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
lead her people to the
protection of Helm's Deep. Just down the hill is the cliff where
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
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;
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California