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'It seems a shame not to share it': Deer Park Heights owner Mike Mee

By TRACEY ROXBURGH

After 11 long years, the gates to Queenstown’s Deer Park Heights will lift again for the public from next week.

The iconic Peninsula Hill, at Kelvin Heights, has been in the Mee family since the 1960s and, till 2009, it was the area’s only successful non-sporting attraction.

Since public access was shut off it’s been operating as a breeding and finishing/working deer farm — that will continue, but owner Mike Mee says it’s time to share the place with the public again.

The new toll gates will start working this coming Tuesday morning.

‘‘We’ve been trying to get it open for two years,’’ Mee says.

‘‘The last time it would have been closed for 10 years and it took six months to reopen.

‘‘It’s just taken a long time and, of course, we’ve got a farm to run and that
keeps us fairly busy, but it’s nice to be finally opening again.’’

To keep it as family-oriented as possible, no commercial activity at all is allowed on the 600ha hill and access is limited to vehicles with up to seven
seats, excluding buses, minivans and commercial vehicles.

‘‘Unfortunately there’s no access for hikers or cyclists from the toll gate as they tend to scare the animals away, especially the deer,’’ he says.

However, there are a couple of 20-minute walking tracks near the summit to take people up to the very top.

Greeter: One of two kunekune pigs which calls Deer Park Heights home

Deer Park Heights, as a tourist attraction, first opened in 1966 after the late Frank Mee, who died in 2018, and his wife Jean applied to the government to keep deer on the property.

The couple bought the land from Grieve Jardine, initially intending to carry on farming sheep on it, and over their first decade as its owners they laboriously created the dirt road to the top of the hill just so they could enjoy the 360-degree views.

The Mees were eventually given a one-year zoo licence from the government and managed to find unwanted pet deer to start their herd —
at that time it wasn’t legal to keep or breed deer in captivity.

What a view: Deer Park Heights’ goats need no encouragement to come and say hi

After two years of legal wrangling the Mees successfully petitioned to get the necessary approvals to keep other animals as well — goats, kunekune pigs, miniature ponies, donkeys, bison, alpacas, llama and Highland cows.

For the better part of six decades, thousands of visitors went on self-drive safari-style trips on the working farm, which also boasts some of the best views in NZ.

Not wonky: Deer Park Heights is also home to these donkeys

It’s also been the scene of many a marriage proposal, a wedding or two, and proved popular with film scouts — it’s featured in movies like
The Lord of the Rings, Wolverine and Pete’s Dragon.

While for almost 30 years the remnants of a makeshift North Korean prison, built for the 1988 teenage adventure thriller The Rescue, sat atop the hill, that’s since been demolished, Mee says.

It had long been decaying and never had resource consent, ‘‘so we pulled it down’’.

Mee says visitors will notice a bit of a change in terms of technology — a new online booking system’s been created to give an access code for a specific day — but once they get through the gate, everything else is pretty much as it was.

While the bison and Highland cattle are missing at the moment, they’re looking to bring them back, he says.

Visitors can drive 5km up the road to several lookouts, stop to hand-feed the animals, using a $2 can of sheep nuts from the feeding station, and have picnics.

‘‘We were one of the Queenstown tourism pioneers when we opened at the same time as jetboat company KJet and Skyline, now we want to welcome visitors to a great fun, good value family day out for those who want to spend time in the outdoors and with our animals,’’ Mee says.

‘‘It’s such an amazing location and it seems a shame to not share it.’’

Access costs $55 per vehicle — there’s no time limit on how long people can stay — and must be made through www.deerparkheights.co.nz

The park will be open, year-round, in daylight hours.

tracey.roxburgh@scene.co.nz