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Calm Lake Wanaka
Whether reality or a trick of the mind it certainly appeared that the closer I got to Wanaka, the better the weather became. And so it was that despite arriving close to 7pm, the evening sun beat down on my neck heralding me into a town which grows out of the shore of the inimitable Lake Wanaka. I was to be hosted at a hostel called ‘Matterhorn South’ by owners Peter and Donna. Events conspired to mean I'd arrived a day early, and I was preparing to find somewhere to pitch my tent in the meantime. No such thing was going to happen under their watch – I was ushered into my room and given a welcome so warm it even included beers in the fridge. The couple had turned what could have been a pretty standard hostel into the most homely atmosphere I’ve ever experienced in such a setting. They encourage the mingling of guests, and spend a lot of time themselves getting to know those passing through. I spent the evening talking to fellow travelers who all agreed it was a home away from home. Being dry and warm was enough after my previous few nights in the tent; the comfort and vibe was a pleasurable bonus.
Chris sits in the 'philosopher's chair'
The rigors of the last few days convinced me I should take some time off the wheels in the world’s first certified ‘lifestyle reserve’ as Wanaka claims to be. I began my foray by meeting with Chris Riley, operator of a local eco-tourism attraction. Essentially he takes people out to an eco-island in the middle of the lake, which is kept predator free and seeks to restore the natural state of life there. Everyone who comes out to the island with Chris plants a tree there, so no trip occurs without a positive effect on the environ. Our trip to the island was a delight for me – a choppy 30 minute sail out there was followed by an hour of heavenly trekking around the paths, eventually making our way to the top to enjoy the views. The jewel in the crown of this island is the lake which sits atop the plateau – a natural phenomenon. Chris explains how there is no logical reason for this lake on an island on a lake on an island. Whatever the science behind it’s formation, it’s certainly stunning and picks up ghoulish shapes on the water as the wind gusts pasts. The views of the surrounding Alps are unrivaled, and it is impossible not to feel like an ant in some giant cathedral corridor, flanked by steep mountainous walls and the enclosure completed by a heavy blue roof of sky. Chris himself was one of the delights of my time so far in New Zealand. My idea of a real Kiwi, he was passionate about everything he did in life. He gave me a comprehensive history of the area with no small amount of humour thrown in, and told me stories of his life in Wanaka. Between tales of skiing, sailing, diving and mountain biking…I was jealous.
The Main Drag leading to the Lake shore
I took the afternoon to explore the township itself and complete some press engagements. I’ve become quite used to factoring time with the local newspapers into my schedule, and forget sometimes that this in itself is exciting – the desire for regional publicity about my journey indicates that people are interested, and it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of that fact. After leaving the quaint ‘main street,’ I arrived at the Paradiso cinema for one of my favourite evening activities – moviegoing. This, however, was to be one quite unlike any other. Scottish owner Calum McLeod has made this spot quite the envy of his competitors by turning it into something much more than a moviehouse. Instead of the regular seats you would expect to find in such a place, imagine sofas, recliners – even the full interior of an old Chevy. Then add to that the ability to bring food and drink inside from the café at the entrance. If you finish your food or need more, then no worries – there’s an intermission in every film so you can head out to refuel! I caught the opening night of Harry Potter. The movie wasn’t bad, but the experience would have outshone even the best of films.
Brent tells us the story of the landscape
Another day in Wanaka was obviously required; I was having far too much fun to leave now. I remembered something about riding my bicycle from New York to Hong Kong, but quickly forgot about it again and made other plans. A Jetboat cruise in the morning took me down the braided river at high-speed, allowing me to enjoy parts of the area I could never reach by bike. The river is but inches deep at point, yet Brent at the wheel took each turn at high speed without a single hesitation. Masterfully returned to the town, I added to my alternative modes of transportation for the day with a front seat ride in an airplane. I was visiting the newly renovated dropzone of Wanaka Skydive to hear about the eco-measures they have implemented when the offer of a flight to do some filming came up. It wasn’t a tough decision. Climbing to 15,000 feet gave the most spectacular panoramic views of the Lake and Alps and at times the sight was almost too perfect to believe. I watched fools dive from the back of the plane at various heights and tumble to ground, meeting us there upon our leisurely landing. Takes a certain type of person to do that.
The rains pauses to allow a photo
Bidding a fond farewell to Donna and Pete at the Matterhorn, I made an early start on my ride to the next destination – home of Adventure Tourism, Queenstown. This is a Mecca for backpackers and travelers the world round – thrill seekers and nature lovers alike. It attracts a certain reputation as being a bit glitzy; unsurprising considering it popularity, but the beauty and resources of the place are beyond reproach. To get there one must cross the Crown range – the saddle of which leads you to the highest tar sealed highway in New Zealand, coming in at around 1080 meters. 2 days of rest had left me raring to go but upon pedaling out of town, the rain started and tried it’s best to dampen my spirits. A slow uphill pull for 20 km led me to the famous Cadrona hotel. A quick cup of tea and a scone by the roaring fire only made it harder to go back outside and I would have happily set up my stall there for the night. But there was a hill to be climbed, and so I dragged my sorry, damp feet back to the pedals. Slow and steady was the name of the game for the most part, except a very steep 4km section to the summit. By this stage however the novelty of getting there had completely worn off. A cold wind blew ridiculous amounts of rain directly into Lola and I as we struggled along, and brought with it an impenetrable fog that lay happily all around. The views of a lifetime that the ride promised were obviously not going to be seen by me this day, and not wishing to float away I spent but a solitary moment at the top peering into the gloom. Serious switchbacks led me down the other side with brakes pulled on nearly full, and a further few hours of miserably sodden existence found me negotiating another staircase of a road cut into a mountain. Not finding any solace in the ride at all, I flew through historic Arrowtown without a backwards glance and immediately hid under the first cover I could find. Unceremoniously I had arrived in Queenstown. By the time I had some coffee warming my system, the storm eased. What I needed was a night in a plush hotel I dreamed, with a bed of true grandeur and a flatscreen TV to boot. Quite unpredictably, that was actually on the cards. I was to be hosted at the Park Boutique Hotel in town, and if I had felt like a mongrel on my bike trip before this point, never was it more apparent. I cannot imagine they get many grimy cyclists turning up with mud splattered clothing and sweaty tatty hair, but the staff are of course consummate professionals. Never have I looked on a bed with such delight, or felt extravagance quite so delightful. I could have stayed right there in the room for the whole evening, but did manage to arrive at the club Revolver where owner Johnno had promised to give me a taste of the town. The taste was mainly alcoholic, and a fun night of kicking back and taking it easy ensued. Good live music and company whiled the night away. As so often has happened before, the trials of the road mutated into a warm sense of accomplishment, and I felt like a conqueror of mountains once again.
A wide smile masks fear of certain death
Morning came early with news of Ireland's defeat to the All Blacks in the rugby. Had I not already been planning to jump from a great height, this may have convinced me to do so anyway. But luckily my jump was more of an organized and monitored affair. The catch was that I’d have to do it from 15,000 feet in the air. A skydive. Not something I’d necessarily dreamed all my life of doing, but certainly one of the activities I knew I’d never turn down if I got a chance. And what better place to try it than picturesque Queenstown – nature displaying her finest facets all around. With the weather clear and fine, conditions were perfect, so before I’d fully woken up I was out at the drop zone struggling into a jump suit. Of course rookie jumpers do not dive on their own for obvious reasons so I was to be paired up with a pro who would jump with me, strapped to my back as it were. Nic, my tandem master explained the rules. Surprisingly there weren’t many, just to basically have fun. This I could do. At least I though so, perceptions perhaps change when you’re hanging out of a plane. 15,000 feet is the highest jump that NZone operate, and consequently the highest in New Zealand. I memorized the ‘banana position’ – head and legs curved back, chest thrust out. Nice and easy, right? We crammed ourselves into the small aircraft with 3 other nervous looking jumpers, and with the door closed all hopes of escape were lost. I can honestly say that until this point I had not been nervous –my tip to those planning a jump is to go first thing in the morning, then you’ll still be asleep for more of the prep and can wake up properly just before you dive. At least this worked for me. The plane began slowly to climb, round and round, up and up. I began to realize the severity of the situation. I had two choices, jump or be pushed. I’m the type of person who likes numerous options, and suddenly these two didn’t appeal. At 9,000 feet we lost someone. Man down – out the door and away. Fool! I though. I can still come up with a way out of this. At 12,000 two more went. I was on my own for the final stretch, and had only 3000 feet to come up with a master plan. Unfortunately while my brain worked overtime, I’d been strapped to my tandem master and maneuvered to the edge. Suddenly the door opened and cold air rushed in. Bugger.
Flying, falling, floating
I threw my head back so that at least I didn’t have to see where I was going. Nice idea, but with a serious flaw. 1, 2….no longer in a plane. A brief millisecond of calm then…tumbling over and around, every which way. Ground, sky, plane. Before I could comprehend these images and turn them into panic we were righted, and began to fall in the more accustomed manner. I let my hands out and assumed the classic position. No falling sensation, more floating. At 220km per hour this is definitely a good thing. The rest was….beyond words. Everything around is unreal; sensory perceptions are thrown out of whack by the fact that you’ve just jumped out of a plane from a bloody long way up. The Alps curved and spiked, the rivers wound artistically and the lake dominated all. Unadulterated beauty. Before I knew it the parachute was up – we glided and floated for a couple of minutes and then landed. It was over, I was alive, and a very long time away from coming to terms with the whole situation. I believe I still am.
View through the canopy
Buzzing, I spent the afternoon talking to Trent from ZipTrek EcoTours. More high-octane fun but this time with a strong sustainability slant. Trent has set up flying foxes that begin at the top of Queenstown’s famous gondola. Even the rain couldn’t damped the fun of speeding through the canopies on zip lines. It’s a great deal more than that though – the whole endeavour is based around using the natural resources on offer. Capitalizing on the forest’s ability to support and facilitate the treehouse platforms at each stage, the guides also give tourists a little information on the importance of sustainability awareness and action. It’s really quite unique, and as someone very invested in the topic I was fascinated. They’ve only been going a year, but I think there’s a lot of potential there. It’s pretty exciting to see how green issues are attracting awareness and becoming a factor that tour operators are considering, and I hope that Trent can provide a blueprint for others to follow.
Finally I made it out of the bubble of Lake country, having spent a very low key evening recovering from all the excitement. I think I needed it. A ride south took me alongside rivers and through canyons until I reached the relative flat of Southland. Another day of grey riding- visibility was limited and my attentions were focused on dealing with the curvy roads. Trucks flew past as I did my utmost to be seen and avoided. Invercargill was not far now; the most southerly city in the world and another hub of activity for me to explore.
Accommodation and activies in Wanaka and Queenstown made possibly by local owners and operators, as well as Destination Queenstown and Lake Wanaka Tourism, see Sponsors page for more details