Sunday, September 23, 2012

Day 252 - 255: Queenstown, New Zealand's Playground

We left for Queenstown in the morning, but not before stopping at the Te Anau Wildlife Centre. This is a free attraction (donations appreciated) which houses some of NZ's rarer birds including the flightless takahe, kereru, tui, kakariki, kaka, weka and yes, more keas:

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Queenstown is the hub of the South Island's activities. Anything even vaguely adrenaline-filled can be found here: bungee-jumping, skydiving, skiing, snowboarding, off-roading, whitewater rafting, jetboating, and so on. "Normal" activities such as golf, horse-riding and mountain biking are also here. You could easily spend weeks or even months in the town before getting through all it has to offer, but you'd need a hefty budget or - ideally - to be working here. There are very few Kiwis manning the shops, tour offices and bars in Queenstown; the majority of staff are made up of Europeans, Americans and Australians.

There are plenty of bars and restaurants in town, and after dropping the van off at the holiday park (Top 10, sadly - it was the only one in walking distance to the centre), we took a stroll around and were enticed in by a great fire at the Ballarat Trading Company. The cider and mulled wine were also spot on. We'd been told on our travels by people who had been to NZ that one of the world's best burger joints was in Queenstown, and its name was Fergburger. Whilst not on a par with my all-time favourite place to eat minced cow in bread (Kangaroo Cafe in Hanoi), it was a decent meal and the double cheeseburger is huge.

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After stuffing our faces, we went a bit English and set off to Dux De Lux which we'd spotted earlier and saw was having a quiz night. We got there right at the start of the quiz (unlike the UK it seems the Kiwis like to be punctual) and rather than try and catch up on our own, decided to join Mike and Catherine - a Kiwi couple from Auckland. They had never come to Queenstown before and were doing the tourist thing in their own country; they'd named their team after a friend of theirs as they were expecting to come bottom and could then take a photo of the scoreboard to show him how badly he'd done. We inadvertently scuppered that plan by being awesome at the quiz. Whilst we didn't take the top spot, we did come third which meant we won a respectable $40 tab at the pub. Mike and Catherine weren't sure that they'd be returning, so kindly told us to keep it. As you can tell, we were quite excited.

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Since we were in another ski-happy town, it seemed rude not to take advantage of the cheap ski rental offers that all of the shops were touting. So the next day we got kitted up with full ski gear and took a trip up to The Remarkables, which is a splendid name for...well, anything, but especially some mountains. The road there wasn't snowed in or even icy, so we were able to drive the campervan to the top without the need for snow chains. A few weeks later and it may have been a different story.

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We'd been told that there was a week-long pass that let you pay just once for the ski-lifts and you could then return any weekday and not pay anything further. On getting to the top though, we learned that this offer was only open to residents of NZ who had proof of address (so affecting a Kiwi accent wasn't going to cut it), so we had to fork over the cash for multiple days.

As we had been given lessons in Mount Hutt, we jumped straight onto the green slopes. These seemed a lot longer and a bit more windy than those on the previous mountain, and it took me a few goes to feel confident on them. I still wasn't particularly good at stopping, especially on one curve which let you pelt down at an insane speed, straight towards a cliff face where the only barrier was a bit of plastic ribbon. I suffered many a fall there, deciding that between almost certain death and a wet arse, the latter was preferable. It was a good day's skiing overall, although the snow in Mount Hutt had been softer and less icy.

At some point on the trip, the beanie I'd bought in Australia had disappeared. I wasn't too upset, as I found a thicker one in a shop in the town that evening which would keep my ears warm for our second day of skiing.

We ate at Winnies, an inexplicably popular pizza joint which - whilst having good alternatives to the traditional favourites (the Thai curry pizza was very nice), also had a load of misleading drinks offers clearly designed to draw in the punters but which started and ended at arbitrary times, and a lousy manager whose customer service was the worst I've ever received in a restaurant, and that includes the month I spent in Vietnam...

We hit the slopes for our second day of skiing early on, and Gilly managed to make it down a blue run three times without falling over but got a bit complacent on her fourth, and promptly face-planted. I wasn't brave enough for that, so I stuck to the simple stuff...and still fell over.

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For our apr├ęs-ski, we went back to Dux De Lux to use our winnings and bought a few plates of bar food which ranged from good to mediocre. Perhaps we should have blown it all on booze instead. The pub is home to a very lazy dog who wanders around as he pleases and snorts in his sleep.

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For our final full day, I decided to do a bungee (or bungy, depending on your preference) jump. This had been on the agenda since the start of the trip, but actually committing to book one a couple of days earlier in had been a little scarier than I'd imagined. The Nevis Bungy, at 134 metres high, is one of the highest bungee jumps in the world, and the highest in the southern hemisphere. Some debate has arisen around what constitutes a "big" bungee jump. The AJ Hackett staff told us that the Nevis is actually the second "longest" jump, in terms of the length of the bungee cord used. Other jumps may take place from a greater height, but the amount of freefall time you have is shorter. Only the Macau bungy jump, with a cable 3 times the length, beats it. Some people may think that chucking yourself off a great height attached to a glorified elastic band may be crazy. I was consoled by the 100% non-fatality record of the jump site, but when you see what the bungee cord is made from, you'd be forgiven for any apprehension.

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At £130, it isn't cheapest activity in the town, and if you're taking someone along to film the jump for you they will have to pay £25 as the site isn't accessible via public road. After a 45 minute drive to the site, I signed my life away and got stuffed into a harness before another, steeper ride up to a platform. The jump site itself is a hanging box reachable only by gondola, and we got to see a group take the trip ahead of us before it was time for our ride. That small white thing in the considerable distance is where we were headed.

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Once we arrived in the box, I was given two leg braces which seemed to be fastened by little more than velcro. These and the harness are what the bungee cord would primarily be attached to.

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Once that was done, I was whisked to the back room where I was sat in a dentist's chair and the cords attached.

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The oddest thing about the whole experience isn't that you're scared per se. It's that you simply don't have that much time to be scared. From the moment you're taken to the chair, strapped in and told what will happen, it's less than four minutes before you're actually hurling off the platform. With high-octane beats pumping out of the sound system to keep the adrenaline up, and the crazed, dazed faces of previous jumpers fresh in your mind as they squeeze past you, the entire jump seems to proceed at light speed so that when you're faced with jumping to potential doom, you don't really think about it that much and just end up going with it.

So, here's what happened:



I decided to make a decent jump of it so that if the thing snapped on the first bounce, at least my epitaph would read that I was committed. As to how it felt...well, it felt like I was falling head-first into a canyon. I'm not sure how I expected that to feel, but rather than my life flashing before my eyes it was more like "ARRRRRGHohshitherecomesthefloorohthankgodI'mnotgoingtodieafterall". It really is that quick. You bounce up, and you get another rush as you plummet back down again. There's a red cable attached to the harness that you have to pull on your second bounce to drop you into a seated position. It is highly recommended to do this, as if you don't, you will be pulled back up to the platform feet first. We saw this happen to one girl, it didn't look much fun. Somehow, even with my body buzzing on adrenaline I remembered to do it. The feeling once you're pulled back up is a mixture of euphoria from the jump, gratitude that you didn't die, and a bizarre urge to consider doing it again.

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I opted against another go, even though your second jump is much cheaper (£40), as I didn't want to dilute the experience. Gilly had obviously witnessed (and filmed) the whole thing, and was deciding whether to do it herself. After consideration she decided that she would regret it if she left without jumping, but it didn't make the contract-signing any easier!

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Five minutes later, and she too was plummeting to the ground:



She fully enjoyed the jump as well, and after picking up our souvenir t-shirts the ride back to town was something of a blur.

The day was far from over. Queenstown's Winter Festival was kicking off in the afternoon, so we walked down to the waterfront where dozens of food stalls had set up, as well as a big arena which was hosting a variety of music. There was also a decent fireworks show.

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After watching a recent episode of House, I realised that I'd never eaten noodles out of a carton. This was an experience that needed to happen, and Queenstown delivered in the form of Noodle Canteen. Two huge cartons later, and we realised that one portion probably would have sufficed. We managed to eat about half a carton each which both sated our appetites and also provided dinner for the following evening.

For our final activity of the day, we went on a Queenstown pub crawl. There are plenty of options to choose from in the town, but we went for the Kiwi Crawl which takes you into one of the ice bars for free (entry to which normally costs almost as much on its own as the entire crawl). It was a typical boozefest attended mostly by out-of-towners, and we hit five different places (playing a varying quality of music) before the night was over. Each place gives you a free shot which seemed to be some sort of Baileys variant, and whilst the majority of bars were nothing special, the ice bar (Minus 5) was the highlight, with the entire bar - including sculptures and your drinking glasses - made from ice. You're given a coat and gloves before entering, which are most definitely required.

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I could easily have spent another week or so in Queenstown exploring all of the activities on offer, but a lot of them would be more enjoyable in summer months - Shotover Jet, whitewater rafting, and so on. We collapsed back into the van at about 1am, with Wanaka the next day's destination.

1 comment:

Luke said...

Wow. You really upset that kid you were in the bungee box with...