The Queenstown area is one of those parts of New Zealand which tourists seem to flock to in justifying the ridiculous long-haul flights down under… I really can’t blame them as this was my home before I left to travel, the part of the country to which I felt curiously drawn ever since visiting on a family holiday at the age of 16.
Maybe it was the jagged mountain ranges enclosing the tiny resort town, which can receive powder snow dustings even in the middle of the summer. Perhaps it had something to do with Lake Wakatipu, an unfathomably deep expanse of chilly water, which snakes through the alps towards the river basin of Glenorchy and the Beech forests of (I kid you not) Paradise. Also known to Lord of the Rings fans as Lothlórien. One part of the pull was definitely the pulsing ebb and flow of tourists from far-off and fascinating lands, all equally fascinated by our sleepy and picturesque land.
Early January. As the Air New Zealand A320 descended out of the clouds on a flight path which runs eerily close to the glacial-carved valley features, I was excited.
Aside from that family trip, I had never been to Queenstown as a tourist. It was eventually a newspaper reporter position which took me there, an all-consuming occupation in such a small, close-knit community where sirens calling the volunteer firefighters to action also means a reporter must ready for news.
I had watched, and not with little jealously, as the holiday-makers relaxed, partied and scared themselves silly by bungee-jumping, as my peers worked in bars, restaurants and on the ski-lifts and lived a carefree lifestyle by the lake. I met these travellers, heard stories of their home countries and, having befriended them, saw them leave again and again… So it was that I decided I had to leave, to travel myself.
On my return, I was only in town for five minutes before I was spotted by Scoop, the chief news hound of our old newspaper rivals, The Mountain Scene. Mustafa, my go-to-man for falafel and Mike, owner of hole-in-the-wall pie shop ‘Humble Pie’ and a few local buddies were still in their usual haunts and as good for a chat as ever.
I booked into a youth hostel and joined the flow of tourists drifting through the compact town centre, from beach to the fast food shrine of Fergburger, to bar after bar filled with young things fortifying themselves with beverages before throwing themselves out of planes the next day.
A few bar names had changed, the expat crush had refreshed itself as it is wont to do in such a transient environment and tourist operators and property developers were making merry business.
In short, Queenstown hadn’t changed one bit.
I climbed a little-used track near my old flat in Sunshine Bay, to revisit the spot where I always used to sit over the lake and contemplate.
Three years ago, while sitting there at dusk, I made the decision to leave. Once again, watching the late evening light wash over Cecil Peak, I knew that as much as I loved Queenstown, it was the right thing to do. And this time I had a plan, a home and a life already carved out to return to.
A day after I arrived, I was sitting in the Queenstown Gardens, struggling through a German book in the shade when a cold canine nose interrupted my reading, accompanied by a friendly lick. It was another old friend, Tui and looking up, I saw my father and step-mum for the first time in years.
We drove back through the dry and golden Gibbston Valley, both a beautiful sight, filled with vineyards, and a sobering reminder of the extremely dry summer New Zealand has had. We followed rivers through gorges and passed countless roadside fruit stalls before reaching the Central Otago town of Alexandra.
It’s known for its extreme temperatures, cherries and other stone fruits in the summer and a grand array of weathered mountain ranges, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. This is big sky country and it did not disappoint, with the days reaching up to 33 degrees celsius, the nights clear and star-studded.
There I passed the best part of a week on my father’s orchard of experimental pecan trees, combating the heat with dips in the irrigation dam, being fed piles of delicious food, and having daily reminders as to where I get my questionable sense of humour from. After making dozens of important transport connections and reunions in a matter of weeks, it was a vital catch-up not just with my family, but with myself.
Already my New Zealand journey was beginning to draw to an end and my thoughts were turning to Europe once again, but there was one final stop left…