Thursday, April 24, 2008

Queenstown Part I

Our new dynamic is very interesting. Letizia and Giovanna take turns at sitting up front, and both of them have their guide books open. Letizia has the book of lies, Giovanna has a french guide. They cross-check accommodation, restaurants and activities for the next stop on the Magical Mystery Tour. Nina and Sara, as ever, divide their attention between books, Nintendo DSs and the scenery. My job, apart from driving and navigation, is to occasionally bore the crap out of everyone by delivering historical sermons based on whatever I've been reading recently on New Zealand. I take this job seriously, and so try to maintain a kind of plummy, condescending tone. Don't feel so smug - it'll be your turn next.

The stop-off in Lake Tekapo was just intended to break up the journey from Christchurch to Queenstown, but it was worth the trip. The lake view from our motel included a backdrop of mountain peaks, recently coated with light snowfall. Down the road from us was a tiny little stone chapel whose alter was backed by a large window that looked out onto the lake. Guidebooks informed us that the perspective on the lake from that window was unique, but the church was in use during our visit. So we, and all the other visitors to the lake that evening, had to make do with the infinity of other unique perspectives on the lake that were on offer. I found the fixation with the church quite odd. The was a concentration of tourist buses which parked outside this little chapel - which really was no bigger than a motel bedroom - so that visitors could pile into a little stone hut and look out on a lake which, if they would just come back out of the stone hut, they would see just as well and without any obstruction (other than that of the little stone hut itself).

We reached Queenstown on day 2, in the darkness, after a relaxed drive that included many stops for photo opportunities. It seemed that around every corner was a different country, and Letizia and Giovanna were kept busy. As ever, on Letizia's blog you'll see plenty of excellent photos of where we've been, and if you read italian (or indeed use Google's site translation service) you'll be able to follow here unique perspective on our trip (without having to file into a little stone church). At this point I have to confess, that whatever the results of the poll on Kiwi extreme activities might result in, we're likely to just go ahead and do (or not do) our own thing. So which Jet Boating is coming in last on the poll, that's what we did first. Not just Jet Boating, but a day trip that took us out to Glenorchy (West of Queenstown and on the same lake), included a 4wd drive to a nearby forest, a short guided walk through that forest, and then a jetboat run up and back down the Dart River. It was money very well spent. Apart from the fact that it was a group activity, we also learned a lot of interesting things as we went along.

The forest that we visited includes a tree called the Red Beech which has some interesting behaviour (if a tree can be said to exhibit behaviour). There's very little topsoil around Glenorchy, and competition between trees can be fierce. The forest has a high and full canopy so the only chance for young trees to stake their own claim is when an older tree falls and leaves a gap up there. The saplings then have to grow upwards like crazy, with no thought for stability, in order to be first to reach the sun. Only when they get there do they start to put on a bit of weight - new growth takes place around the thin girth of the successful sapling. Because it grows from the inside, it also dies from the inside. Old trees are completely hollow all the way up their lengths by the time they finally expire. A byproduct of this race is the saplings ability to stay young and small for years, keeping its powder dry until that vital gap opens up. There have been examples of little 'saplings' that are more than 50 years old.

Part of the bushwalk included a vist to a mocked up Maori encampment, where we were shown a thing or two about bushcraft. One thing that caught my attention was a trick for moving fire embers from one camp to another (saves on lighter fluid I guess). A kind of large fungus (about the same shape and dimensions as a casserole dish) that grows on the sides of trees was buried under the campfire. In the morning it was dug up and was cold enough to handle. But when making camp again that evening, the Maori would break open the fungus where the ember of the previous night's heat still glowed. Some clever bugger figured that one out a long time ago.

We left the forest and drove across the river bed to where the jetboat was waiting to knock all that education out of us. We were able to drive across, as the rivers in these parts are of a type known as braided river systems (only found in NZ, Australia and another country whose name got dislodged from my memory during the subsequent jetboat ride). Again, because of the poor topsoil, the rivers here spread themselves wide rather than digging in. They rise after rainfall, but when the levels fall away again, the river settles down each time into different channels through the mostly dry river bed. The name 'braided' is a good way to describe the visual effect: a stone and gravel strip with rivulets of water weaving back and forth across the its width. The water in places is only ankle deep - but that's all a jetboat needs. Invented in New Zealand not as an extreme sport but as a way for landowners to navigate otherwise unnavigable rivers, they are simple but clever machines. There are no outer propellers. The titanium hull has a water inlet facing forwards and a directable nozzle facing back. Water is sucked from one point to the other at a rate of hundreds of litres a second, creating an extremely directional propulsive force. A picture or two demonstrates the effect of being on board for an hour and a half.

We chilled out, and dined out, in Queenstown that evening, but only after an hour spent watching people throw themselves off a bridge just outside the town. Some decisions had to be made. Would Letizia jump?

More soon.

No comments: