Travelling on the Earnslaw

It was a most atypical summers day when I visited Queenstown, instead of the brilliant sunshine I had enjoyed on the travels down the South Island it had turned into a cloudy and slightly wet day. Nothing was really visible of the Remarkables and even Lake Wakatipu itself was partially shrouded. All of this concentrated my attention onto the town itself and the attractions one could see on a cloudy day.

All in all Queesntown is not a good town for this. For starters it has become highly commercial and oriented to catching the tourist dollar. If you are on holiday from overseas then the prices are probably quite reasonable for the level of service. For those of us who are looking for cheaper alternatives then you tend to be out of luck. Complicating matters is that Queenstown is more of a staging post for re-supply rather than a town you actually do much in. It's close proximity to ski-fields, bungy jumping, riverboats and various other out-doors activities leaves the town itself somewhat bereft. Combine that with a parking policy actively designed to encourage transient visitors to keep moving and you have a town that is more useful for it's strategic location than it's own intrinsic content.

That said there is one major redeeming point, the TSS 'Earnslaw'. A steamship, she plies the lake taking people for lunchtime cruises as well as excursions out to a farming station on the far side of the lake. Even evening cruises for a social function on the odd occasion. Seeing as the town itself was largely a loss and that I am frequently fascinated with ships I just had to go for a ride on her while there. Even if it was wet and miserable.

The Earnslaw steaming in to dock. (141 Kb jpeg)

Thus it was that I was standing on the dock, cursing the lack of shelter from the cold wind that was blowing, watching the 'Earnslaw' steam in from her last excursion. Passengers on the ship watched us from, as I discovered later, the warmth on the top passenger deck. As she was steaming in to dock I had been struck with the nagging sensation that there was something slightly wrong, then I noticed what it was. She has a vertical prow instead of the more usual angle one. Apparently the conditions of the water on the lake make having a straight prow advantageous. You can see the straightness of it most clearly in the full version of the above photograph.

Look back from the bow, towards the bridge of the Earnslaw. (144 Kb jpeg)

Steel hulled and three decks tall, four if you count the bridge as a seperate deck and looking from the bow of the ship back you can see how it might be counted as it's own deck. Standing at this vantage point, and a friend and I were the only ones crazy enough on this particular trip to stand out there, you are at the same level as the top passenger deck and get to feel every wave as the ship ploughs through them.

As well as having the bow view, the top deck also features a bar serving both food and drinks, a piano and player - who kept trying to get us passengers all involved in sing-along songs towards the end of the cruise, tables, a view down into the engineering area and seating as well as the warm area around the funnel. Warmth was precisely what was needed on this day and that area held the most people as they stayed nice and toasty - the funnel serving as a wonderful radiator.

Below that deck, and the only other deck open to passengers, it is a trifle less spacious with the top level of the engineering section, a small museum detailing the ship's history and interesting plug holes in the deck. Initially, while waiting to board her, we had watched the crew load on coal for the ship. This is accomplished by backing a truck loaded with coal up to the side of the ship, coal is then tipped from the truck onto a slide which then dumps it on the ships deck. As you can see in the next photograph, which was taken as they prepared to tip the coal onto the ship.

The Earnslaw docked and taking on coal. (167 Kb jpeg)

It was the proximity of the holes to the coal slide that let us realise that they were the access holes to the coal stores. Three per side and about half a meter in diameter it is amazing that they fit the coal through it as fast as they do. The ship consumes a ton of coal an hour while steaming and while coal is not the lightest of materials for it's volume - a ton of it still occupies a lot of space. Following where the coal goes led us to the engineering area. We were slightly lucky in that even though the area was marked as being a no go zone for passengers the crew let us inside and stand on the rail just above the engines.

Painted a fireman's red the engines did their business with the appropriate amount of noise that you expect from a steam engine. Provided on the walls of the skylight section, that looks down from the top passenger deck, was an explanation of how the engine worked - usually with the explanation placed directly above the relevant part of the engine. The shot below was actually taken from the top deck, but shows the railing on which we stood - as well as one of the engines.

Close-up of the boilers for the steam engine. (198 Kb jpeg)

The railing was covered lightly with oil, making the area slightly trecherous to stand on. But it was fascinating, ever wanted to know what Industrial England must have sounded, smelt and looked like? This engine provides that as you watch the engineers feed coal into the fires and listen to the hiss of the steam as it works it's way through the system. The photo shows the three main pistons, each geared for a different pressure. (The pistons are the circular red panels, with bolts around the edge. High ressure to the right, lowest pressure to the left.)

All in all the 'Earnslaw' is well worth visiting. Combine that with a trip over to Walter Peak Station on a fine day and you have something worth coming to Queenstown to see. She is a grand old ship and a wonderful reminder of days gone by when steam power ruled the waves.

Philip R. Banks
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