Queenstown, New Zealand Hobbit Regret

We decided to give Argentinean food one last chance before leaving Buenos Aires. Went to Cabaña Las Lilas. The guidebooks point to it emphatically as the top notch place for steak. And they sure cook a lot of it.


There’s gotta be a hundred tables in there, all full, all occupied by retired Americans. It’s mentioned in that 1000 Places to See Before You Die book, which should really be called: 1000 Places to See SHORTLY Before You Die, as the lion’s share of its pages are devoted to expensive resorts only old people can afford. Anyway, the restaurant seems to be doing well off the mention.

Honestly though, it wasn’t all that spectacular. I could get a better steak in Seattle. I’d have to pay a lot more, but I could get one. Argentinean food is still, to my taste buds, mediocre.

All the same, we did manage to get pretty drunk. With a twelve hour flight ahead of us, it seemed like the right thing to do. And wow, it sure was. Shortest twelve hours I’ve ever spent on a plane. We sat down, passed out, woke up on the runway in Auckland. I had a knee-high stack of junk to keep me occupied – didn’t need any of it. Slept like a hobo.

A few hours of layover in Auckland. Not enough time to leave the airport. I still haven’t seen that place.

Queenstown is much as I left it three years ago, but with a few changes. Prices are higher. Retirees are more abundant. There are more Asian tour groups and more Asian tour group hotels. The locals are grumpier.

They’ve really just about had it down here. Perfectly nice people under other circumstances, but I think they’d like their country back about now. I think they’re having second thoughts about that whole Hobbit business.

Good luck trying to find a room without a reservation. And sorry, they don’t do single-night bookings. You’ve got to stay for at least two. Want to cancel that reservation? Fraid not. They charge you full price for the night if there’s less than 2 days notice, whether you stay or not. No, there aren’t any rental cars available in town – they’re all out. Bed in a shared dorm room? Yeah, that’ll be $70 please. $10 deposit for the key. Oh, you want a towel with that? $2 extra. Soap? I’m sure you can find some on your own.

Where else could you get away with that and stay in business? But people just keep pouring in. No strange religions. No weird food. No deadly diseases. No scary ethnic types. Just a bunch of harmless-looking Caucasians and some pretty scenery. Makes for a great brochure.

The draw in Queenstown is the absurd abundance of “extreme” activities; bungee jumping, jet boat rides, river boarding – none of which anybody does. They all cost upwards of $100 for an experience that lasts a few minutes, tops. The young, nimble backpackers can’t afford it. The geriatric set can’t do any of it without breaking. And the Asians only travel in herds of thirty or more and limit their “extreme” activities to taking pictures of each other.

You can pay to get inside a big plastic ball and roll down the side of a mountain. Unless you’re shooting a Mountain Dew commercial, I don’t know why you’d want to do that, but it’s available.

Despite all my bitching and moaning, there is the oppressive logic of “Well, we’re here. Might as well give it a try.”

We cut our teeth on the luge, which is a far cry from the suicidal olypmic activity, and of course doesn’t really qualify as “extreme.” It is, nevertheless, extremely fun.

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…and dorky. There’s no way to pull it off without looking dorky.

The guy selling the tickets said it’s impossible to only do once. I figured we’d be immune to the implied temptation, but I was wrong. We did it four times in a breathless, hyperactive binge.

The luge is at the top of a steep mountain overlooking Queenstown. You get up the mountain on a cable car.


That’s a bungee jumping overhang near the center there.

Charged from the initial venture, we agreed to sample one genuinely “extreme” and wallet-breaking activity. Now, adrenaline just isn’t my drug of choice. That kind of stuff simply doesn’t appeal to me. What gets me is wonderment – awe…


I’ve known a couple avid practitioners. One of those guys still is, the other had a cell collapse and permanently injured his back.

Cell collapse is when the paraglider catches a bad gust of wind and suddenly loses its structure. It takes skill to recover from, and it’s one of those skills that’s hard to learn without dying.

Which is the thing about paragliding; it’s really dangerous. The numbers just aren’t very good. People get seriously injured and die all the time. But surely, if we only do it once, the odds are in our favor.


…boy, we still look like dorks.

It took me a while to digest the price tag for both of us to go. Evidence to the contrary, I’m not ACTUALLY made of money. But “Well, we’re here” took over. I couldn’t not.

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No windows, no engines, no instruments. You’re just a flying goofball in a comfy reclining chair, mouth agape. It feels impossible. It feels fantastic.


The lady was pleased. As we walked off the field, she pondered the logistics of her future as a weekend paraglider. Reality eventually settled in, but boy, if it weren’t for my aversion to dying, I’d be selling the farm to buy my own gear.

Aside from that endeavor, we spent most of our day ticking off a checklist to prepare for our 3-day hike along the Routeburn trail. Queenstown is the departure point for several major treks, and as such is dense with suppliers of anything you might need.

And good God, they really know how to screw you. Tourist prices abound. They’re inescapable.

You have to book a seat on a bus to get to the start of the trail, and another bus to get back. Wanna know how much it costs for two people? $200. Let me spell it out. Two…hundred…dollars…for a bus ride.

I spent more that day than on any other in the trip to date.

The good news is: once you’re on the trail, you never touch your wallet.

The aforementioned bus ride took us through the town of Glenorchy and past the location of Isengard from the hairy midget movies. Just past Isengard, near the start of the trail, are the Elven woods of Lothlorien.

How bout that?

And away we went.


On my last visit to New Zealand, I did the 4-day Milford Trek and wrote about it extensively. For your sake and mine, I’m not going into much detail on this one. It’s a trail. You walk a lot. You see pretty stuff and take pictures.


There. That was day one. See? We’re moving briskly now.

We hit the first hut, still jet-lagged from our Buenos Aires flight. I fell asleep around 5pm, had a groggy dinner around 9, rose at 7 the next day.


I woke, along with 30 other people in the cabin, to an interminable chorus of crinkling plastic. There was a group of pre-teens with us from an international school in Taiwan. They were doing their Duke of Edinburgh certification or whatever — some kooky rite of passage the British thought up that evidently involves hiking, among other things. Any readers from the Commonwealth, feel free to clarify.

In preparation for the journey, someone had handed each kid at least a hundred plastic bags and instructed them to wrap every object in their packs individually. This created a morning ritual of unwrapping and rewrapping that could raise the dead.

A middle-aged Australian guy in the bunk next to us saw no need to hide his irritation. "Are you sure you brought enough plastic bags with you? Have you got everything wrapped up tight. Wouldn’t want a drop of moisture to get in there!"

I am quite fond of Australians.

There were other crimes; giggling, flashlight games, girls waking each other so they could go to the bathroom together — all the stupid stuff kids do that makes grown-ups avoid them. I slept through all of it, but everyone else in the cabin was fuming.


Day two is the big uphill/downhill day. The Routeburn trail forms a saddle between two high peaks, then drops back down into forest. It rained.


Try as I might to dissuade her, Melissa insisted on wearing her yellow M&M costume.

More pretty pictures.

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If you look closely above, you can see a few tiny hikers traversing the cliffside.

On long walks, the mind wanders. Mine wandered to, among other things, time.
Time is the one thing we pretty much all agree on. A second is a second, a minute a minute, an hour an hour. Why is that? It’s a fairly arbitrary measurement. Nothing natural that I know of takes precisely one hour.

It comes from the hour glass, I would assume. An hour is the amount of time it takes a certain amount of sand to fall through an opening of a certain diameter. Amazing that it became a universally accepted standard.

We can’t agree on weight, distance, volume, language, religion, electrical outlets, which side of the road to drive on, or how to spell "aluminum," but an hour is always an hour.


This hut marks the middle of the saddle. From here, you can do the hour-long side trail up to Conical Peak. I was feeling quite keen that day and dragged Melissa to the top, which turned out fairly pointless with all the fog from the rain. We couldn’t see squat.


Walking through the low-brush at the start of the descent. There’s a faint rainbow in the distance.


Rough times ahead. Our moods were grim. A fight happened. I behaved poorly. No need to recount.


Looking down the ridge at the lake, our destination for the day, I saw something strange and hypnotic. The lake was moving, getting closer, and the hillside farther away. It was like looking down the length of a tunnel at an approaching train. An optical illusion caused by the quickly moving fog, I’d imagine.

Melissa and I weren’t speaking at the time, but we both saw it, compared notes later, and our experiences were identical. Never seen anything like it before. There’s probably some fancy Latin name for the effect.

Below the tree line, things suddenly turn very, very green.


A layer of moss covers every surface. Sound changes. It’s like you’re indoors.

On reaching the second cabin, we met a number of people who were walking the trail in the opposite direction. An older man from the UK cautiously approached us and asked, "are you with the young people?"

"No. They’re about an hour behind."

"Good. We’ve heard about them. We’re going to direct them to the far cabin. You can stay with us, if you’re quiet."

We thanked him and ran upstairs to claim our beds. We learned it was a collective effort. Everyone was in cahoots. The Duke of Edinburgh brats were shut out.

That night, our cabin was like a very large coffin. When forty people sleep in a room together, you should hear it. I woke in the blackness and thought for a moment I was the only one in the room.

Perfect, joyous, silence.

On day three, the weather improved. Lots of nice mountain views.


And a waterfall.

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Caught this fleeting moment.


"Psst! Get out of the shot. This is premium desktop wallpaper."

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We’ve got a tradition now that whenever we pass an Asian tourist chain gang, I take a snapshot of Melissa posing with them.


I figured out why they come here en masse. They’re crazy about water. Waterfalls, rocky streams, that sort of thing. They eat it up. Japan, surprisingly, doesn’t have much in the way of naturally occurring dynamic liquid. But in New Zealand — not too hard to find.


Another side trail up to this vista. It looks like the peak in the middle is exhaling smoke in the other peak’s face.


And we’re done. End of the trail.

There’s no road directly through the park, so the bus had to loop around to Queenstown by way of Te Anau. It’s an astonishingly indirect route, but what can you do? I’m all for not carving any new roads.

We’re back where we started for one night before flying up to Christchurch, then on to Kaikoura in the hopes of paddling with some dolphins.

After three days of vacuum-sealed, dehydrated camping food, we craved Indian. So we feasted on chicken tikka marsala.

We’ve both got some miles on us. Here’s a fun detail: my inner thighs are grotesquely chafed from walking in wet, sweaty clothes, so to minimize the pain I’ve got to stagger around like I’ve got a load in my pants. Of this act, Melissa is…intolerant.

But we’re doing okay.