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Paradise! The Real Top of the Lake

Published
May 7, 2019

THE other day I drove from Queenstown to the top of Lake Wakatipu, as I do from time to time. It’s quite scenic.

Then I got to thinking — this is the exact same spot portrayed in the British TV drama Top of the Lake. What a coincidence!

Top of the Lake was directed by the New Zealand director Jane Campion, who has a holiday cabin in the locality. The series has been well received around the world, though it’s controversial in New Zealand because of its Deliverance-like qualities.

Of course, we aren’t all crazed stereotypical hillbillies round here. So, what’s the real Top of the Lake like?

Well, one thing the BBC series gets right is that the region is pretty gothic and shadowy outside of high summer. The Māori even call it Ata Whenua, “Shadowland.”

Here are some of my pictures of the top of the lake, taken recently.

Here's a video of steam rising off the lake, which is really cold, except that the air's even colder.

It’s all rather introspective at this time of year (May), which is late Autumn in New Zealand. But actually, the valleys that feed into the top of Lake Wakatipu are really scenic, especially when they’re getting the summer sun. According to New Zealand’s Wilderness magazine, they’ve served as the backdrop to The Lord of the Rings, Prince Caspian, The Hobbit, Vertical Limit and Wolverine, as well as Top of the Lake.

One of them’s even called the Paradise Valley. That’s the inspiration for the fictional community known as Paradise in Top of the Lake. actually does exist, in other words.

The Paradise Valley’s a bit like Yosemite, with a flat grassy bottom and epic mountains on either side. A tourist lodge called Paradise House was operating there as far back as the 1880s. The property was gifted to a charitable trust in more recent times by its last private owner, David Miller.

Yes, there were tourists here even in the 1800s. In fact, tourism was booming at the top of the lake a hundred years ago, with four steamers taking passengers the 80 km from the last railway station at the other end of the lake. Along the way, they pulled in to Queenstown, a town that was already clearly striving for respectability by the time this photo was taken in 1878.

Boomtown Queenstown: lower Ballarat Street, now the Queenstown Mall, 1878. Te Papa Tongarewa (the Museum of New Zealand), 1878, photograph by William Hart, Hart, Campbell & Co. Purchased 1943. Registration number C.014174. At the time of writing, you can download a 21 MB version of this striking image for free from https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/18969

Eichardt’s Hotel is still there at the waterfront end of the left side of the street, and so is the building on the far left of the photo, although most of its façade is now hidden by modern cafe clutter. But you can still see the ‘1872’ date at the top.

The very earliest Europeans to colonise the region were drawn by the twin lures of gold and sheep, or at least of the prospects for both. Tourism followed. One of the problems they had to overcome was the prevalence of a thorny scrub most commonly known as matagouri, a corruption of its correct Maori name tūmatakuru. William Gilbert Rees, a key founder of Queenstown and of local sheep-farming alike, complains of it in lines sculpted on a monument in the Queenstown Gardens.

Matagouri or tūmatakuru, at the top of the lake
Monument to Rees in the Queenstown Gardens

Here’s another monument to Rees, standing luxuriantly-bearded beside a merino, in a manner that brings to mend the saying that we resemble our pets!

Rees memorial on the Queenstown waterfront. Photo by Tony Graham, 13 February 2011, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Rees’s name is borne by one of the two main rivers that feed into the top of Lake Wakatipu, the other being the Dart. There’s a lovely hike around the Rees and the Dart, which I talk about in one of my books, A Maverick New Zealand Way.

The TSS (Twin Screw Steamer) Earnslaw, launched just five years after New Zealand officially ceased to be a colony in 1907, is a link to tourism’s early days.

The Earnslaw approaching a lakeside jetty in 1917. Photograph by William Williams, National Library of New Zealand reference 1/4–055997-G
The Earnslaw in May 1954, taken from the now-suburban area where I live. Walter Peak is in the background. National Library of New Zealand Whites Aviation Collection, WA-35611-F

The old ship is still steaming along!

TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown Harbour, 2019

The whole area around Lake Wakatipu remains pretty wild once you venture out of better-known tourist traps like Queenstown. So much so, that the road up toward the end of the Paradise Valley is just a narrow gravel one with huge potholes right across: so big that I blew up my car driving through one on Boxing Day, 2018.

A few years ago, a local film producer, injured in a collision, went so far as to call the road a “death trap.” No doubt fixing it up is on someone’s to-do list. But it doesn’t seem to be a high priority. I complained to the Council after my Christmas crack-up, and all they said was that I should have been more careful.

Part of the problem is that this part of New Zealand gets lots of tourists because it is scenic and still quite thinly inhabited; yet that means there aren’t enough locals to pay for odd jobs like fixing the Paradise road. It’s a Catch-22 and the NZ Government needs to step up to the plate.

But enough of politics. For those who are prepared to brave the dodgy local roads, there’s a ton of scenery outside the more obvious tourist traps of New Zealand — imagine a grand scenic valley visited by hardly anyone — and a host of walks and hikes. These range from local loops to mountaineering treks up and over the local glaciers, one of which can be seen on the Rees-Dart loop, accessible via the Paradise Valley. But be warned: if you see any giant potholes on the way, try and drive around them!

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