The great thing about Queenstown central’s compact size is that you can walk everywhere, covering it on foot in an hour. We enjoyed wandering around town all afternoon on our first day. For once, I was outnumbered by beautiful women! My mum, Jackie was along to see the country and be a companion for my youngest daughter, Zoe - who adores her - when Sheira and I would later move on to Blanket Bay (a lodge that is a bit too snooty for kids). We didn’t have the boys along with us this time.
Small-scale towns are stress-free to stroll around. As our group had separate interests we were easily able to spilt up to do our own thing, then meet up to eat together. There is a mix of older, British style buildings with wrought iron balconies, timber wharf architecture, and shiny new shops and rental apartments for ski season. But this is very much a DO town.
Short of hauling yourself up a mountain by foot and grapple hook, you’ll get the best views in the Southern Alps by gliding up Bob’s Peak, a mountain that towers over the township. You take a 4-seater cable car or ‘gondola,’ and for Jackie and Sheira the incredible 220 degree panoramic view was reason enough. Once at the top, at a height of over 700 metres elevation, you get this amazing, big sweep across Coronet Peak and the Remarkables Mountain Range (which is a trekkers haven) and over the lake to Cecil and Water Peaks.
But Zoe and I had other ideas. I knew she was dying to strap in to a luge, get the wheels rolling and zoom downhill on the track. The good part: we didn’t have to dress like teletubbies the way the world champions do - and it’s a huge amount of fun. The smoothness of the curved track let’s you really build speed - it’s a major, continual rush and you make it back down in a breakneck 5 minutes. It’s such a joy to hear your child bubbling over with laughter and the exciting jolt of adrenaline.
The luge area is also the “jumping off” point for one of Queenstown’s truly out-there experiences, where you fly like a bird in the mountain air. I have always wanted to jump out of a plane but had never crossed that line. I would love the actual sensation of the jump; the main thing that stops me is the fear of the parachute not opening.
G Force Tandem has exclusive rights to run a para-gliding operation from the top of the Skyline Gondola run. When I saw extreme sport people literally running, then jumping off the mountain to fly around in the wind with nothing but a pilot and a parachute at the controls, I knew that this was the time to confront a true Queenstown barrier breaking adventure. I never jumped in Rio, so my time was up!
The ticket counter is so well run that there was no wait. While I am standing there this little 2 foot nothing person, my daughter Zoe (all of 7 and a half years old) pipes up, asking the guy “how old do you have to be”
He looks at her and responds, “do you want to jump?” She responds, “I would love to.” Sheira and my Mother are sitting on the bench where they were watching Zoe and I ‘do the luge.’ Technically Zoe was only with me for company in a queue. I ask myself, is this crazy idea doable?
The company rep confirms that Zoe can paraglide with the right (heavier) pilot because Zoe weighs so light. While I pay a couple of hundred NZD per person Zoe runs off to Sheira and says, “I am ready to jump.”
On the one hand Sheira can’t believe what we are suggesting but even so is caught up in the adrenaline herself, proud of how brave her little girl is - which is something we don’t want to put the brakes on. But Zoe’s grandmother does not love my work! Too emotionally provoked by the whole idea of Zoe in a sling at 700 meters plus, she is out of there. “ I can’t watch the jump - I’ll wait down at the bench.”
Sheira and Jackie both take the Gondola down to the school playing field where we will land (I guess people dropping from the sky is par for the course if you are a schoolkid living in Queenstown!) The pilots lay out the parachute and strings and strap you in to your cool helmets and harnesses, which add to the whole intrepid adventurer feel of it all. Zoe is all smiles. She may be tiny but she’s no lightweight!
You become suspended by wires attached to crescent of durable, canvas, sail-like material - and that’s it. It fits around your form, so you are basically free like a bird. Your pilot gets himself in position where he is going to lift against the wind and run, looking behind a bit to make sure ‘no tangle,’ and then lift-off! You are floating in the air above a vast landscape of rich green pastureland, craggy charcoal mountains and lake, puddle-like from this great height, laid out before you.
It is an amazing sensation to be out there in the elements - way, way up, your feet dangling. From the first few seconds after take-off I felt no fear whatsoever. Then the pilot asked me, have you ever felt G-force?” This is messing with gravity at high speeds (If you swing a bucket of water around fast enough, the water will stay in. It’s G force keeping it there). We went into a tailspin and all of a sudden the fun sight-seeing converted into a feeling of danger (although not for him - it’s just an illusion). I wanted the experience but I don’t particularly need the thrill of feeling fear. But the pilot does love to play these ‘spin out’ games with you to shake things up a bit and let you experience zero gravity.
I liked everything back under control, when the pilot can pull the cords and steer. While you are floating along, you do hope that the wind is going to stay underneath your parachute! But on your descent, it’s not stomach-in-mouth style dropping, so you do take in the moment and unbelievably unspoilt South Island landscape. The only way you wouldn’t enjoy this is a psychological barrier with heights.
My real freaking out for the day was probably watching Zoe’s turn when she went (first). Sheira and I looked at each other and had a twinge of ‘what crazy, irresponsible thing have we done.’ But deep down we respected both the pilot’s skill and her fearlessness - and didn’t want to project negativity onto a life-affirming, over the top, ‘we’re so in Queenstown!’ experience.
I’m glad we kept the brakes off because this is one of her shining travel moments so far.
This time my partner-in-crime, Zoe and I came back down to earth. The lake is such a dominant feature in this region that you simply have to get out on it; so of course in Queenstown you do it the high energy way.
You take off opposite a little dock and skim along the surface at such high speed that you bump along the water like a pebble. Heading south, travelling between the mountain ranges along the ever-decreasing finger of the lake, with mist and spray on your face, gives you one of those heart-lifting feelings that really lift you from the normal humdrum of everyday life.
The driver also brings the boat to sudden stops for big, 360-degree corkscrew turns that, for Zoe, were a hoot. It’s not at all dangerous - they weren’t hugging the rocky edges - but it still feels pretty crazy, so it’s the perfect thrill-seeking to share with a kid. And you get another hit of the scenery here from a new angle.
This is hardcore adventure country so the sky (and your fear factor) is the limit! There is a great GONDOLA DOWNHILL MOUNTAIN BIKE TRACK that makes the descent from the top of the Skyline Gondola through forest. You rent Giant Glory DH1 bikes and take on the hairpin bends of one of the best tracks in the country. Or quake with fear and build your skills on an intermediate track.
All along the streets of Queenstown there are operators offering euphoria, thrills and spills - by interacting with the demanding environment of the Southern Alps like a madman. There is everything from ROCK CLIMBING and BUNGY JUMPING off suspension bridges to HELI-SKING and CAVE DIVING. Good luck! But if you are already up for this stuff you probably won’t need it…
Everyone was so active on this trip that they were often up early with me, so I often ran in the late afternoon or even in pitch dark. But either way, even in summer, the air is always fresh in New Zealand, especially around all this water.
The hotel gave me a map with a route up that winds through town and starts to ascent up Bob’s Peak. That sounded like the perfect arduous but scenic Queenstown route to add variety to my ‘collection’ of runs. But every time I made an attempt to explore the terrain I’d end up in a wrong laneway that crossed a private back yard. I’d try another road and, again, land right on the grass in someone’s garden. We all pause. I unplug my iPod, losing the pumped up moment, that’s for sure. They stare back with raised eyebrow. Analysing me - who the hell is this guy? You can see the dog thinking, do I bark or not bother. This happened a few times and I started to feel more like Rain Man than Marathon Man so I conceded, okay mountain, you got me!
I gave up and hit the bike track back along the lake, with parkland on the way, pacing past the WAI restaurant, paddle steamer, wharfs and sailboats out on the water. It is so, so gorgeous. But being the control freak perfectionist that I am, I still looked up and wanted to wave a magic wand to put a bit of snow back on Coronet Peak!