In the seven months spent living in Queenstown, I became accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells that make this place home. The heavenly scent of the cupcake shop in the mornings makes my heart happy. And choosing my route through town to listen to the buskers on the street became part of my daily routine. And it wouldn’t be Queenstown without the hoards of tourists stopping to take pictures every 5 seconds. But nothing is quite as Queenstown to me as the two blasts from the TSS Earnslaw, indicating its return to the wharf, accompanied by the cry “Ernie’s home!” from a dear friend.
For seven months, I watched Ernie depart and heard her come home… and on my last day in town I finally got to get on board!
History of the TSS Earnslaw
The TSS Earnslaw has been cruising the waters of Lake Wakatipu since 1912, and was originally built to carry livestock to different stops around the lake. She could carry 1,500 sheep, 70 head of cattle or 200 bales of wool, plus passengers, mail and supplies. Once roads were built to connect the isolated farming communities, though, the Earnslaw was pretty much obsolete. And there was a time when a planned sinking seemed a likely fate.
Thankfully, Les Hutchins (remember him from Doubtful Sound?) saw a possibility where others saw loss of profit. He bought the steamship and has recreated it as the iconic Queenstown vessel it is today. Thanks to the purity of Lake Wakatipu and careful maintenance by the crew, Our Lady of the Lake has many years of providing joy to travelers ahead of her.
Cruising Lake Wakatipu is a special experience in itself, and doing it on one of the world’s last passenger-carrying coal-powered steamships provides plenty of opportunity for exploration. Watch as the coal is shoveled into the boilers at a rate of one tonne/ hour, or visit the education room to learn all about the history of the TSS Earnslaw. Take photos on the front of the boat, or simply relax with a hot chocolate while the pianist regales you with live music.
Walter Peak High Country Farm
It gets even better, though, when you reach Walter Peak High Country Farm. What was once a Maori camping ground became a successful sheep farm run by the Mackenzie family. Meet Peter and his sheep-herding dogs, Sprite and Sky. Then make your way to see the animals, where you’ll get to feed deer, sheep, highland cattle… and ALPACAS.
Alpacas are to me what sloths are to Kristen Bell, so I could’ve gone home a happy girl right then and there. The kids in our group loved feeding the animals… but I promise it’s just as fun for the adults. I’d never seen highland cattle up close, and I got a kick out of watching their googly eyes and muppet-like features.
Once we’d washed our hands, we headed up to the Colonel’s Homestead for tea and cake overlooking the lake. In a world of rushing around to cram in as many activities as possible, it was really nice to have time for sitting, talking and enjoying the moment built in to the Walter Peak High Country Farm experience.
There wasn’t time to get bored, though because Peter came back to collect us for a sheep herding and shearing exhibition. Did you know that trained herding dogs can fetch $10,000? Training begins at just a few months old, and combines skill and natural instinct to get these incredible creatures to do the work that would take multiple men.
Coming from a place where sheep isn’t a common form of livestock, it was really interesting to watch as Peter sheared the sheep and explained the tools of the trade. He kept the sheep on her back, as giving her an opportunity to get her front hooves on the ground would have led to a much livelier exhibition. Just in case you’re worried that the sheep will be cold in the winter air (I was), she’ll eat a bit more, and the extra layer of fat will keep her warm until her coat grows back.
After the sheep was sheared, it was time for the trip back to Queenstown. Warm drinks and live music was the perfect way to pass the time on the return trip. The weather had turned cold and rainy, but the mood inside the Earnslaw was one that wasn’t dampened by the weather.
As we pulled back to the wharf, the TSS Earnslaw let out her two telltale blasts sounded… Ernie’s home!