For many hundreds of years getting to Queenstown was an arduous journey. Cut off by gorges and hemmed in by mountains, the rugged isolation of the area made it impenetrable for all but the toughest travellers.
Māori people were the first adventurers to discover the area in the 13th century, settling at Tāhuna on the site of Queenstown, at Te Kirikiri (Frankton) and at Puahuru (the junction of Kawarau and Shotover Rivers).
When Europeans arrived in the region in the mid-19th century, Kai Tahu were visiting in summer to gather kai, taramea, and pounamu, before returning home to coastal settlements. The first European settlers William Rees and Nicholas von Tunzelmann crossed the Crown Range in 1859. It was a rough journey. Rees wrote: “Speargrass, often more than three feet high, and masses of matagouri constantly impeded us, especially in the gullies. Our trousers from the thighs downwards were filled with blood.”
In 1862 gold was found in the Arrow River, sparking the Otago gold rush. Miners embarked on epic journeys, scaling mountain passes and fording rivers, and Norwegian goldminers introduced the community to skiing, using homemade skis to reach their snowed in diggings.
The gold rush started a visitor influx to the region, and in the 1880s Queenstown began to blossom into a resort town. One of the area’s first guides, Kitty Greig from Kinloch was “renowned through all the lake country as a daring and accomplished horsewoman … Bred and reared amid these rocky pastures and wild solitudes, she knows every foot of the country and is as fearless, and independent as the winds that whistle round Mount Earnslaw.”
It seems that Queenstown breeds and attracts people like Kitty, tough adventurers with an entrepreneurial spirit.
One company played a key role in opening the mountains up for adventure. In 1912 Rodolph Wigley founded the Mount Cook Tourist Company, offering a weekly Cadillac service between Queenstown and Mount Cook. Later he diversified into buses, hotels, flights, skiing, and package holidays, becoming one of the largest tourist operations in New Zealand.
In 1947 Rodolph’s son Henry Wigley and his friend Bill Hamilton installed a rope tow at Coronet Peak and created New Zealand’s first commercial ski resort. People flocked to the mountain. Roads were cleared and, in a few years, Queenstown had become a winter destination.
Sue Knowles started skiing Coronet Peak in 1958, aged 11, when the Mount Cook Co. offered the local school a free day on the slopes. Smitten, she became a regular and recalls, “Every year in the August school holidays you’d meet the same people in the queue for the tow, from ski clubs in Alexandra, Invercargill and Dunedin. It was a very nice atmosphere. Although that rope tow was an ordeal!”
In the 1950s Henry Wigley made his second mark on winter tourism when he invented a special ski-plane to take enthusiasts for back country ski experiences. Today 16 companies offer heli-skiing and almost 60 fly people to remote locations for a taste of wilderness. For years Queenstowners talked about building an attraction to carry visitors to the top of Bob’s Peak. The next development to bring visitors flocking came in 1967 when a group of local investors built the Skyline gondola.
Former chair of Skyline Enterprises, Barry Thomas remembers how the gondola “virtually put Queenstown on the map, it was the first gondola in New Zealand, the first in Australasia, there was nothing like it.”
Now hundreds of visitors ride the gondola up Bob’s Peak every day. They admire the panorama, before climbing into a luge and letting gravity take them for a ride or plunging down the network of trails on a mountain bike.
Mountain biking is a newcomer to the Queenstown scene. But it’s fast becoming a favourite after work adventure.
When Vertigo bikes founder Tim Ceci rolled into town in 1997 there were no official trails. Tim started out offering helibiking trips into the Remarkables, but soon realised Bob’s Peak was an opportunity in his backyard. He negotiated access to run guided tours from the gondola and built the Vertigo trail.
In 2003, the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club came together. Today 700 committed locals work with DOC, council, landowners and the community to build and maintain around 60km of trails. Their hard graft is a gift to our town, just one more example of the grit and vision that makes Queenstown so unique.
Tim says: “Now people come to Queenstown to ride our network of spectacular trails. Biking’s all about freedom and independence, and people come to Queenstown to push boundaries.”