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A captivating 24 hours in Queenstown, New Zealand

The popular tourist resort of Queenstown is located in the south-west of New Zealand’s South Island. It borders Lake Wakatipu, a skinny Z-shaped lake, and is surrounded by majestic mountains. To one side are the jagged peaks of The Remarkables. At lake’s end are the permanently snow-covered slopes of Mt. Earnslaw. Opposite are Walter and Cecil Peaks named after the son of William G. Rees, an early European explorer and the acknowledged founder of Queenstown. It was a gold rush in 1861 that first attracted settlers to the area and from then on the town grew and grew.

We boarded the Spirit of Queenstown for an early morning scenic cruise down the turquoise blue waters of Lake Wakatipu. It was a gloriously sunny day. A few puffy white clouds capped the mountaintops. Once on board, we settled ourselves comfortably on an upper outside deck. I popped downstairs to order a couple of flat white coffees. Returning, I discovered my husband had taken over the controls. A notice on the wheelhouse door cordially inviting passengers to visit had attracted his attention. This was Captain Jamie’s territory. He was the boat’s skipper and also provided the commentary.

Jamie told us that this freshwater lake was 80 km. long with five in-flowing rivers and only one out flowing. The water was relatively calm and the boat happily chugged along at a steady 22 knots giving us ample time to soak up the alpine scenery. Our route took us past tranquil Bobs Cove. This deep natural anchorage was important during Queenstown’s early days. On shore were swathes of native mountain beech and eucalyptus trees. Puffing its way along the lake we spotted the bright red funnel of the 105 year-old coal fired steamer TSS Earnslaw. Before the arrival of roads to the region, people relied on this historic vessel to transport goods and passengers to remote lakeside properties. Now tourists enjoy its daily excursions.

It took about 45 minutes to reach the family-run Mt. Nicholas Merino Sheep Station. Mt. Nicholas was named after Nicholas von Tunzelmann, an early pioneer who farmed the land in the 1860s. The Butson family purchased this mountainous 100,000 acre property in 1976. At the dock we were met by Gail and Lennie, our tour guides. Two Merino sheep: one-year old Barbie and Lucky born last October hovered at her side. Gail handed me the teat-capped milk container and Lucky eagerly suckled. Merinos, one of the oldest known breeds of sheep, were first brought to New Zealand by Captain Cook in 1773.

I didn’t think touring a sheep station could be so fascinating. Gail informed us that Mt. Nick is home to about 29,000 merino sheep and 2,300 Hereford cattle. The Butsons also raise pigs and chickens and grow their own vegetables. Seventeen people live and work in this bucolic setting. Using sustainable farming practices this is the fourth generation of Butsons to work the land.

Gail explained that merino mums can be fickle and are best suited to raising just one lamb. The hardy sheep thrive on a combination of protein-rich grass, good food and favourable climatic conditions. All the sheep are tagged and tailed, the males are castrated and there is no in breeding. Generally the wethers (castrated males) stay at the station for six years and the ewes for nine years with the finest quality merino wool being produced by the wethers.

Belle, a Welsh sheepdog, was eager to demonstrate her expertise. Hearing Gail’s instructions, off she darted, running proficiently from side to side. Without uttering a single shrill bark, she proudly herded a mob of sheep towards us. Before the snow flies, it takes seven men on horseback and 30 dogs about 10 days to bring the sheep down from their summer grazing grounds. Shearing takes place in mid-August about six weeks before the lambs are born. Each sheep produces about 4½ kilos of wool which is then washed, cleaned and carded and put into 400 kilo bales. I touched one of the shorn fleeces in the shearing sheds. The fibres were about 7-10 cm. long, soft and a little oily. We were surprised to learn that all the wool is exported to China where it is made into sports apparel for Icebreaker or fine woolen suits for Armani.

Now it was Lennie’s turn. We jumped into his 4×4 and drove up an unpaved road into the high country. The sheep station is largely self-sufficient with its own spring-fed water supply, engineers’ shop, hydro station and communications tower. There were 180° views. In the current dry conditions, it was hard for us to imagine that there could be up to 30 cm. of snow at this elevation in the wintertime. All too soon it was time to board the Spirit of Queenstown for our return trip.

To conclude the day, we rode up the Skyline Gondola to the Stratosfare Restaurant. Here we were treated to a sumptuous six-course buffet dinner featuring salads, soups, fresh seafood, roast meat, vegetarian dishes and, of course, a selection of mouthwatering desserts. It was a unique dining experience. From this incredible vantage point, we looked down on the town’s twinkling lights and the dark expanse of Lake Wakapitu 450 m. below. In the fading evening light, we bid our farewells to Queenstown. It had been a captivating 24 hours.

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