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A brief history of Queenstown

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A brief history of Queenstown

Nestled on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown (Māori name Tahuna) is one of New Zealand’s most loved tourist and holiday destinations. The town is settled right at the lake’s edge, surrounded by scenic mountain ranges.

The Wakatipu Basin was created by glacial movement some 15,000 years ago. Evidence of Maori presence has been found dating back around 700 years, though the area was apparently not settled by Maori; rather, they used it as a summer hunting ground for the huge, flightless moa and the treasured pounamu, or greenstone, which was found there.

The first European visitor was the Scottish-born settler Nathanael Chalmers, in 1853. Reko, a Maori chief, led Chalmers on what was probably the first high octane tour – an off-road trip crossing mountain ranges, canoeing rivers and finally speeding through the Cromwell Gorge on a raft made of flax stems. More than 50 years later, Chalmers recalled the trip: “I shall never forget the “race” through the gorge … my heart was literally in my mouth, but those two old men seemed to care nothing for the current.” He paid his ‘guide’ with a three-legged iron pot – and white water rafting remains a popular sport to this day!

A few years after Chalmers’ rafting adventure, William Rees and Nicholas von Tunzelmann settled on the shores of Wakatipu – Rees on what is now Queenstown, and von Tunzelmann across the lake. The friends married two sisters, Frances and Gertrude Gilbert. It was 1860, and the settlers had a couple of years of peaceful farming before the gold rush of 1862 turned the area into a shantytown; within a few months, more than 1,500 miners were literally camped at their doorsteps.

Rees’ land lease was withdrawn and he received a hearty payout to vacate it; however, across the lake, von Tunzelmann ran into financial difficulties and had to abandon his land – leaving the Von River and Mt Nicholas named as his legacy.

As the gold ran out and the miners left, Chinese miners were brought in to work the Wakatipu Basin. About 5,000 Chinese workers settled in Otago in the late 1800s. The old Chinese gold mining settlement at Arrowtown has been restored as a historical attraction.

By the early 1900s, the gold was mostly gone; the miners had ‘followed the colour’ to different fields, the Chinese had either returned to China or gone to other parts of the country. The population of thousands dropped to less than 200.

The area continued as farmland, particularly sheep stations, and as a summer holiday destination. Bushwalking and tramping were on offer, with the Milford, Routeburn and Hollyford Tracks at the doorstep. With the establishment of Coronet Peak Ski Field in the mid-1900s, Queenstown began its rise as one of New Zealand’s favourite holiday destinations. Access and accommodation improved; as more people came from overseas, the tourist industry boomed.

When AJ Hackett started a Bungy Jumping operation off the Kawarau Bridge in 1988, Queenstown was well on the way to establishing itself as ‘the adventure tourism capital of the world’. Great expectations maybe; but today this small lakeside town has well over 200 adventure tourism activities on offer, amidst a setting of unparalleled natural beauty, and has international acclaim as an environmental and adventure tourism resort.

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