Despite not appearing to do anything good for the ozone layer with its coal-burning furnace belching out clouds of thick black smoke, the SS Earnslaw is a Queenstown institution. And, admittedly, once the boat is up to speed the black smoke settles to a gentle waft from its big red funnel.
The 48 metre-long Earnslaw has been steaming the length of Lake Wakatipu for over 100 years, and was first brought in to service the outlying farms and mining settlements in 1912 before roads were hacked out of the steep countryside. Even now there is only one road to the northern end of the lake and the properties on the far shore still rely on boats and barges for much of their transportation.
Once known as the ‘Lady of the Lake’, the Earnslaw was originally constructed in Dunedin, then disassembled and loaded on a train to be railed to Kingston, at the southern end of the lake. There she was reconstructed and finally sailed north to Queenstown. At times she had up to three sister ships working on the lake with her transporting people, animals and freight. She now only carries tourists, but is still in service for 11 months of each year, sailing up to 14 hours a day in the high season.
Her regular run takes visitors to Walter Peak High Country Farm on the western side of the lake, which provides daily farm tours with a lunch option, horse treks, guided cycle tours and evening dining. It’s a great opportunity to see back country New Zealand, albeit with lots of other people at the same time. The guided cycling tours are limited to nine people so this experience is a lot more personal and explores the very remote country through the back of Walter Peak High Country Farm to the Mavora Lakes. The horse treks also get out into open country and are suitable for novice riders and children over 8 years.
But for many, it’s the ride on the boat that is the drawcard. Passengers can watch the big steam engines on a visit to the engine room and can also visit the bridge. The basic cruise is 90 minutes with Walter Peak options taking up to a full day. The Earnslaw is the only boat doing scheduled scenic tours of the lake.
There is parking for your Queenstown Airport car rental along the lakefront while you are enjoying a cruise.