivision. Several large holdings remained: Wyuna, Crichton, Temple Peak, Mt Earnslaw and Routeburn.
In 1902, Scheelite, which had been identified during the gold rush in the Precipice and the Bucklerburn, was to help create the next economic boom for the small community. The Scheelite contained Tungsten useful in industries to fix dyes, produce electrical filaments and in the steel industry. It was considered a metal of strategic importance in wartime as Tungsten steel was used in the barrels of large calibre guns. Scheelite lodes were found on Mt Judah and in other sporadically scattered lodes at several locations. On outbreak of war in 1914 prices of Scheelite increased 80% only to fall again by 1920 and remain static until the Second World War in 1939 when it gained record returns.
Apart from a bridle track built around 1870 Glenorchy was dependent for nearly a century on the Wakatipu steamer service for its connection with the outside world. Glenorchy was serviced by a flotilla of early steamships and launches, the Ben Lomand, the Jane Williams and the Meteor. By 1912 it was the SS Earnslaw that had started and would continue a schedule running to the head of the lake. She is a twin screw steamer that had a cruising speed of 13 knots and a capacity for 1035 passengers; 1500 sheep; seventy head of cattle; or 200 bales of wool. She also occasionally carried cars or buses to Glenorchy. The Lady of the Lake took two hours to steam her way to Glenorchy three times a week, dominating the township activities on boat days with unloading passengers, goods and fresh food. She also connected with Kinloch unloading tourists for the Bryant family to transport to the Routeburn.
At Glenorchy the roads to Paradise was also busy with tourists transported on horse drawn drags. In 1912 the use of motor vehicles coincided with the opening of bridges over the Rees, 12 mile and Earnslaw Burn. Completion of the Glenorchy to Queenstown road in 1962 spelt the beginning of the end of tourist carriage, to which finality was added with the withdrawal of the SS Earnslaw.
In 1974 the last major river was bridged. The Dart Bridge gave all weather access to the settlers at Kinloch and Routeburn as well as a direct link to trampers and visitors to the Routeburn Valley.
Mt Aspiring National Park was gazetted in 1964 and continuous improvements were made on the tracks, huts and bridges. Park boundaries increased over time with additions through revisions and the Tenure Review. Today the park manages tracks, heritage, recreation permits, and conservation including endangered species particularly Mohua (yellow head), Whio, native bats, Kea and Kaka.
More and more the area has become well known through exposure in advertisements and small and large scale movies. The images portrayed are dramatic, distinctive and enduring. Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Wolverine and the Hobbit are international success stories which have strong links to the Glenorchy and Paradise areas.
Though farming has remained a strong grounding force, changes in farming practices, diversification into deer, cattle and sheep breeds have eventuated in pace with market demands. Subdivision has eaten into rural lands and the lifestyle block on exclusive holdings and large lodges have become more common. Tenure review and the Treaty of Waitangi have seen a lot more high mountainous land pass into National Park or Recreation reserve.
Tourism has flourished and is rapidly creating its own niche brand. Jet boats, eco tourism, conservation, recreation opportunities, accommodation, cafes and restaurants, horse trekking, galleries, retail outlets, camping, biking, kite surfing, kayaking and ski activities are a few related businesses to stem from increasing tourist numbers.
Glenorchy at the head of the lake is ‘its people’. One third-generation local recites eleven different vocations undertaken during his life here. Others are happily ensconced on their fore-bearers land with no intention of changing and yet others are settlers from far places, hoping to make a life here. There are transient workers, enjoying the cliquey small community and holiday visitors, secluded from their urban chaos. Whoever or whatever that it is that is presently making history, will chop and change, but the one thing that remains constant, is the beauty and inspiration of the mountains and the wilderness of the river valleys that the area is famous for.