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From fire to ice

So, for a complete change of pace: New Zealand. We’re both madly in love with it so far. Bearable temperatures, and OMGz jaw droppingly beautiful landscapes, and even more OMGz things to do.

Queenstown

Queenstown first. It’s not gone changing much in the 20ish years since I was last there – still a kinda nice little town, despite being one of the main tourist hotspots, with more adventure sports stores than anything else. The spectacular setting probably helps: a particularly perfect blend of mountain and lakes that would make the average alpine village twitch nervously and start to feel its age.

View from plane approaching Queenstown
Queenstown – Gondola eye view

The tourist blend, however, has definitely shifted noticeably: instead of twenty-something European adrenaline hunters, there was a startling number of Asian families and middle aged couples – as in, 90%. It was possibly higher than normal due to Chinese New Year, but given the quantity of signage in Chinese, guess there’s a fairly constant flow – even roadside coffee kiosks had handwritten signs in Chinese. The restaurant toilets had a long explanation of how to use a Western toilet, explaining in that New Zealand toilets were built to take toilet paper so not to use the bin. That particular sign was in English, no translation – so might have been a bit useless.

We did a lovely set of ziplines on the hill above Queenstown, as a gentle introduction on the day of arrival. Very pleasant: gondola to the top; bit of a hike around the top further up the hill, through giant pine woods, coated with giant red mushrooms with white dots – didn’t see any gnomes sitting on them, but they must have been around.

The luge looked like fun – for someone else: I still have unhappy memories of trying the toboggans in Austria. (I was impressed seeing V take off super quickly. Then I started, and realised that there are no brakes. Dug my heels in frantically, and was able to slow down slightly – but V had rounded heels, hence the inadvertent turn of speed. I was overtaken by two little boys having a blast, whooping with laughter and immortality: they then went right up over the edge in front of me on the next corner. I started to throw myself off, to try to go and rescue them – then heard them still whooping with laughter. And immortality. I’d lost all illusions of my own immortality by the time I got to the bottom, and swore never to go near the fecking things again). Anyway – these kiwi luges had brakes, but I was still not tempted.

Another thing that looked like fun for someone else, was the mountain biking downhill run. Now, I love bikes. Cycle every day, 10-20k; would always pick biking as my first option. But – that’s on roads, with nice safe London traffic. These guys were pelting down a 60 degree hill  top speed, balancing on mud ruts and gravel, skidding around corners, zig zagging back and forth – my bones were breaking to look at them. Give me London traffic any day, mate.

So – ziplining. Lovely fun! Nice easy buildup of difficulty; got to play with various tricks like flipping upside-down, doing it no-hands – and all with a fabulous view down over Queenstown lake and mountains. Very enjoyable.

Zippeeeee!

The next day, I’d picked something that proved to be a bit trickier. I’d gone through the ‘adventure menu’ and rejected bungee and skydiving (done it; feel no need to do it again), jetboating (no fun if you’re not driving), white water rafting (fun, but you can do it anywhere)… and wound up with river boarding as my adventure of choice. It’s one of those things that is only done in a few places – basically, going down rapids with a bodyboard: you need a deep, swift river with not too many rocks, and that won’t smash you against the cliffs too hard. So off we went. The first trip down the 5 kilometers of grade 3 rapids was – frankly – terrifying. That water goes fast, and you feel really out of control – getting sucked into this whirlpool, then pulled over into that huge wave, getting pulled under for a few seconds, then spat out again into yet another crazy eddy, then realising the cliffs are getting a bit too close and kicking like hell to get away, to no visible effect…. But, as they promised, I didn’t drown. And I went back to do the second run down – and, again, as they promised, it was much easier. It was even fun!

Franz Josef

We drove up to Franz Josef the following day. Beautiful day, blue skies and sunshine and spectacular scenery, up and over the mountains, along the valley riverside, between glacial blue lakes Wanaka and Hawaea, through Mount Aspiring National Park and the Haast Pass – all mountains and waterfalls – then up along the wild west coast, intense rainforest with enough variations of green to put Ireland to shame.

Picked up a hitchhiker in Wanaka – Lily, Californian, kayaking/white water guide for the summer in NZ, about to go to Thailand to train as yoga instructor, and for today, heading to Mount Aspiring for some hiking. She was loving NZ but finding it impossible to save – working 60h weeks, with a restaurant job as well as the kayaking; hadn’t managed to travel much around the country at all in her several months here. Heard the same kinda story from various other folks we’ve been chatting with along the way – it’s a great place to live, but hella struggle to make rent. Estate agents in Queenstown had mediocre 2 bed apartments for £400k – London prices. And midlands wages, it seems.

Decided to go for a lush place in Franz Josef – a ‘Tree Lodge’, in the rainforest retreat; a nice change after a pretty grim shared lodge in Queenstown (£100/night and the shower didn’t even work properly). I had visions of this tree lodge being something  like Treetops in Kenya, a glorified treehouse perched high in the trees – but was sadly disappointed: from the outside, it looked like a rather tall garden shed. But when I got in, all was forgiven: it’s a beautifully put together log cabin with a crazily comfortable bed – and they supply good coffee. They even have barbecues for guest use – so we sorted out our own dinner.

Today was all about glaciers. We splashed out again and went for heli hiking – you’re not allowed to climb up from the base as the terminus is too dangerous, so the only access to the glacier is by helicopter. And I love helicopters: when I win the lottery, I’m going to learn to fly one. Meanwhile, a 5 minute spin to the chopper landing point did the job. The guide showed us how to use crampons and off we all went for a 3 hour ice hike, through beautiful crevasses and caves of intense blue ice. (Well, mixed in with a fair amount of dirty top layer ice: apparently the wind from Australia brings a lot of dust). It was slow and easy going – the guide paused to cut new steps with his ice axe every few minutes, as they get mangled by every new group that comes through. Plenty of time to stand around admiring the view, and count ourselves damn lucky – they often can’t fly at all for days on end, and even when they can fly, it’s often cloudy and rainy – so having the sun out for most of it made an aquamarine dazzling treat.

Less danger of imminent death than might appear
Scrambling
Ice land
Happy day
Best. Blue. Ever.

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