Middle Earth

Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
Trip End Jun 11, 2011

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Where I stayed
Novotel Gardens Queenstown

Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Tuesday, May 31, 2011

We got up relatively early in Wanaka and drove past the lake which was beautiful in the morning. We were headed to Queenstown and wanted to get there around noon to make sure we had enough time for sightseeing and activities in the afternoon, but we weren't that far away.  So before leaving Wanaka we decided to stop at one of the town’s largest attractions, Puzzle World.  We pull up and the entrance is a hoot, with a leaning clock tower that counts backwards from the year 2000.  They’ve got some interesting photo opportunities as well.  The biggest attraction in Puzzle World is the Maze.   It’s the first maze in New Zealand that was made out of wood like a fence-type structure rather than a corn maze or hedges.  The object is to wind around and over bridges until you’ve reached all 4 corners of the maze (and haven’t run out of patience).  Adam and I weren’t too keen on this but Dave was super excited and promised that if we all bought entry to the maze he’d stay with us and we’d go as a group. 

So we buy tickets and before you can say "Puzzle World" Dave is off and running over bridges and around corners in the maze.  Adam ambles in one direction and I think I see a way to the blue corner but when I get there it’s a dead end.  Doesn’t take long for me to give up and I use one of the 4 emergency exits as soon as I can find it and head to the inside exhibits instead.  The first is a hall of illusion photos that were truly unique – one looked like 2 nice girls smiling at you until you stepped back 3 meters and saw they were pointing a huge gun at you!  Next was the turning heads room where the room was full of life-sized heads of famous people like Lincoln and Einstein whose eyes followed you all around the room.  Super creepy although I couldn’t look away.  The third and final room was the leaning rooms and I should have been weary since there were several medical warnings about entering if you have balance issues or are pregnant.  The minute I stepped in everything was out of proportion and I got dizzy and almost sick.  This may have also been an after effect of all the wine I drank the night before to manage yet another night in the campervan.  Regardless, I high-tailed it out of the leaning rooms as quickly as I could stumbling like I was still drunk.  I then waited in the main hall playing puzzles and games until the boys finished in the maze.  Adam finished a bit after me having only found one corner and Dave finished in the record time of 30 minutes, reaching all 4 corners and the official exit.  Everyone had a great time at Puzzle World in Wanaka. 

Continuing on we weren’t that far from Queenstown just had to get through the Crown Range mountains and the pass.  Queenstown is a small ski resort type town in the middle of the South Island of New Zealand and is nicknamed the Adventure Capital of the World for all the fun things you can do there (ski, snowboard, bungy jump, jet boat, etc).  About 20 kilometers from Queenstown we came across the AJ Hackett Bungy Jump and the historic bridge.  This is the place where commercial bungy jumping was invented in the '80s and the original bridge.  We couldn’t pass this up so we pulled in and took a look around.  Adam was pretty sure he wanted to jump but not today, I definitely was not going to jump anywhere or anytime and Dave was on the fence.  We familiarized ourselves with the location, price list and the process for bungy to keep on our minds the next few days while in town. 

We arrived in town and found the Novotel, our hotel.  We decided that while in cities or major towns we’d stay in proper hotels as a break from Britzy Spears and my whining about Britzy Spears.  The Novotel was in a great location, right next to the Botanical Gardens (with a free parking lot for Britzy Spears) and on Lake Wakatipu right in the center of the downtown area.  We checked in and quickly booked tours: a Lord of the Rings scenic tour for this afternoon and a tour of Milford Sound Fiordland the following day.  More on that later.  We’d heard Queenstown was one of the best places to see the film sites and locations for the Lord of the Rings series and even though I’ve never read the books or seen the movies both boys had and I thought I’d see the scenery and hopefully learn some things.  We had less than an hour before our tour started so we dropped our bags in our rooms, parked Britzy Spears in the free lot and ran through town to grab fast food for lunch.  Dave and I got kebabs (falafel for me, lamb for Dave) and Adam got McDonalds as he likes to try McDonalds in every country he visits (some people collect coasters or other items, Adam likes to collect McDonalds experiences).  We ran back to the hotel lobby just in time to meet Jill who pulled up in a big 4-wheel drive vehicle.

Jill is an older tour guide who has obviously been doing this a long time.  She had a well-used guidebook for film locations with her and off we set on the windy road out of Queenstown.  At our first stop we could overlook the whole town and see the Remarkable Mountains which were used in much of the film, as well as Coronet Peak.  The mountains were beautiful and then Jill told us that Peter Jackson liked to move things around so the actual mountain or piece of land we’re looking at may have been altered a bit in the actual movie.  She told us stories of Viggo Mortensen filming in the water and Sean Aston who were scared to go in the helicopter up to Coronet Peak.  I was more interested in the history of the area, as Lake Wakatipo is one of the largest lakes in NZ and snakes around an absolutely massive area.  It was only in the 1990s that a road was even built around it to drive – you used to have to take a steamer ship around the lake to get to the other side.  She also told us a story about two French tourists who went out on their own in a kayak to climb one of the mountains in the middle of the lake and didn’t take heed to storm warnings.  Within 15 minutes of capsizing in the frigid lake waters they contracted hyperthermia.  We made a note not to try that.  We also saw several luxury resorts built along the winding road out of Queenstown where the likes of celebrities and such frequent since unfortunately they weren’t in our flashpacker budget.  I can see why they’ve built these resorts and why people visit – it’s beautiful and breathtaking on the lake. 

As we get back into the car to carry on there’s a problem with Adam’s passenger door and Jill has to radio the office for a replacement vehicle.  We wait about 10 minutes and another gentleman pulls up in a similar SUV with a working passenger door and off we go.  We’re headed all along the lake to Glenorchy, another town along the lake where a majority of LOTR filming took place.  Once through town we stop on a gravel road and Jill tells us that some scenes from X-Men Origins: The Wolverine were also filmed here.  Just by chance I had watched this movie one night in Malaysia (I think it was in Kuala Lumpur in the nice hotel) so it was fresh in my mind I knew exactly the scenes she was describing.  Not to deviate but I thought it was an excellent movie, I couldn’t predict the ending at all and I am most definitely a Hugh Jackman fan.  Anyway, we went down another road and learned about some of the early settlers in the area and their beautiful farm houses but we couldn’t go into the actual forest that was used for filming because it was on private property.  We turned around and headed to another part of the forest that wasn’t private and started using the 4-wheel drive along creek beds and rough roads. 

We made it to the forest where Jill gave us tea (our choice of hot cocoa or tea and some biscuits) and then gave us some time to wander through the forest while learning about the flora and fauna.  We learned about the cabbage trees that look a bit like a small palm tree but their leaves taste like cabbage.  We also learned about the Beech trees that rot from the inside so you don’t know if one is healthy or not – and so when they finally die they create all kinds of tree avalanches on the mountains. I definitely felt like I was in a different world in the forest as all the plants and moss looked so different than anything I’d ever seen in the U.S.  Jill even showed us a local fire plant that you can eat and is spicy; it’s what the Maori used for flavoring their food.  We headed back to Queenstown with a few more stops, the last being along the lake in a popular fishing spot.  This is where the scene with the big elephants was filmed so learning how that was done was very interesting.  We also saw the 12 acres of land that Peter Jackson bought recently just to protect.  He’s certainly some kind of local hero around here! 

By now it was dark so Jill dropped us at our hotel.  We had dinner reservations at 8pm so we had about 2 hours – one hour to explore the town and shopping and one hour to clean up for dinner.  Adam went to relax and Dave and I wandered around downtown in the stores that were still open to explore.  It does seem like everything closes a bit early in town but maybe that’s because it’s wintertime.  Anyway, Dave was interested in some All Blacks gear as they are the NZ rugby team.  Other popular souvenirs we found were hats, gloves, socks and sweaters made from merino sheep and possum fur, sheep-fur slippers and boots and the Rugby World Cup 2011 gear.  Apparently the Rugby World Cup is scheduled for September in New Zealand and they are very excited about this popular event.  All we bought was an All Blacks hoodie for Dave and just did research since we’ll have lots of time here to purchase everything else.  We had just enough time to take a long hot shower in our proper hotel and then meet for dinner.

Our first morning in NZ when I was talking to the manager at the lodge he also recommended a restaurant in Queenstown and said that we must eat there.  We looked it up and agreed so we’d made a booking at Botswana Butchery hoping for some New Zealand haute cuisine.  Although it was hard to look presentable for this kind of meal with our flashpacker clothing we managed to not stick out too much (hooray for casual ski towns!) and we very much enjoyed the outstanding service and food.  Adam tried the local oysters and the venison stew and was very impressed with both.  Dave enjoyed French onion soup and the lamb shank (which I tried and was delicious) and I had an arugula salad with fried grapes and salmon from the Marlborough region (the northern part of the South Island).  It was all delicious although I expected fried grapes to be crunchy on the outside and juicy in the middle but they were just kind of squishy all around.  We paired our meal with a lovely Pinot Noir from the Central Otago region and all agreed it was the perfect meal to cap off our first day in Queenstown.
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Joe on

Adam sounds like a cool dude! After my cross country roadie, I have enjoyed McDonald's in 27 different states. Can't wait to increase my country numbers.

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