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Newlyweds and a fisherwoman enjoy Glenorchy wharf.

Taking the top-of-the-lake road to Glenorchy

Mike White takes the top-of-the-lake road to Glenorchy.

The bride wore a veil and white trainers. The groom wore a slim suit and patient smile. They stood at the edge of Glenorchy’s wharf and looked at each other, looked at the camera, looked out over plate-glass Lake Wakatipu.

There were makeup touch-ups, contrived poses, and innumerable lenses and angles. The couple had flown from China, from near Shanghai, to have wedding photos taken in one glorious location after another around New Zealand. So here they were, at the end of the wharf, at the end of the road, at the end of the world.

A woman fishing nearby wore a beanie, thermals and warm boots. She cast deep into the lake, then sat on the wharf’s edge to roll a cigarette. She’d worked the early shift at a cafe and figured she’d use the last of the daylight to catch a trout.

She used to work in Wellington, on The Terrace, in the corporate world, but one day packed it in and packed up her house. Bought a campervan and headed south. So here she was, at the top of the lake, at the end of the day.

The wedding couple smiled on command, and looked blissfully at each other when directed. The fisherwoman looked across the lake and beyond to the mountains, snow halfway down them, and smiled to herself.

Looking up Lake Wakatipu towards Glenorchy from Bennett’s Bluff.
It was here they filmed TV series Top of the Lake. And bits of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, X-Men, Mission Impossible and a host of other movies wanting scenery and seclusion. About 45 minutes from Queenstown, up one of the most spectacular strips of two-lane tarseal you’ll find anywhere, Glenorchy sits where the Rees and Dart Valleys merge and their rivers run into Lake Wakatipu.

The road goes further towards the mountains, to a place they unblushingly called Paradise, and the tramping tracks of the Routeburn, Rees-Dart, Caples and Greenstone. But Glenorchy is the mark on the map for most, home to a few hundred lucky souls, snuggled amid the mountains, alongside the lake.

Dan Kelly came here in 1992. He’d worked in the ski industry with his partner, Christine (née Grant), who’d represented New Zealand at the Winter Olympics in downhill, and they set up a small skifield near Glenorchy. Kelly had grown up on farms, where he learnt to shear, cut scrub – and knit. In 1987, he won the wool category in the inaugural World of WearableArt awards, which led to the couple becoming clothes designers for AJ Hackett and then their own company.

By this stage, Kelly had learnt to weld and make jewellery that was exhibited in top galleries. His larger sculptural metal creations have been used to decorate bars and lodges throughout the country. In recent years, he’s added stonemasonry to his skillset. He also runs a remote mountain lodge for ski-touring and mountain biking.

Artist and ski-tour operator Dan Kelly with one of his sculptures, bound for a Golden Bay lodge.

“I guess everybody’s life just branches out. What you find in Glenorchy is that people do a few different things because if you want to live here, you have to be creative about how to do that. But I easily say to people, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Kelly did a world trip one time, marketing his fashion label, and when he got home, people asked him what was the most amazing thing he’d seen. “I said, ‘It was when I came back, and I loved the view of Glenorchy when I came around Bennett’s Bluff.’”

Despite Glenorchy’s popularity with tourists – especially since the road from Queenstown was sealed in 1997 – Kelly believes the town has kept its charm. “I can say that unreservedly, without even thinking, because it’s still the end of the road, and the end-of-the-roads are becoming more special as the whole world seems to want to link up its destinations and roadways. And at the end of the day, most of the tourists disappear back down the road again.”

But for those who want to linger, there are many options, including a remarkable development with an unassuming name. Camp Glenorchy is a multi-million dollar project that has transformed and expanded the town’s old holiday park into cutting-edge environmentally sustainable accommodation. In August, Time magazine named it among the World’s 100 Greatest Places of 2019.

Camp Glenorchy’s sustainability co-ordinator, Ailsa Carroll, in one of the facility’s gardens. Her parents named her after the nearby Ailsa Mountains.

American philanthropists Paul and Debbi Brainerd fell in love with Glenorchy, built a house, then decided to buy the campground and turn it into something special – a poster-child for stylish eco-tourism. Solar panels help generate more electricity than they need; water is heated by the sun or by sending it 75m underground to be warmed; there are amazing waterless, compostable toilets; stored rainwater meets all their needs apart from during droughts; wastewater is treated in their wetland and used in the gardens; much of the lodge is created from recycled material; and there are 1600 sensors throughout the buildings and grounds that provide data on how to improve efficiency.

“It’s sustainability without sacrifice,” says Ailsa Carroll, whose job includes interpreting all that data. Carroll says when you mention composting toilets and recycling, “people have a preconceived notion of what things will be like – and we’re not that”.

She heard about Camp Glenorchy when tramping the Routeburn, and approached them last year while still completing her engineering degree. “I thought, even if I don’t get the job, I’m so excited and hyped this is happening in New Zealand.”

She got the job, and started as Camp Glenorchy’s sustainability co-ordinator straight after her final exams. “I was telling my classmates, ‘Come and see my systems, come and see the wastewater.’ Engineers are a little bit like that.”

Camp Glenorchy, despite some initial local concerns about the development, has become a show-home for sustainability, with thousands of people having toured the facility – something Carroll encourages. And everyone is amazed at how high-tech the project is, despite its rustic appearance. “It’s very much like the nerds got together and went, ‘What if? What does the future look like?’”

The way to Paradise.
All Camp Glenorchy’s profits are returned to the community – a community, Katherine Cahill says, that’s truly wonderful. Cahill moved here from Queenstown 12 years ago, “and I guess I really underestimated how awesome that community spirit was. It’s huge. As the world gets busier, that community becomes more important.”

Ask her what’s the worst thing that could happen to Glenorchy, and Cahill immediately says, “A McDonald’s.”

People shift to Glenorchy for the beauty, and sometimes for the isolation. And you can live as a hermit, Cahill says, but it’s not easy. “Because you still collect your mail, fill up at the garage, grab a coffee.”

When she and husband Steve Hewland were living overseas and in Queenstown, they never had a dress-up box – now they have four, to cater for all the social events occurring in Glenorchy. “I think we’ve got nine wigs, so Steve can wear them as well.”

Shortly after arriving in Glenorchy, Cahill established a book club. “Everyone has such busy lives, it’s nice to get together and just read a book and have a glass of wine.” There are 30 people on the book club mailing list (only one man), ages range from 27 to 72, and there’s only one rule – whoever’s hosting the monthly meeting isn’t meant to clean their house, Cahill says.

Glenorchy book club founder Katherine Cahill at Camp Glenorchy.

Meanwhile, Hewland set up the Glenorchy Brew Club three years ago. “We’d been gasbagging about it for a while and thought, ‘Let’s just do this,’” he says. “So we posted an ad on the Glenorchy community website and said turn up to the town hall at seven o’clock. And that very first night, we put down a brew and got a few people converted straight away.”

They have nearly 20 members (only one woman) and meet on the same night as Cahill’s book club: the third Wednesday of the month. “Typically we talk about beer for a while and then end up having a few beers and shooting the shit. What I really enjoy about it is just catching up with people around a common passion, when you might not necessarily have much else in common.”

The club’s most popular event is their cider night. “We all gather our apples together and have a massive evening of crushing and pulping apples and making juice to make cider.”

Hewland is now taking his hobby to the next level and has launched Glenorchy Brewing to make beer for the local market. There’s a Glenorchy Mountain Pale Ale, a Head of the Lake Lager, Paradise Pilsner, and a Red Shed IPA, all produced from a shipping container on Hewland’s property.

He wants to keep it small, part-time, mixing it with his day job as a consultant project manager, with the ultimate goal of being able to work from home and not have to commute to Queenstown. “The big picture is all about staying in Glenorchy.”

Chas Drader, who’s been involved in radio for nearly 60 years, now runs Glenorchy’s station from his home.
Chas Drader is another who shifted up the road from Queenstown and has found plenty to keep him in Glenorchy. For a while, the broadcasting veteran commuted to Queenstown to manage a radio station, but when he retired in 2010, he set up Glenorchy Country Radio 89.2FM from his living room. “I thought it was more appropriate to run a radio station than sit here watching the grass grow. So I kept doing it and I’m still doing it.”

He announces from 7am to 9am, then the rest of the day is automated, but he can break into the broadcast at any time to let the community know anything vital, or at times of civil defence emergencies. “So when the alpine fault goes, and we’re all in peril, and the community is struck by pestilence and disease, then I can tell them, ‘Yes, you’re all going to die.’”

It’s entirely voluntary, with a couple of locals helping out, and groups like Rural Women supporting Drader with equipment.

Glenorchy has changed in the 25 years he’s lived there, with The Lord of the Rings, particularly, making it a tourist destination. “People come to see hobbits and elves and goblins leaping about the trees. The trees are full of them up there – they’re all over the place.”

But what Drader, 74, sees each day when he pulls back the curtains are the Humboldt Mountains across the valley, and the snaking braids of the Rees and Dart Rivers in the foreground.

“It’s a nice spot to be. I don’t have a hankering to live in the big city any more. Been there and done that. Began life in a little village in the North Island, now I’m in a little village in the country in the South Island. I sit there in the mornings and think, well, I’m pretty lucky, I’m still doing what I like to do. My body’s falling apart but my voice still works, so that’s fine.”

Toni and John Glover,  who have owned Kinloch Lodge for nearly 20 years.

On the other side of Lake Wakatipu’s northern shores – half an hour by car or a short boat ride from Glenorchy – is Kinloch. John and Toni Glover arrived here in 2000 in a Honda Civic, along with their golden retriever puppy, on a skiing trip of the South Island. When a real estate agent mentioned Kinloch Lodge was for sale, they went for a look. And then another look. “And in the end we bought a dodgy old set of buildings in a neat location,” says John.

And it is a fantastic location, one that’s serviced tourists since the 1870s and still remains serene and spectacular. “We say we’re an hour or a million miles from Queenstown,” John adds, emphasising the convenience and the contrast that Kinloch offers.

The world around them is one of wild-shaped peaks and still waters. Of place names like Precipice and Glacier and Invincible that hint at danger and frontierism.

Toni says she’s still struck by the landscape, and frequently pulls over to take photos when driving to and from Glenorchy. “We have the cleanest water, the freshest air, the most beautiful views. I take a lot of energy from people being blown away by it – it’s their favourite place in the world, and they keep asking for photos and it becomes their screensaver – when people get it and get what we’re trying to do, which is connect people to nature and each other. Because there’s so much clutter with noise and computers and cellphones.”

The view towards Mt Earnslaw from Kinloch.
The fisherwoman at Glenorchy’s wharf was Marilyn. She drove in to Glenorchy three years ago, parked up her campervan, and stayed. It’s a magic place, she reckons.

“C’mon sun,” she said, exhorting the clouds to break on a bleak day and warm the afternoon.

The sky stayed resolute, the lake stayed flat, the fish stayed deep. But then Marilyn’s rod flexed and she grabbed the reel. The trout tugged and arced and jumped but just before it reached the wharf, it slipped the hook and splashed back into the lake. Marilyn shrugged. It would have been a nice dinner, but there were plenty of others.

She has no plans to move on from Glenorchy. But if she changes her mind, all she has to do is “hop in the campervan and turn the key”.

She watched as the wedding couple went through their rehearsed moves for the photographer. She likes meeting people down here, chatting, sharing the secrets of the lake and the land surrounding it. Often they ask how she ended up here. Marilyn smiles.

“Look around you,” she says, “just look around you.”

Tourists pose at Glenorchy’s famous Red Shed.

Where to stay 

Camp Glenorchy

An elegant eco-retreat that offers everything from campsites to bunkrooms to luxury cabins. The technology and sustainability initiatives alone make it worth a visit. Yoga classes each morning.

Campsites from $40, cabins from $275 to $485. Cnr Oban St and Coll St, ph (03) 409-0401, campglenorchy.co.nz.

Kinloch Lodge

Beautiful location on the lake’s edge, with its historic lodge, fabulous passive-energy cabins, and all-day restaurant. Bikes, kayaks, fishing gear, ferry service and track transport available. Don’t miss the spa bath overlooking the lake and mountains.

From $15 for camping to $435 including breakfast for an EcoScapes cabin. 862 Kinloch Rd, ph (03) 442-4900, kinlochlodge.co.nz.

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.