Last Stop: Queenstown
Queenstown is a few square blocks of galleries and outfitter shops wedged between the mountains and Lake Wakatipu, and it’s Busytown compared to the laid-back communities we’ve visited up to this point. Billed the it’s the jumping-off point for central South Island; tanned backpackers teem through the streets as we pull up to the travel agency downtown. We don’t have accommodations reserved until tomorrow night, but we’re able to line up a $100 “special” rate at a few blocks from downtown. The hotel has everything but air conditioning (which would come in handy as the late afternoon sun beats down on our west-facing rooms), however we find the first workout room of the trip and I spend a little time starting the long road to getting back in shape. While I’m on the bike Melanie sets off on foot to explore town and maybe find the secretive Bunka that Peter told us about on the drive back from Milford.
About an hour later I’m cleaned up and ready to go into town myself. Melanie returns with promising news – in an alleyway she spotted a green trashcan with the word “BUNKA” stenciled on the side.
Our first stop is at the , where we down pints of clear cider at a tall patio table with a view of the nearby gondola that climbs to Bob’s Peak. Eric and I break down and try to play the pokies – there’s an inscrutable matrix of rules or strategy or other payout nonsense on each machine and we walk away a few minutes later empty-handed. There’s a good mix of lost 70’s radio hits on the sound system but as darkness gathers we pickup and head for the center of town.
Next stop is the , with its American country and western theme and rugby on all screens. It’s a decent place, but we’ve got happy feet tonight. Walking up one of the main streets we see a man noisily wrestling with what sounds like a stack of metal chairs in front of an art gallery; no, he’s drunk and humping a sheet-metal cow, one of the gallery’s displays. He leaves the metal udder swinging and lurches up the street ranting incoherently. No sooner do we give each other the “did you see that” look than another gentleman with a shell-shocked look staggers up from a side street and asks, “Did you see where Roger went?” I point up the street. We hurry off in the other direction.
We decide to give a try – they’ve got live music tonight. Unfortunately their kitchen is closed, and I could use some food. But the band has just started playing and they’re great. They’re a bass-guitar-snare trio by the name of Uncle Monkey and they’re tight as hell, with fabulous three-part harmonies. Finally we get to see some of the great live music that New Zealand is supposed to be famous for. I settle in and send some e-mail home to the States at the bar internet console, and in between sets I buy a few CDs (very good stuff, reminiscent of Neil Finn/Crowded House).
Eric packs it in for the evening, but the rest of us are still on a roll. We poke our head in the Bunka; there’s a short bar, wine bottles, weathered sofas and easy chairs – a good-looking place but we’re curious about the nearby . Another small storefront in the pedestrian arcade, it’s lit solely by the light behind the bottles at the bar. It’s sparsely populated (sort of looks like the four guys from Soundgarden and nobody else) but they’re serving food… we’re there. The DJ looks a lot like Mick Jones from Big Audio Dynamite and he’s spinning some lovely trance mixes. We order some kebab items and freaky blue martinis, and I sit mesmerized as a little laser machine spins pulsing spirograph images on the wall behind the bar.
Scott is the DJ and he also happens to be the owner. He redesigns the bar logo (currently a fat dancing martini glass / radar dish) every few months and shows us the year 2000 t-shirts, which we snap up along with a few stickers. The location’s been lucky; he pulls out a photo album of the recent downtown flooding, which left the Tardis untouched. Summer’s the quiet time – while he admits the skiing’s better in the States, this is about as good as it gets in the Southern Hemisphere and the Tardis is packed in the winter.
This is the kind of place we like to find on the road (actually, it would be better if we could find it more often at home) and we keep it on the list of attractions for tomorrow, our last full day of the trip.
This would be it.
The next morning dawns gray, spitting a little. The ladies strike off early to hike the switchbacks above town while Eric and I drag the bags down to the B&B a few blocks away. This is the last stop for Melanie and me – Eric and Cindy will stay an extra day and then head for the North Island, but we have a plane to catch in 24 hours. I’ve been feeling a few pangs of homesickness lately, although that may just be my way of handling the fact that this good time is coming to a close. Whatever the reason, I’m ready to go home now that the time has come.
Eric and I head uphill to the bird sanctuary to see the fabled kiwi. The kiwi is a nocturnal animal, easily startled, and there’s a shed out back equipped with dark green flood lights and a giant swampy terrarium-style enclosure that’s home to several of the hairy coconuts. These birds are freaks, bobbling along on their thick legs, tapping at the walls and glass with their needle beaks. One trots the length of the glass and suddenly buries his snout into the dirt – it looks like he’s in up to his neck. They’re bigger than I expected, and a lot more goony in person. While Eric lingers in the kiwi shed I peruse the cages outside with their keas and owls, trying to avoid a new wave of unsmiling German tourists.
I try to strike off to do some last minute solo gift shopping, but Queenstown’s not that big and I eventually run into every other member of Team Dolanbrau on the street. At the goldsmith shop I pick up a jade pendant – the Maori carve them into a few types of shape, one for love, another for strength, etc. I choose the spiral (symbolizing change) in the hopes that it might inspire me to be a little more creative when I return to my normal routine, maybe shake things up a bit.
At 3pm I meet Eric and Cindy by the travel agency for our last great adventure of the trip, the canyon boat ride. A little bus takes us to the hills just north of town where the shallow Shotover River has cut a narrow, rocky canyon on its way to Lake Wakatipu. These boats are built of heavy aluminum and weigh six tons a pop, but each is powered by a highly-modified Corvette engine displacing 8.2 litres of liquid petroleum gas. Water is pulled in through a grate on the bottom of the boat and shot out through a maneuverable nozzle at the back, giving the craft the ability to skim through very shallow water and execute precision turns; the brochure (between references to back problems and next of kin) boasts of the 360-degree spins and just how close the boats get to the canyon walls. The fat, sweet smell of propane greets us at the gravel “beach” along the river, and as we gather our life jackets we ponder the little scrapes along the nose of the boat.
Simon is our driver and he assures us that he’s gone through extensive training. He explains the “spin” signal – index finger twirl – which means hold on, it’s 360 time. Then he stands on the accelerator and the engine spools up very quickly, pushing us back into our seats and up the river. We turn and pause, then with a Winston Cup roar the boat shoots down the river past the dock. We pump our fists for the camera and then the dock is gone; new mountains wheel into view as we squeeze through the narrow canyon walls and glide over the gray-green shallows. We all duck as the boat screams past the rock outcroppings inches away, then Simon twirls his finger and we all hang on as the boat spins and we each squeeze against the person beside. I get some spray in my right ear but there’s no real shock involved, and as we rock gently in our own wake Simon sits up on the corner of the bow and tells us a little more about the boat. The red wedge we’re riding in is one of the first they made – 23 years ago – and it’s still going strong, breathing in a litre of propane each minute and blasting out something like 380 litres (90 gallons) of water every second.
We shoot back up the Shotover, and feel a little chill as the sun hides behind the broken cloud cover. A little choppier headed upstream, I watch the wind kick up dust clouds on the plains above the canyon. As we spin to a stop back at the dock the riders give Simon a round of applause and I’m really glad we were able to get in one adventure ride here in the Adventure Capital.
Melanie’s spent the afternoon getting a spa treatment, and while that usually leaves her relaxed for the rest of the day I find her getting upset as she packs her bags for the last time. Neither of us wants this trip to end.
Eric talks the B&B owner into letting him unroll the cover on the backyard pool so he can get in a few laps.
But we’re celebrating tonight. Melanie’s birthday is coming up, and Eric and Cindy have graciously offered to take us out to one last dinner at a nice restaurant just outside town. We drive up the same road we took this afternoon, past the jetboat dock and out to , where we chat up the owners and toast ourselves for staying friends on such a long journey. In the parking lot we linger beneath the southern sky one last time, then reluctantly walk back to the car.
Not content to leave it at that we walk into town once again, this time settling into the overstuffed furniture at the Bunka for a round. Tardis is packed; a pro DJ in a red football jersey spins fat funky vinyl and late in the night we squeeze in among the young summer workers to dance, a fitting end to a fabulous trip.