Day 39 Glenorchy
Newly full of beans when we get up, we drive into town to sit on the sunny banks of lake Wakatipu with a coffee and a bacon sandwich (we’re paying meaty homage to Argentina with our diet again), watching some hirsute berk trying to skim stones into ducks. Fortunately, someone tall tells him to pack it in, sparing the teeth-grindingly awkward confrontation which would happen were we to intervene.
Queenstown and the region east of here is part of Central Otago, one of the country’s many and renowned wine regions (mostly Pinot Noir here, but we’ll take anything). We’re in two minds whether to go wine-tasting or walking today, but given the relative unhealthiness of our lifestyles on the road for the last few days, we choose the healthy option (buying a travel pack of M&Ms to go).
We drive north to Glenorchy along the solitary lakeside road. Glenorchy and environs has a good deal of Lord of the Rings back-catalogue to tramp around (around the 12 Mile Delta) but sadly they are the bits where Frodo and Sam mope around getting lost and being surly, and we're quite capable of doing that on our own anyway.
What there is though is a mountainous backdrop and a lagoon trail to traipse around at the top of the lake which fills an enjoyable if non-taxing few hours as rain clouds bubble up to the north. I attempt to recapture some of my early holiday condor photo success with a few black swans, but they are a lethargic bunch, and Ruth’s patience, which we can all agree has been excellent, begins to run dry.
New Zealand has a series of ‘Great Walks’ up and down the country. They are multi-day affairs, taking in some of the most scenic parts of the Islands, and require good preparation and camping equipment. We are planning to do a few of these walks in the ensuing weeks, and intend to at least fulfil the ‘camping equipment’ obligation of that deal.
After our stroll around Glenorchy and its lagoon, we mosey back to Queenstown to buy sleeping bags. Having spent a good deal of my recreational adolescence in a windy tent on innumerable school trips, sleepovers, drunken college weeks in Cornwall and more, I no longer feel the need to discover the great outdoors in this way. Such is the state of infrastructure in this part of the world, it’s possible to walk up a mountain in a day AND then stay in a building with insulation in the walls, and toilets which have a flush. The Great Walks even have excellently maintained huts along the trails for this very purpose.
Ruth though, with only a giddy weekend at Reading Festival under her belt, is still sentimental about the magic that can be wrought from spending a night under a millimetre of canvas, while local wildlife noisily sniffs around and pisses on our shoes. I don’t know why I’m bothering to note this, because I lost this particular battle 6 months ago.
Obviously choosing a town for our shopping which lies in the middle of three of the Great Walks (Routeburn is near where we were this afternoon, the Milford and Kepler tracks within a few hours of here) means that the camping equipment is far from competitively priced, in spite of previous online research for a good deal. After an overuse of the phrase “Are they taking the piss?”, I elect to buy the cheapest sleeping bag we can find. “Are you sure that’s going to be enough?” asks Ruth worriedly, hugging her own voluminous, polar-appropriate, feather-filled cocoon named something like ‘The Perspiror’.
“Definitely. It’s summer here anyway, how cold is it likely to get?” I say with confidence, tossing a sleeping bag stuffed with what is effectively triple-ply toilet roll, lightly from one hand to the other.
“Are you just buying the cheapest one because you’re determined to be miserable when we’re camping?” asks Ruth with world-weary accuracy.
“What a hurtful accusation. I’m buying it because the temperature hasn’t dropped below 10ºC since we’ve been here, and this is good down to 6ºC. Plus, I’m going to be the one carrying 3.5kg of tent, so I want this to be as light as possible,” I say indicating the garish orange bundle we’ve also just purchased.
“Fine.” Says Ruth in a distinctly conversation-ending tone, so I go up to pay.
“Did you realise this sleeping bag isn’t appropriate for anything other than summer camping?” says the cashier, with an arched eyebrow and a dangerous disregard for marital strife.
“I don’t intend to take it out on anything other than the balmiest of evenings” I say breezily, while Ruth looks, frankly, very smug.
Following another bickery stop in a supermarket, we head back to the flat and cook for ourselves, more for the novelty than careful budgeting. Eating the classic New Zealand dish, fajitas, we sit drinking beer and watch the sun go down over the lake, in sleeping bags.
Day 40 Ben Lomond Track
We have planned to do a rather much longer walk today up the Ben Lomond track. It actually starts in Queenstown, and at 1750m high should offer some cracking views of Otago. The day is sunny but chilly (the suitability of the ‘Arctic Draft’ sleeping bag is brought up again) and we trot through town to get our metabolisms up and running with a vast plate of eggs and meat at a decent little cafe by the Gondola (the cable car which foists you up to a viewing platform and a terrific toboggan above the city).
Now if we were doing the track faithfully, we’d begin the walk from here, but given that we can take the aforementioned two-minute Gondola up and cheerfully knock off a 500 metre climb, we decide to. After a frivolous few dollars spent to dangle up the side of said mountain, we begin the trek. There was actually an alternative start from near our flat in Fernhill, but the Department of Conservation’s (DoC) website mentioned this was “easy to miss” and having proved ourselves less than adept even when we’re on the damn path, we discounted it.
It's a pleasant, largely flat stroll to begin with: the weather has really been on our side in Queenstown, it's bright and crisp. The modestly named Remarkables mountains on the other side of town are clear as a bell, and we watch low-flying aircraft catching the sun above the lake as they descend to the airfield nearby. The brilliance of the sunny morning is nicely offset by the fresh wind, which saves at least one of us from perspiring too disgustingly.
That is, until we start the actual climb up to the Ben Lomond Saddle (if you like a good 'Saddle-sore' reference, many are made). It is, unsurprisingly, hard work. The fact that the walking track merges with a pitted downhill cycle track makes for some sweary 'lost-footing' opportunities as well. Tragically, our much trumpeted (by us) 'fine hill-walking skills' are somewhat deficient since our Herculean days (our words) in Chile. We've had a good dose of idleness since then, not to mention the purging 'altitude sickness' days in the Atacama, and are both rasping like a belt-sander by the time we get to the Saddle.
The view is, fortunately, well worth it. Peaks on all sides and a sparkling lake on the other. Some hero has even put a bench there to let us sit down and compare groaning. After a mushy banana and some squirrel food, we continue to the summit, lest cramp/procrastination sets in.
This next stretch is even steeper and requires some scrambling, which awakens my pinging tendon, ominously dormant since Torres Del Paine. Nonetheless, we do some morale-boosting overtaking up here, and have the last 20 minutes virtually alone as we corkscrew around the summit from beneath.
There is an exhilaration at looking thousands of metres down at somewhere you were standing only hours ago and knowing that you, only you, and admittedly in this case; a cable car, hauled yourselves up there. Even if, as we now find, about 20 other people have done the same thing, but with more athletic figures and tastier snacks. The reason for the crowd is, of course, the view. And, with pleasing predictability, it is tremendous.
A panorama of innumerable mountain peaks under a fresh blue sky, all encircling the glinting windows of Queenstown and the ripples of Lake Wakatipu. And while we sit munching through nuts and pocket-warmed chocolate, a pair of Keas (New Zealand's alpine parrot) lark around plying gullible tourists with aerial tricks in return for cereal bars and sandwiches, no doubt all part of their nutritional needs.
It would be really quite special if it wasn't for the two morons hogging the scenic southern extremity, posing for what I assume is a social-media photostream exclusively of vapid portraits with a soft focus backdrop and a pensive expression, saying things like "kiss the sky, babe". I'm all for a self-congratulatory photo, heck we've done enough of them, but there's only so many people you can fit on a summit and I'd say, after a couple of dozen photographs, you can happily call it a day and piss off back down the mountain. But after 15 minutes of watching the 'wistful-gazing-into-the-middle-distance' collection segue into the 'we-conquered-a-mountain-but-I-think-you'll-find-my-sense-of-self-worth-more-picturesque' collection, Ruth suggests we leave because I'm muttering like Yosemite Sam again.
The schlep down is easier on the muscles, but harder on the knees and the sun is out in force, so the perspiration makes its oily return. Ruth gets an unexplained second-wind halfway down and starts running down the slopes, leaving me literally trailing in her dust. Nearly five hours after we started, we touch down back into Queenstown, as bruise-blue cumulus clouds have begun to boil up over the mountain range. We reward our battered bodies with the sort of hearty sustenance only a pint of beer in a cowboy-themed bar playing Boston can provide.
We discuss our next few days while sitting in a seat modelled like a horse saddle, looking at an enormous stuffed bear humming More Than A Feeling. What a country. We purchase some quick-drying clothes for the ensuing and much-anticipated camping days. One thing we learned walking in Chile is that my cotton T-shirts do not suffer the rigours of a day's walk in a way that is pleasing to the nose or the marriage. We walk past Ferg Burger, the Queenstown fast-food institution, where people are queuing outside the door for a fistful of meat in a bun. We elect to go to the less mainstream Ferg Baker next door, and pick up a pie the size of a bass drum for the journey home.
We spend our evening watching the sun set over the lake again, eating pie and drinking beer as if any doubt lingered that we were Brits abroad.
Day 41 Arrowtown
"My knees are killing me" announces Mrs "I'm Going To Run Down This Mountain" this morning. We had planned to do another long trail today - nearby Roy's Peak sounds as gruelling as yesterday with the majestic vistas to match, but the state of our legs puts paid to this notion. Instead we drive towards Arrowtown, a neighbouring burg historic by modern New Zealand standards, about 18 miles away.
On the way, we drive up to Coronet Peak, a ski resort in snowier climes. It's odd to see in the mid-summer sun, modern, shiny and eerily empty. Unsurprisingly, there aren't many skiers around, but there is a fantastic view. Having soaked it up, we continue on.
Arrowtown came to be in 1862 after a Maori farmer (in the employ of the new European settlers) discovered gold in the Arrow River on which it sits. With aching inevitability came the panners and the prospectors, and the small settlement boomed. And then, almost as inevitably, the gold ran out. The Europeans moved on, and the town began to shut-up shop until its nostalgic potential was spotted. Today, it survives on this nostalgia and for being close to Queenstown and the agreeable walking around it offers. The architecture is pleasantly well-preserved and restored from its boom days, and in the sunshine, I can think of worse places to be sitting on a river-bank sifting for gold, eating jerky. That said, we're glad to find Chop Shop, a friend's recommendation for breakfast. Man alive, we eat a lot again.
With that touch of heartburn which really lends comfort to exercise, we walk down to the eponymous river, and through the canyon it carved out, to walk the charmingly named New Chum Gully. It lacks the drama (and, gratefully, selfie-wankers) of yesterday's travails, but meandering lazily through a pretty, riverside gorge makes for a very agreeable afternoon.
We have a coffee and a stroll through the shops on our return to town, but they're, probably unsurprisingly, pretty heavy on gold-mining related merchandise for our tastes. After mailing on some postcards, we return to Queenstown for our last night under a proper roof for a few days. We practice putting the tent up on our sun-dappled patio, which gratefully proves to be a piece of cake (we prioritised easy-erection over other sellable attributes like space, weight and colour). Satisfied that we can at least keep the rain off, we pack our bags for tomorrow, and watch the sun go down over the water in this charming little corner of the world.