Paradise! The Real Top of the Lake

December 3, 2023
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THE other day, I drove from Queenstown to the top of Lake Wakatipu, as I do from time to time. It’s great in any season, but this time I wanted to see the lupins that grow in such profusion in spring, in the river valleys that feed into the head of the lake.

It’s all picture postcard stuff, a bit like The Sound of Music.

At the very head of Lake Wakatipu is the township of Glenorchy, with an old wharf and railway shed that has historic displays inside.

Up the two main rivers that feed into the lake near Glenorchy, the Rees River, known as the Puahiri or Puahere in Māori, and the Dart, officially the Dart River/Te Awa Whakatipu, roads lead into the mountains.

LINZ via NZ Topo Map (2021), CC BY 4.0

In the Dart Valley, the road leads to the world-famous Routeburn Track.

Crossing the Dart River/Te Awa Whakatipu

Looking down the Dart/Awa Whakatipu

Just before you get to the Routeburn Track, there’s a short road called the Lake Sylvan Road that leads to the lovely, quiet, and scenic Sylvan Campsite and the start of the Lake Sylvan Walk, part of the Lake Sylvan Loop featured in my post Queenstown on the Quiet. This is a bit of a hidden gem, both in terms of the hike and in terms of the campsite as a place to get away from it all.

Looking northward toward Mount Earnslaw (2,830 m or 9,285 ft) from the Sylvan Campsite.

A more zoomed norward view of Mt Earnslaw from the Sylvan Campsite. At the far left you can see the dog-tooth-like Pluto Peak.

Looking southward at the Sylvan Campsite

Looking eastward at the Sylvan Campsite

The valleys that feed into the top of Lake Wakatipu really are scenic, especially when they’re getting the summer sun. According to an article I came across in 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 the British TV drama actually set in the locality called Top of the Lake. Oh yes, not to mention Mission Impossible: Fallout.

One locality, called Paradise, is the inspiration for the somewhat more fictional community known as Paradise in Top of the Lake.

The Rees Valley is 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.

It’s all more introspective in autumn.

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

Along with what you can see from the road, the head of Lake Wakatipu supports a host of walks and hikes. These range from local loops to mountaineering treks up and over the local glaciers.

Hikers should take the usual precautions, as advised by the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) in its literature. Even motorists should also be warned: if you see any giant water-filled potholes on some of the remoter roads that are still in gravel in this area, try and drive around them, as they might be so deep as to destroy your car engine!

All the same, if you are in Queenstown, you definitely should take time to visit the head of Lake Wakatipu. There’s more about this lovely area in one of my books, The Sensational South Island.


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