This was the longest drive on our itinerary, a 7 ½ hour drive to Queenstown. We decided we would stop and go, as we pleased. Early into the journey, we stopped at a place selling jade. We saw a marvelous bell chiselled out of deep green jade. It was beautiful. There were lots of other stones and shells and several interesting artifacts of which we bought a few things.
We approached Lake Wanaka at teatime so we decided to halt at Stuart Landsborough’s ‘The Puzzling World’ for tea and a much needed break. We were hungry and tired when we entered but the crazy architecture and amazing displays got the better of us and we were quickly immersed into trying to figure out the place.
The two most interesting areas were the Ames Forced Perspective Room and the Tilted House.
The technique of the illusion present in The Ames Room was used in The Lord of the Rings where exceptionally tall and short people were needed. The trick, I believe, is in replacing right angles in the design of the floor and ceiling, with trapezoids. The effect was marvellous. One appeared to grow and grow, as he/she moved from one end of what appeared to be a perfectly normal room to the other.
The second room was the Tilted House. Here, the room is tilted at an angle of 15 degrees. All the displays are normal, parallel to a straight floor and ceiling – but when you enter, your brain tells you that ‘straight’ is what the room is and everything else is tilted. The illusion was so powerful that I kept falling every few steps. It was hilarious!
Somewhere, among all the happy confusion, we remembered that we had stopped for a cup of tea and we were hungry, so we went to the Puzzling Café and between sips of tea and bites of muffins and scones, we frantically tried to solve all the puzzles lying around, each of us trying to outdo the other. It was as if we were back in school, competing with our fellow classmates!
We reached the lovely boutique hotel Queenstown House Hotel, late in the evening. Queenstown House was just that, a house, perched on top of one of the steep roads affording a lovely view of the lake and mountains. Our hostess was very friendly and helped us settle in and plan our time there.
Queenstown is the premier tourist destination in New Zealand. Some people call it the activity capital of the world. It is surrounded by the Southern Alps and rests on the shores of the lake Wakatipu giving the town the rare distinction of having mountains and a shoreline at the same time.
Lots of residential areas are in the hilly region and several roads are at a steep incline. The view one gets from any of these areas is quite fantastic. The lake is seen in the middle of the panorama and there are mountains all around with clouds floating just below the summits.
The morning following our arrival was overcast and rainy so to my great relief, the guys couldn’t go bungee jumping or skydiving. I must confess that I found those two sports very scary. Instead, we went for a ride on the Shotover Jet.
The Shotover Jet rides are located 6 kilometres away from Queenstown at Arthurs Point. They take you careening over the water canyons of Lake Wakatipu. It seemed to me that the boat was skimming the top of the water. To add to the momentum, our boatman Clive navigated the boat through several high-speed 360-degree turns and then immediately sent the boat almost crashing into the cliff -only to veer away at the last moment! We were living life on the edge! That ride must have been the fastest, bumpiest boat ride ever.
In the evening we decided to walk along the marina. We had heard of the ‘Minus 5 Degree Experience’ so we decided to take a look. The Minus 5 Degree is a pub that is completely made of ice. The furniture, the walls, the bar counter, even the glasses that one holds; are all made of ice. We had to pre-book our half hour slot so we did and we went in after we were given warm jackets to wear.
The interior looked like a winter fairyland. Everything was translucent ice! There were some fabulous ice sculptures. We were asked to set our ‘glasses’ down on mats because if we didn’t, they would slide off the counter and break, after all, ice on ice, slides! I had a non-alcoholic cranberry mocktail, which was delicious. The others had vodka-based cocktails. A half hour is about all that we could take of a -5 degree environment so we hurriedly rushed out when our time was up and stood in the warmth, slapping our hands together to get the blood circulating again. It was a lot of fun. Makes one wonder as to how do Eskimos deal with such a climate?
Very early next morning, a member of our party decided to go in for some aerobatics. He was out before we got up and was quite green when he returned. He said he had a very unique experience where the pilot of the plane took him up into the sky and executed all kinds of difficult manoeuvres. He faced six times the force of gravity as they did a vertical dive upwards and he claimed that his heart was nearly in his mouth when they dived vertically down. But he came off looking like a man who had accomplished something!
The rain continued that morning though we started having spells of sunshine. We took the Skyline Gondola, a cable car that took us to the top of a hill from where we got a spectacular view of the mountains and the lake. Over there we took a ski lift that took us higher up, to the beginning of the track of the Skyline Luge and we came hurtling down the track. The luge is a kind of mini sled on wheels and the ride downhill is very exciting.
The shopping experience in Queenstown was pleasant. There were lots of shops that sold Paua shell jewellery and most shops had merino wool garments. Many garments were a mix of merino wool, silk and possum fur. That made it very soft. The possum, which is protected in Australia, is considered a nuisance in New Zealand because it eats the kiwi bird eggs. Interestingly, flightless birds like the Kiwi and Penguin evolved because New Zealand was an isolated island environment for over 80 million years, free from any mammal predators. The birds simply did not need to fly away from anything!
When we woke up the next morning, it was bright and sunny and we were leaving for Dunedin. As a last ditch effort, we went down to the information centre and asked if we could take a helicopter ride and see the glaciers and probably do a snow landing. They answered in the affirmative and we were delighted. We packed our bags, loaded them in our car, checked out and left for the heliport. What followed was a spectacular 4 hour ride over the glaciers with one landing in knee deep snow and one landing when we stopped for a cup of coffee in a small little town somewhere below us. The panorama visible from a height of 12000 feet was to be seen to be believed. We flew among the clouds, over virgin snow covered peaks and over grass fields dotted with sheep. We flew around the tallest peak Mount Cook; we flew to the Franz Josef glacier for the snow landing and then finally returned to the heliport. It was late afternoon when we got into the car and began driving to Dunedin.
We reached Dunedin late in the evening after a 5-hour drive. If Westwood Lodge at Franz Josef was beautiful, Fletcher Lodge at Dunedin was spectacular. It looked like a mansion from a period movie, complete with suits of armour, huge chests and old fashioned, luxurious décor. Later on we discovered that the place is listed in New Zealand’s Historic Places Trust. Dunedin is New Zealand’s oldest city. In 1848, Scottish migrants established a town here and called it Edinburgh. Later on, the name was changed to ‘Dunedin’, which is the Celtic form of ‘Edinburgh’. Dunedin has a pronounced Scottish heritage. The city was slow to prosper initially but after the discovery of gold in Central Otago in the 1860s, Dunedin experienced rapid growth. The city of Dunedin has a population of around 120000. It claims to have the largest concentration of Victorian and Edwardian buildings. Indeed, wherever we looked, the buildings were predominantly Gothic, Palladian or Georgian in their architecture. The roads were broad and well laid and the city had a very clean and orderly feel to it.
Our hosts at the Fletcher Lodge pointed us in the direction of a vibrant Italian restaurant where they managed to get us a table for dinner even though it was packed. When we reached there, the restaurant was full of University students, I presume from the Otago University in Dunedin. The food served to us was excellent and the staff was very friendly.
The next day, we had to leave early in the morning because we began our journey home that evening. We packed our bags with heavy hearts, wishing we had had more time to spend at the Fletcher Lodge.
We were soon on our way to see the Larnach Castle, Dunedin’s only castle. The castle belonged to William Larnach until he took his life in Parliament House in 1898. After that the castle has been open for the public and as the pamphlets and literature will tell you, it houses many secrets. The sprawling gardens of the castle were simply beautiful. They overlooked the lake on one side and there was a forest on the other side.
We then stopped for lunch at the 1908 Café and Bar at Portobello in Dunedin. It had been a Post Office at the turn of the century and has a very old worldly feel about it. It was chilly so rather than sit in the garden, we chose to stay inside the restaurant.
The meal was scrumptious and the desserts were delectable. Thus renewed, we proceeded to the Penguin Place, which is the home of the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguin. Today, world over, there are no more than 4000 to 5000 of these birds and they are only found in New Zealand. These are the only penguin species that cannot be tamed. As a result, to protect them, Howard McGrouther set up this conservatory in 1985 with only 8 breeding pairs.
We were first taken to the penguin ‘hospital’ where the sick and injured birds were. There was one structure of a penguin with the wings held out that caught my attention. Wondering why they had this statue of a penguin amongst real ones, I asked our tour guide about it. To my surprise, he told me that that was no statue. It was a living, breathing penguin and had been standing like that for hours, to cool off and would probably stand like that for a few more hours! I mentally made a note of trying to stand that way when I felt hot in Mumbai!!
After that, we were taken into the covered trenches, which were built to hide us from the very shy penguins. We did sight a few of them in the wilderness. One of the penguins even obliged us by waddling out of the bush that he was cooling off in. The entire experience was informative and educating.
We then got back into our car and headed for the airport, to catch a flight to Auckland from where we would board a plane to come home to Mumbai. Each of us was lost in thought on the way, I suspect, promising ourselves that we would return soon.