We had heard a lot about Queenstown before going there, mainly that it is touristy, busy, and full of adventure sports. We were a bit sceptical but we ended up going there a couple of times due to its centrality in the South of the South Island. Would it end up being a convenient stop for groceries and laundry for us, or something more?
Our travel guides mostly described other towns as ‘escapes from Queenstown’. Our Grumpy Dutch Guides even felt it was necessary to pen a little speech about self determination. ‘Why jump with a bit of rubber on your ankle because someone else enjoys it? Why get soaked in a wild mountain river when you can stroll next to it?’ Naturally, we had expected that we would be dragged out of our van and onto a jetski the moment we drove in.
At first glance, it looks like a more busy Wanaka. A beautiful lake, mountains all around, and houses dotted all over the surrounding hills. You can notice the traffic slowing down from kilometres away, the first time in a long time we had seen queues not caused by sheep on the track. The town centre itself is very small, and full of tourists wandering past outdoor shops while waiting for a bus or boat to leave. There is a nice park on a peninsula with flowers and frisbees, and views of the lake. The lake itself is buzzing with activities: go on various boat tours, kayak, or whizz over the water in any vehicle you can think of (we were most puzzled by what seemed to be a giant shark with a human inside).
Since this is New Zealand, peace and quiet is never far away, and we found it on the Ben Lomond walk. You can either start this from the top of the gondola, or, if you are both extremely athletic and thrifty, you can walk uphill for an extra 45 minutes to get to the start. No need to tell you what we did.
The walk starts gently through thick pine forest and then more exposed hills. The peak of Ben Lomond, at 1748 meters high, was hiding in a thick cloud most of the way, but looked imposing none the less. The last bit of the hike is scrambling up to the top. The only person we saw coming down said it was very cold and windy up top, and that he had waited for an hour but not seen anything.
When we reached the top, we found some other hikers there who seemed to be surviving. We all found a relatively wind-free spot to have lunch and discuss our chances of a view, other hikes we have known, and New Zealand in general. Our patience was rewarded: after a bit of a wait, the cloud suddenly evaporated very quickly, and revealed mountain ranges all around. When we made our way down again, we were loaded with travel tips and spectacular photos.
During our time in Wanaka we had become obsessed with Patagonia ice cream, so naturally we were delighted to find out that Queenstown had two more branches. We even went on a pilgrimage to nearby Arrowtown, the home of the original Patagonia. It was just as delicious as the other locations, but we were glad we'd done our research. For science.
The final time we were in Queenstown was to do a 10k run with our friends Steve and Ana. The tension had been ramped up by an endless stream of emails from the organisation and their commercial partners in the weeks leading up to it. We had tried to avoid too many strenuous hikes in the run up to it so as not to not be too tired. We'd even done the odd training run on top of our park runs to prepare.
One thing we did not do when race day came was to try hard to be in the right starting position. There were a lot more runners than there was room for in the official starting areas, so we ended up starting with runners of all abilities, including little groups of loud, chatting walkers. As a result, we could overtake people almost for the full ten kilometres, which was very encouraging. By the time we started running through the park on the peninsula there were encouraging signs about how most of the work was done. The cheerful signs did not mention an unexpected big hill just before the finish, which was definitely the most work of the whole race. But we made it over the finish line under our target times, so everything ended well.
The organisation of the run was generally great: we could pick up the bags we had dropped ten kilometres back without much of a wait. However, compared to some other runs, the post-run food available was not very varied. We all got sticky blue energy drinks, and there were buckets of Nature Valley energy bars, but that was about it. Then we saw it, gleaming in the morning sun: a Patagonia ice cream stand. A final Queenstown experience to disperse all our fears.