Take a run and jump. Queenstown (and Wanaka), New Zealand
Before we even set foot on New Zealand soil I was dying to get back to Queenstown, the spectacular mountain setting for what had once been the greatest 8½ seconds of my life. You would imagine that 8½ seconds is so small a portion of time that it could hardly even be measured but as the Kiwis know, the right 8½ seconds can last a lifetime.
It has to be said that I wasn’t always a willing participant in what was to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. At the start it sounded like a great idea but as the time grew closer and closer, jumping out of a glass-floored metal shed suspended 134m above a canyon by a few wires started to sound a little risky. Sure there would be a rope tied to my feet but what if it snapped? What if it was even a few metres too long? What if I jumped wrong – feet first – and when I got to the bottom I was whipped around like a ragdoll? As the staff at Nevis Bungy (the third highest bungy jump in the world) tied straps around my ankles and instructed me to wave to the camera, the colour drained out of my face, my stomach lept up to replace my voicebox and my limbs turned to jelly. I could do it though, I could definitely do it. I shuffled out of my chair and walked the plank out over the open canyon, glancing down between my feet. I thought I could see a river coursing its way along the valley somewhere far far far far far below me but I couldn’t be sure.
Scratch that, there was no way I could do this. As I turned to run away I felt a sharp jab in my ribs and then before I knew what was happening there was no plank, no glass-floored cabin and for all I knew, no rope. Stretching my arms out in front of me I twisted into a swan dive and I was flying not falling. In that moment was totally weightless, fearless and alone. So wonderfully, beautifully alone.
At that precise moment I wasn’t the only person having a life-affirming experience in Queenstown. Across the small town people just like me were hurling themselves off bridges and ledges, swinging into canyons, rowing for their lives against violent currents of frothing water, throwing themselves out of planes, dangling from cliff faces and racing off the end of ski and snowboard ramps. It’s not for nothing that Queenstown is often referred to as the adrenaline capital of the world afterall.
Returning was always going to be a different experience. Without my Dad’s credit card I was going to have to practice a measure of restraint completely unfamiliar to me (not to mention unfamiliar to Gary Boylan, the backpacker who spent €1,800 of his limited budget on a camera). On the other hand we had Claire and Laura for company so that other wonderful aspect of Queenstown was about to open up – the side that came out when the moon came up, the snowboarders and skiiers came down from their slopes and the adrenaline junkies got over their buzzes.
As it turns out Queenstown on a shoestring looks very different to the Queenstown you see in brochures. By day it is still that same fantastic low rise little town, nestled snuggly in the bossoms of nearby snow-capped mountains. Only now that I see it at 2pm, it’s eerily quiet. By the boardwalk a girl is walking her dog, two backpackers are feeding leftover chips to some ducks and some young kids with gloved hands are sipping hot chocolate outside Patagonia Cafe. Everyone else must be skydiving, rafting, bungy jumping or hangliding. Everyone except for us that is. Just as we start to sulk over our trip once again becoming defined by the things that we cannot do rather than the things that we can, we remember that there is still one semi-affordable rush left in Queenstown.
For $45 we could ride the Sky Gondola up to the tippy top of Queenstown, hop on a plastic wheeled sled and race each other down almost-vertical dips, around hairpin turns and in a few cases nearly over the edge of the mountain on the infamous Luge. With the wind rushing in our hair, cracks in the concrete rattling our bones and the threat of a quick, bone-shattering death lurking around every corner we were finally seeing the real Queenstown.
Our fun-filled experience continued that night when we met Claire and Laura for drinks in Adrenaline bar where a vertical bungy challenge left backpackers being dragged across the floor while trying not to spill their cocktails; World Bar which was crammed with people trying to bag free teapots (full of booze not tea of course) on the $1,000 bar tab; and Buffalo Bar which was shoulder to shoulder. After seeing so little life in the north Island and then on our brief stint in Christchurch, it was good to be out meeting people and having that same old backpacker conversation again – “So how long have you been in NZ for? Where were you before? Where are you going after.” I never thought I’d be so happy to hear those tired old questions.
The next day I was to discover that there is only one real cure for a merciless hangover – a trip to Wanaka’s Cinema Paradiso. To be frank, Wanaka is a lot like a smaller, more community-based version of Queenstown. It has a lovely lake, great skiing, endless amounts of adrenaline-based sports and apparently an interesting nightlife.
Wanaka’s most interesting attraction though, is in the quirkiest little cinema I have ever seen. Delighted with our timing, Gary and I showed up for one of the first showings of Shrek 4 (good but not great – we reckon it’s like the 2nd one in that it needs a second watch) and bagged the last two tickets. Within 20 minutes of arriving in town we were sitting in a small room, curled up on a couch with a box of popcorn and some homemade white chocolate and Baileys ice-cream. All around us people were sitting in similar mix-and-match kitsch couches with their shoes off and feet up, casting an occasional eye on their kids who were sprawled out on floor cushions at the front or crowded into the topless yellow vintage car that had been gutted, brought inside and fitted out with plush sofas. Staff from the adjoined cafe were running around delivering cappucinos and taking orders for full meals to be delivered at the intermission.
The best part of the stamp-sized cinema though was the toilets and cafe tables which were covered in old school movie posters like some fantastic papier mache project. It was no bungy jump to be sure but Cinema Paradiso has all the ingredients of a memorable experience.
There are more pictures from Queenstown and Wanaka available in the gallery