Wednesday, January 21, 2009

January 21st, 2009 - Wanaka, New Zealand to Queenstown, New Zealand

Queenstown is just on the other side of the mountains from Wanaka but the road has to wind around the long way. To keep us active, Jon made stops along the road at some interesting spots. The first was Arrowtown, an old gold mining town with a central main street lined with shops selling local art and confections as well as everything you can imagine made from the trademark New Zealand merino wool.

One company called Icebreaker makes technical outdoor clothing in super light weaves that everyone says performs better than any synthetic. Mom bought a couple pieces for me a little while back, and while for weight to warmth it really can't be beat, on a warm day even with the lightest weave I sweat like a pig and smell like a wet dog. But the material's so darn natural and the designs are just plain sporty. We would try everything on again and again in each store we went into before once again coming to the conclusion that it was a little itchy and, believe it or not, even more expensive than Patagonia.

The other strange clothing option is plentiful possum fur. Remember how New Zealand's only native mammal was a bat? By the way, I figured out that the reason for this was that the islands broke off from Gondwanaland 90 million years ago, before other mammals had had a chance to evolve. Anyway, at some point, possibly after depleting the seal population so far as to cripple the fur trade, someone had the genius idea to introduce the possum. Well, with no larger mammals as predators the population exploded. Add to that ample food compliments of the “lax nesting habits” of the local birds and the Kiwis (both the birds and the citizens of New Zealand) had themselves a problem. At this point, buying clothing made from possum fur (or hitting them with your car) is treated as one's patriotic duty.

Note: Saw a sweet DVD in a convenience store about hunting deer from a helicopter. It was called “Meat Hawks.”

The next stop after Arrowtown was “the bungy bridge,” home of the first commercial bungy operation. Jon's US birth certificate outweighed his Kiwi pride when he acknowledged that the first bungy jump was likely by a San Francisco group called something along the lines of “The Dangerous Sports Club.” But everyone agrees that two guys, AJ Hackett and – crap now I can't remember his name – note to self, always be Hall, NEVER Oates – made it what it is today with several platforms in New Zealand as well as a few other operations around the world. And they'd obviously made some money off of it because their center at the bungy bridge was a modern building filled with merch. No one in our group was game to try, but we watched a few go off ranging from one woman screaming and panicking before eventually being coaxed off feet first (which is the worst because you're head is snapped around when the bungy tightens) to a guy performing a respectable swan dive and ending up with a full upper body dip in the river below.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From there we entered the Central Ottago wine region, home of the first commercial vineyards in New Zealand. Conveniently, Jon lives basically across the street from a small but well respected vineyard so before stopping in for a taste, he took us by his house. Built by Jon and his wife in a traditional style, the house was made up of a separate master bedroom connected by a walkway to the rest of the space. The design evoked a time when a farmer would have first built himself a small cottage and then expanded his house as he married and his family grew. They have a nice bit of land spanning from the road all the way down to the river. Jon said they drive to the bungy bridge with river surfing gear (have I mentioned that he's credited with inventing this sport that involves riding a boogie board down a river and finding standing waves to surf?) and ride the river down to the house. Sounds pretty sweet.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

Back to the tour, we met Duncan, a partner and winemaker at Mt. Edward Winery across the street from Jon's house. Very inviting and knowledgeable, Duncan opened up his tasting room kitchen for us to make a huge lunch and answered all our questions about growing grapes and making wine. He told us about his experiences working at a variety of wineries including a couple in the US as his on the job training and how Mt. Edward came to be. At one point he made the comment that “You only have 20 tries to get it right.” I asked him what he meant, and he explained that each year's grape harvest and the wine you make from it is one chance at making a wine that people will really appreciate and that starting at age 40 or so, you might get 20 good years of trying. Each year's effort is the culmination of your experiences in previous years and the quality of the grapes, which can be affected by their age, the weather, the soil, etc. It really clicked for me that when people talk about particular vintages of wine, they are talking about a snapshot in time that encompasses what was happening on the vineyard that year as well as where the winemaker was in refining or experimenting with his process. If one year was great, the next could be terrible if the weather was bad or they decided to try something new in their fermentation. While I don’t claim to know much about wine, I’ve watched enough Top Gear to recognize the Aston Martin DB9 Duncan was driving so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say he’s had some good vintages.

Following the wine tasting, we pulled into Queenstown for a briefing from the company that would take us out for a three day trip on the Routeburn Track. The Routeburn Track runs through parts of Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring National Parks and is considered one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks.” We watched a DVD that ran through what to expect (anything from summer sun to snow) and what to bring (I did not opt to purchase the $22.50 hut slippers but mom did) and left with backpacks and sleeping sheets for the trip. Oh yeah, and we tried on some more merino wool technical clothing that we would eventually decide not to buy at the store downstairs.

We had the rest of the afternoon free so Ann and I walked around Queenstown checking out the sporting goods stores for more unwanted wool sportswear and the shoe stores for something that might be more comfortable on her Achilles. We met Mom (when she was done jetboating the Shotover River – I shot you not), and after a short rest in the room, went to dinner at a well known local pizzeria called “The Cow.” Well it must have been well known in the guidebook too because as we sat at our outside table in the front, a steady stream of tourists came by to take a picture of the sign with some typically Kiwi’s (us) behind it.

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