I’ll confess, by the time I made Queenstown I was a bit of a state. I hit the first section hard and, in a bid to catch a friend before she left town, I went without a break for 11 days. My legs were cut and bruised, I had an aggressive rash covering both cheeks of my toosh (don’t dunk in a sheep sh*te infested stagnet pool to get under a fence), my right knee was complaining more than usual and I had a funny muscle bobbly bulge thing protruding from my left hip.
When I rounded the bend at Walter Peak station, I’d run out of food and been camping in bushes for the past few days. Having not seen anyone bar a few passing cycle tourists, my thoughts mostly consisted of “Oh my gosh, I’m, like, soooooooo out in the wilderness” and “I’m frickin Bear Grylls“. The bubble of hardcore-ness was swiftly burst by a sea of tourists who greeted me just a few minutes down the road. Backpacks on fronts, sunhats and oversized Nikon cameras snap snap snapping away – it was like wandering out of Adventureland at DisneyWorld and straight onto Main Street. There was a gift shop, a restaurant, heck I could even go on a farm tour if I wanted. Back in your box Bear Grylls, back in your box.
As I padded the last few steps towards the waters edge, the Earnslaw loomed into view: A 102 year old steam boat which ferries tourists across Lake Wakatipu. The only remaining one of its kind the Southern Hemisphere, it’s somewhat a point of pride for Queenstown. And quite rightly so. In fact, I’m hereby renaming it a ‘steam beaut.’
I hurried into the shop and threw a magnum in the general direction of
my mouth whilst simultaneously requesting a boat ticket from the baffled girl behind the counter. She looked me up and down, at my grubby legs and sun sprinkled face, then past me to the outside: “Where’s your bicycle?” She asked. “No, no, no bike.” I said, mint and chocolate spilling from my chops and just missing the counter. “I ran here.”
At last aboard, I sat grubby and stinking on a wooden pew and joined tourists who were belting out a rendition of Auld Lang Syne around a piano at the bow of the boat. Somewhere between ‘When will I see you again’ and ‘Tie a Yellow ribbon’, I inhaled an assortment of foodstuffs from the on-board cafe. To the point where I felt a little sick and couldn’t actually eat anything else. Most impressive.
For someone who gets as high as a kite while keeping two feet firmly on the ground, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Queenstown was going to be my ‘thang’. How would I cope with such an explosion of activity? In my mind, I’d be dodging adrenaline junkies falling from the sky, ducking those swinging between bridges and side-stepping the ones at the bottom of their bungy, before they returned skyward from the ledge whence they came. In reality, I found it to be quieter than expected. I quickly adjusted to the backdrop of parasailors and shark-shaped jet boats in the harbour, and enjoyed the European style waterfront – most agreeable for the lady with legs in need of a little down time.
I spent a couple of days hanging out in cafes, eating ice cream (important for protein intake) and drinking coffee before retreating to stay at Kelvin heights, just across the lake. And man can that lake sparkle. If diamonds are a girls best friend then lake Wakatipu is my new BFF. Set against the backdrop of the Remarkable Mountains (which I kept calling the ‘The Incredibles’, whatevs) there’s something about Queenstown and its surround that just beggars belief. People shouldn’t get to live somewhere so wildly dramatic, but they do. And I’m just a wee bit jealous.
At Kelvin heights I hung out with Barbara, Anne and Joe. Barbara an ex-helicopter control operator (including for Lord Of The Rings filming) now assistant to the local MP taught me about politics, adventure racing and how Queenstown had grown from a population of 3,000 when she first moved there to the bustling 20,000 of today. Retired couple Anne and Joe, who split their time between a home in Idaho, fed me up on French toast, chatted about golf, and taught me how to play a badass game of Rummikub. I never won, but apparently I’ve got ‘potential’.
THERE’S GOLD IN THEM HILLS
Leaving Queenstown, it was a short jog down the road to historic Arrowtown. In May of 1861 Jack Tewa, aka Hatini Whini, aka Anthony Whiti, aka Maori Jack (seriously, how many names does one guy need?) found gold on the banks of the Arrow river. Word spread fast and by 1863 more than 600,000 ounces of gold had been mined in the area. Thousands made the arduous journey from China and came to the river to seek their fortune. The hours were long and workers often went weeks without pay, but they toiled on, with a dream to make between $100 and $200 NZ dollars – enough to buy a small farm back home in China and live a prosperous life. Sadly many never made the return journey, and when the gold ‘ran out’ those who remained ended up isolated, poor and lonely. Visiting what’s left of the small village where they lived, I couldn’t help but admire their boldness – to leave everything they knew and go in search of a better life.
Local hosts Raewyn, Toby and Jack escorted me as far as the first bridge out of Arrowtown – Toby, aged 5, doing a stellar job at highlighting my ‘steady pace’ by summoning the speed of a cheetah up the initial run. Dusty and wide enough for a horse and cart, the old road to the now deserted hamlet of Macetown rumbles on up the valley, curving and winding above the Grey gorges of the river far below. After a solid hour of listening to Guns and Roses (which I deemed an appropriate musical selection for such a dramatic backdrop) I stopped to check the next section of trail instructions. It read: “Turn left and walk up the river” – only in New Zealand.
Don’t tell the other mountains, but The Motatapu’s are my favourite so far. They sprawl across the landscape like giant sleeping tarantulas. Green bodies and hairy tussock covered legs forming sharp ridgelines and deep basins.
Weaving its way between the arachnids, along the valley floor, is a nice, sensible, wide trail – alas this is only opened once a year for a 4×4 race. The Te Araroa follows another, more ‘undulating’ route. A route that is a ball buster (if I had balls that is). Often no wider than a sheep track, it contours round the side of mountains at an angle which (if moving at speed) requires that you to hang to tufts long grass to prevent an ungrateful slide off the edge. Dozens of tiny streams punctuate the path, creating a miniature roller coaster effect as you dip in and out of them. I often found myself above the cloud line gasping for breath before plunging back down into a tightly packed basin. From each basin I’d look up and around and think – ‘how I’m the name of Maori Jack do I get out of here?”. The contours of the land never had an obvious answer, but I could bet my (sheep rash covered) bottom dollar that it’d be straight up that tasty steep ridgeline just in front of me .
Way up there in he Motatapu’s it got hot. I mean, really hot. It wasn’t until I made Wanaka that I found out that that Mercury had hit 37 degrees. And that was in town, so goodness knows what it was in the hills. All I know is that the cheese and chocolate in my pack turned to smush. Who needs a temperature gauge when you can judge heat by smushed or not smushed? On the second night, upon making Rose Hut and meeting now long time trail friends Fiona and Finny, I gathered up my molten bars of Whitakers and headed for the steam. “I’m taking my chocolate for a bath” I announced. There’s something oddly satisfying about getting butt naked in a cold stream, your chocolate bars pinned under rocks next to you, and having a good ole scrub. Ten minutes later, I emerged with a clean body and fully formed, if slightly deformed chocolate bars. Everyone was a winner (except the stream).
WING TIME IN WANAKA
Post Motatpu coaster I rolled into Wanaka – to stay for just a day or so, or so I thought. Three days later I was still there and the town had well and truly cast its spell on me.
I’m not entirely sure what happened on the second afternoon of my visit, but one minute I was sat on the sofa eating an avocado and chicken sandwich, and an hour later I was at the airfield, preparing to go up in a 1940’s Tiger Moth with Classic Flights.
I asked the pilot Peter what the best thing about his job was, and his answer took me aback: “We all take flying for granted these days…” He started. “We get upset when our baggage is delayed, or if you end up in a middle seat… You know there was a time when flying was a real adventure. And the people who flew were pioneers. We’re just trying to show people what that felt like.” How apt for a journey like mine, I thought. One which relies so heavily on the appreciating the simple things in life. That afternoon, my effort to reinstill a sense of wonder for things that have become so familiar, collided directly with his. How ruddy marvellous. The guy was a total dude. And so I was very happy to be in his capable hands for a journey into the clouds.
Suited up in full 1940’s flight suit gear: goggles and a (surprisingly warm) leather jacket, we took the the skies. The first few minutes were filled with the usual thoughts of someone with an over-active imagination, but then I became too distracted by what I saw to feel anything other than sheer joy. The Wanaka landscape from the air is truly spectacular. Parcels of green and brown land, dipped neatly in and surrounded by Blue lake waters. Aqua and green rivers flowing in from the East, vineyards on the hillside, and an assortment of oddly shaped mountains and landforms, scattered out to the horizon. Peter the pilot could have left me up there for all I cared, I was transfixed.
“Okay Anna, are you ready for a loop-the-loop?” Came the voice in my ears. I flicked up the
intercom. “Yes sir!” I squealed. Thinking no sir in reality, but in for a penny… “You’ll get about 2.5gs on you, just look straight ahead and you’ll be fine.” And off we went. It was the most beautifully surreal experience. The force pinned me gently but helplessly to the seat, and there was nothing to do but to surrender to it. Looking ahead as instructed I listened to the whir of the propellers increase and felt the nose of the plane start to rise. I watched the world turn upside down, sky turned to land and back to sky once, twice – then we were level again. “You alright there Anna, how was that?” I composed myself for a second, thinking of a well constructed and dignified reply to the profound experience I’d just had. But all that left my mouth was “OH MY GAAAWWWDDD THAT WAS AMAAAAAAZING!!!”. Nailed it.
Well campers, I’m going to halt it there for now. My story sack is still bulging with tales (yes I have a story sack), but I’ll save those for next week.
The pictures are up on Flickr here. I warn you many are incredibly beautiful and may result in you running away from home. Approach with caution.
Big love and a high five,
Help me use this wee run to send disadvantaged kiddywinks on adventures. Spondoolies (big or small) gratefully received here