Are you into extreme sports? If so, then Queenstown, New Zealand is the place for you. Para gliding, hang gliding, skydiving, bungee jumping, jet boating, white-water rafting, and 4×4 off-road buggy rides are yours to choose from. For a price, of course. Always for a price. You can also bike, tramp (hike), camp, kayak, ride a gondola up a steep mountainside, and take helicopter flights. If outdoor sports are your thing, then there can be few places in the world to equal Queenstown in diversity.
This is a hip and trendy place, a magnet for the young, the jeunesse dorée of several European countries and elsewhere. Queenstown has a completely developed tourist infrastructure. Every level of accommodation from five-star to backpacker is available. The restaurant scene is extensive, too, with all popular cuisines at hand. What’s more, nature has blessed this place with a marvelous lake called Wakatipu and some surrounding mountains aptly named the Remarkables. About the only outdoor sport you can’t indulge in here is swimming; the lake is too cold for that.
On the eating scene, we have to tell you about a phenomenon called the Fergburger. For those of us who have eaten burgers in their myriad forms since we were tots, how could one more impress us so? Yet, we have to say that the Harvard Business School should do a case study of the Fergburger because it is such a roaring success. Most fast-food chains would kill to have such a great number of people waiting on line to be served. The first thing the agent at Rent-A-Dent where we picked up our rental car on arrival at the Queenstown airport told us was to order our Fergburgers right away. He gave us the phone number and advised us to order from our hotel room before venturing into the restaurant itself. We did as we were told and soon learned why. The home of the Fergburger is small with a few counter seats fronting a line of young workers furiously making the burgers. Otherwise, the place was crowded with customers stacked three deep and in a line spilling out the door. Because we had pre-ordered, our burgers were ready and we were able to eat them at the counter. It was all a question of timing.
So what is a Fergburger? It’s a single patty of New Zealand prime beef about the size of a salad plate served on a fresh bun with a leaf of lettuce, a slice of cheese, tomatoes, red onion, tomato relish, and aïoli. It’s large, tasty and satisfying, but there are no magic ingredients. So what makes it so popular? Perhaps it’s an exceptional number of hungry young people with deep pockets. Or maybe it’s the fresh, mountain air? Whatever! The Fergburger rules!
We spent three days in Queenstown, the last one to rest ourselves, do laundry, and catch up on our writing before beginning a weeklong road trip that would take us to other regions of the South Island.
A highlight of our Queenstown visit was a scenic flight we made one morning to a pretty fjord called Milford Sound. We bought a package that included the flight to and from the Sound combined with a boat trip up and down the Sound to the sea and back again. The flight was terrific, free of turbulence and with a running commentary by Ray, our experienced pilot. The tiny, single-engine plane (a Gippsland Air Van GA8) had seating for five passengers that we shared with a middle-aged Chinese couple from Beijing.
Milford Sound is only 40 kilometers from Queenstown as the crow might fly if it could fly at between six and seven thousand feet over some of the most rugged mountains we’d ever seen. However, we didn’t fly like a crow. On the outbound leg Ray took us on a circuitous route over peaks and glaciers that he seemed to know as well as his own back yard. On the way he pointed out sites that had been used as locations in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Needless to say, this low-altitude flight among mountaintops that were so close we could practically touch them was extraordinary. The water excursion up and own the Sound itself was less so but pleasant nevertheless. We cruised by waterfalls and rocks with baby seals basking in the cool air.
For the flight back, Ray took a different path, which climaxed in flying the length of Lake Wakatipu and back into Queenstown. During the boat ride we had sat with Nan and Han, the Chinese couple we had flown with. Nan spoke English well so we chatted about their work lives. I amused Nan by relating some of the odd experiences I had while traveling through China
Before leaving Queenstown we made one more interesting discovery. Along Lake Wakatipu’s shore road is a garden named Little Paradise. It’s hard to describe this garden, the work of a single Swiss artist, who spent years of his life creating it. It is in fact paradisiacal in that its beauty is otherworldly. It contains sculptures of human figures in motion. The sculptor’s choice of material allowed him to endow his figures with a special vibrancy. These are installed here and there among five acres of flowers, rare trees, and wetlands.
A path through the garden took us past inscriptions on weathered wood that were meditations on their creator’s ideas of natural beauty and harmony. A pool contained some large fish and a fresh-water eel several feet long. On a hillside we encountered a peacock and ducks and geese of different species. Among the flowers, many were roses still in bloom. This was not a formal garden but one of studied naturalness. Little Paradise is the unique expression of an eccentric and single-minded artist. Works such as these belong to the realm of Outsider Art. The Watts Towers in Los Angeles is another such work; so is Detroit’s Heidelberg Project. It even puts us in mind of the distinctive architecture of Frederich Hundertwasser and Antoni Gaudi.
Our two-day drive up the South Island’s West Coast was an adventure. As we left Queenstown for the pretty town of Wanaka, the early morning light made the mountains, lakes and valleys almost too beautiful for words. The contrasting colors were striking. Bright sun gave the tall, Aspen-like trees the locals call poplars a special golden brilliance while the shadows in the distant blue mountains shown purple. We are well into New Zealand’s autumn when the leaves of the deciduous trees are changing color. They reminded us of fall in America
Near the small town of Haast I noticed a Ferrari coming towards us from the opposite direction. Then, came two more, and we knew something was up. As we pulled into the parking lot of a motel-café at Haast Junction, more of the glamorous Italian cars arrived. A few minutes later there were at least a dozen parked by us. Most were red, but one was yellow and a couple were blue. Their drivers were all members of the New Zealand Ferrari Owners Association, gathering at this remote spot to have lunch. It was a sight to see so many of these cars in one place and to realize that each cost anywhere from one half to three-quarters of a million dollars. Beside our rented Subaru the contrast was humbling.
It was just a few kilometers north of Haast that we had an accident with the Subaru. It skidded on the wet pavement as we approached a tight, downhill turn and struck some low rocks along the roadside. We weren’t traveling fast so the damage was not extensive. The front bumper (plastic, of course) was scratched and had come loose at one end, and there was damage to the liners of both front wheel wells. The worst thing was that the leading edge of a rubberized, plastic sheet under the engine had become detached so that as I tried to drive, it ploughed the road going forward, making a racket. I couldn’t drive the car in that condition; I would have to break the sheet loose entirely. Yet, I had no tools and not even any cellular service. We were out in the sticks. As I looked around for something long and strong that I could poke under the car to free the sheet, Kay raised her hand at a passing car that stopped. A large, robust fellow stepped out and assessed the situation quickly. With a tire iron from the Subaru, he crawled under the car and in a few moments broke the sheet loose. The ground was wet and dirty, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Kay gave him a wet wipe to clean his hands, and with many thanks on our part, we said goodbye. Kiwis are known for self-reliance and friendliness. We had the proof.
The coast where we were driving is beautiful but subject to heavy rain and strong winds. We were lucky. Although there were clouds and some misty drizzle, the weather was not bad. Because the coast gets so much rain, the surrounding vegetation is a rain forest. The plants that predominate along the roadside are ferns, larger than any we have ever seen.
Another feature of this region are the single-lane bridges. We crossed at least two dozen, waiting at times for a car already on the bridge to pass before we could enter. There wasn’t much traffic, though, and we made good time during our two days in the region.
We stopped for the first night at a town named Franz Josef known for its nearby glacier. For dinner there was The Alice May, a popular restaurant adjacent to our motel. It was at that restaurant that we learned the curious story of the real Alice May, the restaurant’s namesake. As a young girl, Alice was impregnated and then abandoned by her lover. In revenge she shot him and then herself. He died; she lived to be convicted of murder and imprisoned. Up to this point we have a Frankie-and-Johnny story but not a singular one. What happened next, though, made Alice May famous. Women’s Rights organizations declared that Alice had gotten a raw deal and made the affair a cause celèbre throughout the country with thousands petitioning to free Alice May. Subsequently freed, Alice married and had a child. One of her grandchildren is the current proprietor of The Alice May and has placed a photo of her grandmother in a prominent place on the wall. The photo shows the full figure of a non-descript countrywoman facing the camera. Our waitress said she wished Alice had been wearing a bra.
The following day we reached the interesting coastal town of Hokitika after a morning of driving through open stretches of grazing land. The only crops seemed to be hay or other animal fodder. Occasionally, there were fenced-in fields in which dozens of deer were penned. We’d never seen deer, except perhaps reindeer, raised as livestock. This explains the prevalence of venison on local restaurant menus.
Hokitika pleased us instantly. It has wide streets and a spaciousness that allowed its individual buildings to stand out clearly.
Today, Hokitika, once a busy port and boomtown, is a quiet place whose main business is arts and crafts. There are galleries selling jewelry made of pounamu, the greenstone that the Maori prized so highly. In one shop I bought single stud to wear in my left ear. In another gallery we bought a pretty trivet carved from Rimu, a popular New Zealand wood. It will be our souvenir from this country.
In a bookshop, we bought a copy of The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton’s very large novel that won 2013’s Booker Prize. It is set in the Hokitika of yesteryear when the town and its surroundings were the scene of a great gold rush.
Hokotika’s museum, installed in a former library building donated by Andrew Carnegie, has a reputation that made us anxious to visit. Its exhibits are centered on whitebait and gold rush history.
Whitebait are tiny fish that arrive each year by the billions in the local rivers where they come to spawn. They are the transparent young of five species of the genus, Galaxias. Catching them in nets was once a local industry. Today, they are available on restaurant menus. We ate a mess of them the evening before in Franz Josef and again this evening in the charmless restaurant of the Beachfront Hotel where we were staying. A common preparation is to bind them with egg into patties and pan-fry them. Well done, these are a treat.
Hokitika began in the second half of the 19th century when gold was discovered in the nearby hills. The ensuing rush caused the town to bloom overnight with dozens of hotels and saloons. We enjoyed the museum exhibits devoted to this colorful history. Of the hundreds of fortune hunters who came, most left broke and disillusioned. The real winners were the saloon and hotel owners.
In the early evening, Kay and I bought a bottle of Pinot Noir and sat at a table on sunset point looking west over the Tasman Sea. The sunset wasn’t spectacular, but our mood was mellow as we contemplated the next leg of our drive, wondering what new sights it would bring.