Fit for a queen


It was windy, rainy and cold as we stepped on to the tarmac at Queenstown airport — quite a dampener, literally and figuratively.

Queenstown is the adventure sports capital of New Zealand, but at that moment, going by the weather, all the carefully orchestrated plans of paragliding, river rafting, bungee jumping and sky diving seemed to be getting blown away.

We were a bunch of sad sacks, but only till we entered the airport. The airport was bustling with skiers and sports enthusiasts and cheerful tourists. Maybe all was not lost. It was not.

To begin with, Queenstown is, quite simply, very beautiful. It stands serenely, on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, the third largest lake in New Zealand, with snow capped mountains in the background.

Lake Wakatipu, nestled in a single, glacier-carved trench, is unique in that it actually has a tide of sorts. This tide is attributed to its peculiar Z-shape which causes the water in it to rise and fall by 10 cm, every 25 minutes. Maori legend has it that this is due to the heartbeat of a huge monster named Matau, who is in deep slumber in the depths of the lake.

Incidentally, the Maoris are credited with the distinction of being the discoverers and first settlers of New Zealand and retain their distinct identity to this day. Towns and streets in New Zealand still bear Maori names which are very quaint and unpronounceable. Names in Queenstown themselves are unusual and interesting. One of the mountains where much of the skiing action takes place is called ‘The Remarkables’, one of the two rivers that feeds the lake is called Shotover River and the arterial street is called Shotover Street.

 Queenstown has a very interesting history. Way back in 1862, deposits of gold were discovered in the Arrow and Shotover Rivers and this led to a great influx of miners who descended on the town which used to be called ‘Canvas Town’.

Civilisation followed, the town developed rapidly and subsequent European settlers came to Canvas Town to graze and breed their cattle after the miners had left. The deposits of gold and the rapid prosperity of the region prompted some of the miners to pronounce the region ‘Fit for the Queen (Victoria)’ and since then Canvas Town is known as Queenstown.

Tourism seems to be the prime source of income. While its population stands at a mere 22,000, Queenstown receives more than 100 times the figure as visitors. Ergo, a great deal of thought seems to have gone into the tourist infrastructure in Queenstown.

When we stepped into the gondola that was to take us to the top of Bob’s Peak, it was with a ho-hum, been-there-done-it air. After all a gondola is just a gondola, whether it is in Singapore or Queenstown. However, as the gondola began its gradual ascent amidst beautiful flora, fauna and ferns (the national symbol of New Zealand), it unfurled before us a breathtaking panorama of the lake, the snow capped mountains, and the entire town of Queenstown.

The ropeway, we realised, had been constructed on that side of the peak that would give the best view of all three. It is also in Queenstown that A J Hackett created the first bungee jumping facility in the world. The jet boat facility at Kawarau River is the first commercial jet boat business in the world.

Queenstown has four mountain ranges which attract skiers and snow boarders from all over, during winter. Skydiving and paragliding, jet boating and river rafting in Queenstown are said to be among the best in the world, a fact that was borne by the extreme caution that was repeatedly stressed upon, during the briefings preceding these activities.

Creativity unlimited

Another unique attraction of Queenstown was the Puzzling World of Stuart Landsborough. While the initial response was to liken it to the Mystery Spot in California, Puzzling World was all that and more. It burst upon us suddenly, as we were busy admiring the beautiful drive up the Crown Range of mountains, with a tower that seemed to be teetering on the edge of itself — the Leaning Tower of Puzzling World.

This, we discovered, was just the beginning of a mind-boggling array of illusions and perceptual oddities, right from a downward sloping billiards table where the ball climbed upwards to the people using the Roman toilet (I would be giving away the secret if I said anymore!) and the world’s largest two-storied maze with both.

We marvelled at the three-dimensional holograms, racked our brains over impossible puzzles kept at each table in the cafeteria, and goggled at the Ames Room, into which we entered as dwarfs and crossed over as giants.

Finally, we emptied our pockets on the most unusual memorabilia like a rope that holds a full bottle of wine in just a simple knot, pens that levitates, and the most unusual Backwards Clock in which, even the seconds hand, the minutes hand and the hour hand move in the anti-clockwise direction marking the time on numbers that are also written in the anti-clockwise direction. People call Stuart Landsborough an eccentric, but his Puzzling World would seem most sane to the intellectually inclined as well as to the whacky.

For some unknown reason, the Puzzling World does not figure on tourist packages offered in New Zealand, but the verdict is unanimous that it must be a non-negotiable part of any trip to Queenstown.

Time constraints compelled us to prioritise our activities. Sadly, we could not visit Milford Sound, which is said to be so beautiful that Rudyard Kipling described it as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.

Also, we could not visit Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand, and the orchards and wineries, all of which are within a stone’s throw from Queenstown. However, we did spot the locations where the Lord of the Rings movies were shot, and yes, the weather did clear and we did go river rafting and paragliding.

However, the fact remains that Queenstown offers a great deal more than just adventure sports.

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