We left Sydney early this morning to catch a flight to Brisbane, then on to Queenstown, NZ, a 3-hour flight across the stretch of Pacific separating Australia from New Zealand. (To the annoyance of Kiwis everywhere, Americans — and probably Europeans — tend to think of Australia and NZ as being sorta the same place, in much the same saw that East Coast residents tend to think that LA and San Francisco are next door to each other.)
New Zealand consists of two long skinny islands, accurately if rather unimaginatively named North Island and South Island. South Island is where you find all the glaciers and Lord of the Rings-style alpine scenery, and is our first destination. In particular, we are now in Queenstown, located near the lower end of South Island.
The scenery here will knock your eyes out; if there is some kind of cosmic balance of beauty, then there are at least a half dozen hideous places on Earth who got that way during Creation because all their beauty got redirected to Queenstown. Here are two shots from our point-and-shoot camera (my wonderful goodbye gift from all my NASA friends) out the window of the plane as we approached the town:
(Alas, the gadget that I had been using to download photos from my big camera onto the iPad has gone a little wonky, so for these blog posts I am now limited to shots from the iPad itself and occasionally the point-and-shoot.)
They do not call these mountains the Southern Alps for nothing. Queenstown itself is very small, with a population of something like 20,000, nestled against Lake Wakatipu, a transcendently azure body of water — as all New Zealand lakes, sounds, and littoral waters seem to be — that is cold, very deep, and straight out of a travelogue. It is ringed by the aforementioned snowcapped Alps, and in general has the ambience of a ski resort town, which is exactly what it is. The only real difference is that it has a very contemporary Northern European style of architecture rather than the fake Bavarian or Swiss stuff you see in just about every other ski town (except in Bavaria or Switzerland, where it isn’t quite as fake).
The weather at the moment is mostly sunny and pretty cool (60’s), very pleasant and frankly a welcome change from sweltering Australia. It is early spring at the moment, and ski season has ended. There are a number of ski resorts in the surrounding mountains, but one of the major attractions in Queenstown itself is a ski-type gondola that goes up the side of the mountain at the edge of town. We did this as soon as we arrived in order to get a panoramic view of the area while the weather is still good (it may change in the next few days). It was well worth it: the gondola goes up about 1500′ above the town, and the view is utterly spectacular, like a cross between Switzerland and Norway.
There’s a restaurant at the top, of course, with prices to match the altitude and as stunning as the view, so we decided to eat in town. The are other activities up there as well: a very high bungee jump platform (uh, no), mountain bike trails down to the bottom, and a sort of mini-luge ride that let’s you go zooming for a few hundred yards down a special curvy path with fun-looking banked switchbacks. Mountain biking in particular seemed popular; there were quite a few teenagers and twenty-something’s, mostly male but not all, who loaded their mountain bikes onto the outside of the gondola cars in order to ride them down the mountain. We didn’t see any ambulances so I assume that all of them made it.
Our schedule for the next couple of days is a bit odd, and we will be offline for a day or two. Tomorrow we are setting sail (literally) across Doubtful Sound on an overnight boat trip. (Doubtful Sound is on the western coast of the island, and is so named named because Captain James Cook felt, incorrectly, that it was too narrow and hazardous for his ships to navigate inland.). We return the following night to Queenstown, then set off by train across the Alps, with a hike across Franz Josef Glacier, en route to Christchurch in the northeastern part of the island. So I will report back when I can….