Top of the Lake: Discover the New Zealand setting behind the drama

Where to find the scenic locations in Elisabeth Moss’ harrowing series set in an end-of-the-world paradise...

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Forget bungee jumping, skiing and snowboarding, the area in and around Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island takes on a striking somber tone in Top of the Lake, which is currently being repeated on BBC2 ahead of series two.

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Written and directed by the Oscar-winning Jane Campion (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady), the six-part mini-series follows the disappearance of Tui, the pregnant 12-year-old daughter of a local drug king, played by Peter Mullan (War Horse, Trainspotting).

Detective Griffin (played by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men) obsessively investigates this case, and while searching for the girl she uncovers parts of herself she’d hidden away.

As the character’s layers are peeled back, and twisted events unfold, the menacing mountains, long open roads, dense forests and bottomless lakes remain consistent, untouched and pure in the backdrop. “The landscape is always innocent,” Jane Campion told us when the series first aired in 2013. “I think that’s such a beautiful remembrance in a story. No matter how crazy they get, the landscape is untouched. I think humans are mad and moody.”

Filmed around Queenstown and the town of Glenorchy, it’s easy to visit the vast untamed scenery from the show. “It really is a frontier and it’s gorgeous,” added Campion. “It’s sort of the end of the world, there’s nowhere after that except mountains and wilderness and tracks… it’s a very healing and awesome environment.”

Here’s where to experience the setting for real, minus the drug lords and threatening locals…

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Moke Lake

Otherwise known as Paradise in the series, this plot of land owned by the Mitchams is taken over by a group of eccentric women living in some kind of strange wellness retreat slash rehab centre where they sleep in shipping containers. This is also where Matt Mitcham, and his sons Luke and Mark, ‘deal’ with the real estate agent. The incredibly stunning location is dwarfed by looming mountains and the adventurous can hike around the area, swim in the fresh lake or go kayaking, boating or fishing. There are also camping spots nearby, but don’t expect any facilities – except long drop loos.

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Lake Wakatipu

This silent, still spot is where we see Tui try and submerge herself in the water before a woman finds her and takes her to a clinic. It’s also the third largest lake in New Zealand, and has an unusual rise and fall in water levels. An old Māori legend claims that the lake has a taniwha (mystical being) sleeping in it. When the taniwha breathes in the water level drops and when the taniwha breathes out the water level rises. Bob’s Cove is a good place to see the water rising and falling in front of your very eyes.

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Skippers Canyon

Just north of Queenstown, a bike chase takes place through Skippers in the series. This 13-mile gorge and old gold mining area is full of history. Producer Philippa Campbell explains: “We hired boats from one of the original mining families, who still live there, to take us to a location”. Tourists can take in the scenery on a thrilling jetboat tour though Top of the Lake territory or go for the sedate option – a relaxing walk that the miners did 140 years ago in the Sainsbury gold claim, and then a gold panning session.

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The Dart Valley

The Dart Riverbed is where the search party stretches out to look for Tui after she goes missing. Producer Philippa Campbell says: “The undergrowth of moss and fern is unique in these beech forests.” It’s possible to take a Funyak Safari down here, these blow up boats tours also meander past Lord of the Rings shooting locations.

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Lower Beach Street

This scenic residential street, which faces the giant Lake Wakatipu, was used as a shooting location for the show, and the nearby Coronation Drive was also featured as was the bottle store on Shotover Street. Although the series paints a picture of a bogan town filled with roughneck degenerates and villains, the actual town is completely different. Queenstown is full of friendly adventurous locals, backpackers and great bars and restaurants.

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Southern Alps

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This humbling snowy range is also featured in the series during the many aerial shots, like when Detective Griffin goes in search of Tui in a helicopter. The highest peak reaches to 3,754 metres and is covered with glacial valleys and lakes. In the summer, guides do bike tours of the dense natural region, and in the winter there’s plenty of ski and snowboarding opportunities, plus helicopter rides for those looking to put their feet up.