Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The adventure capital of the world

Since we arrived in Dunedin, the time we spent there and in the Catlins wasn't as enjoyable as we hoped for and now we have the added pressure of trying to find a job again having looked at how quickly our funds have run away since leaving Kerikeri - ideally we'll be able to find something that's not beneath most Kiwis but that equally stretches our skills!

But for now, Queenstown is our next destination on the South Island and possibly the one I've been relishing the most since we've arrived in New Zealand. Set in an idyllic spot, Queenstown is surrounded by the soaring peaks of the Remarkables, Ben Lomond and Coronet Peak, and is framed by the endless Lake Wakatipu. It is undoubtedly New Zealand's most popular year-round destination and proudly bears the title of "the adventure capital of the world".

I forgot how much I liked Queenstown and in a way I was hoping that it wouldn't be a case of remembering somewhere with rose-tinted glasses. There's something about the vibe of a small town that has the energy of a big city, where you can tick so many things off your "bucket list". The only slight disappointment has been the amount of rain we've had since the start of our stay.

The mountains of Mordor in Lord of the Rings a.k.a. the Remarkables
William Gilbert Rees, founder of Queenstown
The place where my camera broke 5 years ago!

Lake Wakatipu is the longest lake in New Zealand (at approx. 75km) and the third largest overall in the country. It is also one of the country's deepest lakes, having been carved by a series of glaciers over hundreds and thousands of years - the last of the glaciers began retreating 18,000 years ago. Lake Wakatipu is bordered on all sides by glaciated mountains, the highest of which is Mt Earnslaw (2,830m) near the head of the lake where the Rees and Dart Rivers feed into the lake. Queenstown itself is built on the gravel deposits that the rivers and streams carried along the lake shore.

Lake Wakatipu with the Remarkables, Bayonet Peaks, Cecil Peak and Walter Peak - click here to view in hi-res

Wakatipu is thought to be a shortened form of “Wakatipuwaimaori”, although the meaning is unknown. One of the unique features of Lake Wakatipu is that the water level fluctuates by up to 20cm several times during the day. It is thought that it's caused by variations in temperature and atmospheric pressure, which is a unique feature amongst New Zealand lakes.

Sunrise over Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables

The steamship TSS Earnshaw has been in service for 100 years

 On 18th October 2012 the Earnslaw will celebrate it's centenary 

For our first proper foray in Queenstown, we took a gondola ride up to Bob's Peak (790m above sea level and 456m above Queenstown), which commands fantastic views over Queenstown, the lake and the Remarkables. The cable car is reputed to be the steepest in the Southern Hemisphere! However, it is possible to walk to the summit of Bob's Peak via the Tiki Trail at the base of the gondola, this takes  roughly an hour zig-zagging up through a pine forest and native bush.

Morning mist drifting over Bob's Peak

The night sky above Bob's Peak

At the top of the gondola there is a viewing deck where you can get 220o degree panoramic views across the Wakatipu basin. Across the eastern shore of the lake the jagged peaks of the Remarkables steeply rise, with the highest point of the range being Double Cone at 2,319m.

If you fancy taking an alternative journey back to the centre of town you can take a tandem paraglide from the top of Bob's Peak. As it was such a nice day, there was a steady stream of people slowly drifting back down to earth, soaking up the amazing views!

The Remarkables rising dramatically above Queenstown

Double Cone at the Remarkables

Coronet Peak (1,651m) is 18km northeast of Queenstown

Looking down on Aspen Lodge where we've been staying

A panoramic view of Queenstown, the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu - click here to view in hi-res

Bob's Peak is also the setting for the highest bungy in New Zealand, at 400m above Queenstown. We watched a couple of jumps from "The Ledge", but what makes this bungy a little different to the traditional jumps is that you're strapped into a special harness which fits around your waist, so you can twist, flip or dive as you plummet 47m.

That moment when there's no turning back!

View at the Ben Lomond lookout on the Skyline loop track

Our main reason for coming up to Bob's Peak was to ride the Skyline Luge, which we did on Sentosa Island at the Imbiah Lookout in Singapore (you can also do this in Rotorua at Mt Ngongotaha), as both luges are operated by the same company.

Skyline Luge chairlift base

We had two rides on the luge, the first one was on the scenic route which I won by a country mile, but on the advanced route it was a closer affair with Lizzie taking the lead to begin with but I managed to force my way through, only for Lizzie to take it back again in the dying stages of the race...

Gravity is your greatest friend in a luge race!

Lizzie on the viewing deck just before we headed back into town

Twilight over Queenstown

As we didn't have a podium to celebrate our victories, we went to the Below Zero ice bar instead - the largest one in Australasia! Pretty much everything in the bar is made of ice; the walls, the bar, the sculptures, even the furniture and the glasses the cocktails are served in.

I'm sitting on what could be anything...
Lizzie with an ice penguin

An ice sculpture of the jet boat synonymous with Queenstown
At a constant -5o C we had to wear thick jackets and gloves!
The following day we decided to play a round of disc golf in Queenstown Gardens. The rules are simple (as it's played similarly to golf ), all you need are a couple of flying discs and a score card as this is the best way of finding your way round the course. Each "tee" has a par to reach the target in (chain baskets). To finish the hole the disc must end up in the basket or chains. A penalty stroke occurs is your disc lands in a flower bed or if the disc has to be retrieved from the pond or the lake! The game has been played in Queenstown Gardens since the early 1980s and 1996 the Queenstown course became the first permanently marked 18 basket course in New Zealand.

Lizzie by a sign of the Queenstown Gardens Course
 You need to be careful of people crossing the course 
It wasn't as easy to play as it initially sounds, as the golf discs are more difficult to throw than regular frisbees. They're less flexible and made of thicker plastic,which I found out the hard way when one hit me in the shin as we were practicing...

Lizzie teeing off from hole 4
It's hard to believe this is actually a sport

The guy in the shop we rented the discs from mentioned that the flight path of the disc will curve through the air. If thrown backhanded from your right hand the disc will eventually curve to the left, and if you flick your wrist forward it will curve right in the air. I couldn't flick the disc forward with my right hand so I hand to throw the disc backhanded with the left - physics can be very confusing as we also had to take wind speed and direction into account as well!

Rain called a temporary halt to play on the 15th  target, but I eventually went on to win the round, which made up for throwing away the lead in the luge race.

Every time we've walked past Fergburger, no matter the time of day, we've seen queues out the door - it's  open for 21 hours of the day if you need a midnight fix. There's even the Fergbakery next door that only opened last year which mainly sell pies, pastries, sandwiches and cakes. The first thing anyone asks if you mention that you've been to Queenstown is "did you go to Fergburger?", so to indulge our desire for another taste of Ferg's finest (as we'd already been there once before, and saw some of the stars from the Chronicles of Narnia films 5 years ago), Lizzie had the Bun Laden burger (falafel patties dressed with lemon yoghurt and chipolte chilli sauce, lettuce, tomato, red onion, cucumber, avocado and aioli), whilst I had the Cookadoodle Oink (butterflied and crumbed chicken breast, American streaky bacon, avocado, lettuce, tomato, red onion, aioli and tomato relish). It was so busy in the restaurant that we had to eat the burgers back at the hostel. They were burgers of epic proportions, so huge that we were absolutely stuffed when we finished them.

For our first full day where it hadn't chucked it down with rain, we booked a jet boating trip on a great discount website called bookme.co.nz, where we got a half price jet boat ride with Kawarau Jet (KJet)! Commercial jet boating started off in Queenstown back in the 1970s with the Shotover Jet and today there are at least four commercial operators in the area.

The KJet zooming through Queenstown Bay

Arriving at the KJet office on the Main Town Pier, we were given an enormous spray jacket to wear and a life jacket. In a stroke of luck we managed to bagsy some seats right at the front of the boat and the handrail was even heated! After a quick safety talk we were under way as the boat thudded over the waves of the crystal clear Lake Wakatipu, with an occasional 360o or a "Hamilton turn" as they're also known. Taking in the majestic mountains and stunning scenery we headed up towards the Frankton Arm of the lake before zooming under the Kawarau Falls Dam. As we went haring up the Kawarau River (the birthplace of the bungy) the driver made some precariously close shaves with the canyon walls, rocks and low lying tree branches with a couple more 360o spins.

The jet boat spinning part way through a Hamilton Turn

Next the driver took us down the Shotover River, reaching speeds of up to 80km/ hour down a narrow braided river, which is so shallow it reaches less than 10cm deep in places. Because of the way jet boats are propelled, they're able to suck water into the boat and force it out at high pressure so they can operate in really shallow water.

At the end of the ride we got free admission to the Underwater Observatory beneath the jetty. It has six giant windows showcasing life in the lake, including New Zealand finned eels, brown and rainbow trout, and scaup (New Zealand's only true diving ducks) which dive down to collect the food released from a feeder!

New Zealand scaup (Aythya novaeseelandiae) or a black teal

There a number of nice walks you can do in and around Queenstown, especially when the hard-sell on adventure activities gets a bit oppressive, so we opted to do the Queenstown Hill/ Te Tapu-nui (Māori for mountain of intense sacredness) Time Trail, as there are supposed to be fantastic panoramic views from the 907m summit.

Before we even reached the start of track, it was a really steep climb to Belfast Terrace - we were completely shattered before starting the walk! Once we were actually on our way, it was more relentless uphill sections through a cool and dark Douglas fir forest before reaching a lookout over the Frankton section of the lake and the Basket of Dreams sculpture, which was built to commemorate the millennium. From here we had superb views across the lake including the Frankton Arm, the Remarkables range, upper Kawarau River, Cecil Peak,Walter Peak and Queenstown Bay (Tahuna).

Lizzie by the Basket of Dreams by Caroline Robinson

Cecil Peak and Walter Peak across Lake Wakatipu

A little further up is a track to the actual summit, not by the Basket of Dreams! It wasn't much further and it couldn't have taken us more than 15-20 minutes to reach, but it was well worth the views. The whole walk took us just under two and half hours but I think that the local i-SITE should do a better job promoting all the fantastic walks on their doorstep, as their staff hadn't a clue what to recommend...

Not much further to the top, I promise!

A large rock pile which could be mistaken for a shallow grave!

Lizzie pointing our towards the Remarkables and Deer Park Heights

The South Harris Mountain range

 Snow covered mountains as far as the eye could see 

Other views in and around Queenstown:

Looking west up Lake Wakatipu up to Mt Nicholas
Queenstown Bay with Bob's Peak and Bowen Peak
Evening mists descending over Lake Wakatipu
A juvenile Little Pied Cormorant (Microcarbo melanoleucosdrying it's feathers by the lake
Sunset over the Remarkables
Starry night over Cecil Peak

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