Queenstown's Winter Festival is a far cry from the early days of cow pat throwing and greasy pig contests, but some of those mid-1970s events have stood the test of time. SUE FEA talks to the founders of what is now a multimillion-dollar, internationally renowned event about how it all got started.
It's now known internationally as the southern hemisphere's biggest winter party, but Queenstown's Winter Festival actually began with a couple of Kiwi blokes sipping a beer at Eichardts hotel in 1975, long before the days of health and safety rules and traffic management plans.
Musician Peter Doyle and Eichardts manager Laurie Wilde decided the small town of 5000 people should throw a bit of a party for the skiers who arrived in late July, early August.
"There wasn't a lot to do back in 1975," says Peter, now a successful Queenstown event manager.
Before long the entrepreneurial pair had the whole town behind them, with everybody contributing various events. Those with skiing connections worked on the NZ Ski Association to get most of the ski season's national Coronet Peak races packed into an eight-day period, buffet dinner prizegivings were organised in the town's hotels and for a bit of downtown entertainment the likes of the waiters' race, spaghetti-eating contest, greasy pig contest and a helicopter lolly scramble for the kids were thrown in.
In those days Eichardts and The Mountaineer pubs were pretty much the two locals' meeting places and as word got out the programme grew.
Des Gavin, who worked at Coronet Peak, dreamt up the now legendary Sheep Dog Derby and the infamous Dog Barking Contest, always held over a few beers, and a gluhwein for the girls, down at the Arthurs Point Pub on the way home. OSH wasn't around back then but the real southern men were.
Muddy trucks pulled up outside and the boys loaded into the pub, dogs at their side, where the commotion began. It was a dog-eat-dog, fiercely fought contest of canine "note"-oriety as farmers and musterers from far and wide led their best dog howlers up to the bar to compete.
There were no glitzy festival media packs, event passes or public relations professionals back then. The few local reporters in town first joined the musterers in the basement below the Coronet Peak ski area base building for a yarn over a beer and some good country tucker provided by the southern women, many of whom also entered the race from the top to the bottom of Coronet Peak with their dogs.
Longtime Coronet Peak skifield manager "Sugar" Robinson's original idea for a Peak to Park Relay, from the top of Coronet Peak to St Omer Park in downtown Queenstown, was a far cry from the Lycra and high-tech mountain bikes of today's Mountain Bikes on Snow festival race.
Competitors from every sports club and community group in town lined up teams to ski, roll tyres, bounce basketballs and skip to waiting rugby club players who passed a ball to the water's edge where canoeists headed out around a point in Queenstown Bay, finishing outside Trans Hotel (now Lakeland Hotel).
But even the best planned event can go wrong on the first day. Peter recalls with much amusement now, but huge embarrassment back then, that very first finish line.
"Competitors then had to pluck a chicken and I'd asked Bruce `Egg' Dillon, the chicken farmer from Frankton – where Abbeyfield is now – to bring me 15 chickens to be plucked. But he turned up with live chickens – I wanted dead chickens ready to pluck!
"I had old ladies waiting in a row to knit peggy squares and then babies waiting to be coaxed by their mothers to crawl across the finish line, so that the whole community was involved in the relay.
"The TV cameras were rolling and I said to Bruce, `We can't use these chickens, I need dead ones', so he said, `That's no problem', and began pulling their heads off in front of everyone," laughs Peter.
"There were chickens, feathers, babies and old ladies everywhere – it was awful!"
Marketing in the 1970s was not the technological dream it is today. That first year, each afternoon the organisers would use a Gestetner to roll out that evening's festival results, programme and the next day's events, ready for personal delivery to every Queenstown hotel and motel. There was no radio station, there were no faxes, computers or cellphones – just a local party line from the Queenstown toll exchange.
"A dozen volunteers would jump in their cars and we'd have all these people flying around delivering these newsletters.
"That first festival was a huge success – we never thought it would gain so much momentum and bring so many people in. The big thing about it is it's kept going, it's probably the only festival in New Zealand to do that."
Longtime owner of Queenstown's The Cow restaurant, Sandy Kilgour would turn up in Queenstown Mall each year with about 20 large bowls of cooked spaghetti for the line-up of hungry enthusiasts, usually always men happy to make a public pig of themselves, in the Spaghetti Eating Contest.
Each competitor was given a drink, but Peter needed to be at the ready with extra fluids on hand for one unlucky bloke. "Sandy would lean over to me and say `Watch contestant No. 7' – she'd always sprinkled chilli powder in one of the bowls and you'd see this poor guy getting redder and redder and asking for more and more drinks."
The waiters' race was always hotly contested by local hotels, with more and more skullduggery as the years went on. "People were tripping other waiters up – there was lots of mayhem, but the tourists used to love it."
By 1978 quite an entrepreneurial committee had evolved and the boys thought they'd have a go at a new event – cow pat throwing – and a crack at breaking into the Guinness Book of World Records. Peter proudly produces a letter from the Guinness committee outlining how to go about breaking the 291.7ft world record.
By now colourful Queenstown tourism operator (the late) Bill Tapley, of Cattledrome, an Arthurs Point cattle and sheep tourist attraction, was involved. He was confident heavy frosts would do the trick, preparing the fresh pooey pats for throwing, but was quoted in a local newspaper that year as saying if all else failed he intended to commandeer his wife Caroline's deep freeze in which to solidify a supply of ammunition for that first record attempt. Needless to say cow pat throwing was not Queenstowners' specialty and the record attempt failed, but the tourists loved it. "People couldn't believe it - locals would come out in their lunch break, mould a big hunk of cow dung in their hands then throw it, and wash their hands in a bucket and go eat a sandwich," recalls Peter.
In the early 1980s the National Travel Association got involved, through local representative Stuart Maclean, but from 1975 until 1988 the festival, gaining popularity annually, was purely run by volunteers.
By the late 1980s it had evolved into more of a corporate event underwritten by Dominion Breweries, Mount Cook Line and the Queenstown Promotion Bureau (now Destination Queenstown). And the sponsors were happy. By 1989 Peter, as co-ordinator, had received a letter of congratulations from Dominion Breweries commending him on a job well done for an event already being described by the media as "the southern hemisphere's best festival with national and international appeal". Their "small token of appreciation" - a keg of beer.
Into the 1990s the traffic, health and safety rules got tighter and so did the skirts as Queenstown's infamous Winter Festival "Drag Queens" took to the stage. Every year since then more than a dozen local businessmen-turned-beastly belles have donned colourful wigs, make-up, stilettos and tight dresses for the clumsiest cat fight of the year, toughing it out over an obstacle course before bemused crowds of onlookers. The fishnets are always hairy and the adopted names unprintable, but it's a spectacle packed with flying handbags and hilarity.
Former Destination Queenstown chief executive and early 1990s winter festival co-ordinator David Kennedy ("Davina") holds the record as the drag queen with the most races under her sash, nine altogether,while slim longtime Queenstown Mall retailer Kim Wilkinson went down in festival history for his "lady-like" legs during the event's early years. Invercargill-based district court judge Kevin Phillips, then a Queenstown lawyer, was among the first to line up in the inaugural 1991 event, now into its 21st year. "It's another one of those festival events where the local business people are just having fun," says David.
Over the years the festival has moved into more of a marketing tool for Destination Queenstown, but it's never lost the local flavour and character that made it such a hit in those early years. "As time went on there were more economic drivers behind it as well."
Queenstown event promoters Ann and John Mann arrived in town in 1992, taking over as lessees at Eichardts pub. The winter festival was happening right outside their pub door, and being the event innovators that they are the Manns got stuck in.
The "Miss Queenstown/Snow Queen" idea never really took off in Queenstown but the Manns' Festival Top Bloke Competition has become legendary. Its 20th anniversary has been postponed until next year, due mainly to major sponsor the Lindauer brand being sold and struggles attracting last-minute sponsorship in a year of the Rugby World Cup and earthquakes.
John Mann was a former director and road manager for Joe Brown's Miss New Zealand shows and Ann says the Top Bloke really suited their branding at Eichardts.
"There are a few bleeding hearts from those who've picked their top bloke for this year, but they will just have to be in grooming for next year," says Ann.
The Manns' events have all been "locals-focused", carrying on that original tradition of ensuring all generations take part. Their family outrageous arts events draws record entries every year and the Old Farts Ball and Senior Citizens Lunch were all well supported.
"I do believe the winter festival is owned by Queenstown – good times and bad. There was no funding from DQ [Destination Queenstown] for us, that was for the mass events – we had to get off our butt and do things to get involved."
Long before the days of snowmaking, early festivals were held in late July, early August to ensure good snowfalls, something this year's organisers have been praying for for several weeks now.
The festival now has a global reach, attracts 30,000 people annually and injects an estimated $57 million back into the local economy. It's been ranked among the world's Top 10 "must do" festivals by major Australian website Yahoo!7 Travel, and the New Zealand Association of Event Professionals named it best established event in 2009 and best marketed event in 2010.
2011 festival director Simon Green says it may be a much glitzier and more glamorous event these days but they've done all they can to keep the festival "true to its roots", retaining events like the Mardi Gras and Bird Man Competition.
"Unfortunately we can't find anyone willing to pick up cow pats..."
As for Peter Doyle and his mates from down at the pub? Well, they're pretty chuffed with the huge success the festival has become. It's amazing what an idea over a beer can do.
Queenstown Winter Festival 2011 runs from Friday June 24 to Sunday July 3. Full programme details at www.winterfestival.co.nz
- The Southland Times