“A few weeks ago I opened up an envelope that I’ve had for years. It was from my father and inside I found a collection of coins from all over the world. Now, he’s been dead for a long time, but anyways, I came across a krugerrand from South Africa. As it turns out, that coin was worth a lot of money. So what did I do with it? I sold it… to pay for all the fun!”
As if to prove her durability, Liz pressed her shaking finger against the window of the bus and proclaimed, “last week I hiked to the top of that mountain.” She had a bit of a stutter; her active mind wasn’t quite keeping up with her mouth these days. Liz finally obtained her overdue retirement and decided to celebrate (the way most elderly folks do) by climbing up hills and jumping off of them.
“I’ve lived in Queenstown all my life and I’ve never done a bunjy. So, last week, I jumped off a bridge. Then I did one of those… oh what are they called again? Oh yes, paragliding. I went paragliding.”
“You did all of this in one week?” I asked, amazed.
“Oh yes, I did it all real fast before I could think about it too much… and before the money ran out!”
In her retirement, Liz had embraced the changed face of her hometown. As a kid, Queenstown was a peaceful village on the side of a lake with a small community of summer homes. There was no major highway around the Crown Range and certainly no airport. Three major booms later, the city has grown in size and height and with the development of major ski fields, is a year-round four-seasons resort. In fact, Queenstown has blossomed into New Zealand’s # 1 tourist destination.
This is no surprise. Queenstown is gobsmackingly beautiful. Set on the shores of the S shaped Lake Wakatipu in the heart of the Southern Alps, the compact city is a slice of urbanity etched into a rugged landscape.
The small city is bordered by the world’s southernmost wine region, which specializes in high-end (and overpriced) Pinot Noirs. Back in town, Queenstown’s cobblestone malls have all the shops and fine dining to make any highbrow fashionista happy. You can grab ice cream on the lake, dinner on a boat, and a nightcap out a rocks glass made of ice.
If it all sounds a bit serene and fanciful, I should add that Queenstown is the birthplace of commercial bunjy jumping. It is the “adventure tourism capital of the world,” with all machismo to rev up your inner adrenaline junky. In Queenstown you can throw yourself off a bridge and then whip yourself around on a turbo-powered jet boat underneath it. You can go for a day of skiing and paraglide down the mountain back home. In Queenstown you can jump, run, sweat, swim, ski and bleed more than you ever thought possible. And when you’re done with it all, there are over 300 bars to ease your palpitating heart and reminisce about your daredevil of a day.
Imagine gawking at the wonders of Mother Nature while someone screams for mercy in your ear… this is Queenstown.
Much of the town’s tourism is derived from Australian’s who catch direct flights into the small airport from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. They flock to the city on school holidays to take the family up the mountains for their first look at snow and come back in the summer for trekking and boating. Groups of college boys come to see who can jump out of more planes, shag the most girls in the hostel, do the sickest trick on their snowboard, and live to tell about it. Many of these guys will end up in the Lakes District Hospital, but this is a small price to pay for their newly awarded status.
I have lived and worked in Queenstown for the past two and a half months looking down the valley at the city lights from the ski fields above town. In the application process for my job, I was asked to fill out a personality test where, in the end, you were ranked either an owl, dove, eagle, or peacock. As it turns out, everyone who got the job was a peacock.
Queenstown is full of peacocks clad in neon ski suites radiating around every alleyway competing for attention. There is no shortage of festivity in Queenstown and there are always willing revelers. Every week there is a festival, competition, race, or reason for the peacocks to celebrate and display their loud feathers for all to see.
I can’t help but wish that I lived in Queenstown with Liz back when she was a kid – back before all of the peacocks arrived and the noisy Australians had a seamless journey into the country – back before every corner had a five-story hotel and every bridge had a bungy chord. I wonder what it must have been like to enjoy this peaceful corner of the earth before we turned it into a playground – before we traded in the serene for the extreme.
I asked Liz what she thought about the way Queenstown has changed over the years – if she minded what it has become today. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said and paused for a bit. “You think of it as a bad thing, but a lot of us made good money off of this town’s success. That’s just the way it goes. Things change and you can’t stop it.”
The bus pulled over at the edge of town and as Liz got up to leave she looked back and said, “You know, I ride this bus every week and there’s always some young energetic boy sitting next to me. I always talk his ear off and he always smiles back at me. At my age, that’s all that matters.”