Man In A Suitcase

Queenstown & environs

Queenstown may just be the most scenic town on the planet. Sitting on the northeastern shore of Lake Wakatipu, the third biggest lake in the country, it is walled in by mountains just about every way you look. It's become a major tourist centre in recent years, with an amazing array of options for having a good time. I had four full days in town, which seemed like enough. It wasn't. But I tried; I was up and wandering the town centre by seven every morning, figuring out how I should spend whatever time I'd have after the planned activities left off.

That first activity was a tour of Lord Of The Rings sites with a representative of Glenorchy Air, the firm that ferried the cast around the South Island. Our first stop was the Deer Park, a hill a few miles east of town. The tarn at left once saw Éowyn lead her people to the protection of Helm's Deep. Just down the hill is the cliff where Aragorn fell into the river and was lost. (For a while, anyway.) And at the top of the hill there's the biggest surprise: a North Korean prison camp. Disney built it for a forgotten flick called The Rescue; the owner of the park decided to keep it around. Now there's irony. We have a huge and decaying monument to a movie that went straight to video. And of Lord Of The Rings we have nothing but the beauty of its New Zealand setting. Peter Jackson's team made sure to put everything back just the way they found it.

Just a little further on we had an overlook on the Kawarau River, which became the River Anduin. Once upon a time the Fellowship were here, paddling their way to the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings. Turn your head a little to the right and you can see the bridge where A.J. Hackett rubber bands people to a bridge so they can jump off and scare themselves silly. And entertain the other 95% of visitors to the bridge who don't have the nerve. Me, I'd rather face an army of orcs.

Location number three is behind Arrowtown, an old gold mining town a half hour's drive from Queenstown. Here the Arrow River became the Ford of Bruinen, where Arwen faced down the Nazgûl. I had a brief look at Arrowtown, brilliant with the colors of autumn, and promised myself a return visit. But first we had our fourth and final stop, five miles west of Queenstown. At the top of a hill I beheld Amon Hen, where Frodo and Boromir had their last, fateful encounter. The great stone structure is long gone of course, although there are still little bits of special effects rock embedded in the ground. (Don't tell anybody, but I brought a little piece of Middle Earth back with me.)

Back in town, I decided to take in the sights from the top of Bob's Peak. (I can't help it; that just cracks me up. Bob's Peak? Why not Fred Smith's Airline? Or Bob Jones University? Oh wait; that one's real.) The skyride station was just a few blocks from my hotel, plus a few detours to photograph particularly dazzling trees and the odd wrong turn. (Just because your destination is the size of a mountain doesn't mean it's easy to reach. Hey, that's good. I should write for fortune cookies.) And the ride to the top is a lot more vertical than most, which is right in line with the mountain itself. Definitely worth it too, both for the incredible views of the lake and the surrounding mountains and for the chance to risk my neck and my dignity (such as it is) on another one of those luge things. I guess Rotorua didn't get it out of my system.

In addition to all that volcanic activity, New Zealand is plagued with earthquakes. I was told that they have a lot more tremors than we get in California, although I didn't notice any in the month I was there. But they must be pretty severe; how else to explain the way the church at right has settled? It's not like they have gophers. Okay, okay; the church isn't really tilting like that. That's just me having some fun with my camera. But it should give you some idea of the kind of hill I had to climb every time I went back to my hotel. All those scenic hills are murder on the ankles!

My next adventure was another combination deal: a coach ride north along Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, 4WD into Mount Aspiring National Park, a little wander through the woods and then a jetboat ride on the Dart River. The native forest was interesting, in part because the trees somehow managed to grow and find support without any topsoil to anchor their roots. But the visit was far too brief; in a moment we were back in the open and making our way to the banks of the Dart where our boat sat waiting.

Our group was split among two boats. Which pleased the pilots, I think; they seemed to take a certain pleasure in trying to outdo each other. Like the racing turns and power slides we would make as we came in for a landing. Or the way we would occasionally pass just a little bit closer to a tree or a rock than was absolutely necessary. Still, I'd gladly do it a few more times. I have only one real complaint about jetboating: it's really, really hard to take pictures for your website when you have a death grip on the handrail in front of you.


Living in California, I miss the dramatic autumn colors of my East Coast childhood. (Winter I can live without, thank you very much.) So I was glad of the chance to return to Arrowtown on my free day. As pretty as Queenstown is in the fall, Arrowtown is a whole lot better. And a regular tourist coach between the two made it easy to get out and back when I wanted.

It would be hard to get lost in Arrowtown. The business district is one block long, but manages to include just about every tourist necessity in that limited space. Including an excellent museum covering the town's gold mining origins, as well as the history of the greater Queenstown area. It's right across the street from the Post & Telegraph building, which I thought was the name of the newspaper. Sounds like one, doesn't it? But no, it's literally the home of the post (office) and the former home of the town's telegraph. Funny; people usually accuse me of being too literal.

I didn't spend all my time indoors. Mostly I wandered the trails and paths, trying unsuccessfully to get back to the Ford of Bruinen site (I kept finding myself on the wrong side of a wider and deeper river) and enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of nature. Which puts on quite a show in the hills around Arrowtown; my compliments to the artist. I also enjoyed watching the acrobatic performances at the skateboard park behind the main (and only) drag. Or maybe it was just the fun of trying to make a balky autofocus freeze the action. In the end I gave up and asked the cyclist to hover in midair; it made taking the picture a whole lot easier.

Milford Sound

Ever since my visit to Norway back in 1999, I'd been pining for the fjords. And you can't go all the way to New Zealand without seeing at least one fjord, now can you? Milford Sound, which is in fact a fjord and not a sound, is only sixty miles or so as the crow flies. Not being a crow, it took me five hours by coach. The problem is a little obstacle called the dividing range. So instead of heading a little north of due west, we went south for almost two hours, west for an hour and then north again.

Not that I'm complaining; at least the second half of the trip covers some (here comes that word again...) spectacular countryside. (A bit of advice if you ever decide to visit New Zealand: either pack a thesaurus or make it a really short trip. Running out of superlatives is a serious problem down there.) At left is Mirror Lake. I'll leave the derivation of the name as an exercise to the reader. The road was still relatively level at this point. But it wasn't long before we were deep into the mountains, traversing country that wouldn't have looked out of place in those other Alps. I assumed that there was some way through the mountains to Milford. But no, in fact the road literally goes through the mountain. At right is the entrance to the Homer Tunnel, an engineering achievement begun in 1935 and completed just twenty years later. It's a typically thrifty Kiwi endeavor; like most of the bridges in the country, the tunnel is a one lane affair. With the occasional turnout to let oncoming traffic get by. No lights either. And a drop in altitude of one foot for every ten traveled. I'm glad I wasn't driving.

We didn't head into the tunnel right away. First we had a visit with the keas, New Zealand's Alpine parrots. Which sounds like an oxymoron; parrots are tropical birds, right? But that's the kea for you. Smart bird. Also destructive; they like to rip out the rubber around car windshields. But not today. The ones we saw by the tunnel were happy to nibble on handouts (some people just won't listen) and pose for pictures. And then we were off; through the tunnel, a stop on the other side to visit a river gorge and then finally into Milford to await the arrival of our transport.

The guidebooks make a point of how beautiful Milford is in any kind of weather. What they're really saying is that you shouldn't be surprised or upset if it's pissing down with rain; Fjordland National Park averages twenty feet of rain a year. Which might explain the little water display at left. I'd prepared myself for bad weather; there was heavy fog when we left Queenstown and not much visibility for a good part of the journey to Milford. But my luck held out; it was blue sky and bright sun all the way. The only reminder of the fog was a wreath of cloud that hung around the mountain tops.

Cruising in a fjord feels different. There's almost an end-of-the-world quality to the experience, a sense that you're all alone. This is not a welcoming land, with warm sandy beaches and gently sloping fields just waiting to be farmed. Great walls of mountain rise up from the water, as if the whole world has flooded and just the tallest bits have escaped the devastation. Or maybe my feeling of otherworldliness is just the reaction of someone with no experience of places before people have improved them. Sometimes unimproved is as good as it gets.

Rather than make the five hour return journey to Queenstown by coach, I opted for a more direct route. Milford's airfield is just up the road from the port, which puts it awfully close to the mountains. The planes take off toward the fjord, so they have plenty of time to gain altitude over the water before turning toward the mountains. Which is prudent and logical and all. But it also gave us one last dramatic look at Milford before we were in among all those jagged peaks. And the snow-filled high mountain lakes spilling over into waterfalls a thousand feet below. But before long we were back over Lake Wakatipu and the hill with the Korean prison and then Queenstown Airport. Next day I was off to Auckland. And soon enough my trip was done. Amazing how fast a month can go by when you're in the right place.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California