Hello from sunny Queenstown in the heart of New Zealand's Southern Alps. I am well and truely into Lord of the Rings country now. The scenery both here and on our 5.5 hour drive from Fox Glacier is phenomenal - its one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. We had an early start on Tuesday and our first stop was nearby Lake Matheson, which is a famous New Zealand postcard view. When the water is calm the lake perfectly mirrors the reflections of New Zealand's two highest moutains - Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. We didn't quite see much of a reflection when we were there because the water was not smooth enough, but I still got some great photos in the early morning light. Mount Cook is 3,754m (12,316ft) and Mount Tasman 3,497m (11,473ft), which is quite impressive given that they are both located quite close to the sea. Still, I've stayed in hotels and driven over numerous roads at higher altitudes than that in The Andes!
Our next stop was more of a comfort break at a nice coastal point named Knight's Point, and from there we drove over the very wooded Haast Pass. I wish the bus had had chance to stop in this area as the valley views were amazing. All the mountains still have snow on as its not yet summer here, and the scenery was very recognisable from New Zealand's most famous film. There seems to be such a nice and variable light in the Southern Alps, so I can see why they filmed it here. There were also waterfalls everywhere. We stopped at one named Thunder Creek Falls, which was a thin veil falling about 150ft off a cliff edge and into a larger river. The sand flies caused some people problems in the forest here, but I seem to have survived this time.
After the Haast Pass the scenery changed somewhat, and all the trees seemed to disappear. This part of New Zealand is surprisingly dry, and the land and climate is suitable for vineyards despite the southern latitude. We had a beautiful photo stop at Lake Hawea, but there were so many more viewpoints I would have taken advantage of had I had my own car. The road then followed the beautifully blue Kawarua River for a while, over which AJ Hackett created the first commercial bungee jump in 1987. Sadly we didn't get to see anyone jump off it, but it was only half the height of the 80m jump Karina did in Gravity Canyon anyway!
We arrived in Queenstown at about 4pm, and almost immediately the bulk of our group, including me, were ferried off 5km north to do the Shotover Jet Boat. The attraction has been running in Queenstown since 1970 and is one of the things I was most looking forward to in New Zealand. The jet boats produce 502 horsepower through 2 massive Buick Engines and can operate in as little as 10cm of water (which they did!). With 14 passengers on board each boat they reach speeds up to 55mph, which doesn't seem too fast on the open river, but is fast enough when they are tearing through the very narrow Shotover Canyons. We didn't get as wet as I'd imagined on the boats, though I sat in the back left and got my face sprayed a few times. It was pretty bracing when we were at full speed, but certainly not scary, though the drivers do their best to go as close as they possibly can to the walls of the two canyons we went through. I would say the closest we got from hitting a wall was about 50cm! The driver also performed quite a few 360 spins for us when we were on the open river, which got everyone excited. The ride lasted about 25 minutes, and to my surprise we stopped a couple of times for information talks. I learned that the Shotover River was named after a park in Oxfordshire, and it was also a key centre of the New Zealand gold rush in the 1860s.
In the evening a big group night out was arranged. Queenstown has a very good nightlife despite its population being just 15,000. This is because the bars cater mostly for the tourists, of which there are over 30,000 in peak season. We visited an ice bar called minus 5 (though the temperature inside was actually minus 8). It was exclusive to our tour group, and good job too, as it was only tiny. We had to wear thick, heavy coats and gloves to go in, and literally everything was made of ice, right down to the cups, which we got to smash at the end. There were also quite a few sculptures for everyone to photo in our half hour inside. We then went across to another bar, where everyone spontaneously started dancing on the bar, and lastly to a bar which bizarrely served tea pots full of shots. It was a somewhat messy night! To finish I went to a burger restaurant named Ferg Burger, which appears to be a New Zealand institution. The Queenstown branch is the only one in the country, yet locals right down from Auckland have been recommending it to me! I had the standard burger and although it was nice I can't say I was that impressed!
This morning I had my first lie in on the entire tour and stayed in bed till past 10am! Some people sporting hangovers had to get up much earlier to go and do some adrenaline pumping activites, but I had not booked anything. My plan for the day was much more mundane than anything like bungee jumping. I simply got the cable car up the mountainside for a view of the area. Queenstown is 310m (1,000ft) above sea level and the cable car took you up to 790m (2,591ft). In the sunshine, the view over the city, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables Mountains (thats what they are actually called here!) was incredible, and I felt inspired enough to hike even higher up to the summit of Ben Lomond mountain, which was another 1,000m up. I was amazed that there were so few people hiking on such a lovely day - I virtually had the place to myself, and it was really serene. From the summit at 1,748m (5,735ft) the 360 degree view across so many snow capped mountains was fantastic and well worth the effort.
After getting back down to the gondola station I had a ride on both of the luge tracks here. The luge is a concrete, downhill track which you navigate on small tobaggon type things with wheels. Your speed is controlled by where you position the handle. It was a lot of fun but didn't last anywhere near long enough, and disappointingly for me I had no one to race with as I was on my own.
Tomorrow we have a long drive to Milford Sound - New Zealand's most famous natural wonder. The weather forecast doesn't look great for our overnight cruise there, which is no surprise as it is one of the wettest corners of the country. I hope we get some sun though so I can see the mountain tops. It looks incredible on the postcards.