Petticoats and steamers in a tourism paradise


Visitors have flocked to the Wakatipu since the late nineteenth century. Nature walks, horse and cart ‘bus’ tours and steamship cruises lured them in the thousands, paving the way for adventure. Reporter Louise Scott hitches her wagon to history

Getting to Glenorchy used to be tedious. Those travelling from Dunedin took a train to Kingston, then a steamer to Queenstown, transferred to another boat and floated up Lake Wakatipu to their destination.

For most, the journey continued on horse and cart, ending up in Paradise for a wee dander in New Zealand’s back country.

This was tourism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Lakes District Museum boss David Clarke says Victorians and Edwardians loved the outdoors and the natural world.

Holidaying usually involved long walks in full crinoline petticoats, picnics on the water and an interest in botany.

Paradise Guest House was open for business from the mid-1880s. Paradise Trust chairman Tom Pryde says it was a destination in its own right.

“Queenstown wasn’t really developed and it wasn’t a tourist town. The accommodation at Paradise was one of the first commercially available for tourists and it was equal to Queenstown in terms of its pulling power. The mountains [in Paradise] had a mystical attraction, especially if they’d come from Dunedin and the coast.”

It was the perfect base to explore the region, with access to the Routeburn, Te Anau and the Rees and Dart Valley tracks.

The current road to Glenorchy was only a pipe dream so tourism was dependent on the provision of steamers. A couple were in operation, the Mountaineer, the Antrim and later TSS Earnslaw.

Traffic on the lake increased dramatically when the government took ownership of the steamer line.

Bigger numbers travelling caused some problems with overcrowding and a shortage of accommodation - Clarke notes some things never change.

Queenstown Borough Council, as it was then, started feeling the pressure and tackled government to help with infrastructure including building tracks, providing seating, planting trees and creating a sports ground.

Up until the 1930s the critical visitor period was summer. As well as a jaunt to Paradise, people took trips to Skippers on horse and cart, tours to Arrowtown and Ben Lomond sunrise walks were popular.

It started to change in 1934 with the arrival of the Mount Cook Tourist Company (one of its spun-off subsidiaries became NZSki).

Skiing was taking off across the country and the tourism newbies created a road between Queenstown and Christchurch. There was an existing track - it was just made suitable for cars by getting rid of pot holes.

Clarke: “They brought in cars that held about six and brought people in from Christchurch. Then in 1947 they erected a hut and ropes at Coronet Peak and hired overseas ski instructors.”

Forget mechanical chairlifts – ski bunnies shimmied up the mountain on a rope, operated on a pulley system.

“All of a sudden skiers flocked from all over Australia and New Zealand to Queenstown,” Clarke says.

“It was at this point entrepreneurs realised the potential of different tourist operations. It marks the transition between passive activities, working with nature, going on walks, to the start of more adventure tourism. Growth from that time to the present time has been phenomenal.”

Former Second World War pilots started operating flights to Milford and ‘fast’ boats started appearing on the lake.

People were speeding up to the head of the lake, rather than taking steamers. Frank Haworth operated the Meteor and Dick Rout hired out U-Drive boats. This paved the way for the Melhop brothers, who pioneered Shotover Jet’s first Big Red.

Queenstown would soon become known as the adventure capital of the world.

Where We Come From explores the Wakatipu’s history, with help from Lakes District Museum