How much have you won or lost on a coin toss? The fate of the first European settlers was apparently sealed using such a method.
Legend has it that William Rees and Nicholas Von Tunzelman flipped for which side of the lake to settle on in the late 1850s. Rees got the Queenstown side (with the gold rush and a boom time). Von Tunzelman got Walter Peak (with snowstorms, stock loss and money woes that eventually forced him from the land).
Much of modern Queenstown, its streets, suburbs and geographical features, share a name with one man’s family. Explorer and surveyor William Gilbert Rees stamped his mark on the region when, as the first European settler of Queenstown, he set to naming the highlights after those nearest and dearest. His son, Cecil Walter Rees, was the inspiration for both Cecil Peak and its slightly lower companion – Walter Peak. The suburb of Frankton was named after his wife, Frances.
In the late 1880s, the Mackenzie family took over Walter Peak and quickly got to work making improvements to the buildings and the land. It was here that Hugh Mackenzie introduced many innovative farming methods, such as fencing to control the high country stock. The family was also responsible for building the homestead and planting the renowned gardens.
The Mackenzies would farm the area for 80 years, in doing so transforming the inhospitable land into a thriving business. In its prime, Walter Peak station covered more than 170,000 acres, ran 40,000 sheep and employed 50 staff. The merino wool from these sheep would top the London wool sales for New Zealand and Australia on three occasions during the 1930s and would also win first prize at the prestigious Wembley Exhibition.
The Colonel’s Homestead was constructed in 1908 as a wedding present for Hugh’s son, Colonel Peter Mackenzie.
After a fire damaged the homestead in 1977, it was carefully reconstructed. The gardens were started in the 1870s, when two of the region’s oldest introduced trees were planted – the Sycamore and Oak, which are now protected. A native Kauri tree was also planted here in the 1960s and, in the decades since, the gardens have gradually evolved and been enhanced.
Such comfort and support were vital – in the early days it was an isolated place and the trip via rowboat to Queenstown took five – seven hours. Even so, the Mackenzie family would make this journey every Sunday to get to the local Presbyterian church.
In 2014, Real Journeys embarked on a major conservation project, the Walter Peak Land Restoration Project, after buying the land around the Colonel’s Homestead that makes up Walter Peak Farm.
The company began clearing its land (155 hectares) of the invasive non-native trees and weeds that have been spreading rapidly across Walter Peak and the surrounding Central Otago landscape.
Pockets of native bush are being planted and a public walkway created along the foreshore to the stunning area of Beach Point. The extensive planting (and weeding) is the final and ongoing part of Real Journeys ambitious award-winning conservation project to stop the spread of invasive wilding pines and return the land to its natural heritage.