Sunday, November 23, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 6

We were both not quite at our best for much of yesterday. I felt a bit overtired and also had the feeling of not enough downtime: obviously absurd, but a reflection of how much time I spend writing these notes and carrying out other such recurring self-imposed tasks. Ally has had a cold for the last several weeks. Then for the first half of yesterday, with the flight and then the bad weather, we felt deprived of fresh air. And we don’t quite feel we’ve been eating in the ideal way (I know, I know, isn’t that just called “being on vacation”…?) Anyway, I think a solid night’s sleep in our fine room, and a slower start today, dealt with much of that. The forecast suggests we should have two days of fine weather, with perhaps a few showers the day after that; it predicts things will decline immediately after our departure (just as they did in Auckland!)

We had breakfast in the hotel, took all the time we wanted, and left around noon, returning around seven hours later. We spent most of the intervening time climbing to Ben Lomond’s peak, some 1750m above the town. The official track to the summit starts from the top of the cable car, but we put ourselves at an early disadvantage by walking up from town instead (some of this stretch replicates the walk we did yesterday, and crosses the mountain bike paths at various points – they seemed quite heavily used today). The official route, not including that, lasts between 4 to 6 hours return. It’s fairly steep most of the way (the official material gives this a difficulty grading of “moderate’) and for the last hour becomes rocky and very steep (this section is “hard”). But at the end of that you do indeed reach an actual peak (not some manufactured fake peak with a platform or whatever) from which you can see for miles, above or at eye level with the clouds, and staring at vast expanses of sky, rock, snow and water, all stretching forever as if it had never been imagined that the world would need to contain anything else (for once, I think some of today’s photos may actually have captured the scale and the colours, despite my unsophisticated camera-handling).
Before we entered that final “hard” stretch, Ally was flagging and thinking seriously of turning back – she was saying I should go on alone, which of course I wasn’t going to do. We sat on a bench to eat our lunch (actually it’s the only bench on the entire walk, and just happened to show up as we were having this conversation) and then she felt able to give it another try, which ultimately led to her glorious triumph. So now whenever Ally is unsure of herself, I’m going to tell her to remember the bench. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is common to turn back though. It seems the route is most popular in the morning, because we passed a lot of people returning (maybe over fifty in total); we were at the summit at the same time as I think eight others (we reached it around 3.45). Only a few were still ascending when we returned (including a group of six very slow-moving girls, whom we’d passed hours earlier), which made sense because it wouldn’t be much fun to be there when it gets dark (the temperature drops off very heavily here too at night – that aside though the weather was great today, warm but not crippling, with a cooling breeze here and there, and perfect clarity in the air). Anyway, it was certainly faster coming back, despite the occasional strain on the knees (we were at the low end of the 4 to 6 hour range, given that the initial walk up to the starting point doesn’t count, but there were plenty of people moving faster than us), and we didn’t think it would undermine our achievement too much to take the cable car back down. Unsurprisingly, the “Skyline complex” as it’s called is a tacky place full of undemanding diversions; most of the visitors seemed to belong to Asian tour groups. At least the woman who sold us our tickets was impressed with our achievement. But of course, once the momentum broke, it was hard to get it back, so we were virtually staggering by the time we reached the hotel. Needless to say, we didn’t do much for the few hours after that.

Ally points out an article in which our hotel made the cut for one of the city’s notable attractions, saying it’s “set apart from the chain hotels and lodges that dominate Queenstown” and that it “started as a pet project for the original, design-loving owner-operators” who fitted out every suite with Eames recliners, Philippe Starck lighting and so forth (Ally keeps making fun of me for how much I like the fireplace). It’s certainly a wonderful place to spend time, especially when we can contrast this all-enveloping comfort with the self-imposed hardships of the day. It’s not hard to figure out how the features in the hotel get distributed – if there’s an Eames recliner, you can bet Ally will take that, and I’ll be at whatever desk works best for the laptop.

It occurred to me that I lied yesterday when I said I bought a stamp with a hobbit on it – it was actually Gandalf ($2). But I assume other denominations have hobbits. We ate at nearby Winnie’s, a straightforward beer and pizza joint where we ordered one of the only two meatless pizza options; when we left, the place was transitioning into a “nightclub.” Perhaps this was a sign of greater energy yet to be unleashed, but the town didn’t seem too busy when we were out and about. We drank some wine in the hotel bar and the waiter charged us less for the bottle, in recognition that we hadn’t shown up earlier for our complimentary pre-dinner drink (perhaps a staple of New Zealand hotels given that our Auckland hotel offered the same daily treat – we never showed up for it there either).

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