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New Zealand: Auckland, Christchurch, Milford Sound, Mount Cook, Queenstown, Rotorua
Queenstown, New Zealand: Harnessing gravity
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
All things that employ gravity or defy it, for that matter, happen in Queenstown – the adventure capital. May it be leaping off bridges, swinging off ledges, jumping off airplanes, maneuvering jetboats, undergoing acrobatics in fighter airplanes… and more all happen in this small little town tucked in a corner of Southern Island of New Zealand.
Queenstown was our gateway destination of this wonderful country. Well, New Zealand is not a small country as many believe. It’s a large picture postcard. Just look around in any direction and click. And you have got a picture to be sent back home. During my 11 day trip I got over 1500 images to prove that there’s indeed a heaven on earth.
Whenever I can, I prefer to fly Cathay Pacific. It’s a long journey from my home in Pune, India to reach Queenstown via Auckland via Hong Kong via Mumbai! About 34 hours door to door. It’s therefore essential to get good service and hospitality on the way. I trust Cathay with that. Joining me on this trip were my wife Vrunda and younger son Anuj – the official driver of the tour. We were in safe hands. The young lad’s enthusiasm was quite a driver to do and see things on the trip. Anuj also doubled up as my model (guinea pig actually) whilst picturing various activities mentioned earlier.
We landed at Auckland at 7 in the morning. Our onward flight Jetstar would take us to Queenstown in about 90 minutes. Flight was scheduled to leave at 10:30AM. There’s a bus that transfers, free of cost, from the international to the domestic terminal. However, we decided to take a 12-minute walk. The weather was just too inviting to wait for the bus that shuttles every 15 minutes.
As scheduled, we were in Queenstown at around noon. If possible opt for a window seat. The view is spectacular especially as you enter the vicinity of Queenstown. Like most of the tourists to New Zealand, the first thing we did on hitting the land was to hire a car! We had booked online with Hertz. As a Cathay Pacific Gold Member, I was offered a 10% discount and an upgrade to two spots up (subject to availability, of course). We had booked a hatchback and were looking forward to getting a sedan. As expected, the availability of the bigger version wasn’t there. We got a Ford Focus. A good car but the small boot made us a bit creative to fit in our 5 bags. Well, no complaints.
Just so you know, we opted to travel in late October. It’s a shoulder season as the summer just begins in November. That ensured that there were fewer tourists to mess with our views and the rates were generally favourable. However, since October is considered winter time, the car needs to carry snow chains just in case there’s snow on the highway. It costs NZ$15 per day to hire a snow chain. At the time of writing $US1 fetched about $1.23NZ. Since we would be on the highway only for a day, it was prudent to take the chain only for the day. Along with the car, we also opted (and a wise thing) for the GPS. The damn thing was worth every cent that we paid. Unless you are familiar with all roads in NZ, surely take one.
We would be in Queenstown for 4 days. We had booked at Hotel Rydges Lakeland, a lovely property sitting on the edge of Lake Wakitapu and St Omer Park. We were upgraded to a suite on 1st floor that offered excellent view of the lake. The hotel is just about 7 kms from the airport on the outskirts of Queenstown. In fact, it was only a few minutes’ walk from downtown.
By the time we checked in and were ready to roll it was 4PM. For the remainder of the day, we decided to drive aimlessly around to smell the soil. We took the route to Arrowtown that was about 20 kms from Queenstown. On the way, we did a little detour on a road that went all the way up to Coronet Peak. We were the only souls on the road. Since this was our first day, we were a bit worried and turned back just 5 kms before reaching the peak. That was a mistake. We later realized the peak offers excellent views. When you are there, don’t give it a miss.
We did another detour on a road named Little Street – a beautiful road that snaked through green pastures and hills with cattle and sheep dotting the skyline. As a photographer I was intrigued by the animals grazing and basking in the sun. Little did I know that for the next 10 days, I would be seeing these beautiful creatures in big numbers – animals that are a major contributor to NZ’s economy.
We touched Arrowton, a quaint village and turned back. We were in Queenstown by 7PM. Though most of the shops were closed, we strolled around Shotover Street and it’s little by lanes that are home to boutique stores, restaurants and a host of shops selling travel, adventure and matching gear. After a quick dinner at Subway (there’s a McDonalds too but no Pizza Hut), we walked around the lake. Early night out was desirable. The next morning we would be leaving for Milford Sound, 300 kms away. My experience of Milford Sound appears separately.
On our third day in Queenstown, rain played a spoilsport. We had scheduled a tandem skydive in the morning and a jetboat ride in the afternoon. The jump was cancelled. So we had to reschedule our afternoon jetboat ride to morning. Thankfully, the boat ride was on. While I would be on the banks of River Kawarau, Anuj would take the Shotover Jet, screaming along the narrow canyons. Shotover Jet’s location is just 5 minutes drive from Queenstown on the Arrowtown road. They offer complimentary shuttle service, but we preferred to take our car. It costs $120 for a ride on the boat that lasts for about 20 minutes. Anuj tells me that it was a great experience.
Thankfully, the weather opened up a bit. That gave us the opportunity to walk around the Memorial Park sitting on the edge of the lake. Thereafter, we drove to the base of Skyline Gondola. Out there, we visited the Kiwi Bird Park. The entry ticket was $38 per person. Sorry to say, but the visit was a big letdown - certainly not worth the cost. But I was relieved to know that the park is non-funded and does conservation work. Got to see just one Kiwi and host of other birds, mainly parrots.
Queenstown had dark skies. Further away, we could see clear skies so we decided to drive that way. We took the road to Glenrochy. To my surprise, it was a fantastic drive that took us through the town of Fernhill, located on a hill overlooking Queenstown. The winding road ran parallel to the turquoise blue waters of the lake. The drive offered many lookout points. We drove for about 30 minutes and turned back.
The next morning, we had scheduled a visit to A J Hackett’s Kawarau Bridge Bungy – the world’s first Bungy Jumping site. While I would be on the banks, Anuj would attempt the 43 meter jump from the bridge. We left our hotel at 8AM. The location is about 30 kms from town. We were the first one in and the first to jump off the bridge that morning. Anuj acted brave, but I knew he was scared. There was no going back. There are two jump options. Dry and wet. The later dips you in the chilly waters of River Kawarau. Good in summers. Anuj opted for the dry one. 5, 4, 3, 2 and before 1 could be announced, Anuj took the plunge. All was good. With sweaty palms, we waved to Anuj as he climbed up the stairs to the viewing platform. See video.
Since we had the afternoon on hand, we took our chance with an acrobatic flight. When I say we for things like these, it actually means Anuj! The weather allowed the flight to take off. JagAir offers 15 minutes flight above Queenstown. Depending upon how customers react (there are hand signs) the pilot maneuvers. Up, down, roll, twist and turns really shakes one up. Anuj could take all that. And he didn’t puke post landing. The flight costs $310 and you would pay more to get your pictures and video. However, since I was a travel writer, the folks at JagAir were kind to offer me the prints and the video with their compliments. See video.
After the acrobatics, we went to Skyline Gondola. Return tickets for the cable car ride costs $25. Up there, A J Hackett offers a bungy and a swing; Skyline Gondola offers a Luge ride and few others offer paragliding. Anuj was booked to take the swing. Unfortunately, weather conditions didn’t allow that (it’s funny to take a swing a few hundred feet above ground!). Paragliding was also cancelled. To us the weather looked nice and bright but I guess the wind conditions were not favourable. While on the subject, I suggest that you keep a day extra when in Queenstown. Consider that as your insurance for bad weather.
Along with Anuj I opted for a Luge ride. No big deal here. It’s a fun experience for $10 a ride. A skylift takes you up. Then you come down in a Luge (a little boat shaped vehicle that’s driven by gravity).
Up there, a restaurant and an observation deck offer spectacular view of Queenstown below. After spending a couple of hours atop, we headed down. That evening our dinner was at Shagun – restaurant offering good Indian cuisine. Tomorrow we would leave Queenstown for Mount Cook.
Queenstown Image Gallery Photo viewer
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