If you’re familiar with the geographical layout of New Zealand’s South Island, you might wonder why on earth I took a day trip to Mount Cook from Queenstown. It’s not exactly close by.
Well, I had originally intended to travel down from Christchurch to Queenstown via Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook Village. It would have been the obvious route. But then I was made aware of the fantastically scenic Kiwi Rail route that traverses the country from east to west. I was also determined to check out Franz Josef glacier and to hike through its many caves and tunnels. I’d inadvertently bypassed the country’s highest peak – otherwise known by its Maori name Aoraki – and I really wanted to see it.
Thankfully, Great Sights has a day trip you can join, enabling you to visit Mount Cook Village from Queenstown:
Departing at 7:45 and returning at 6:30, with just 2 hours to explore, this trip is not for those who can’t handle long distances by bus. Having said that, the commentary along the way keeps you entertained and the time passes comfortably.
First passing through the Kawarau River Gorge, you will learn about the gold rush of 1861. Most history of the Otago region goes back to the 1860s, almost as though it was the beginning of time. Up to 12,000 workers lived in the region mining for gold during that period. Many lived in tents. Others weren’t so lucky. If the inhospitable temperatures weren’t already enough to deal with, frequent landslides took many lives. People say that today, there is probably as much gold left in the region as was removed in the 60s, but it wouldn’t be worth the costs of extracting it and the damage to the environment that would result from those efforts. If you have time while in Queenstown, you should also check out the nearby gold miner’s town Arrowtown.
As the gold rush passed, many stayed behind in Otago and developed farmland. The first vineyard was established in 1983 by a man called Alan Brady. To begin with, people thought he was crazy attempting to grow grapes in such a harsh environment, but it soon became clear that the fertile soils were actually perfect for producing quality wines. Across the Gibson Valley, more and more people followed suit, gradually building up the region’s reputation as a producer of some of the best wines in the world. In 20 years, 200 hectares of vineyard has become 17,000!
The Cromwell region is famous for fruit growing and your journey will be broken up by a brief stop at the Jones family’s fruit stall. Open every day of the year, it carries in-season fruits as well as dried fruit, nuts, jams, nougat and the region’s famous manuka honey. Bring some spare change. If you’re not tempted to treat yourself to a bus snack, you are sure to find some very nice gifts for your friends back home.
SHREK THE SHEEP
Even back in the UK, Shrek the sheep had his moment of fame. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, he was a local resident of Bendigo Station. Having gone AWOL for six years, he was rediscovered in 2004 with an enormous coat of wool.
They sheared him on national TV, producing 27 kg of merino wool – enough to make suits for 20 men! Shrek became an instant celebrity. He was taken to parliament to meet the New Zealand prime minster and, for his tenth birthday, when icebergs were seen floating unusually far north off the coast of Dunedin, he was flown to one by helicopter and shorn again! He is undoubtedly the only sheep to have been to the top of the Auckland Skytower, although I was disappointed to hear that he didn’t partake in the controlled base jump I did when I was there. Tragically, Shrek had to be euthanased in 2011, but his memory lives on.
MOUNT COOK VILLAGE
Upon arrival at Mount Cook Village, the bus drops you off at the Hermitage Hotel and you are given approximately 2 hours to explore at your own pace. There’s a museum and cinema where you can learn about Edmund Hillary, who famously trained for his Everest ascent on the slopes of Mount Cook.
Alternatively, you can enjoy some quality food and drink on the veranda of the hotel while admiring the surrounding landscape. There are plenty of walks in the area too, but make sure you leave yourself enough time to make it back to the bus! Scenic flights can also be arranged.
My biggest piece of advice if you are considering this trip, though, is to check what the weather is due to be like. You can never determine with certainty that you will have a clear view of the mountain, but believe me when I say that it is somewhat disappointing to travel for almost 5 hours each way to see a view like this….
Despite the poor views, I had a great day. I learned a massive amount of interesting information about the region, met some lovely people on the coach and enjoyed stretching my legs on the footpaths surrounding Mount Cook Village. As is often the case with mountain ranges, if you book this trip, you can’t be sure that Mount Cook won’t be swathed in cloud. But you sure as hell won’t see it if you don’t make the effort. I also had my first opportunity in over 3 years to build a snowman!
You see – every cloud has a silver lining. Trips like this are what you make of them and, if you are unlucky with the weather, with the right frame of mind you can still have a great time!
GETTING TO QUEENSTOWN
Intercity Buses provide services to Queenstown from the following popular destinations (rough times in brackets): Wanaka (1 hour 30 mins); Mount Cook (5 hours); Franz Josef (8 hours); Christchurch (8 hours 30 mins). Further transfers are available from these locations. Search for services with the tool below.
WHERE TO STAY
Finding accommodation in Queenstown can be tough. It’s the adventure capital of New Zealand and people flock there year round. In the ski season in July, hotels were filling up weeks in advance. I didn’t book ahead and it resulted in me having to stay in three different hostels in five different dorm rooms. If you don’t fancy checking out and in every morning, get your reservations in early. Of the three places I stayed, Haka Lodge was by far the best. It’s clean and sociable, with all the amenities you could need. There are outdoor decks and two kitchen areas as well as a large TV lounge, and all of the beds have curtains for added privacy.
As part of my partnership with Intercity coaches, I was offered a free trip to Mount Cook with Great Sights. They did not request that I write a favourable review and any opinions expressed here are my own.