Saturday, February 26, 2011

Steamboats, Kiwis, and Fergburgers (Sounds like Queenstown to me)

One thing I am definitely noticing about travelling with three people as opposed to solo: it takes a lot longer to get organized. Or maybe that's just the problem of travelling as a family; we seem to take forever to get all three of us on the same page.

Regardless, we all managed to load up the car this morning, find a decent parking spot on the street (no easy feat in Queenstown, I assure you), and headed down to the shores of Lake Wakatipu to catch the TSS Earnslaw, a 99-year-old twin screw steamer passenger vessel. I briefly alluded to the Earnslaw in this post back in November, but this time I was actually able to sail aboard her on a 3 1/2 hour excursion up to Walter Peak High Country Farm.

The TSS Earnslaw is named after the highest point in the Queenstown region, Mt. Earnslaw. Built in 1912, she was constructed in Dunedin by J. McGregor & Co., and when completed was then disassembled and sent in pieces by rail to Kingston at the south end of Lake Wakatipu. Each piece of the quarter-inch steel hull plates was numbered, making putting the Earnslaw back together kind of like completing a giant jigsaw puzzle. Known as "The Lady of the Lake", the Earnslaw is 51m long, 7.3m across, and weighs 330 tonnes. Having spent her entire working life on Lake Wakatipu, she has at various times been a cargo ship, livestock carrier, passenger transporter, and pleasure steamer.

Until the 1960s when a road was finally completed, the farming homesteads on the western shores of the lake were only accessible by ships such as the Earnslaw; the voyage we took today took us to Walter Peak High Country Farm, which in its heyday had 170 000 acres, 40 000 sheep, and fifty full-time employees. As it stands today, the farm operates with 20 000 sheep and 850 cattle, and a hefty dose of tourism courtesy of the TSS Earnslaw bringing in passengers five times a day.

A neat feature of the Earnslaw is the way they have made the engine room accessible (or at least viewable) to passengers via an overhead metal catwalk; we were able to walk over the heads of the stokers constantly shovelling coal into one of the hungry Earnslaw's four fire doors (she can consume a tonne of coal an hour when doing twelve knots [22km/hr]), and see the two triple-expansion steam engines that drive each of the screws hard at work spinning their drive shafts. I especially liked the ship's telegraph, which allows the captain up the bridge to communicate with the engine room and let them know what needs to be done ("Full", "Half", "Slow", "Finished with Engines", or "Stop" for both ahead and astern directions).

At Walter Peak High Country Farm, we were treated to a brief tour/demonstration of sheep farming. Having some experience working with sheep while I was staying with Glen in Little River, I was immediately suspicious the moment I saw the sheep approaching the paddock gate as soon as they saw people arriving off the boat. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw how we interacted with the sheep: by feeding them handfuls of pellets. No wonder the sheep came running; they've learned visitors mean food! The "normal" sheep I mustered ran away from me, rather than toward me. Nevertheless, it was fun, and gave us all a chance to touch and be up close and personal with the animals.

After we were all back in an enclosed paddock, the tour guide demonstrated the heading and pulling capabilities of Bess, the extremely well-trained short-hair border collie sheep dog. She has been trained to respond to a series of differing whistles (which saves the sheep farmer from screaming him or herself hoarse across huge paddocks), and it was fascinating to watch her leap gracefully over the fence, race up the paddock, and bring the sheep down the other side in a herd ahead of her. Oh, how I wished we had had a dog like that when I was mustering sheep up those huge, steep paddocks in Little River!

Finally, our tour guide gave us a sheep shearing demonstration, taking ten pounds of wool off a ewe (who had taken a year to grow it) in about three minutes. When he was finished (and the now decidedly less bulky, pink-tinged sheep was back in the race), we were able to walk up and take a piece of wool as a souvenir. The wool was covered in lanolin, a natural oil secreted by the sheep to protect itself from sunburn and to act as a moisturizing and waterproofing agent (just imagine being a sheep, getting wet, and having to lug around a waterlogged wool coat. No fun!). The lanolin is extracted from the wool when it is washed and dried, and turned into many products, such as the hand creme my mom bought later in the day from the gift shop.

At 11:45am we were escorted over to the Colonel's Homestead, where those of us who had paid for a bbq lunch were seated on the terrace overlooking the house's beautiful gardens and stunning view of Lake Wakatipu, and treated to a delicious buffet-style barbecue featuring lamb, beef, chicken, pork, salads, corn on the cob, potatoes, rice, vegetables, a cheese platter, and fruit salad for desert. The weather was sunny and gorgeous today, and aside from a few annoying wasps, the setting was perfect.

Our cruise back across the lake aboard the Earnslaw was as enjoyable as the trip there, and I left the vessel half wishing I could stay on it and have another go around; I think I'm missing my steam trains, and the Earnslaw was a good substitute, at least for a day.

The next few hours were spent wandering around Queenstown, watching my parents perform an elaborate dance of trying to find shorts that fit, while at the same time constantly running out of shops and moving the car from one 30min parking space to the next. By 3pm my dad was getting somewhat antsy and wanted to get on the road to Te Anau, but my mom had her heart set on visiting the Kiwi Birdlife Park, so we parked the car on the hill and then walked down and over to the Park, situated at the base of the Skyline Gondola.

The main highlight of the park is their kiwi birds, which live in two special huts. The birds, being nocturnal, are kept on a reverse schedule (i.e. our daytime is their nighttime), so the kiwis were up and about, busily foraging for food when we entered the huts. One hut had a special "kiwi feeding" at 4:30pm, and the guide present told us that to the kiwis, the room is indeed totally dark; although it is lit by several red lightbulbs (giving it a similar appearance to a darkroom), kiwis are unable to see the colour red, so to them it really is pitch-black.

A neat feature of the Birdlife Park is the portable mp3 players and headphones they give you; each stop in the park features a sign with a number, and keying in the corresponding number on the mp3 player's keypad plays back an audio clip detailing the birds in that particular enclosure, interesting ecological facts, Maori historical uses of the birds, etc. Some of my favourites were the kiwis (of course), the tuatara lizard, and the kea - those cheeky and highly intelligent parrots would have happily shredded our hiking boots had we not brought them inside each night when I was hiking the Heaphy and Milford Tracks.

Leaving the Birdlife Park, we headed down to Fergburger, and my parents experienced the magic that is the gourmet hamburger the size of one's head (my mom and I split one). We also bought gelato at Lick, the desert place two doors down, leading my mom to comment that she will have to begin dieting when she gets home (really, mom, you don't have much to worry about). Then we were off to Te Anau, arriving here at the Cosy Kiwi B&B around 8:30pm. Now it is 11:40pm, and we have to be up and out the door by 8am to make it to Milford Sound for 10am, so I had best be off this thing (I'm sure my parents are tired of listening to me type... although the heavy dance music throbbing from down the street is likely annoying them even more).

Oh, and say a little prayer for my parents and I; we have to cross through the Homer Tunnel under the Southern Alps tomorrow twice when we go to and from Milford Sound, and after the earthquake activity in Christchurch I really don't want to think any more about earthquakes or the Alpine Fault line. Goodnight!


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