Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lady of the Lake

Now I wouldn’t say I was the sort of person who made up stories but when I first heard the expression ‘Lady of the Lake’, my overactive imagination somehow got the better of me. In a town steeped in Maori legend, I’ve spent the last two years gazing up at a particular mountain which to me was ‘the lady’ gazing down into a valley of tears – ‘the lake’.

Imagine my surprise then when I found out that this lady was less of a snowcapped mound and more of a ‘mini Titanic’ – namely the TSS Earnslaw. Sounding like something you’d put with your salad, this old vessel was responsible for the many near heart attacks it had given me with its vigorous tooting as it cruised across the rippled waters of the Lake Wakatipu. “I’d never be seen dead on that thing” I’d often say as I walked past it.

And that statement turned out to be true. I was very much alive when I boarded this amazing floating museum. “How beautiful is this!” I gushed to my friend Steve, as we stood on deck sipping Gin and Tonics in the cool breeze, setting sail for Walter Peak. After a few unsuspected toots followed by a few expletives, I had to admit I was rather excited about the journey ahead.
TSS Earnslaw is a coal-fired, passenger carrying steamship that hasn’t changed since taking to the waters of Queenstown in 1912. It is the only surviving steamer that worked on the Lake Wakatipu and is the largest and grandest of them all.

In the mid-section of the boat, stokers shovel coal into the original boilers at a rate of one tonne per hour. This part of the boat also offers welcoming warmth from cold and with this in mind I headed inside to take a peek. The smell of the burning coal and the rapidly pounding machinery flung me back in time and as I stood staring down at the stokers, I was overcome with an urge to join them in an Irish jig.
“Rose!” A voice was calling me. I looked up and saw Jack…I mean Steve.
“Sue” he looked at me in worried concern. “We’re here!”

Walter Peak farm is stunning. Pulling up to the crystal clear shores at dusk with the sound of lapping water really is unforgettable. We were met on the jetty by an enthusiastic guide who walked us through fully bloomed gardens and herded us into a prettily lit restaurant.
The TSS Earnslaw floated serenely in the bay, strung in coloured lights with majestic mountains as her backdrop.

As we entered the old fashioned dining room, a pianist played as a mature audience passed by with a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, though I’m inclined to believe that this was in appreciation of the huge buffet rather than the nimble skills of the musician.

After Gideon the waiter had served us our soup, we were finally allowed to be let loose on the food. Not one for dieting, I chose two huge lamb shanks that melted in my mouth and a big plate of vegetables and potatoes. I couldn’t resist trying the venison stew and I finished off my meal with a gigantic piece of passion fruit pavlova, reminiscent of the iceberg that took out the titanic.

After dinner, we headed outside for the farm show where an experienced shearer entertained us with his two sheep dogs, the full shearing of a fat fluffy sheep and a tiny lamb called Roger who caused more ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ than the buffet.

The journey back was fantastic. Armed with songbooks, we gathered around a pianist and crooned out old songs, steaming up the windows with tunes of joy. Steve listened in dismay as I ‘packed up my troubles in my old kit bag’ and ‘went to Tipperary’ in a high pitched voice that would be completely unfitting in any other place than on the Earnslaw.

The next day, I received a dismayed text from Steve who had apparently burst out of a line of ‘roll out the barrel’ whilst working on site alongside his fellow builders. Be warned non singers, the Lady of the Lake will cast its spell and ensure you’ll ‘meet again, some sunny day’.
The trips are run by Real Journeys and bookings can be made at both Queenstown YHA’s. Go to for more information.