Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Queenstown, New Zealand

Posted on January 30th, 2005

The drive into Queenstown from Christchurch might rank up with one of the most stunning drives I have ever taken. Majestic, green mountains, some still snow capped, valleys, gorges, rivers and lakes lined nearly the entire way. The road mostly wound through the valleys, but now and again, we had to go up and over one of those hills and the views were amazing. Involuntary images of “The Lord of the Rings” flashed across my mind. I almost didn’t notice that the shuttle driver didn’t seem to think that turning on the vents or even opening one of the front windows might be necessary with the midday sun beating down on all of us.

The gondola ride from hell.

I was dumped in Queenstown, still deep in the tired, unmotivated, grumpy, blah mood that started in Christchurch. I was in the “adventure capitol of the world” and after browsing through the walls of brochures at the tourism office, I couldn’t find a single thing that I wanted to do. Far too many of Queenstown’s activities involved copious amounts of money and separating my feet from the earth in some spectacular way. Bungee jumping got its start here. There’s also skydiving, paragliding, hang gliding, aerotowing (having your hang glider towed up by a plane and released at some ridiculous height), para-sailing and hog-tied, mountainside catapulting into the Lake Wakatipu. Just kidding on the last one, but I’m patenting it anyway. You never know. Still yet there are scenic helicopter and plane tours, a dry luge track, white water rafting, jet boating and the steepest gondola ride I have ever seen. With unlimited funds, you can cheat death twice a day for a week in Queenstown, but I wanted none of it.

I was very familiar with this mood. It hit me hard twice last year during my Europe tour. The problem was too much going on in too little time, which brought on sleeplessness, stress and exhaustion, followed promptly by apathy and a general sour mood. The only cure is to take a week, sleep and do nothing. The problem was that I only had two weeks left in NZ and I had only seen three and a half cities (I didn’t really give Christchurch much of a chance). Even a two day break would mean slashing a city off my itinerary. So, serious treatment for my mood would have to wait until Singapore. In the meantime, baby steps would have to suffice.

I arrived much too late in the day to even contemplate an outing on my first night in Queenstown. I sought out a popular Thai restaurant, read my book, allowed myself to be baited into watching a sub-standard movie with a bunch of Scottish girls in the hostel (I really just wanted to sit and listen to their accents) whose title I never learned, but it starred John Cusak, Billy Crystal, Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones. How a movie with this cast managed to suck so much I don’t know, but believe me they got it done.

My sleeplessness did not improve that night. Not because I was laying awake with my brain racing, but because I was rooming with the worst roommates for entire trip thus far. I know stereotyping isn’t fair, but allow me just this one… Categorically, the worst hostel roommates possible are Italian men, followed very closely by Indian men. These guys were smelly, inconsiderate, peed on the toilet seat, left a trail of their pubic hair wherever they went and didn’t have any understanding of the concept of “quiet,” particularly when I was trying to sleep, which I needed very much that night. I had my eye-shades on, so I don’t know exactly what was going on, but the two of them probably came in and out of the room about 187 times from the time I laid down until they themselves finally hit the sack two hours later. Sometimes, they would just leave the door open, which not only let in the noise coming from the Internet/social room, but started a cold draft that I was not suitably prepared for with my light sleeping bag sheet. Finally I found permanent slumber when they settled down sometime after 1:00AM.

I was not asleep long before the hairier of the two was up making loud, whooping ape-like noises. It took a minute for me to figure out what was going on, but it seemed that Pavarotti was trying to wake up the guy below him who was apparently snoring, but the snoring couldn’t have been too bad, because I slept right through it. Up until the ape noises, that is. Dipshit didn’t think to shake the bed, or shake the guy or, god forbid, quietly say “Hey dude, roll over.” He just kept up with the whooping noises. Each whoop only succeeded in waking up the snoring guy for about 2.5 seconds, whereupon he would immediately fall back into the snoring because he didn’t have any idea what the ape noises were about and, being a bastard of a heavy sleeper, wasn’t bothered by them enough to fully wake up to investigate them like I had.

At 6:50AM the next morning, the two Italians went back to work trying to crack the world record for number of times they could enter and leave the room in a one hour period, again leaving the door wide open at times, letting in the chill and the breakfast noise of the other idiots up at that hour. By 7:30 I couldn’t take it anymore and got up.

So, again, Italian men are the worst hostel roommates in the known universe. Indian men are about the same with the inconsiderate behavior, noise and stink, but they add to the mix with indiscriminate deep-throat, phlegm gargles, illicit hostel smoking and a general attitude that they can throw their trash and dirty clothes everywhere, because sooner or later some woman will come along and clean up after them and when this doesn’t happen, they are genuinely mystified every time.

So, long story short, day two in Queenstown started on about five hours of uninterrupted sleep, which was nowhere near enough. I knocked back two cups of terrible, but free hostel instant coffee, did some shitty writing and web site management, went to the Internet café, ate a sandwich and an energy drink and was back in bed by 1:00PM. I slept like a frozen fish for three hours, before heading out to explore Queenstown. After a full reconnoiter of the town center, I headed to the lakeside where women in tiny bikinis and the modest Queenstown Gardens kept me occupied for a good hour. Sadly, having been in three beach-worthy cities in NZ by this point, I can testify without a doubt that no one goes topless here. Not even the Germans. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is. Poop.

Sitting in the shade by beautiful Lake Wakatipu, I went through my plunder of brochures from the tourism office, desperately trying to find a diversion that I might glean some enjoyment out of in Queenstown. I decided a good long, mind-clearing walk was the answer and opted for the Queenstown Hill walking track simply because it went up really high and there’s nothing better to measure the amount of exertion that you have put into a hike like being able to look waaaay down at where you started and go “Damn, that’s a long way down. Cool.”

Unfortunately, it was 5:30 by that point and the hike was supposed to take at least three hours. The sun doesn’t set until after 9:00PM in the south of NZ, but I didn’t want to race through the track, so I put it off until the next day. With little else to occupy me, I dined early at an Indian restaurant, returned to the hostel cradling a 1.5 liter bottle of cider and suckled it as I wrote and later watched the low-budget, sci-fi movie “Equilibrium” on my laptop rather than risk wasting another two hours on chick-flick drivel. “Equilibrium” was short on plot, dialogue, acting and set budget, but the fight scenes kicked ass, so I was happy.

I had plans for loud, seriously obnoxious revenge on the Italians that night. I had carefully premeditated this course of action, as the cider played a big role in my plot. I intended to get super-loaded on cider and then sleep on my back, virtually guaranteeing a buzz-saw of snoring activity. Those stinky, pube-farm Italians wouldn’t know what hit them! Unfortunately, I hadn’t figured on my three hour midday nap keeping me alert and wide awake well, past midnight. Then the Italians came in, beat me to sleep and the two of them launched into a duet of snorts, throat vibrations and heavy breathing that foiled my plans. I was so pissed off, I kept myself up fuming until the wee hours.

At 7:30AM, the in and out with the f*cking squeaky door, the loud talking and the leaving the door open games resumed. I admitted defeat and got up by 8:00. After a massive coffee intake and some Internet business was conquered, I oiled up with sun block and bug repellant and headed for the base of Queenstown Hill.

I’d really like to know what constitutes a “hill” and at what point a “hill” turns into a “mountain.” I’m pretty sure that there’s no set standard, because I have often run across little bumps that someone deems a mountain and Everest caliber peaks that are bafflingly called a “hill.” If ever there were a hill that needs to be re-classified, it’s the Queenstown Hill. This mother is about 2,000 feet up by my best guess. Keep in mind that Queenstown is already sitting at a relatively lofty height of 1,020 feet above sea level. So, by the time you gasp up to the top of Queenstown “Hill” you’ve long since left the timberline behind and the air density gets unpleasantly lean.

This message was laid out the day before I passed by. That's a long way to carry all those rocks. The guy is clearly insane.

The supreme effort was entirely worth it though. The peak provided a stunning 360° view of Queenstown, the next mountain range over called “The Remarkables” and glimpses of even more gargantuan, distant, snow capped mountain ranges. It was spectacular. I lingered for a very long time and was thus joined briefly by an English women and later a German man. Beyond the Queenstown Hill peak, there was an inviting, twisting goat/four-wheeler bike track that appeared to lead to yet another peak which allowed for views into the next valley. I wasn’t sure if the path would get me there or if the views would be any good, but I had mountain trekking fever and the allure to explore was too tempting. I set off carefully noting all of my turns and forks in the road. The last thing I needed when I returned was to descend down the wrong side of the hill.

As I’m sure is common in when an ambitious novice tries to eyeball distances in wide-open, mountainous terrain I greatly misjudged the distance and the dips and climbs I would have to negotiate in between the two peaks. I thought I’d make it in about 15 minutes, but it was well over 30 strenuous minutes before I reached the next peak. Again, it was a fabulous vista. I took about 20 pictures and loitered for a very long time before heading back. The trail continued on into the unforeseeable distance, but I had already walked over two hours in one direction and I wasn’t interested in going any further and risk getting turned around and spending the night under a rock.

The Remarkables

Yep, still snow capped at the height of summer. And look at that path! It just keeps going and going and going...

With a dedicated pace and going downhill nearly the entire way, I was able to get back down to city level in about 90 minutes, just as my legs were starting to give out. I limped back to the hostel, showered, rehydrated and eventually returned to the Indian restaurant for another ballooning curry feast.

Again, I was not in the right frame of mind to hang out with the young drunks at the hostel that night. I slinked back to my room, watched “Saved!” on my laptop, read the introductions for every country in SE Asia in my sparkling new Lonely Planet that I received for Christmas back in Sydney and retired early.

The Italians had left that morning, so I was expecting life to return to normal, but this night one of the beds was occupied by one of the growing number of disturbing eccentrics that I had been starting to encounter in NZ. The cookie parade had started in Christchurch, but I just assumed that the busking festival had drawn out the backpacker weirdos. Sadly, Queenstown was just the same. They were looping around the city at every turn and now one was in my room. My roommate stayed up very, very late organizing his plastic bag collection. I sat up and continued to read my Lonely Planet while this was going on. If you haven’t had the pleasure, plastic bags make an alarming amount of noise in an otherwise quiet room. The noise carries frighteningly well and the it’s the type of noise that burrows through your ears, into your head and electrocutes your brainstem. Most travelers have one or two plastic bags to hold leaky shampoo or dirty clothes, but some go overboard, wrapping everything they have in one or two or more plastic bags so nothing ever touches anything else. This guy wasn’t just in the latter category, he could have been their Pope.

When he was pleased with the state of his plastic, he went into the bathroom and stayed in there for over an hour making bizarre noises and half singing to himself in the shower. Somehow I fell asleep during this part, but he was up at 7:00AM working on the plastic again. It didn’t matter. I had a bus to catch at 9:00. I pillaged the hostel’s free coffee one last time and set out for a two day rest in Wanaka.

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