If you’ve never been to New Zealand but have heard of Queenstown, it’s probably been in the context of activities of the falling from the sky variety. A typical tourist comes here to check off their bucket list any or all of the following: bungee jumping, canyon swinging, paragliding, jet boating, skydiving, river rafting, zip lining and any type of heli-sport. After a few days, they’re on the road again, nerves and bank accounts drained.
It’s the tiny South Island town that has branded itself ‘adventure capital of the world’, and for many a thrill junkie, the place will only ever be a haze of adrenaline- and alcohol spiked memories in one of the most stunning corners of the world.
There’s a flipside, though: Queenstown is absolutely a stunning little corner of the world and underneath the tourism machine is a natural paradise that begs to be explored. For five months I called this energetic outdoor playground home, but it took time to realize how much more there is beyond the tour bus itinerary.
Tucked tightly into a mountainside on the shores of the snaking Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown rests towards the bottom end of New Zealand’s South Island. A ring of tall peaks make like fortress walls above the town center and its neighborhoods, nearby villages and outlying farms. Sheep and goats dot the hillside pastures, looping country roads tied by single lane bridges make up the main highway network here. Down in the valley, in the heart of the Southern Alps, Queenstown moves at it’s own pace, well detached from realities of the outside world.
There is so much to do no matter the season. Skiing and boarding in the winter. Biking, boating, rafting in the summer. Paragliding, horseback riding, hiking year round. That’s just touching the surface of what’s on offer. The setting demands that you get out of doors and discover some of Central Otago’s secrets.
I wasn’t much of a hiker before coming to New Zealand, but living in a place like Queenstown without wandering through the woods a few times is something of a sacrilege. Boycott the iconic gondola ride up the mountain where there is a luge, bungee jump, and zip line waiting at the top. Instead, hike the hour long Tiki Trail to the same spot, and use the sweeping mountain and lake views as your reward. Then, if inclined, go ahead and zip line or gondola all the way back down. A similar walk up Queenstown Hill gives you even loftier panorama. The cobweb of trails nearby is intricate and endless enough to keep an avid hiker occupied for years. One of my favorite walks, on the road out of town, was the three hour Sam Summer’s Hut track. Around the midway point sits an old tin hut relic from the area’s gold mining period. And again, the view’s not too shabby either.
In a place this stunning you’re always experiencing those little “aha” moments. They grab you when you least expect it and serve as a reminder not to get too caught up in the daily routine. It’s the ride to work every morning through a storybook valley; the bench at the top of my terraced backyard, where I sit with coffee in the morning enjoying panoramic views of Lake Wakatipu, or at night under a blanket of southern stars.
On the 45th parallel, the winter skies stay dark until much later in the morning, and on one of those days, at Queenstown’s Coronet Peak ski field, I drew a long straw. Stationed as a lift operator at the top of the mountain’s main chair, I had the summit to myself apart from a single patroller in a hut nearby. For several minutes, I stood watch over a sky that morphed from hazy pink to a brilliant red-orange with the rising sun. It lifted above the mountain range on the other side of the valley and broke the clouds apart. All was quiet, and I and my thoughts were completely alone.
As it goes, the dramatic scenery and accessibility to nature is what ultimately led to Queenstown becoming the adventure tourism center it is today. The area first sprang to life as a gold rush hotspot and later began attracting hikers to nearby trails like the Milford and Routeburn tracks. The ski industry came to town in the 1950’s with the opening of Coronet Peak, cementing the area as an all seasons resort. Next was the jet boat in 1970, followed closely by the world’s first commercial bungee site on the Kawarau Bridge. The formula was set and on it dominoed into the Queenstown we know today: part winter alpine resort, part nature lover’s paradise, part thrill seeker fantasy land.
It’s pretty clear that the adventure tourism industry holds Queenstown tight in its grasp, but the process by which the town has evolved is not so black and white a thing that it can be written off as negative. Many of the tourism companies make an effort to show off the land in a way that’s respectful and with minimal impact. Some, like Ziptrek Ecotours, incorporate a bit of sustainability education into their adventures.
One of my favorite trips was a river safari out of Glenorchy, at the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu, where a friend and I took a jet boat ride up the ice blue shallows of the Dart River, then “funyaked” (something of a cross between kayak, canoe, and bumper boat) back down. We lunched on an abandoned stretch of shore, paddled through a mountain crevice to a secret cove, and took an off-road tour over gravel river beds back to town. Along the way, our Kiwi guide gave us a rich picture of the area’s geological history and explained how the Maori culture was closely linked to that land.
Queenstown is made up of a hodge-podge of born and bred locals, travelers who’ve become expats, and seasonal workers chasing the endless summer or winter. If just passing through, stay a few extra days, and you’ll realize that leaping off a ledge isn’t the only thrill to be had. There’s a peace to this special little place, you just have to slow down long enough to find it.
All photos property of and by the author.