Hugging Lake Wakatipu, built among forested slopes and cradled by a mountain range literally called The ‘Remarkables’, Queenstown is a crescent of blissfully idyllic cabins, cafes, ski runs and gondolas. Some of the Lord of the Rings’ most dramatically beautiful mountain scenes were filmed in Queenstown: it's featured in the opening sequence of Two Towers, and its beech forests are Lothorien.
It’s also a hotspot for adventure tourism, and known as the “adventure capital of the world.” And best of all for me, Queenstown is only a three-hour drive from Dunedin.
After our first week of school and on our first real weekend, Arcadia hosted a Queenstown adventure weekend from Friday through Sunday, with a sampling of activities each day, to expose us to all the possibilities right on our doorstep (as if we hadn’t already realized the how unbelievably much New Zealand has to offer).
Queenstown is basically straight west from Dunedin, at a similar latitude but farther from the ocean. It's closer to the southern Alps, though, which snakes along the island's west coast.
The highway from Dunedin to Queenstown isn't a multi-lane interstate; it's a narrow, winding two-lane highway that curves and loops over rolling green fields in pastel watercolor greens, and pastureland dotted with thousands of little white sheep. The hills are blanketed in thick grass that clings to the topography with a texture like that of the shorn sheep that graze it, and round, deep green bushes dot the slopes like forest green buttons on a light green velvet pin cushion. Between fields, rows of evergreen trees like green mohawks are planted in hedge-like fashion to protect crops from the wind.
Closer to Queenstown, the road slips into deep valleys sandwiched between rising shale cliffs, and peaks ahead become bluer and sharper in the distance. We passed through the smaller towns of Middlemarch, Alexandra, Clyde, Cromwell (known for fruit-growing), Arrowtown (an old mining town where people pan for gold), and a stretch of vineyards close to Queenstown where much of New Zealand's famous wines are produced.
The landscape is at one moment farmland, then mountainous, and then a stretch of yellow savannah crisscrossed by shallow rivers. We stopped at the brilliantly turquoise Shotover River, which cuts through tilted schist cliffs covered in red and green shrubs like christmas ornaments. It's a glacial river, and the brilliant turquoise color comes from glacial flour, or finely ground rock, that scatters light.
In a couple hours, we'd be on a jet boat – our first activity of the weekend – cruising along that river.
The Shotover jet boat ride was a way for us to dip one toe into the pool of adrenaline that Queenstown floats in. Because they don't have external propellors, jet boats are capable of skimming over water as shallow as 10 cams deep. They draw in water from intakes at the bottom of the boat and use internal propellors to compress and shoot the water out at the back. The force of the water spraying out both propels the boat forward and allows it to steer. The goal is a fast and thrilling ride; the jet boats cut through canyons narrowly avoiding boulders and cliff walls, zoom forward and break, and spin over 360 degrees.
After the jet boat ride the Arcadia group settled in at Pinewood Lodge, a nifty lodge-hostel complex at the edge of town and surrounded by trees. Each group of rooms had access to a big kitchen and dining area, but almost everyone decided to troop into town to Fergburger, a famous hipster burger joint known to have the best burgers in the world. The burgers all have creative names that would appall most vegetarians, like "Sweet Bambi", "Little Lambey", "Cockadoodle Oink" and "Tropical Swine." I got the "Bun Laden", a falafel burger drizzled with yogurt and sweet chili sauce, avocado and aioli.
Although it wasn't technically a meat burger, I can honestly claim it was the best "burger" I've ever had. We brought our ferg burgs down to Lake Wakatipu and ate on the dock.
Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand's longest lake at 80 kilometers long, shaped like a Z as it curves between peaks rising on either side. Directly across from us, the deep purple-blue Remarkables rose directly out of the turquoise glacial water like icebergs. With the water lapping up onto the mountains' steep slopes, I wonder how much of the mountain's base continues under the lake.
On Saturday we woke to a thick white drizzling rain. Channeling Seattle spirit, we threw on rain jackets, jumped in the bus, and cruised to the Routeburn Track trailhead for a day hike on one of New Zealand's best Great Walks. We traced along the bank of lake Wakatipu on a narrow mountain road through lush mossy forest dripping in fog and mist. Our view was a white veil, though; the lake and mountains were almost completely obscured. Ahead of us, the winding road faded and vanished into the clouds, as if we were embarking on a mystical journey into heavenly regions. In fact, we were.
The Routeburn Track traverses the Southern Alps, winding through beech forests featured in Lord of the Rings, over rushing rivers, past countless thundering waterfalls, and down glacier-carved valleys. It rained nearly the entire time, as is typical in Fiordland (a large mountainous region on New Zealand's west coast cut by fjords and covered in forest).
The landscape was filled with water in every form: It came from the sky, it surrounded us in mist and clouds, it thundered down the cliffs around us in waterfalls big and small, it snaked through valleys as rivers, it covered the trail in puddles, and it dotted the open grasslands in ponds and lakes. I was grateful for the many suspension bridges that saved us from crossing madly rushing rapids. Most bridges only allowed two to five people to walk across at once, and swung just enough to give you a good adrenaline rush. Beech trees, pine trees, ferns and moss dripped and hung in soggy wetness, and glowed green like the temperate rainforests of the northwest.
Ever so often we would pass valleys – flat, golden grassy fields that looked like African savannas. Brilliantly green mountains rose directly out of the fields like the Remarkables rise out of Lake Wakatipu, without warning or a gentle incline. They lay there like great lumbering green stegosauruses, the sharply inclined ridges like the fin along a dinosaur's spine, hunkering down in the rain next to each other on a brilliant yellow carpet of grass. Between them a river flowed, following the yellow valley.
Once we started climbing we climbed one of those jungle lizards, along its spine, through the wet jungle and up to the first "hut," the Routeburn Falls Hut. Like in the European Alps, huts along New Zealand's Great Walks and other tracks are shelters built by the government to shelter hikers. I was expecting a crude wooden cabin; as we neared the first hut I thought we had accidentally stumbled upon a resort. But no, the Routeburn huts are incredibly nice and even provide access to gas stoves in a kitchen and flush toilets. We stopped on the porch to eat lunch under a roof, and stood on a porch that gazed over the clouded-over peaks, a view that is absolutely spectacular on a clear day, and for us offered a sense of lush mysticism. Turns out that the huts cost 50 dollars a night, which must be why the government can keep them so nice. Guess I'll probably be camping at the Routeburn when I come here for the full track.
We didn't stop there but hiked another 30 minutes to a lookout spot perched on slate-gray and jade green cliffs. Up on top, the view cleared enough for us to perch on slippery boulders and see down across the mountains and valley. Wet, windswept alpine grass covered the slopes like clumps of yellow-green seaweed swaying with the tide. When the sun hit the wet cliffside, they shone with reflected light like aluminum foil, and patches of snow beamed white on the ridges of peaks. I don't know if you can ski right there, but the Routeburn Falls hut does also serves as a basecamp for skiers in the winter who want to access to backcountry skiing.
After reaching the viewpoint on the cliffs, we were shuttled back down in order to make it back to Queenstown for dinner reservations. Back at the busses we were tired, satisfied, drenched, and high off the experience. Arcadia treated the group to a big pizza dinner at Winnie's, a funky, hip pizza joint and bar decorated with old rusty bikes, that transforms into a club at night when the roof that opens up and you can dance under the stars. Afterwards, we sat at the lake and had a beer, watching the sunset create a rainbow from the sky to the horizon line and reflected onto the water.
As if the Routeburn wasn't enough, Arcadia had even more in store for us the next day. Annoyingly, Sunday turned out to be clear and sunny (we picked the wrong day to hike!) but in New Zealand – the Land of the Long White Cloud – you really never know what cloud will be lurking around the corner, and how impregnated with water it will be. It's safe to assume a 50% chance of rain on a daily basis, and in Fiordland the chance is more like 75.
Sunday morning Arcadia treated us to a gondola ride reminiscent of the European Alps, into the mountainside directly behind Queenstown.
The Gondola drops you off at Skyline Restaurant, which is surrounded by every adrenaline sport you can imagine: bunny jumping, sky diving, hang gliding, etc. etc. The whole group had a couple tickets to go luging, which is essentially go-karting down the mountainside at high speeds, and a few brave ones did the bungee at a nearby river. The bungee was the only activity not paid for by Arcadia, though, so I chose not to, in order to save money; the highest jump was over 200 bucks. Maybe later in the semester if I have some leftover cash, but I'd rather spend the funds on traveling and trekking.
We bussed home collectively feeling blessed to have just been handed the opportunity to do so many adventure activities for free. For my part, I know I wouldn't have otherwise paid for the overpriced gondola, luge or jet boat tickets, and nothing can beat a three day weekend of stress-free weekend of outdoor fun in the most beautiful city I've ever seen, for free. Queenstown, I'll be back.