Like Blackpool on drugs

Just before Xmas we met up with some friends who’d just been to Queenstown. They’d hated it; one of them said it was so tacky that it reminded her of Blackpool. Given that they had foul weather they could maybe be forgiven for not noticing the majestic mountains and crystal lake, and yes, it is busier and more commerical than anywhere else we’ve been on South Island, but I still think the comparison is unfair. Not a boiled sweet willy or rock shop in sight. And you’d have to pump Blackpool up on something to make everyone happier, faster, and a lot crazier before it approached the madness that is Queenstown.

It would have been easy to go over the top, cramming in as much mad stuff as we could in the shortest possible time like we did in ’99, but this time we had plenty of time and not so much money. So, we limited ourselves to no more than one activity a day, and some days we just chilled around town; after two months with average stays of three days, it felt good to stay put for a while.

We did no serious walks, though we did go riding at the far end of Lake Wakatipu, in an area known (with some justification) as Paradise. I did my best to avoid any trek which promised Lord of the Rings locations, difficult when every trip of any sort touts itself on some sort of LotR connection. Don’t get me wrong: I love both the book and the films (in different ways), but Queenstown milks the Ring Thing for all it’s worth, leading to some truly excrutiating puns. The two worst were from Serious Fun (see below) who promised a ‘Surfari of the Rings’ and Rydges, the hotel who did some of the hospitality for the film, which called itself ‘Lord of the CateRing’.

Our horse ride was ‘Rivers and Willows’, a gentle walk through water-meadows, willow thickets and across a river. It was aimed at novice riders, and the fact that I’d sat on a horse before (albeit a long time ago), meant I ended up with an 18 hand high part-clydesdale who barely registered my presence. Dave got a stoner horse with a tendency to stop and look at the scenery (which was good, but it saw it every day) , and wander into willow bushes in search of a hit of willow leaf.

We returned to the head of the lake a couple of days later to go kayaking. Like horse-riding, it was something I’d done a little of many years ago (though we called it canoeing). We’d already done a couple of kayak trips in NZ: on the Waikato river, which was so deep and so clear that I floated over a complete submerged tree, then at Kaikoura where we kayaked out to the seal colony. My intention at Lake Wakatipu was to have a nice calm paddle in spectacular scenery, but we’d reckoned without the changeable weather. By the time we’d got half way across the lake the wind had got up and the swell was so high that the guide kept disappearing into the wave troughs. Fighting our way back into the wind was sheer hard slog, though the pain was soon forgotten when faced with a soak in an outdoor hot tube with mountain views.

Though we’d collected a pile of flyers for more radical activities, after the Xmas splurge we’d resigned ourselves to a sedate end to our stay. But it was not to be. A night’s drinking in Winnie’s left us with one free token for ‘Gravity Biking’ and a bought-cheap-off-bloke-who-won-it-but-had-to-work token for ‘River Surfing’. So, after recovering from the new year celebrations, on our last day in Queenstown we set off for our respective mad sports.

Gravity biking is something Beloved has always wanted to do. It’s all the thrill of mountain biking without the hard work; you get driven to the top of a mountain which would take half a day to climb, then you hurtle down it in half an hour. Twice, assuming you survive the first run. Beloved nearly didn’t: the track goes down the notorious Skipper’s Canyon, where even the road is so radical that your car insurance is invalid on it, and although he’s an experienced biker, he still came off at a tricky bit, earning himself a bruise the size of a small melon on his leg. Undeterred, he still took the second run, this time wiping out on the road section and adding an impressive dose of gravel rash to his previous injuries.

Overall verdict: Woo-hoo! OUCH 

River surfing is like white-water rafting without the raft. I’d thought it looked fun but scary, with the trip run by Serious Fun, who I went with, looking the scariest of all. To add to the fear factor, it had been raining for the preceeding twelve hours and the river Kawarau was as high as it had been for the last year. But I donned wetsuit, flippers and helmet (always a flattering combination), grabbed my boogie-board (like a small surf-board) and threw myself in with everyone else. And once I’d got used to being swept along in a flood, it was fun. Even the rapids were a hoot, though I bottled at diving down under standing waves, and I kept having to rub my eyes after a run to get my contact lenses back down from under my eyelids where the water had swept them.

And then we came to the final section. White water is graded from 1 (fast river) to 5 (waterfall). These rapids were grade 4 when the river wasn’t in flood. They had us get out and look at what we were about to receive, and as I stared at the churning, roiling torrent, I though ‘You have to be f–ing kidding’. But they weren’t: the van was at the far side of the rapids, so there was no option.

The first couple of hundred yards were an exciting blur. Then we reached a sea of standing waves as the river roared round the dog-leg half way down, and with wave after wave slapping me in the face, I found I was running out of breath. The first chance I got for a lung full of air and a blurred glimpse around (contact lenses now long gone), I saw that the rest of the group were way off downriver. I’d started at the back by chance, and every wave I’d let hit me rather than ducking under had slowed me down. And now I was heading for the rocks on the outside of the bend. Actually the rocks looked good – with my wetsuit to protect my I could maybe grab on and get a brief respite from being pounded and dunked.

The river had other ideas.

After taking me close enough to bang my shins I was was swept away form the rocks and into an eddy. Now I was going backwards. Worse, I was facing upstream. I tried to turn but a wave caught my board, it shot out under me and suddenly I was under water.

I’m still surprised I didn’t panic. I just kicked upwards as hard as I could and reached for the board tether. Nothing happened, I was still under water, no longer sure which way was up, and running out of air. I felt annoyed, scared, and I appreciated the irony maybe dying doing something I’d only ended up doing by chance, but still I didn’t panic.

As soon as my head broke the surface I gulped air and – somehow – got back on my board. But I was dizzy, scared, and exhausted, and I still had half the rapids to go. No point shouting for help – no-one would hear over the water, and I’d just risk swallowing river – so I battled on, creeping closer to the point when I’d have to give up and let the river take me, but still not panicing. Then one of the guides appeared next to me, and I thought that maybe I was going to be OK. But when he told me to kick hard for the right shore, he sounded as scared as I felt, and that’s when I almost did panic. I didn’t, somehow, I tried to do as he’d said though I had almost nothing left. I got a glimpse of the beach where the others had pulled over to rest, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it. At the last moment the guide swung me round to avoid the iron pilings at the end of the beach, which, I had decided, were going to take me out after all. He shoved me towards a vertical mud cliff where I managed to grab a tree root, remaining wrapped round it, cold, shaking, but amazed to be alive, until the rest of the group came past and I joined them for the final, relatively sedate, float home.

Overall verdict: wild, but fun until the point when I thought I was going to die.

And definitely not Blackpool.   

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