A Most Productive Study BreakChristchurch, Fall 2010

Alternate titles: “Spectacular Train Rides Are Becoming a Weekly Thing Here”, “I Fell Out of an Airplane…and Lived!”, “Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in As Many Weeks”.

It’s exam time now. Last week was a study week for me (no exams), so I did what any sensible university student would do. I left.

I hopped on a bus bright and early Saturday morning and headed down to Dunedin, the South Island’s most historic city. Settled by Europeans (Scots, in this case) in 1848 and incorporated in 1855, Dunedin (after Dùn Èideann, the Gaelic name for Edinburgh) was one of New Zealand’s first cities, and, as far as I can tell, one of the only major cities in the world never to have had at least one major, omni-destructive fire since its incorporation. The result? History! It survives and people respect it and it was not burned! The city is very 19th-century British – many alleys, hills, old churches, chimneys, row houses, Victorian stuff, etc. It is all built around a central “Octagon”, which basically amounts to a large roundabout in the center of the city with a small park in the centre, church and town hall to one side, the city’s best food on another, and shopping down the four streets radiating in the cardinal directions. It’s really quite lovely.

I was dropped off at the train station around 1:30 and, not having anything planned, popped in for a look because, well, it was a really pretty building. I saw a pamphlet for a scenic ride through central Otago and bought a ticket. I had an hour, so I walked up to the Octagon and back down to the station, stopping briefly at a small, European hotel-type establishment to book a room. I boarded the train, which was nice enough – though pulled by modern diesel, the carriages were antique, all built between 1915 and 1923. The ride was quite spectacular. It was a winding track through the Taieri Gorge, and we were most often on high, shear cliffs above the river below. The ride took a total of about four hours as we headed from Dunedin inland to Pukerangi, a tiny station on a dirt road where some people were picked up by small buses to continue the journey over to Queenstown, and back. We passed through ten tunnels and over twelve viaducts, including the largest wrought iron structure in the southern hemisphere.

The following morning I woke up and walked all around the city. I went to see the world’s steepest road (Baldwin St – not actually that impressive, but very difficult to run up), the botanical gardens (New Zealand’s first), the various points of historical interest, and then I just walked. Up hills, down hills, through alleys – if something up a road caught my eye, I just went that way until I was distracted by something else! It was most relaxing. In the afternoon I visited New Zealand’s only castle. Though it’s not actually a castle and the original owner himself called simply “the camp” (a bit of an understatement as you’ll see), it was an imposing but pleasant structure. Sort of like a castle adapted to more a more moderate climate, with porches and lovely gardens and so on.

The following day I checked out of my hotel and boarded another bus, this time headed for Queenstown, the supposed Adventure Capital of the World. Though Queenstown has a permanent population of only about 10,o00, they get, on average, an influx of 4,000 visitors a day. I could see why the second I stepped out of the bus. In all directions you could see snow-capped mountains and sheer cliffs, and the town sits right on the 80 km-long glacial Lake Wakatipu, which is fed and drained by several rivers. There was certainly no shortage of things to do. I had booked activities for Tuesday and Wednesday in advance but I had nothing to do when I got there, so I jumped on a boat and took an hour-long cruise around the near end of the lake. I ate a steak dinner at a bar on the water while I studied for one of my exams and people-watched, and it was quite satisfying. After dinner I took the Skyline Gondola up a hill outside of town and got some spectacular views of the city, mountains, and lake as the sun set.

Tuesday morning I woke up with butterflies in my stomach. I was just a wee bit nervous – I was going skydiving. Where better to do it, I asked myself during the previous week ,when I had booked. Nowhere, I responded. And I booked. And it was good. Anyway, I ate a small breakfast and headed to the company’s HQ where I had to sign some forms, and then a van took a group of us out to the drop zone some 20 minutes out of town. It was a beautiful spot – right out in the country side with mountains and green pastures all around. The weather was perfect – cloudless and warm. They only took three divers (and instructors) up at a time, so I had a bit of wait, but eventually my time came. I suited up and, together with a nice Australian couple, got in the tiny, cramped airplane, closed the sliding door, and headed into the air.

(In case you, oh reader, decide to partake in this activity, having never done so before, I won’t describe it. I will simply say that it was incredibly thrilling and the scenery from 12,000 ft was spectacularly amazing – especially with no windows in the way)

I arrived back in Queenstown at about 1:00 pm feeling exceptionally elated. With a free afternoon and gorgeous weather I headed into the visitor centre to see what else there was to do. After some deliberation and quick rejection of $170 Lord of the Rings Tours and even more expensive bungy jumping (which I really would have liked to do… *sigh*), I opted for a horse trek in the small (as in, pop. 200) town of Glenorchy at the other end of the lake. 15 minutes later a bus came by to pick me and one other person up and we headed 45 minutes west into a beautiful braided river valley comfortably squeezed between the mountains. The ride was amazing. It was leisurely and comfortable, my horse was exceptionally well-behaved, and the scenery was, of course, brilliant. We rode through rivers, bush, scrub – pretty everything. Our guide was a Swiss insurance company founder who left Switzerland to come live off the land in New Zealand. She lived in tent off the back of her van, hunted and grew her own food, and rode horses, and that’s pretty much it. Awesome.

When I got back to Queenstown it was around dinner time, so I headed to Fergburger, the self-proclaimed makers of the world’s best burger. I don’t know if I’d say best, but was awfully good and, as an added bonus, it was probably the cheapest meal in town.

Wednesday I took a bus tour down to Milford Sound in Fiorland National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site). The sound was very majestic, even though it was quite grey and rainy outside. It consisted of several mountains, all of which had steep sides plunging straight into the water, hundreds of waterfalls – my description definitely won’t do it justice. The pictures won’t really, either, but they’ll do a better job than I will.

Thursday I was due to head back to Christchurch. My bus didn’t leave until the afternoon, so I went for a jetboat ride in the morning. For those of you who don’t know what a jetboat ride is, take a paddle boat and put on two jet pumps, each capable of expelling 400 litres of water per second. What you get is a boat that can travel almost 100 km/h in water only 10 cm deep. It makes for a pretty exciting ride in rivers, swamps, etc. When I finished that I decided to take a bit of a walk on one of the numerous tracks around the town. On my way out I ran into several friends who had gotten in the previous night. After talking for about an hour they headed into town and I continued up toward the base of the mountains to walk along a creek track. At one point I came to an unlabeled junction and thought I’d take the unmarked track for a little ways, just to see where it went. About an hour later I found myself at the top of the gondola, so I caught a ride back down, met my friend and flatmate in town (he had been camping in Milford Sound) and we got on a bus and headed back to Christchurch.

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