Queenstown Lakes District: the iconic beauty.
Updated: Apr 22
I am camping by the Lake Wanaka, eight kilometres away for town. The campsite is spacious, covered with trees, bushes and rabbit holes. During the night the sky is clear and I get lost along the Milky Way and beyond. It is the end of summer and the nights are still warm. In the morning I am back by the lake, walking towards the place where the Clutha River takes its source.
The longest river on the South Island, the Clutha snakes its way across the mountains towards the East Coast, where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Poplars and willows cover its banks and those of the Lake Wanaka. In the late March the trees are proudly dressed for the new season in their warmest colours. The narrow and bumpy path along the river bank and through the wood, used equally by walkers, dogs and cyclists, takes me to the small and quiet Albert town.
But if you walk along the lake in the opposite direction you will reach Wanaka, a haven for winter and summer sports, fashionable and growing in popularity, though still a far cry from the bustling Queenstown. I hope it will stay that way.
Wanaka is considered a gateway to the Mt Aspiring National Park and if you travel further west, you will reach the glacier country and the coast. You are never far from the mountains on the South Island. If you resist their call and stay by the lake, you can still enjoy the splendid view.
Walking along the lake is a joy! The fourth largest lake in New Zealand, Wanaka is 42km long. 300m deep, its bed has been formed by the glacial erosion during the last Ice Age. As I walk towards town, the view of the peaks of over 2000m high form a backdrop, raising from the opposite shore. The tides reveal huge rocks under the surface and the famous Wanaka tree is regularly flooded, which gives it the appearance of growing in water.
Equally beautiful is Lake Wakatipu, south of Wanaka, with its famous resort of Queenstown. In the shape of a lightning, 380 metres deep, with multiple little islands, Wakatipu is New Zealand’s longest (80km) and the third largest lake. Hugging the shores of the lake, Queenstown is a major tourist draw in the region, with stunning landscapes and a variety of attractions and outdoor activities. If you’ve always wanted to try bungy jumping, white water rafting or skydiving, this is the place for you! Most people use Queenstown as a base, but the town itself is worth exploring, with its social scene and beautiful surroundings. The sharp edges of the Remarkables towering over and reflected in the waters of Wakatipu create a spectacular frame for Queenstown. A hundred year old steamer takes passengers for short trips across the Wakatipu, but for the more active there are several walks and climbs to enjoy around town all year around. The Remarkables boast a fantastic ski field and a nearby Gibston wineries offer wine tasting. Don’t forget to visit Arrowtown, a former gold mining town with its historic buildings along the main street and a neighbouring Chinese settlement, with its haunting, stone huts being a stark reminder of the hardships and the inequalities among the mining community.
Queenstown is also considered to be the gateway to the Fiords, as it is only a few hour drive from here to Te Anau or Milford Sound. Very popular walking routes, like Milford, Greenstone or Routeburn Tracks, are also usually reached from Queenstown.
At the head of Lake Wakatipu lies a little town of Glenorchy. The 45km drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, along the lake’s edge is indeed one of the most scenic in the country.
When I reach Glenorchy on an early morning bus, the mist is so thick I can almost touch it, a mere stretch of an arm away from me. It envelops the world in silence, I can sense rather than see spider webs with the droplets of water on bare tree branches and the water beneath my feet. This is the lagoon, at the head of the lake Wakatipu, created by two rivers, the Dart and the Rees, that meet here and flow into the lake together. In front of me, behind me and on both sides, there must be mountains, but it will take few more hours before I can see their shape. It is worth the wait. When the landscape finally reveals itself, it seems unreal, as if I had passed into the fantasy world.
New Zealand offers many beautiful landscapes, with its dramatic coastline, multiple lakes, high mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and rainforests. Yet, there is something special about Queenstown Lakes District, which makes it very popular with not only travellers, but also filmmakers. The area has been made world famous with the Lord of the Rings series and since, the film crews from around the world visit it regularly. Maybe that is the reason why this particular landscape is the most associated with how many of us see and remember New Zealand. The land in between the worlds, out of fantasy and fairy tales, with its crystal clear lakes, snow-capped mountains and the lush green forests: the iconic beauty that has a universal quality, but also feels familiar, like we’ve been here before, in our dreams.