Queenstown's steamy lady, her Auckland links and the navy bailout

The grand old lady of Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu, TSS Earnslaw, turns 100.

There is nothing quite like the smell of freshly-polished brass, the rumble of a steam engine and the "poop" of a horn reverberating around Queenstown's hills.

The TSS Earnslaw steamship, an icon of New Zealand's tourism industry, turns 100 in October.

The vessel is a survivor. She started plying Lake Wakatipu as a freight and passenger vessel, supplying high country stations from Glenorchy to Kingston.

When New Zealand Railways decided she was uneconomic in the late 1960s, a private syndicate stepped in.

The ship has continued under current owner Real Journeys, previously Fiordland Travel, despite the threat of environmental pollution laws.

Real Journeys is a locally-owned company, dominated by the family of the late Les Hutchins, the founder with wife Olive, a former Invercargill furniture shop owner.

The company may be feeling the pinch but it seems the grand old lady of the lake will steam on as one of the world's only coal-fired steamships still in operation.

Roads blow

A government-approved tender of £20,850 to build the boat was awarded to Dunedin firm John McGregor and Co, and the TSS Earnslaw's first voyage was taken on October 18, 1912.

If the opening of the Queenstown to Kingston road in 1936 was almost the death knell for the Earnslaw, the Queenstown to Glenorchy road opening in 1962 finished her off.

There were hopes freight would carry her through but five years of decline followed and in 1968 she made a loss of $43,000.

Auckland group Lake Wakatipu Steamship Company took over the management in 1969 but could not afford to buy it.

While the government sought  a buyer the navy was sent in to run the ship for a couple of months.

New Zealand Rail approached Fiordland Travel in 1969, two years after the first approach, and the company took over on the proviso it paid off the shipping company's debts and continued to service the back country stations.

Fiordland Travel, now Real Journeys, took over in December 1969.

Tourist focus

The company quickly changed the Earnslaw's schedule, to run short, tourist-targeted cruises. The tug Waiomana was used to service the lakeside stations.

The steam hip's passenger numbers jumped 67% in a year, but it took 11 years to break even.

Its biggest loss came from a failed experiment to run passengers down the lake to connect with the Kingston Flyer steam train in 1972.

In 1982, a refit saw the cabin enclosed and a viewing area created so passengers could see the engine room in operation.

In 1998, Queenstown's district plan gave TSS Earnslaw category one heritage protection – the first vessel in the country to get such recognition.

She is the Southern Hemisphere's oldest coal-fired, passenger-carrying steamship, carrying about 150,000 people a year across Lake Wakatipu.

Rousing sing-alongs

Having lived in Queenstown in two stints, I have fond memories of the ship – especially of indomitable piano player Bill Purvis's rousing sing-alongs. 

I was lucky enough to be aboard for the vessel's 95th anniversary. 

Her presence is a reassuring sight, and sound, for those who remember a less commercial Queenstown.

She brings a welcome vintage air to the resort – something bungy jumping, parapenting or Ferg Burger-eating could never do.

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