(Editor's note: Now with a photo of me jumping into the canyon!)
Sorry to my loyal blog followers who've been awaiting my next post, but the South Island of New Zealand has been simply INCREDIBLE, and I just haven't had the chance to update. Let me rectify this by catching you all up on my past few days.
Monday was another rainy day in Rotorua and I was glad to get out of town. I headed to one of the smallest airports I have ever seen and boarded a propeller plane for Queenstown on the South Island. Didn't even pass through a metal detector to board -- LOVED IT. Probably the noisiest takeoff I've ever experienced, however.
The descent into Queenstown was simply remarkable, even on a cloudy day. You see the mountains pop out from a lake of the clearest blue, and you almost feel as if the plane will run into them. Unfortunately I was seated next to one of the propellers but hopefully this shot captures it somewhat well.
Queenstown is an alpine resort village situated in the middle of this amazing scenery. I've been staying at a hostel along the shore of Lake Wakatipu about a 10-minute walk away from town. The place feels like what I imagine Aspen to be -- just shops and restaurants and bars and accommodation. No one actually lives here as it's simply a tourist destination, but it's not hard to see why so many people converge on this place. Look at the view from outside my hostel!!
For the first time in my trip I've escaped the flock of English 20-somethings that seem to be ubiquitous in this country and have actually found some Americans and Europeans here (the Brits are a separate category altogether). On my first night here, my hostelmate insisted we eat out at the Fergburger, a Queenstown institution. Place had a line out the door, even in off-season -- DC residents think Ray's Hell Burger.
The burger was totally worth the "queue", however...DELICIOUS!! The sandwich was enormous, actually American-sized, and covered in aioli and a tomato relish. One of the best burgers I've ever had!
Afterwards the two of us made it to the pub and downed a few pints while watching a friendly soccer match between Australia and New Zealand. Both teams are gearing up for the World Cup in a couple weeks and there's always serious national pride on the line when these two go at it. The NZ "All Whites" were big underdogs to the Aus "Socceroos" but jumped out to a surprising early lead. However they got a little careless in defense and the Socceroos pulled out a 2-1 victory at the final whistle. The bar of Brits didn't seem too bothered by this. Can't wait for the World Cup...starts June 11!!
For the adrenalin junkie, Queenstown has everything to offer. It's the place that defines "adventure tourism". Though QT is the home of the first bungee jumping center, on Tuesday I opted instead for the Shotover Canyon Swing. You're strapped in a harness and "swing" across the canyon after a 60 meter (197 foot) free fall...SCARY!!! This picture, showing the jump platform to the right, does not properly capture the beauty of the scenery (would have made a brilliant hike) nor how frightening it is to stand on the edge of this platform and stare down into the river below.
But what a feeling on the jump! The freefall lasts for about 3 seconds and then you're caught by the "swing" component, and are just happy to be alive! Hanging from a cable over the river is a terrific view, and well worth jumping off a cliff to do so. The people working at the swing are top-notch too, giving me all sorts of supportive words such as "Don't know why you'd want to jump off a cliff today" and "Business school? Guess you didn't want to be in business for very long, eh?"
I was actually crazy enough to jump 3 times off this thing...forwards, backwards (much scarier!), and the jump they call "Gimp Boy Goes To Hollywood". The latter involved me tethered off the platform by a rope with feet up and face staring straight into the river, then they cut the rope!
Wednesday was a long day trip to the Milford Sound, one of three UNESCO World Heritage sites in NZ. It's situated in Fjordland National Park, a vast home of glacially-carved treasures about the size of New Jersey. As the crow flies, Milford is only about 60 miles from QT, but traversing the one road takes nearly 4 hours by bus each way, and I opted for the latter. The drive in though was a treasure trove of stunning mountains, particularly once we past the small town of Te Anau.
To say the Milford Sound was worth the drive is an understatement. I've simply seen nothing like it in my life. Mountains rising from the sea to heights over 5000 feet high. My camera got a serious workout here and I could overwhelm this blog with photos, but pictures alone cannot capture the stunning views you get on the boat ride through -- you must experience it for yourself!
The two-hour ferry ride shepherded us out to the Tasman Sea and back. Along the way we saw seals and terrific waterfalls flowing off the cliffs to the water below. A friendly geologist took this photo of me (look how close the boat is to the cliff!) and was oozing with excitement in telling me how the glaciers shaped the rocks in this valley.
Today I rode the Skyline Gondola up 2500 feet to get a view of town. What a view. This is an overhead look at Queenstown, with Lake Wakatipu and "The Remarkables" range in the distance.
In the afternoon, I took a "Lord of the Rings" tour in an amphibious Land Rover over the mountains and through the rivers (!) in the Queenstown area. Most of you probably know that Peter Jackson created his image of Middle Earth by cutting and pasting shots from NZ's majestic scenery. Here you see the mountains which get zoomed in on towards Mordor at the beginning of the second film (they aren't topped with snow in the film).
I've started to gather my travel momentum now. Did my first load of laundry -- SO NICE to have clean clothes :) -- and actually tried cooking in the hostel kitchen. The latter didn't go so well, especially as I tried to improvise a meal of risotto with vegetables and beans. Ahh, cooking...I am so useless in the kitchen.