June 21, 2019
Queenstown is now well-known for being a tourism mecca brimming with adventure activities that had a modest start with operators such as Coronet Peak opening as the first commercial ski field in NZ in 1947, KJet pioneering Jet boat trips in 1958 and the first Skyline Gondola heading up Bob’s Peak in 1967. Queenstown however has a history that’s linked to gold mining roots, long before the adventure pioneers arrived.
The town has been built around an inlet called Queenstown Bay on Lake Wakatipu, a long and deep ‘Z’ shaped lake, carved out from a glacier that pushed through the land around 15,000 years ago. The deepest point of Lake Wakatipu sits at 380m and with Queenstown sitting at 310m above sea level, the deepest point of the lake sits around 70m below sea level.
Long before European arrival and settlement, Māori settled in the area around 800 years ago with evidence of stake nets, baskets for catching eels, spears and ashes discovered near Glenorchy. It is assumed that South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu visited the area in search of prized Pounamu (greenstone) a strong, durable and beautiful stone used for adzes, clubs and necklaces.
Before the adventure pioneers arrived in the mid 1900’s the town grew from the gold rush boom when William Rees first arrived in Queenstown (originally called The Camp) and built his homestead in 1860. Rees is considered the founding father of Queenstown and his statue stands proudly at the top of Queenstown Mall.
The discovery of the first strike of gold is however credited to Jake Tewa, a farm hand of Rees’ who in 1862 found one of the worlds richest sources of gold along the Arrow River. Still to this day the nearby Shotover River is the second richest gold bearing river in the world, with locals still claiming there is gold to be found!
Queenstown became a thriving goldmining town, and the region’s population boomed, with towns such as Skippers and Macetown, and more notably Arrowtown on the banks of the Arrow River forming with the gold rush. The prospect of fortune attracted men from Guangzhou hoping to escape their life of poverty in China, however conditions were harsh and treatment of the Chinese mining community was poor. The Chinese settlement in Arrowtown has been restored and shows the tough living conditions, especially in the middle of winter for this isolated and persecuted community, who were officially apologised to by the New Zealand Government in 2002.
Gradually tourism became the new form of ‘gold’ with the development of adrenalin activities such a bungy jumping, Jet boating and skiing. Adventure pioneers AJ Hackett and Henry Van Asch launched the first commercial bungy jump off the Kawarau Bridge, the world home of Bungy in 1988. In 1995 Queenstown Airport welcomed its first international flight (Air New Zealand from Sydney) bringing mainly skiers. Since then Queenstown has diversified its adventure offering becoming a popular destination for mountain bikers, wine buffs and foodies.