Since arriving in Queenstown, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I don’t get out much, and by “out,” I don’t just mean this town itself, but even my little world in Queenstown. From my flat to Premier Taste across the street, from the supermarket down Shotover Street, left on Camp, right onto the Queenstown Mall to Wattie’s, from Wattie’s to Bardeaux, then home. Wake up, repeat, with the intermittent visit to the pharmacy or Starbucks thrown in, when time allows. This sort of tunnel vision can be partly attributed to working seventy to eighty hours a week, and partly because of “limited resources,” i.e. no car and a refusal to pay six dollars for one local bus ride. It’s a matter of principles, people! And, of course, being unwilling to part with the money I’ve yet to go up the mountain (Q-Town talk for hit the slopes) or take part in your standard adventure activities – no skydiving, no paragliding, and most ashamedly of all, no bungy jumping!
But, that being said, it’s not like I haven’t done anything. Every so often, I’ve had the chance to venture outside my ever-predictable routine. One such occasion came about a month into my time in Queenstown. When I started work at Premier Taste, I didn’t entirely know whether or not to expect to make the best of friends there – at least, I was simply unsure of the “friend potential.” But as it turned out, there was an English girl my age named Britney I got to know well within a week of work. It just so happened Britney had recently bought a car and was keen for some exploring the various areas surrounding Queenstown. First up was Glenorchy, a little town we’d both vaguely heard was “cute.” One Saturday, my shift at Premier Taste had been cut, so we set out, traveling out along Lake Wakatipu, tracing the water’s edge for about fifty kilometers until we passed a roadside sign proclaiming: “Welcome to Glenorchy: Gateway to Paradise.” But welcome to what, exactly? Before we began to think the Paradise bit was just some sort of cruel joke by the Glenorchy City Council, we later found out Paradise is actually another town after Glenorchy – which, let me be clear, was not a paradise. We pass by an iSite information center and Britney and I start looking at each other, both of us too afraid to ask, “So what is so ‘cute’ about this?”
Because quite frankly, there didn’t seem to be a heck of a lot going on in Glenorchy, a “small settlement nestled in spectacular scenery,” as Wikipedia describes it. As we drove down the main street, we counted all of three commercial establishments (okay fine, more like five or six – two restaurants, two cafes, a gift shop, and a petrol station) before parking in a gravel lot and walking towards the wharf, which should not be imagined as anything more than a small wooden dock extending into the lake. However there was a small building next to the dock that made for a few lovely photos with its wooden slats been painted a barn red and a white sign with “GLENORCHY” on it hung above the door. We then moved on to the three other streets in the town, where we stumbled across the Glenorchy Library, possibly the world’s smallest library, a seafoam-green, tin-roofed building open only from 3-5pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. Next door was the town’s museum with a sign on the door that read:
“Our small museum will be open on most Sundays through until Easter from 1pm to 3pm. If you would like to visit at other times, please phone Elaine or Ronda.”
If you’re noticing a pattern, namely the repetition of the word ‘small,’ trust me – it’s not a result of a limited vocabulary, but a deliberate attempt at making sure you don’t miss my point. That’s the thing about New Zealand though – this country is constantly redefining my perceptions of what ‘small’ is. After London, even Christchurch and it’s some 360,000 residents seemed like a huge adjustment. It’s been a constant process of downsizing ever since Christchurch, which now seems as big as New York City after places like Greymouth, Queenstown, and most especially Glenorchy. But no matter the size, one thing’s for certain about any New Zealand town – it will undoubtedly have a war memorial. And sure enough, right next to the public restrooms and across the street from the smallest post office you ever will see, was the Glenorchy War Memorial, built “in memory of those who gave their lives in the Empire’s cause, 1914-1920.” At least some things can be counted on these days.
We finished up our riveting excursion with lunch at the Glenorchy Hotel, the pub to ourselves and the burger and mocha the highlight of the day, hands down – certainly more exciting than our brief walk around the Glenorchy Lagoon, which would be more appropriately identified as a bog or marsh. The overcast skies didn’t help transform the grey water or brown, bushy landscape into anything more striking. But, let it be said, at least we went and can now speak with more authority the next time someone goes on about how “cute” Glenorchy is. For example, an older guy came down my checkout lane the other day and began telling me how crazy it gets in the Glenorchy pub on Friday nights, especially if there’s a live band on. As he walked off, all I could think was, “There’s no way. There’s literally no way.” Then again, it is New Zealand, where I’m slowly learning anything is possible.
The next day I headed off with a different crew down to Wanaka, a town of about 5,000 an hour from Queenstown. The main event of the night was a concert by a New Zealand-grown funk/reggae band called Kora. Heaps of hospo people from Queenstown were planning to flood into Wanaka to see the show and a couple of days earlier, a guy I met offered me an extra ticket, so I thought I’d tag along. The initial plan was to go down with him and his friends, but after I failed to wake up for the 8am departure time, I caught a later ride at a less painful hour with a girl from Wattie’s, two guys from a restaurant in town, and two guys who lead a pub crawl called Big Night Out. As we pulled out from the petrol station and got on the road, we agreed it was exactly what we all needed – a break, a night away from Queenstown, a chance to turn up the music, not say a word, and just drive.
We reached Wanaka in mid-afternoon, a stunning sun reflecting off the lake and the crisp air warm enough to lose our jackets for a while. Wanaka is undoubtedly a mini-Queenstown, literally half the size population-wise, also situated right on the edge of a lake surrounded by snow-capped Alps, with many of the same restaurants and bars and that same small-town-big-heart feeling to it. We settled down in a park by the lake with a few drinks and did nothing (except run over to a kebab shop for dinner) until the show. Everything was too nice about it to move – the weather, the lake, the friends – it doesn’t take much sometimes.
The show itself was epic, whether from being thrown onto a friend’s shoulders or seeing about half of Queenstown’s hospo crowd there, which of course begged the question of who was actually left at work for the night. Afterwards, I convinced one of the pub crawl leaders to buy me a mince pie from an all-night bakery before crashing on the bed in the campervan. I think I may have failed to mention earlier that while four of us drove to Wanaka in your average SUV, the two restaurant boys led the way in an amazing white campervan. The driver, a crazy Czech named Michal, wandered out of the Kora show at one point and met up with us after saying, “I’ve moved the van…It’s a surprise!” Which obviously thrilled us, as soon as we saw it wasn’t just outside the venue and had to spend twenty minutes running around town in search of it. But we came across it eventually and, even though I had a room booked a hostel, as soon as I saw that mattress my head hit the pillow. Apparently I was out as out can be, for the van was moved several times later during the night and I have no recollection of waking for any of it. I woke up in the morning and as I got out to use the public toilets across the street, one of the guys jokingly warned me, “Be careful, there’s normal people out there.” Stepping out of the van, I laughed to discover Michal had parked horizontally across two handicapped spaces. Classic.
When we went to move the cars later, the SUV wouldn’t start, and as all of us were too cheap to use our phone credit to call a mechanic, I ran into the information center – unshowered, of course, and with a beanie thrown over my hair – and begged a lovely woman named Gloria to use their phone. After a few moments of no one picking up the phone, Gloria sighed, “They’re probably on their lunch break. They do get one, you know.” “Of course,” I replied, “Everyone does.” “Not everyone,” she said. Ouch…hungry much? I finally reached a mechanic and got out of that iSite as fast as I could before upsetting Gloria anymore. The whole trip just had that Little Miss Sunshine magic to it, one of those weekends filled with random moments you won’t soon forget.
We tried several times to jump the car, but – per usual – it was the mechanic who got it on his first try. Thirty bucks for two minutes’ work – what a bargain! Despite the unexpected delay, we made it back to Queenstown in time for my shift at Wattie’s that night – and with that, it was back to the grind. So I was grateful for the chance a couple of weeks ago to pop out of town again with Britney to another little place called Arrowtown, a historic gold mining town about twenty minutes outside of Queenstown. Before milling about town, we went off to explore the Chinese mining settlement set up by the Department of Conservation to commemorate the 8,000 Chinese immigrants that came in the mid-1800s to work the goldfields of Otago-Southland and the West Coast. The settlement couldn’t have contained more than four or five actual buildings – Ah Lum’s general store, a few tin or straw-roofed huts, and the ruins of Ah Gum’s hut. Indeed, there were more official DOC placards explaining the history of the settlement than there were actual sites of interest. It had quite the air of desolution about it, each building set at a distance from another, and really made you sense the isolation the settlers were supposed to have felt.
From the settlement it was into the town center, which was thankfully much “cuter” than Glenorchy could ever hope to be. As it usually goes with particularly historic places, the local authority keeps a strict standard on the appearance of the town’s architecture, which definitely gives off that Wild West sort of vibe. But in the small details you can tell it was settled by Europeans and not rogue American cowboys – a red telephone booth next to the pharmacy, quaint village greens, even a red Edwardian posting box that appeared to be quite the tourist photo-op. But there’s not much else to Arrowtown than the historic avenue of Buckingham Street. Britney and I passed a group wandering about and overheard a girl ask, “So that’s it? Really?” It’s an oft-asked question, but if you don’t go, you won’t know, eh? Everyone who visits Arrowntown is told to have a pie at the Arrowtown Bakery, which we dutifully did even though I didn’t find anything especially remarkable about my mince and cheese pie. Lunch was followed by a quick look into the Lakes District Museum, where the only free exhibit was titled “Speaking of Chance” – a compilation of interviews with elderly residents of Arrowtown to provide an oral history of the town and region. A stroll down an avenue of trees protected by the district council – good to know someone’s looking out for them! – brought us back to the car and en route to Queenstown.
So whether traveling fifty kilometers to see there’s actually nothing to see, sleeping in an illegally-parked campervan, or retracing the steps of Chinese immigrants of an old mining town, it’s been good to have a little change of routine every now and then. It may not be much, but it is enough.