Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The good, the bad and the bumpy

There have been some truly excellent ideas born in Queenstown and when Shotover Jet and Nomad Safaris announced they were joining forces to create a jet boat /4WD combo this was definitely a good idea. Two highly professional adventure companies teamed together to create the package ‘Essential Queenstown’, and when they offered me the chance to sample this new activity, of course I jumped at the chance!
What’s also a good idea in Queenstown is to hit the town with your workmates. There’s nothing like a good night out scouring bars in search of fun and trying to prove that it’s not all about hard work.

What’s bad, however, is waking up the next day and remembering that you let a person with a passion for Facebook film you ‘shake your booty better than Beyonce’ (several times just to prove a point). What’s slightly worse is that in spite of the invisible hammer banging on your head, you also remember that you booked yourself on an Essential Queenstown trip.
And so it was with dark sunglasses and aching hips that I turned up to meet my fresh faced friend Anna at the Shotover Jet check in point. A short ride out of town, we reached the banks of the river. It was a balmy day and the sun beat down and sparkled upon the ripples of the fast flowing water. A vast expanse of turquoise stretched and flowed through the mouth of a large canyon creating a breathtaking view.

All passengers were provided with long black splash coats that came in one size fits all (including elephants) and chunky red lifejackets that made looking cool completely impossible. Once in the boat, we were given a quick lesson in ‘how not to fall into the water’ and then we were off.
Bumping across the water, we laughed out loud as our bums bounced off the padded seats. Zooming through the canyon, Anna turned to me with a worried look.

“Oo, I’m a bit scared!” She announced.
What a wimp, I thought to myself.

“Scared?” I replied confidently. “Scared of wha….aaaaaaaa.”

A scream of fear shot from my lungs as I watched the boat lurch towards the towering canyon walls and miss by an inch. The driver turned around, obviously used to a boat full of wailing banshees and gave us a quick smirk.

The rest of the ride went like this: stunning scenery, funny bumpy ride, scary wall, scary wall far too close, screams, funny bumpy ride, 360 spin, screams, why ‘eight’ gin and tonics?

After escaping from the boat with half my hair matted to my face, we were met by a friendly driver in a big jeep who drove us out to Arrowtown to begin the second part of the trip.
This included several exciting crossings through the crystal clear waters of the Arrow River as we watched large trout swim past the wheels. We drove across steep ridges that looked down into lush valley whilst the driver told us tales about the gold mining era and then stopped off for some hot tea and home-make cake.

After this refreshing break, we went down to the river for a spot of gold panning. I was extremely proud to be the finder of the biggest piece of gold and posed for a picture with my precious nugget. Admittedly, the ‘nugget’ could have passed for a mere flake of dandruff but that wasn’t the sort of detail I needed to share with those not present!
On the ride back, our guide pointed out the places where Lord of the Rings had been filmed and although I’m not the most excitable, sword bearing fan, I did find what he told us quite fascinating.

Towards the end of the trip, I realized that Anna had been rather quiet. When I turned around I found her clutching her chest as we bumped up and down across huge rocks.

“Oh no, are you OK?” I asked, trying not to laugh.

“Hmm, it’s a bit bumpy in the back!” She said with a frown.

So there it is, Essential Queenstown. It’s a good trip, bad with a hangover and very bumpy. My words of advice: avoid G & T’s the night before and for girls in particular, wear a sports bra!

This trip can be booked at both the YHA Queenstown Central and YHA Queenstown Lakefront. Check out the websites: or

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Magical Mount Cook

My adventure to Mount Cook started in Queenstown with a frantic run to catch my Great Sights bus whilst carrying a 20kg backpack and trying to ram a nut bar down my throat for breakfast. After reaching the terminal looking like a squirrel that’d been harvesting food, I was told that the bus I’d been chasing was actually on its way to Milford Sounds.

An hour later, the embarrassing incident forgotten, I was happily gazing out at the gorgeous scenery whilst a friendly bus driver told us fantastic facts about the places we passed. Great Sights buses have big comfortable seats and large windows that ensure every customer has a wonderful view. A Japanese assistant is always on board to translate the driver’s commentaries.

Driving up to the Mount Cook village was magnificent. A gigantic sea of mist had filled a vast lake, obscuring its turquoise surface and poured over the tall green pines. In this mystical setting, the driver told us the Maori tale of Aoraki. Four brothers had overturned their canoe on a reef in the ocean and there they froze to form the South Island, their warrior bodies creating the lofty peaks of New Zealand’s tallest mountain.

YHA Mount Cook is the only hostel in the village. I was overjoyed to be given a warm, cozy room that looked out on to stunning snowcapped mountains. In line with the tiny town atmosphere, this friendly, welcoming hostel is a peaceful retreat that has excellent facilities and very affordable accommodation.

I wasted no time at all in getting to the visitor centre which not only is a source of necessary information to the casual walker, but is also full of historical artifacts and true tales of alpine adventures. Before long, I was on my way to Kea Point (2 hours return). Under a stunning blue sky and a fierce bold sun, I plastered myself in factor 45 suntan cream then set off looking like a Geisha tramper.

At the viewpoint, the amazing snowy ranges of Sefton and Cook looked like they were covered in soft chunks of nougat and large lumps of thickly iced Turkish delight that tumbled down the mountain. Enormous glaciers curved around rocky mounds forming huge blue ridges. A grumbling avalanche broke off in the distance and brought smiles to the faces of the visitors who stood there, awestruck by the beauty and intensity of the moment.

The next day, I was treated to a trip with Glacier Explorers. This three hour adventure involves a short bus journey with a guide who gives a full commentary about the surrounding areas, a 1km walk through rocky terrain and an hour boat ride around the Tasman Glacier. Most of its great mass has broken off and juts out from the frosty waters in spectacular hunks of 300 year old frozen water. A gigantic moraine wall provides a stunning backdrop to these eerie ice age remnants.

With a grey sky looming, the next place I headed was the planetarium and museum. This is situated in the Hermitage hotel; the ominous grey building that dominates the village. With a tremendous interest in the stars and space, I headed first to the dome shaped cinema to watch a film about black holes. It was an amazing display of animation that had me wishing that Stephen Hawkings was my travel partner so he could kindly explain a thing or two. I was then handed a pair of coloured glasses and looking like Clark Kent’s cousin, watched a 3D movie about Mount Cook. This was absolutely mind-blowing and is a must in my book!

The perfect end to my trip was a morning walk up the Red Tarns track. A one-hour up-hill hike, this definitely requires a good level of fitness. As I sat alone on a large plateau, I was rewarded by the soft sounds of trickling water, the twitter and hum of wildlife and the delicate crashing of distant avalanches. Mount Cook reflected her twin peaks in the lake before me, instilling a sense of calm that stayed with me throughout the day.

Check out for more information. Trips can be booked through YHA Mount Cook. Great Sights can be booked at any YHA!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lady of the Lake

Now I wouldn’t say I was the sort of person who made up stories but when I first heard the expression ‘Lady of the Lake’, my overactive imagination somehow got the better of me. In a town steeped in Maori legend, I’ve spent the last two years gazing up at a particular mountain which to me was ‘the lady’ gazing down into a valley of tears – ‘the lake’.

Imagine my surprise then when I found out that this lady was less of a snowcapped mound and more of a ‘mini Titanic’ – namely the TSS Earnslaw. Sounding like something you’d put with your salad, this old vessel was responsible for the many near heart attacks it had given me with its vigorous tooting as it cruised across the rippled waters of the Lake Wakatipu. “I’d never be seen dead on that thing” I’d often say as I walked past it.

And that statement turned out to be true. I was very much alive when I boarded this amazing floating museum. “How beautiful is this!” I gushed to my friend Steve, as we stood on deck sipping Gin and Tonics in the cool breeze, setting sail for Walter Peak. After a few unsuspected toots followed by a few expletives, I had to admit I was rather excited about the journey ahead.
TSS Earnslaw is a coal-fired, passenger carrying steamship that hasn’t changed since taking to the waters of Queenstown in 1912. It is the only surviving steamer that worked on the Lake Wakatipu and is the largest and grandest of them all.

In the mid-section of the boat, stokers shovel coal into the original boilers at a rate of one tonne per hour. This part of the boat also offers welcoming warmth from cold and with this in mind I headed inside to take a peek. The smell of the burning coal and the rapidly pounding machinery flung me back in time and as I stood staring down at the stokers, I was overcome with an urge to join them in an Irish jig.
“Rose!” A voice was calling me. I looked up and saw Jack…I mean Steve.
“Sue” he looked at me in worried concern. “We’re here!”

Walter Peak farm is stunning. Pulling up to the crystal clear shores at dusk with the sound of lapping water really is unforgettable. We were met on the jetty by an enthusiastic guide who walked us through fully bloomed gardens and herded us into a prettily lit restaurant.
The TSS Earnslaw floated serenely in the bay, strung in coloured lights with majestic mountains as her backdrop.

As we entered the old fashioned dining room, a pianist played as a mature audience passed by with a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, though I’m inclined to believe that this was in appreciation of the huge buffet rather than the nimble skills of the musician.

After Gideon the waiter had served us our soup, we were finally allowed to be let loose on the food. Not one for dieting, I chose two huge lamb shanks that melted in my mouth and a big plate of vegetables and potatoes. I couldn’t resist trying the venison stew and I finished off my meal with a gigantic piece of passion fruit pavlova, reminiscent of the iceberg that took out the titanic.

After dinner, we headed outside for the farm show where an experienced shearer entertained us with his two sheep dogs, the full shearing of a fat fluffy sheep and a tiny lamb called Roger who caused more ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ than the buffet.

The journey back was fantastic. Armed with songbooks, we gathered around a pianist and crooned out old songs, steaming up the windows with tunes of joy. Steve listened in dismay as I ‘packed up my troubles in my old kit bag’ and ‘went to Tipperary’ in a high pitched voice that would be completely unfitting in any other place than on the Earnslaw.

The next day, I received a dismayed text from Steve who had apparently burst out of a line of ‘roll out the barrel’ whilst working on site alongside his fellow builders. Be warned non singers, the Lady of the Lake will cast its spell and ensure you’ll ‘meet again, some sunny day’.
The trips are run by Real Journeys and bookings can be made at both Queenstown YHA’s. Go to for more information.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mid-Air Matters

Living in Queenstown gives you a somewhat different perspective of life and I realized this on the run up to my 35th birthday. Heading fast into a quarter life crisis I naturally thought about the things I had not yet achieved. Whilst I lay in bed tossing and turning about the house I hadn’t bought and the fact that Mr. Right still hadn’t come along, I couldn’t help but think of two apparently more urgent matters…I had not yet done a Bungy or Skydived from 15,000 feet!
The following morning, NZONE and AJ Hackett sensed my panic over the phone and pulled out all the stops to get me hurtling through air ASAP. I wiped the sweat from my brow.

Driving out to the drop zone I continued to wipe the sweat from my brow and began to wonder why on earth I was so desperate to be propelled through 15,000 feet of freezing cold air.

Before I could change my mind, I was told to slip into something less comfortable; a space-cum-jump-suit with a harness strapped tightly between my legs; and was whisked off for some lessons and how to look like a banana (the classic jumping-out-of a plane position for those of us without a degree in skydiving).

Crammed into the back of a tiny plane with five other people, we began our ascent to the sun. “Yahay!! Say something into the camera” an over-excited girl with a video camera told me. Yahay, I thought. I would if my mouth wasn’t devoid of saliva.

Now, I’m not saying that tandem instructors are sneaky, but how I ended up getting from sitting safely at the back of the plane to my legs dangling over tiny green fields in a small doorway, I have no idea. What followed is hard to describe.
Freefalling towards some of the worlds’ most stunning scenery whilst the bat-girl with the camera just ahead of you is trying to get you to smile is way up there in the surreal stakes. Let me also tell you that trying to breathe whilst a hundred mile an hour a wind is trying to enter your brain via your nostrils is also quite strange.

After a sudden jolt which has your legs flying up towards your face and making you wish you’d done more yoga (the opening of the parachute), the last part of the skydive has you floating peacefully to the ground. In the words of Starsky and Hutch, all I can say about skydiving is ‘Do it!’.

The thing that I like about the Kawarau Bungy is that it tricks you. The scenery here is so beautiful that your mind is temporarily taken away from the fact that you are about to dive 43 metres head-first towards a rushing river with nothing but a rubbery cord attached to your ankles. I even convinced myself I wasn’t nervous and bounded up to the bridge with great poise.

My poise was instantly shattered of course with the chorus of wind-ups that I received from the boys on the bridge. “So Sue, shall we dip you up to your waist or just your whole head?” Mark the jump-master taunted. I quickly learnt that bravado wasn’t a good thing when it came to such mid-air matters and so I endeavored to try the scaredy-cat approach. “No don’t!” I wailed. “I’m scared of water. Please don’t dip me”.

I’m not sure if it was my awful acting skills but when I shuffled up to the tiny platform and looked down towards my fate, Mark had convinced me that I ‘would be dipped’ like a cracker. And so, with a face that wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Wallace and Gromit, I threw myself off the bridge screaming like a banshee.Thankfully, I wasn’t subjected to an icy dip and came out of the experience as dry as bone (save the tears of joy that ran down my cheeks).

Hanging upside down, I was pulled into a small boat where I was unclipped then bombed it up the steps to my friends, brimming with a ton of adrenalin and a high that would last for days. Both companies have years of experience and are highly professional. Make your bookings at the YHA Queenstown Central or Lakefront and see what discounts we offer!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Girls just Wana’ka have fun

In the height of winter, Queenstown is split by two extremes. By day it’s a fairytale town with towering pines that stretch towards the heavens near snowcapped mountains, where bold suns rise and fall painting the skies with violent reds and soft pink hues. At night it becomes a crazy party town where adrenalin fuelled mountain go-ers vent their energy by scurrying around like rabbits between a warren of bars.

OK, it’s exciting, but there are only so many times you can dance on tables in Winnies, croon out Karaoke at the Pig and Whistle and wake up with a Fergburger stuck to your face (non of which I’ve done of course!).

With this in mind, the girls and I loaded up Lily (my little Toyota) and headed to Wanaka for a weekend of fun. This small chilled out town is a relaxing retreat from the mayhem and madness of QT and is of course the gateway to the infamous Cardrona mountain.

We sang our girly hearts out for the whole scenic drive which took just over an hour and arrived at the YHA hostel in good spirits. YHA Wanaka has a lovely homely feel and offering as many blankets and heaters as desired, it’s a gorgeous, cozy place in the mid-winter.

From the bottom of Cardrona we hitched a ride with some young Aussies who were drinking beer for breakfast. When we pulled up at the top I was not disappointed. Smooth white contours curved all around me and beckoned me to slide down them. Although the day was overcast, the views were still stunning and after a quick coffee at Base café I was more than ready to roll…And that’s mostly what I did!

Having already wangled a few free lessons prior to my trip, I headed to the top of the ‘big’ beginners area (the reason I LOVE this place), strapped on my board and flung myself down slope with huge confidence.

Trying to get my face out of the snow a few metres down the hill wasn’t easy with all the pro-beginners zooming past. After a five minute battle with my bearings and looking somewhat like a snow monster, I peeled both myself and my pride off the floor and was successful in completing a somewhat slower, shakier run.

After this it was nothing but fun! My ‘beginner friend’ and I had a lovely day sliding about and apart from one incident in which I ploughed into the Magic Carpet and almost dislocated my knee (a warning that showing off DOES NOT pay), my speed and balance began to improve no end.

Falling over uses a great deal of energy, so in between breaking your bones it’s a good idea to make use of the big selection of cafes and restaurants including Base Café, Captains Pizzeria, and Juice & Java bar to name some of my favourites.

At the end of the day, having completely fallen in love with both snowboarding and Cardrona, I came to the conclusion that if I was serious about this ‘sliding on snow’ then a few lessons were a must. Before leaving, I booked an ‘achievement pack’ for the following week with a view to saving my coccyx and keeping my pride.

Feeling exhilarated, we hitched back down and headed to the hostel where we cooked up a feast and drank cheap bubbly. We headed out that night to the locals jam night where I jumped up on stage and played guitar – a refreshing change to dancing on tables and crooning out Karaoke (which of course I’ve never done!). The perfect end to the perfect weekend!

Beginner lessons at Cardrona range from $85 to $245 depending on the amount of days and amount of lessons taken. If you don’t have your own transport, Serious Fun and Kiwi Discovery have excellent packages, which include transport from Queenstown, lessons, lift pass and gear hire from $129 to $179. All of the above can be organized through your friendly staff at the Queenstown YHAs, as can accommodation at the YHA Wanaka!

For more details about prices, check out

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Skippers Canyon Jet

It’s that magical time of year again when frosty flakes fall from the sky and Queenstown’s surrounding mountains become playgrounds of fun for the young-hearted. But for those of us who don’t really fancy strapping on the skis, there is one place that is definitely worth a visit: Skippers Canyon.

In 1862, thousands of prospectors were lured to the Canyon when gold was discovered and so was created the small town-ship of Skippers. 20 years of precarious digging followed. Suffering harsh winters and enough injuries to surpass a small war the population decreased with the gold findings and nowadays only several people reside there permanently. Winky Hohneck is one of five generations of family who remains there and is the owner of the Skippers Canyon Jet Company.

The trip I took started from the centre of town where a friend and I were picked up in a huge 4WD truck that would perhaps be the preferred vehicle of the Terminator. A short time later, we were chugging up towards Coronet Peak watching herds of colourful bobbled beanies racing down the mountain in the distance. Then, about half way up we took a left turn and so began our journey.

Descending into the bowels of the Canyon is not for the faint hearted. Its 22km of unfenced road is accompanied by sheer drops into stony valleys. Our small party of seven was somewhat relieved when our driver disappeared under the vehicle and fitted an almighty set of snow-chains. On we continued, our wheels clinging tightly to snowy tracks.

Barely receiving any sun, this other world retains a cold mysterious beauty where half frozen waterfalls cascade over rocks, huge icicles hang from grass and permafrost ensures this fairytale-like place stays white almost year round. When we stepped out of the vehicle to take photos, I was sure I could hear the roar of Aslan in the distance and the trotting of Mr Tumnus’s feet passing by.

So with dripping icicles in mind and with the sudden need to visit the toilet, we then found ourselves at the Skippers Canyon jet. Standing on the banks, as the icy waters gushed by, I began to regret the extra cup of tea I’d downed that morning and instead busied myself by piling on the layers of warm clothes that were provided for us.

Soon we were whizzing down the Shotover River, spinning and bumping about, our lips sticking to our teeth as we tried to laugh in the minus temperatures. Each time a spray of cold water hit my face I cursed my extra beverage and held on for dear life in every way. In spite of this, it was hard to not be awed by the stunning scenery which put me in mind of wintry scenes on old fashioned Christmas cards. For Lord of the Rings fans, it was here that Arwen (Liv Tyler) defeated the baddies on her white horse when the powerful river engulfed them.

After a short drive and a well appreciated toilet break, we then visited the old pipeline bungy bridge. With the sound of knocking knees, we watched as our guide hurled a huge rock into the water below and try to imagine following behind with springy rope attached to our ankles.

For the last part of the trip, we headed to Winky’s museum which is full of remnants that were dug up from the mining era including a skeletal foot stuck in a shoe and a rusty set of ball and chains that was used by the local police. If it were not for the -8 degree temperatures that had greeted the Canyon that morning and frozen the troughs, a bit of gold panning would have been next on the list. As it was, we were more than happy to simply hold on to our hot cups of coffee and chomp on our freshly made cookies as our guide gave us a commentary about the gold mining era.

The Skippers Canyon 4WD tour is excellent value for money and highly recommended. All guides are professional, informative and above all friendly. This trip has everything: stunning scenery, adventure, history and is suitable for both families and independent travelers. Wrap up warm for a winter trip!

For more information, check out their website on

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Royale with Cheese

Kayaking in the Abel Tasman had always been a dream of mine so when Kaiteriteri Kayaks offered me a free trip I jumped at the chance. I had visions of gliding across a calm ocean whilst happy dolphins swam by my side as I basked in a warm autumn sun. Oh, how naive I was!

“I’ve booked you onto the Royale with Cheese” announced Sean, the manager of YHA Nelson the previous morning.

The Royale with Cheese, as it turned out, was a full day’s Kayaking trip from Marahau to Bark Bay. Admittedly, the words ‘full day’ had me a little worried until I met Raewyn. Raewyn was almost twice my age and would be in my group. If she can do this then surely I’ll have no problems, I confidently thought to myself. As we sat together and chatted about the fact that I had weedy arms and she talked about the arthritis in both of her hands we looked around for our hunky tandem partner whom we would sneakily let do all of the paddling.

“Raewyn and Sue” said Josh, the over-exuberant, smiley guide. “You two can partner up”. There was no hiding the dismay in both of our faces.

After a fun safety session, which involved waving our hands in the air and pretending to drown on gravel, we set off from Marahau beach into a relatively calm sea towards Adele Island. Josh was a well informed guide and provided us with stories and the history of the outlying Islands. To our delight, we got to see plenty of seals and their cute little pups and I got very over-excited when I saw a large brown thing bobbing in the distant water.
“What’s that Josh?” I cried out, pointing into the distance thinking I’d spotted a whale. “Oh that big brown thing?” he replied patiently. “That’s a piece of wood”.

An hour and half into the trip, I sheepishly asked my partner “Are your arms hurting yet?”
“No, they’re fine” she replied “Why? Are yours?”
“No, I’m fine” I lied, each paddle sending a burning sensation through my muscles.

Then without warning, we caught up to the huge dark clouds that had been looming in the distance. As the raindrops started to soak through my clothes, the cold began to set it. I started to yearn for my thermal – which was in a dry bag in the middle of the Kayak and my only dry item for when I reached the shore. I didn’t dare touch it!

So as I sat there shivering, my energy and spirit draining with every bumpy wave, Josh turned around and with an enthusiastic smile announced, “Ok guys! Brace yourselves for the mad mile”. The aptly named mad mile is a stretch of rough sea that requires a good deal of concentration and quite a bit more strength than my spaghetti arms had. At the end of it though, we were rewarded with a break on a beach and a hearty lunch.

After our break, we headed off to a tranquil lagoon with clear waters and colorful jelly-fish. We then set out towards another Island where we got up close to some more seals and their pups. The May rain still poured down but I gritted my teeth and soldiered on, trying to appreciate the whole experience.

When we finally ended our trip at beautiful Bark Bay, although my arms hung limply at my sides and my teeth chattered with cold, I was strangely exhilarated. As soon as I was in my warm yellow beanie and my bright orange thermal (provided by the guides) I could finally appreciate my huge achievement: A 17km kayak across a stunning coastline.

Kaiteriteri Kayaks is a highly professional and excellent company whose utmost priorities are safety and fun. The key to enjoying an out of season trip is TO BE PREPARED. I wasn’t! Wear warm clothes and take plenty of dry for the end of the trip. There are plenty of alternatives to this trip, including half days and stay-overs. Check out their website: