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Bobs Cove: A Sacred Pool to the Māori, a Mine to the Pākehā, Instagrammable Today

Published
June 6, 2020
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AT the start of June my editor, Chris, made a quick trip to Bobs Cove, a beauty spot some 14 km west of Queenstown along the road to Glenorchy. Bobs Cove is at the bottom left of this aerial view: a small, sheltered bay across which the words ‘Bob’s Cove Track’ are printed.

Bobs Cove in relation to Queenstown. Imagery ©2020 CNES/Airbus, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, Planet.com. Map data ©2020 Google.

Officially spelt without an apostrophe, Bobs Cove is on the western end of a promontory that’s full of other attractions as well. These include a Lord of the Rings filming site at the somewhat misnamed Twelve Mile Delta, where you can also pan for gold.

Map data ©2020 Google. Locations of Carpark, Jetty, Picnic Point and Lookout added for this post.

A lakefront track called the Bobs Cove Track runs between the two.

Screenshot of map by Land Information New Zealand via topomap.co.nz, 5 June 2020. Crown Copyright reserved.

As touristy as everything is it’s pretty wild round here. There’s lot’s of native bush, which is unusual for the Queenstown area. It was also unusually quiet. The beginning of June is the start of winter in New Zealand. What with that and Covid, there wasn’t much going on.

Bobs Cove is named after Bob Fortune, who commanded a lake-boat for William G. Rees, the founder of Queenstown. That’s why the maps call it ‘Fortune or Bobs Cove’. Though, I’ve never heard it called anything other than Bobs Cove, just like the nearby mountain that’s called Bobs Peak.

Captain Bob would often take shelter from local storms in the cove, which is how it got its name.

Here’s a photo of a large lake steamer, Mountaineer (1879–1932), in the cove. It doesn’t look like Mountaineer is sheltering from a storm. More likely, it’s tied up at a jetty, either letting tourists off or loading up with lime which was being mined from the hill.

Paddle steamer ‘Mountaineer’ at the jetty at Bobs Cove, Lake Wakatipu. Photographed by Albert Percy Godber, from the Godber Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Reference number APG-2023–1/2-G, image number IE221692. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons (official placement, part of an Alexander Turnbull Library batch upload).

Before Bob’s day, the cove was known as te Puna-tapu or the sacred pool in Māori, the hills as ka Puke-tapu or the sacred hills. Maybe that was because the spot really is a magical-looking one.

Maybe: because it’s likely that nobody really knows, now, what the locality was sacred for. Māori were never very numerous in the South Island. And so their folkways died out more completely in the face of European colonisation — in Māori the coming of the Pākehā, a word that’s also used in New Zealand English — than in the North Island.

For instance, twenty or so Māori placenames from around Lake Wakatipu, Puna-tapu and Puke-tapu included, come down to us through the recollection of just one individual, Henare te Maire, who passed them on to an Otago Museum researcher named Herries Beattie. If it wasn’t for Te Maire and Beattie, they would have been lost entirely. In Beattie’s words,

From H. Beattie, ‘The Southern Maori’, Otago Daily Times, 20 December 1930, p. 2. Text from a single column rearranged to read side by side.

As sacred as the cove and its surrounding hills might have been, that didn’t keep the miners out. For the hills were made out of a mundane but vital mineral: limestone.

Local colonists preferred to build in stone wherever possible in order to keep out the winter cold, which is harsh by the standards of the rest of New Zealand. And while some little cottages and walls could be built just by piling the stones up — the ‘drystone’ technique — for proper, respectable buildings, they needed some kind of cement to stick the stones together.

The most practical solution, in the absence of any cement factories as yet, was to burn limestone to make lime mortar. Heating limestone, which is mostly calcium carbonate, drives off carbon dioxide to leave calcium oxide, a chemical traditionally known as quicklime.

The syllable quick means ‘alive’ or chemically reactive. If quicklime comes in contact with water it gets hot, indeed to the point of boiling and splattering everywhere unless the amount of water used was copious.

Mixed with sand as well as water the quicklime gives rise to an initially hot paste — lime mortar — which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and slowly turns back into something resembling the original limestone. The only drawback is that absorbing carbon dioxide so as to turn back into limestone takes weeks and weeks whereas modern cement, which doesn’t need to absorb carbon dioxide in order to go hard, sets more quickly.

Making lime mortar is an old-fashioned, do-it-yourself approach to dealing with a lack of ‘proper’ cement. As you can imagine, the early colonists of the Queenstown area really did have to do quite a lot of things themselves!

Old, slow techniques like lime mortar are having a bit of a revival these days, because they are often more carbon-neutral than their industrial equivalents. Carbon dioxide is emitted when lime is burned and also when modern cement is made, but then it gets re-absorbed if you go the old-fashioned route. Indeed the process at Bob’s Cove was 100% carbon-neutral because the lime-kilns, in which the lime was heated, were fired by eucalyptus trees planted for the purpose. Though I doubt that the workers thought about that issue very much at the time!

The descendants of the lime-burners' eucalypts are still there, growing amid native New Zealand rainforest. The curiously mixed ecology makes the Bobs Cove area look as if you were in the Snowy Mountains, or Tasmania, and not in New Zealand at all.

What was once the Sacred Pool of the southern Māori has thus turned into a sort of Jindabyne, the nearby forest dominated by the eucalypts towering over the native bush, which is otherwise little more than underbrush by comparison.

There are tall trees that are native to New Zealand: kauri, rimu, totara, pūriri and kahikatea to name five of the biggest. But none of these include Lake Wakatipu in their natural range. Surprisingly enough, tall eucalypts brought over from the sunburnt continent thrive in such a chilly region, while the forest giants of New Zealand don’t.

There are two preserved lime kilns at Bobs Cove, fired by abundant eucalyptus back in the day, and the ruins of a few more. There were seven in operation at the peak of the local lime-burning industry.

Here’s a video tour around the kiln in the photo above.

As this signboard explains, the reason that there’s limestone at Bobs Cove is because the whole area was once at the bottom of the romantically-named Moonlight Sea.

Though, again, I’m sure the prehistoric animals that inhabited the Moonlight Sea didn’t think of it in those terms. The name was coined much later, of course, by geologists. It honours another early colonist, George Moonlight, a cousin of a late-1870s Governor of Wyoming named Thomas Moonlight.

After having learned the mining trade in the Wild West and California, cousin George migrated to southern New Zealand and discovered many of the goldfields nearly Lake Wakatipu. He’s also honoured in the name of the now-defunct township of Moonlight northwest of Queenstown and by the name of the still-popular, overland Moonlight Track that runs thorough both localities and ends up at another pretty picnic spot quite close to Bobs Cove called Moke Lake: a Māori word meaning lonesome, properly pronounced Mokeh and not Moak.

George eventually moved to the much warmer Nelson region further north, an area normally thought of as a pleasantly sunny retirement haven and fruit-bowl, a bit like the Santa Clara Valley near San Francisco in the days before it turned into Silicon Valley. Perhaps George recognised the similarity. But as was his wont, he went looking for gold in the hills around Nelson and eventually froze to death up there in the winter of 1884, his eighteen-year-old daughter Tottie riding down into the town to get a search party going and then back up with the searchers, but to no avail.

Walking from the carpark around the ‘sacred pool’ to the nearest limestone peak on the peninsula called Picnic Point, you pass the lime kiln that’s shown above and then a jetty, lately rebuilt. That’s surely the one the Mountaineer was tied up at in the old photo also shown above. The jetty’s where the burnt lime, or quicklime, was loaded for Queenstown and for all those not prepared to settle for drystone walls.

The track around the cove and up the hill is mostly quite good, but it’s a bit of a hike to the top, 77 metres or 253 feet above the usual level of the lake.

And when you get to the top, you discover why this part of the promontory is called Picnic Point.

This is actually one of the most ‘Instagrammable’ spots in New Zealand.

Here’s another video, taken on the day.

It’s even better in summer. In June, you’re pointing the camera into the sun so the full turquoise of the lake on both sides of the peninsula doesn’t come out. There are loads of summertime pictures from the top of Picnic Point on the Internet.

Chris saw fantails, or piwakawaka, in the forst at the top of the hill. These are small, insect-eating forest birds with a fan-like white tail for maneouverability, which flitter about in dim light like bats.

There’s a well known, half-serious joke to the effect that many New Zealand birds, having evolved in a land with no native mammals apart from two species of bat, ‘think they are’ mammals of various kinds into whose ecological niches they have transgressed: small insect-eating bats, in the case of the fantail.

Fantails rely more on vision, however, so they don’t fly when it’s absolutely dark. The white tail probably also helps them to see each other.

Paradoxically, the actual New Zealand bats don’t fly very much, and tend to crawl about on the forest floor instead. Which has helped to make them rare these days, since introduced predators like cats, stoats and weasels get them when they are on the ground. And also because bats only breed quite slowly, as compared to the normal prey of cats, stoats and weasels such as mice.

Fantails, which as far as I know don’t carry any dangerous diseases (unlike bats), often flit close to people to see if they have stirred up any insects or in the hope that these strange interlopers might have fleas. Or they may sit on a branch and tweet at you, just feet away. If you tweet back, it really fascinates them. They may even do a little dance for you.

A piwakawaka on a branch near the Picnic Point lookout. If you look closely you can see its wings extended as well as the tail.

But dumb dogs, like the one that barks excitedly at the end of the video above, will chase the fantails and scare them away (it did). If you want to share a moment with these magical fairies of the forest that come out on a dim afternoon, don’t bring a dog.

And so, to come down. The track continues by means of a rapid and equally scenic descent.

A sign warns of the need to keep kids under control.

There is in fact one spot that is rather ‘exposed’ as we say in New Zealand.

But that’s only a short bit. The rest is fine!

Cowritten with my editor, Chris Harris

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