Queenstown is the kind of place you either love or hate. The setting of the town is without doubt amazing, with deep-blue Lake Wakatipu, the rocky faces of the Remarkables, the golden slopes of Cecil Peak, and the pine forests on Ben Lomond. The town displays a broad offer of activities for those looking for extreme sensations: bungee-jumping, skydiving, jetboat, rafting, etc.
However, my feeling is that things have ran out of control there: there are way to much tourists, and despite the beauty of the surroundings, the place is everything but peaceful. The town attracts lots of young people looking for these ultra expensive pre-packed effortless “extreme adventures” that I mentioned earlier, and after completing these activities, these people get drunk in the many bars and discotheques. The funny part of it is that many of these people spend here for beers and extreme activities the money that they have earned by working hard in New Zealand’s hospitality or agriculture sectors. This is like the modern version of the 19th century system where workers from factories used to spend all their money in the tavern nextdoors, which of course was owned by exactly the same people owning the factory! New Zealand’s economy wins twice here, but as a counterpart the big money of tourism has ruined Queenstown. Yes, you got it, I hated this place! Coming from my epic Nevis Valley adventure, I was looking for calm and rest ; I definitely did not find it in Queenstown. Choosing an hostel in the city centre was a big mistake, and after an horrible night, I avenged myself by eating probably a whole bread at the free breakfast and moved to another hostel further from the centre, hopefully quieter, where I could pitch my tent. I wanted to stay for longer in Queenstown for two main reasons: firstly, I needed to plan the hiking trips that I wanted to do the coming days. Secondly, I wanted to bike some of the nice mountainbike trails in the area.
General thoughts about hiking in New Zealand – my hiking plan in Queenstown area
I ended up spending two full days in Queenstown. On the first day I mainly rested and prepared everything for my coming hikes. The Department Of Conservation (DOC), which is more or less the National Parks Service in New Zealand, provides very detailed information about the multi-day hikes on their website and are generally helpful in the information centres. They are good at promoting the hikes, mainly what they call the “Great Walks”. These walks are heavily marketed as “NZ’s finest hikes”, hence they attract a lot of people, despite the prohibitive price for the backcountry huts on these tracks: 54 $ (+/- 35 €) for a stay in a hut that is essentially similar to many “non Great-Walks huts” that are nearly four times cheaper. For that price in Europe, you could nearly have a night in a mountain hut with the dinner and the breakfast included! This is a bit of a theft, but since these huts are still fully booked most of the time, why shouldn’t they do it? Although the scenery on these hikes is indeed mostly amazing, they are in fact purposely not challenging at all so that an as broad as possible public would be able to do them. They are more “highways for walkers” rather than real tramping tracks. In short, DOC perfectly mastered the marketing of these “Great Walk”, creating a huge demand that allows them to impose their price. The “Great Walks” are great for the scenery they offer, but you can certainly find other hikes that will offer you as good (if not better) scenery, better hiking experience if you are a serious hiker, all that for much less money.
After analysing all the possible hikes in the area, I came up with this very elaborate plan:
- I would bike from Queenstown to Glenorchy
- from Glenorchy, I would somehow reach the trailhead of the Routeburn Track, a 32km-long “Great Walk” that connects Lake Wakatipu with the Hollyford Valley. After hiking the Routeburn Track, I would come back to Lake Wakatipu via the Caples / Greenstone Tracks, and somehow get back from the end of this track to Glenorchy. This first hike should take me four days.
- Then, I would leave the bike in Glenorchy, and somehow go back to Queenstown, and then to Wanaka. In Wanaka or Queenstown, where I could buy the supplies for the second hike.
- From Wanaka, I would somehow reach the Raspberry Flat carpark to start hiking in the Matukituki valley to Aspiring Hut. From there, I would have a big climb to cross the Cascade Saddle, an amazing but exposed and challenging hike according to DOC. Then, I would hike down the Rees or Dart Valley to get back in the Glenorchy area. Once back in Glenorchy, I would bike back to Queenstown to continue my journey to Te Anau.
As you will notice, there are many “somehow” in this plan. The trailheads are often located in remote places, and the hike across Cascade Saddle in particular is kind of a logistical challenge, since the two endings of this hike are about 185 km away from each other by car! Some companies offer a shuttle service to the trailheads of these hikes. They are however really expensive and have to be pre-booked, which is rather inconvenient because you can easily get some delay in your hike in case of bad weather. Being an optimistic person and having learnt from previous experience that every plan is meant not to be followed, I decided to try my luck and did not book any transport 😊. We will see how it turns out…
Mountain biking in Queenstown (55 km)
My second night in Queenstown was nearly as bad as the first one. Indeed, most of the people staying at the hostel had decided to go all-in to celebrate the end of the working week, in a typical “Thank God it’s Friday!” style. I was awakened at 3:00 AM by some drunk and noisy people coming back to their tents, and one of them eventually ended up vomiting in his own tent. Despite this second bad night in a row, I still maintained my plan to go for a mountainbike ride. In the morning I performed a much necessary maintenance of my bike, on which I had done nothing since Oamaru. I noticed that I had lost a nut on my left pannier again, which was not really a surprise after such a bumpy ride. There is only one reasonable solution to this recurrent issue: screw it, and buy more nuts! (Did someone seriously expected that I would say “stop biking on bumpy gravel roads” ? 😜).
In the afternoon, I biked the Moonlight Track, a track that a nice vendor from the Torpedo 7 outdoor store had recommended to me. The funny part is that one of her colleague from the bike rentals, told me disdainfully when he saw my bike: “You are going to ride the moonlight track with this bike? I hope that you have plenty of spare tubes.” The track was a magnificent alpine singletrack, sometimes a bit technically challenging. I realised that my bike handling abilities had improved. I believe that having to handle an heavily loaded bike has learnt me to better force the bike on the trajectory I chose, something that I was not really good at before. It was really surprising how I could quickly find quiet and beautiful alpine scenery only a few kilometres away from Queenstown! In New Zealand, you don’t need to go very high in altitude to get this alpine feeling: Queenstown is only 350 metres above the sea level!
After the 13km – long singletrack, I had to deal with a very steep climb on a 4WD track. With my Nevis Road training, I could complete this climb that I would never have imagined to be able to deal with a few months ago! I then biked along the beautiful Moke Lake, then down to Lake Dispute and finally back on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. I had had a lot of fun and could complete about 98% of the track on the bike, proving the bike hirer’s prediction wrong.
On my way back to Queenstown, I spent two more hours on the fantastic mountainbike tracks of the 7 Mile Recreational Area. There, the very active Queenstown mountainbike club has built pure mountainbike gems: flowy singletracks with berms and switchbacks.
As soon as you have reached the bottom of one of these tracks, you have only one thing in mind, climb again the enjoyable track to the top for more riding pleasure. I probably pushed myself a bit too far, and had my first fall of this trip. Fortunately, I managed to push the “eject button” and just hugged a tree.
I finished this glorious mountainbike afternoon with another delicious ice cream from Patagonia. Lena & Carmen had told me how delicious their ice creams were. They were damn right!
Queenstown – Glenorchy (49 km)
My last night in Queenstown was great. The “Tank God It’s Friday” hangover and the evening rain had discouraged any Saturday Night Fever!
After yesterday’s big mountainbike afternoon, my legs were a bit heavy, though. The ride along lake Wakatipu between Queenstown and Glenorchy was much harder than foreseen. I had naively expected something similar to the route between Kingston and Queenstown, but this part was a cycle tourist’s nightmare: an endless row of steep ups and downs, making it impossible to keep a constant pace. Moreover, the weather was a bit dull today and I could not enjoy as much as expected the beautiful surroundings of this part of the Lake.
During my lunch I was literally assaulted by an army of sandflies. If New Zealand does not count any deadly animal like spiders or snakes such as in Tasmania, they do have sandflies. In the end, I think that I prefer having to deal with a small chance of serious consequence rather than with the certainty of being constantly annoyed by sandflies. Killing a few of them is useless, and they are attracted by sweat, making me a perfect victim. Once bitten, it really itches a lot, and it seems that I have some allergic reaction to them, as you can see hereunder. No need for a fancy māori tatoo, sandflies take care of it! 😒
Glenorchy is a tiny quiet village surrounded by mountains. I liked it as much as I hated Queenstown. Its only campground is full of hikers preparing their next trip. There, I found myself in my element!
Amongst the hikers was Erik, from Sweden. He was planning to do more or less the same hike as me, except that he had studied in depth the possibilities to take less crowded, more challenging and more scenic side tracks. He offered to take me with him to the Routeburn trailhead the next morning and to start the hike together. I had already one “somehow” less in my planning!