Our round the world trip (24): Skippers Canyon

Just how many thrills can you experience on one holiday? The answer, in the case of this trip, was: at least one more. Day 25 (Good Friday) was free in the official itinerary, but we were offered various optional extras and most of us – including Roger & Vee – opted for the Skippers Canyon Gold Tour at NZ$ 189 (£103) a head which presented one hell of a thrill.

It was a case of up at 6.30 am and off at 7.50 am in two four-wheel drive minibuses, one driven by a guy who was an extra in one of the “Lord Of The Rings” movies. To start the four and a half hour tour, we headed due north and drove up and up Mount Coronet to a peak at about 1,000 metres for marvellous views of the Richardson Mountains behind Queenstown.

Now Queenstown owes its origins to the nearby discovery of gold in 1852 and our destination was Skippers Canyon which was at the heart of the gold rush. It took 22 years to carve out an access road using only black gunpowder and hand drills and this is still the main means of entering the canyon. The problem is that the rock road is little more than a vehicle’s width and, as it hugs the curves of the mountain side, it has no barrier between it and the sheer drop on the off side. Our driver was very assured but the ride was genuinely hair-raising, although the glorious terrain eased the anxiety considerably.

The standard Skippers Canyon Land Tour is all about the history of the gold mines. The tour is owned and operated by a fifth generation Skippers family (originally called Smith) and one of the stops is a little museum staffed by the oddly named Winky (Hohneck) who is a member of the fourth generation. Here visitors can try their hand at gold panning at the Sainsbury’s Gold Claim.

One of Winky’s sons pilots the jet boats operated by the company along a stretch of the Shotover River and the Gold Tour includes such a ride. We had to don blue spray jackets, orange life jackets, gloves and, so long as they were available, beanie hats (Roger did not manage to find one). What followed was a massive adrenaline rush.

It takes no time at all for the jet boat to achieve speed and the spray to start drenching you. The temperature of the freezing water and the force of the wind generated by the motion was like a slap in the face which simply ached with biting cold. There is no time or opportunity to worry too much about your face though because you are thrilling to a boat racing through incredibly shallow water, bouncing over all obstacles, and barely skirting adjacent and overhanging rocks. Most exciting of all was the spins when the boat is whirled a full 360 degrees in a couple of seconds.

Just how exhilarating the jet boat ride had been was not wholly apparent until it ended and we clamboured out of the vessel, exclaiming like kids. We found that we had to make a distinct effort to straighten up our fingers after gripping on to a bar for dear life and our legs were strangely weak so that we wobbled around for a few minutes. How could we not buy the official photograph even if we were barely distinguishable in all our gear?

After all this excitement Roger & Vee spent the afternoon chilling in downtown Queenstown. Stanley Street should be called “Backpackers’ Alley” – just about every shop is offering accommodation, equipment, or thrill activities to the young men and women descending on the place from all over the world. We ate some lunch at “Fat Badger’s Pizza Bar” on Stanley Street and later had huge cornets of Hokey Pokey ice cream from “Patagonia” on Beach Street. We sat by the water and just soaked in the magnificent harbour views once more.


  • Trish Hughes

    well guys you are certainly having a wonderful holiday and it is so good to read of your experiences, I’m just thrilled by your descriptions Roger. Gavin and I loved the south island of NZ, just beautiful and we did the Shotover ride and you reminded me of what we felt like after it. I’m going to be lost without your daily updates. Love to you both. Trish xo

  • Nadine Wiseman

    “It took 22 years to carve out an access road using only black gunpowder and hand drills and this is still the main means of entering the canyon. ”

    So Vee was in charge of the gunpowder and you the hand drill?

  • Roger Darlington

    It was the their way round, Nadine!


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