Everywhere you go around here, it seems as though you’ve stumbled into the setting of a child’s fable or fairy tale. From the dark forests covered in moss to valleys surrounded by majestic mountains to the tiny houses nestled into the rock faces to the mystical fjords, this place holds such fantastical beauty that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t imagined. But, my week in Arrowtown proved that truth is, in fact, grander than fiction.
Arrowtown is just 20 minutes outside of Queenstown. However, the contrast between the two places couldn’t be more distinct. It is small, quiet, filled with history and located just as close to any of the activities you’d want to do around the area.
Its charm and character could easily be the setting for a fable – or the on-screen adaptation of one. The main street runs right along the river and has really sweet little cottages that have been turned into shops and cafes. Where you really enter a fairy tale is in the small houses of the Chinese Settlement. Arrowtown is an old gold miners town but they’ve maintained it beautifully. So, it doesn’t feel like some abandoned village that has been revived in order to make a buck from the tourist industry. The overcast weather and some of the muted autumn tones really added to the overall atmosphere.
I couldn’t help but notice some distinct groupings of fall colours as I walked along the river and through the town. They were vibrant and inviting and I had a lot of fun photographing them.
Into the woods… and the clouds.
It was all just a bit eerie being surrounded by gradients of dark greys and forest greens. When I stopped walking, the silence had weight to it. You could feel it. It wrapped around you. The longer I stood there, the more the silence revealed layers of sound – almost as though my ears required time to adjust to the lack of sound, like your eyes do in the darkness. There were only faint hints of birds chirping. Then, rushing through the trees, as if aiming to knock me over, the low rumbling of raging winds that sounded more like a rainstorm approaching. When it reached me, the air was bitterly cold. Already breathing hard from the climb, every strong exhale echoed in my ears like when you’re under water. The scene could have been something straight out of a Tim Burton adaptation of a fairy tale. I instinctively looked behind me to make sure nobody was following me. No one was there. That was strangely not as reassuring as it should have been. I was completely alone. And now, a bit freaked out.
Above the bush line, the wind only got stronger as I climbed higher. And it was snowing. Looking up, the path led straight into a thick cloud – perhaps a land of giants awaits above? That’s a whimsical thought now, but at the time, it was just adding to the eeriness of the morning. I did consider turning back since there wouldn’t be many views at the top that day.
But, I told myself I would at least make it up to the saddle point, which I did. Finally, the clouds separated enough below that I could see the trail and some of the lake and valley. How lovely to be able to see and acknowledge just how far you’ve come.
In the shelter of a small ridge, I sat and had a snack. Before long, though, it was getting too cold to sit still. I considered the summit again. But, decided against it. The wind was getting stronger and becoming unbearably cold. Winter was officially on its way in!
On my way back down, I encountered a couple of very curious goats. They fixated on me. This seemed a bit strange. They seemed almost human. Thinking of the fairy tale encounters so far, I wondered: Would they begin to speak? Or worse, break into song?! They really didn’t seem to know what to make of me -and I of them. I also got a bit nervous that they might charge me (given my experience in Peru with animals in the mountains) but I passed quietly below as they kept a watchful eye. When I got to the bottom, the wind had died down and the sky opened up over the lake and the opposite mountain range. This may not have been the best weather for hiking Ben Lomond, but it certainly made for a pretty unique day!
This is Paradise.
Regardless of what the weather would be, I had decided to drive up to Glenorchy for the day. There were enough hikes and walks up that way that I could adjust my plan for the conditions. Opening up the curtains, it revealed the glowing snowy peaks and the day showed great promise for being clear and sunny. I was thrilled – giddy, even!
Excitement faded slightly as I drove past Queenstown where it only seemed to get cloudier as I went. The low-lying clouds made it feel dark again. Although, the shadows cast from the mountain peaks onto the clouds were quite intriguing – not sure I had ever seen that before.
With just a hint of what might be the possibility of clouds clearing up, I had settled on tackling the Invincible Mine Track. The road turned to gravel leading into the Rees Valley. I passed several caution signs warning of the road conditions ahead. I hesitated for a second at the one that indicated possible vehicle damage but remembered I had taken the full insurance coverage for my rental vehicle and just drove on. What did give me slightly more pause was that I hadn’t told anyone where I was this time and I was now well out of cell phone range.
I did encounter some small waterfalls running across the road and easily managed driving through the dip created in the road. But when I came to one that looked more like a river crossing, I just wasn’t sure I could trust my rental car going through it. So, I decided to park on the one side and walk the rest of the way to get to the start of the hike.
With the first step in the shallowest part, I was over ankle deep in water and my shoes instantly filled with glacial water (quite literally!). I ran through the rest and thankfully the trail was just around the bend. The path was really lovely: a slow steady climb surrounded by beautiful moss-covered trees. The clouds had indeed cleared and the forest filled with light. The shadows cast everywhere created a sort of kaleidoscope in the trees. This time, the setting felt magical. There were even red-topped mushrooms with white spots! At one point, a little bird landed near me and seemed to have the same curiosity about me as the goats. He spent a good 5 minutes fluttering and landing on different branches continually looking at me. I was really beginning to wonder if I was unknowingly cast in some remake of Snow White…
Every turn of the path offered a new incredible view. Each clearing had a snowy peak framed by trees. The path ended at an abandoned old gold mine. I found a nice rock clearing and decided that this was my favourite lunch spot so far. The views were incredible and I sat for a long time enjoying the sunshine. I could see Paradise! (No, really. Nestled between the mountains in the opposite valley is a town actually called Paradise… and I could see why!)
This was definitely the best hike so far. Just a short 1.5 hour hike up, it had the most spectacular reward for the effort involved.
If you aren’t in the mood to hike (or tackle the dirt roads), it is still definitely worth making the drive up to Glenorchy. Honestly, every new vista is like something out of a story book or a movie. Actually, I heard someone did make some films here once…
Mystical Milford Sound
I had been told that Milford Sound is a must while in this part of the world. So, I splurged a bit and booked a day-long bus tour. The early morning departure seemed ideal for the outing without a cloud in the sky. The amazing colours reflecting off the mountain tops as we drove down the lake were awe-inspiring. However, the one thing I really hate about large bus tours is that you don’t – and can’t – stop at the smaller lookout points. So, we drove straight through until we reached Te Anau at the entrance to the Fiordlands Park. Unfortunately, the clouds were moving in.
The drive beyond that point was very dark and the sun never fully revealed itself again. But, as before, that kind of weather seemed to add to the whole atmosphere of the region: mystical, powerful and mysterious.
Fog and mist made an especially dramatic setting once we were out on the water. I was most struck by just how blue the water was, even still on this grey day. The highlight of the whole trip came when the captain announced that there was a rare sighting of dolphins off the port side of the ship. Braving the pouring rain, we ran up to the top deck of the boat and watched, with childlike wonder, as the dolphins played and jumped along side the boat.
Remarkable road to Garston
After getting a glimpse of the road leaving Queenstown on the way to Milford Sound the previous morning, I knew I had to return to see it when I could make my own stops and take it in. And, am I ever glad I did. The one range is called ‘The Remarkables’ and they are just that.
On the bus tour, I had also noticed a little church in the small town of Garston that I thought might be worth photographing. Since it was just a short drive beyond the end Lake Wakatipu, I continued on. Our tour bus operator had joked that if you blinked you would miss this town. And it’s really not an exaggeration. I was able to walk the full main area in just 8-10 minutes – and that was with stops for taking pictures!
Clearly, there isn’t much to see in Garston. (Notice, though, that Peter Rabbit’s house seems to be there. If that doesn’t fit into the storybook theme, I don’t know what does!) However, if you’re ever in this area, there is one reason you should absolutely stop for a visit: Trailer Sixty6. It’s a food truck that served one of the best burgers I have ever had!
I truly enjoyed my week exploring around Arrowtown and immersing myself in the magic of the landscape around it. And, on my final night, as if the perfect ending to my fairy tale time there, the sky was finally clear enough (and I was awake late enough) to see the blanket of stars above. Talk about magical!