In New Zealand, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you are a tiny prop in an epic fantasy narrative. This is not only because of the obvious Lord of the Rings comparatives that have been exhausted since the trilogy’s film release. The work of fiction that comes to my mind as we brave the cruel temperatures of a NZ winter is that of C.S Lewis. Whilst the northern hemisphere prolongs its days and enjoys the fruits of a warm summer (that should be “mild at best summer” if you’re from the UK) the southern hemisphere is forever doomed to be: always winter, and never Christmas.
The words of the goat-legged Mr Tumnus from Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe have echoed in my head since we first arrived in NZ and the saying has only intensified during our three weeks on the south island. The usual annual reward for tolerating the cold and torturous winter months comes gift-wrapped and is usually brought down your chimney by a pie-eating, white-bearded, red-suited man (or so I’m led to believe). Yet on this side of the world there are no such rewards waiting for us under the tree. Disappointing, yes, but that is not to say that the NZ winter is bereft of any sense of anticipation.
Here in Queenstown more than anywhere else, there are figuratively gift-wrapped pearls of excitement by the bucket-load, and most of them yield some pretty amazing presents once unwrapped. Queenstown’s reputation as the Adventure Capital of the World is well earned and well founded. Just a brief walk along its main street brings you past row after row of ski and snowboard rental shops, winter clothing outlets, backpacker lodgings and adventure tour offices. Throw in a burger-place with a worldwide reputation and over 100 bars (Q’town only has about 10,000 permanent residents) and you’ve got the holy-grail resort for backpackers worldwide (change “holy-grail resort” to Rivendell for LOTR fans and Cair Paravel for Narnia nuts).
You can bungy jump from 134 meters, canyon swing strapped to a chair or an inflatable raft, sky-dive from 16 and a half thousand feet, ride a jet-boat around Lake Wakatipu, go white-water rafting or luge down a mountain side (luging is essentially go-karting, but down a mountain). If it’s crazy enough to be invented, it was invented and is practised here in Queenstown.
The activity that is more acceptably practiced as a sport rather than an adventure activity, is skiing and this is what we have been busying ourselves with. As the town is gently nestled among a host of mountain ranges, skiing, snowboarding and other winter related sports are on your doorstep. Neither of us had ever hit the slopes before, and seeing as though NZ is one of the most affordable places to ski, we thought we’d taste some powder.
We booked to slide down Cardrona, a range of mountains north-east of Queenstown, through our hostel, Base before getting fitted out in pants and jacket, ready for the next day. Our day began at 6.15 as the drive up to the mountain took about an hour and there were the formalities of equipment hire to negotiate once up there (the rental area resembled the Xmas past time of last-minute department store shopping). When we could bear to open our eyes, and once the sun had decided to rise from its own bed, we were rewarded with glorious scenes as our 1970’s Ford bus struggled up the mountainside. When we finally reached the top, sea-level disappeared and was replaced by an endless bouncy-castle floor of cloud, through which only mountain peaks penetrated.
As beginners we of course needed lessons and once we grabbed our gear (and paid a ridiculous $17 to rent goggles) we met with our instructor and the rest of our group. Jo and I were fighting for the attention of the instructor with six other beginners, one of whom was Tom who we had met whilst travelling. We actually first met Tom (or English Tom as he was known by another friend we made, who himself hailed from Canada) in our first week in NZ, on our first Stray bus from Auckland to Paihia in the very north of the north island. Whilst we stayed three nights there, Tom stayed just one beginning his decent south before we did. As things turned out, he was still in Queenstown when we arrived on Tuesday (3rd July) and happened to be staying in the same hostel, on the same floor. As many hobbits would agree: it’s a small world.
All three of us appeared to get the hang of things fairly quickly and from the simple step of taking our ski’s on and off to stopping ourselves by making our ‘pizza-slice’ bigger, we were confidently negotiating the starter slope whilst managing to manipulate our speed. We broke for lunch at 12 o’clock giving us 2 hours before our next lesson but we were all keen to keep skiing so we scoffed down food and got back to the slope in about 45 minutes, meaning we had an hour to better our (likely erratic) technique.
When the lesson continued at 2 o’clock we advanced from the pizza-shaped stop, to stopping and controlling our speed by turning. Whilst I could fairly easily change direction, I struggled in converting my wavy lines into continuous S’s, often gaining speed when I was meant to be reducing it and occasionally on my arse when I was meant to be upright.
Jo on the other hand took to turning and carving out S’s a lot more competently than I, and everyone else in the group for that matter. Our instructor didn’t seem to have any qualms about taking at least Jo (teacher’s pet) off the beginner slope and onto the slopes only accessible by ski-lift, but mine and Tom’s apparent confidence outweighed our ability and four of us took to the peak.
With a much bigger slope and the ability to gain a bit of pace without worrying about running out of hill, both Tom and I managed to ace the turning and the three of us were soon flying down Cardrona. Not as soon as we had liked though. One from our group, who was confidently turning- albeit very slowly- on the beginner slope earlier, appeared to lose all the confidence she had used to ski with previously. Perhaps the psychological effect of a much bigger slope, the whizzing by of experienced skiers and the damaging consequence of a few little falls along the way culminated in a severe loss of ability with the skis. As such we were held up considerably and only just made our bus back to Queenstown; our instructor understandably reluctant to let the three of us ski on ahead without supervision.
Yet we convinced her to allow us to go on ahead and we were all glad she did. It gave us the freedom to go at our desired speed without the stop-start and critical eye of the instructor. Once at the bottom, we felt all the better for it and rode back to Queenstown ecstatic that we had managed to not only get from the top of a slope to the bottom, but to do it competently and without falling over (much).
There was a moment in Wellington some three weeks ago, during one of those awful 10 minute evaluations of our finances, when I conceded that I might not ski in Queenstown. After some considerable convincing from Jo, I couldn’t be happier with our decision to actually do it. Skiing had always been on that to-do list that is forever increasing with activities both too crazy and/or too expensive to do. In hindsight, it was neither too expensive nor too crazy at all and I will leave NZ in three weeks happy in the knowledge that I have transferred skiing from that list to my other list of: Activities I Say I Will Take-Up At Home, But Will Forget About Tomorrow. These include: skiing, sky-diving, kayaking, water-skiing and wake-boarding. I’m sure I can add to that list before leaving NZ.
Of course no visit to Queenstown would be complete without at least one big night out on the town and at least one Fergburger, the legendary but by no means mythical burger that has retained its independence in repelling the evil of franchise. The only Fergburger restaurant in the world is here in Queenstown and despite its unusually long opening hours from 8.30am-5am (check this!!!) there are queues out-the-door and waits of at least an hour for most of the day. It would have been nice to have known these opening hours before we walked past an empty Fergburger on our way back from a bar at 3.30am, rather than wait an hour for a double-cheese Ferg the next day, but heigh-ho, as one hobbit might say. The Ferg had been recommended to us by anyone and everyone who had visited Queenstown and it lived up to its reputation.
The rest of our time here has been spent wandering about the town’s botanical gardens which gave us spectacular views of the town submerged in forested and bare-rock mountains, not forgetting snow-peaked ones of course. In fact, a walk around the gardens is not necessary to enjoy the views; everywhere you look, wherever you are, there is natural beauty.
As such, we have spent a lot of our time in NZ speculating as to whether a particular place had been used as a film location for that epic fantasy trilogy. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that every inch of this beautiful country made its way onto the silver screen, but regardless of whether it reminds you of Tolkien’s world or the Narnia of Lewis’ fiction- or any other fantastic realm for that matter- NZ has a knack of transforming you. Whether that’s into another world, into a champion skier, or into an adrenaline-seeking bungy-junky sniffing his next fix, is for individual taste. But here in NZ, it’s hard not to give into whatever the country has to offer, leaving you wanting more.
It would be an understatement to say that- here in New Zealand- we are surrounded by natural beauty of the highest order. Whether it’s the rolling green pastures of the northlands, or one of the south island’s almost see-through lakes you get a glimpse of, only the very unobservant or the obtrusively uninterested can possibly ignore this near-untouched world. That said however, after nearly six weeks spent gawping out of our bus window, I‘ve found myself looking within the bus a lot more often.
The gripping plotline of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone may well answer for part of this, but I think what may be mistaken for an increasing ignorance of our surroundings is simply an on-going familiarity with our environment. Anyone who has taken the southern route along the south island’s west coast from Picton to Queenstown will hopefully be nodding in agreement with my admission and the following statement that this particular part of NZ is home to the country’s most majestic features.
The Queen Charlotte Sound, Abel Tasman, the rugged west coastline, the southern Alps which host the glaciers Franz Josef and Fox, Wanaka, and Queenstown; two towns that might once have slept quite soundly in the arms of encircling mountains before NZ woke up to its potential as an extreme sports and adventure destination (it would seem AJ Hackett set that particular alarm and made sure everyone heard it).
Above: centre of Queenstown, as seen from our dorm. If I’m not mistaken, the ‘Remarkables’ mountain range provides the backdrop
When we arrived in Queenstown almost two weeks ago, it had felt in many ways that we had reached a climax; that we had arrived at our desired destination. For many people, Queenstown is the sole reason they are in the country, at least at this particular time of year. NZ’s lovable Aussie neighbours flock here by the plane-load in search of snow, skis and Sambuca as the southern hemisphere takes a wintry turn for the worse. And in terms of natural beauty, it’s easy to think you’re trip has come to an end. Queenstown is tucked away between giant green hills and barren snow-topped mountains whilst Lake Wakatipu sits calm, reflecting the town back up at itself like Narcissus in unadulterated admiration. There’s a reason people come here for three days and end up staying for three weeks, and it is fairly obvious upon first sight.
But despite us not yet realising it, our search for breath-taking beauty was unfulfilled in Queenstown and after five days of skiing and drinking we rose early one Sunday morning, and sneaked out of town on a bus heading south. After a few hours of head-nodding naps, the early morning dark turned to daylight and our weariness turned into awe as we slunk almost unnoticed into the inspired territory known as Fiordland National Park. Unlike some people we had spoken to who had made this same trip south, the sun was in glorious form and treated us to a four hour drive about, around, within and in the end through mountains.
Above: one of the first photos taken as we entered the haunting Fiorlands
Our Stray driver, E.T (so called because he’s always phoning home, of course) stopped often enough for us to take in as much of this stunning parkland as possible and gave us commentaries on what we were looking at as we crawled through. Eventually, the mountains began to squeeze the road, making for a windier ride where cliff faces were often so close we could see fully formed, giant icicles where falling water had been stopped mid-air by the cruel conditions. The mountains soon released the road from its tightening grip, making way for vast expanses blanketed in untouched snow before the road led to what at first appeared to be a very obvious natural stop in front of a mountain. As we approached, the arc of the tunnels entrance became obvious and the surreal moment of winding through this earthly giant took over. With no time to catch our breath, we exited the other side to a steepening valley which wound from side to side for some time before levelling out at sea-level.
Above: just one of many ‘mirror lakes’ in the park
Without doubt, this was the most staggering drive through any country I have ever been to, and whenever I could close my mouth long enough to gather my thoughts, I remember thinking that I would struggle to top this experience anywhere else in the world. As with most drives, there is often a destination at the end and our final stop before turning back on ourselves just so happened to be Milford Sound: as though the morning hadn’t already been a feast for the eyes.
The boat cruise through the sound was an incredible experience and I struggled to put my camera away before we reached the Tasman Sea. Lush, forested mountains enclose you from all directions. In want of a better analogy, imagine playing with a toy boat in the bath: your knees are the mountains that erupt out of the water. Now just imagine you’ve got more knees and that they’re green from the tiny trees that cover them. You now have a madman’s interpretive image of the mighty Milford Sound.
Above: Milford Sound heading out of the inlet passages towards the Tasman Sea
The drive back the same way was just as impressive as the way there, and the day was topped off when at a brief stop to take a photo one of the resident birds popped by to investigate who had been trespassing on its turf. The Kea is reportedly one the smartest, if not the smartest parrot in the world and it is notorious for stealing food, which I imagine to be a lot cuter than angry baboons committing the same offence. Fortunately, we had been pre warned and the far from timid bird- with its blazing green feather coat- merely hopped on our empty bus’s step, peered down the corridor and hopped off. Clearly nothing worth stealing on our bus, at least not much worth anything to a parrot.
Above: the ever-so-clever Kea parrot, native to Fiordland National Park
Our lodging for the night was among this very beauty in the remote Gunn’s Camp, a small place by the Hollyford river valley, named after Davy Gunn who bought the land and helped open up this beautiful area to tourism. I wrote about our stay at Abel Tasman and how clearly the night sky shone for us on that occasion, but the piercing clarity of the sky at Gunn’s Camp was on another level and we all admired the stars on a late night walk through bush to see glow-worms (we also spotted a few possums clinging to trees on the way).
It was a shame to have to say goodbye to Fiordland National Park the next day but we were due in Invercargill where we would stop the night. From here, we had the option of heading even further south from NZ’s southern-most city to Bluff where a ferry would take us on an hour’s voyage to Stewart Island: NZ’s third island. Unfortunately though, this was a particularly expensive crossing ($75/£37.50 one-way) to a tiny settlement renowned for its conservation of rare native birds. It was a shame that we did not venture the stormy southern waters, but budgetary constraints meant that we stayed docked and dry in the quiet, Scottish-founded Invercargill.
The following day we did venture to the Bluff, picking up the solitary soul who dared spend the night on Stewart Island while we sheltered on the mainland. On our way there we stopped at many sights including Curio Bay where we observed New Zealand seals cavorting on the coast as well as a petrified forest. All around the southlands, trees small and tall bow in forced worship, bent and weathered out of shape towards the ground by the extreme winds and salt air from the Arctic.
Above: trees in the Southlands pummeled over by the Antarctic winds
Having left on Sunday, we were back in Queenstown by Tuesday where we kept a pretty low-profile in an attempt to repel the town’s money-spending monster. We spent Wednesday taking a late breakfast before walking up the Ben Lomond Scenic reserve and catching the gondola down, eager to treat ourselves to one last Fergburger before we said goodbye to the adventure capital of the world for good. Thursday’s bus picked us up at 9am and our driver Horse who had accompanied us on our southern loop to Milford Sound and Invercargill, drove us north to Mount Cook Village which lay in the shadow of NZ’s highest peak: Aoraki/ Mount Cook. Or at least, it should have lay in its shadow: for the most part of our three nights in this remote village (if you could even call it that) the 3754 metre mountain was hidden by cloud that had nestled in the valley.
Thankfully, our drive into Mount Cook was clear and we had ample opportunity to snap the peak before we lost it to the elements. We were indeed immersed in yet more unbelievable and unforgettable landscape but for the most part the weather ensured we were unable to fully appreciate its magnificence. And it was only leaving Mount Cook earlier this morning, as I found myself engaged by the snappy, hilarious sound-bites of Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Say’s, that I realised that despite the never ending mountain range that flanked us on one side, I wasn’t quite as impressed as I had been on the journey south (at the very least I didn’t have my face pressed up against the glass, which I’m sure our driver appreciated).
Above: first glimpse of Mount Cook (the peak to the left) before we drove into cloud
Having stayed at Mount Cook without really being able to see it, I realised that NZ as a whole had become Mount Cook and that our six week treat in this country, the constant bombardment of natural beauty had become the thick cloud that filled the valley. We had been well and truly spoiled and our over-exposure to NZ had clouded our appreciation of it. It was a sad thought, because we have come to love this country over the past month and a half, but Jo and I can’t help but feel that we’re ready to move on. We can’t help but feel that after all the sunshine, the clouds are descending on our time in NZ. But thanks to modern digital photography and the convenience of social media, we’ll never forget the country we have seen, and loved, and gawped goggle-eyed and open-mouthed at from our bus window.