Thursday, April 26, 2012

Designed to Separate Tourists from their Money

            On my way over to Christchurch, I spent a few days in Queenstown, which is possibly the one town in the South Island that is guaranteed to inspire strong feelings in the people who visit it.   Not necessarily good feelings, but strong ones.   Before coming to New Zealand, I had heard about the town from two different people.   A friend of my father’s told me ‘It’s like a big resort – you should go there!’   An Iceberg Lodge coworker told me ‘It’s like a big resort – you should stay away!’   I certainly have to agree with the resort part.   Queenstown does seem like a big resort – sort of like a ski town without the skiing.   There’s even a chairlift/gondola going up the side of the mountain near town.   There are also ton of outdoor shops, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and booking offices for adventure activities. Queenstown also reminds me of Glasgow, in the fact that there is a lively commercial district, with lots of shops and pubs, and also the prominent lack of old buildings in the downtown.  With over a million visitors a year, Queenstown can afford to have a commercial district that feels like it belongs to a much larger city.   The town also feels strangely international, since there are a huge amount of tourists, so its possible to hear three or four different languages being spoken all within earshot of one street-side bench.   Unlike Glasgow, the town is incredibly expensive, and Queenstown doesn’t even have the excuse of a bad exchange rate.   And by expensive, I mean that I bought a brand-name merino wool baselayer at 60% off, and it still cost well over a hundred dollars.   Worth it, definitely, but still a little ridiculous.    All together, there are a ton of things to do in Queenstown – but none of them are very cheap.    Also, there are two casinos just in the downtown.   It’s like Queenstown was designed specifically to separate tourists from their money.

            One thing turned out to be cheap.   On the invitation of my hostel’s manager, I went down to the local Irish pub and jammed with a guitarist there for a few hours, for which the bar comp’ed my drinks.   That was pretty awesome, despite the fact that none of the bar partons appeared to be paying us any attention.   Some gigs just go that way, and it was the first opportunity I’d had to play with another musician since I went to Haast, and it was a lot of fun.   I am also happy that I’m visiting Queenstown in the comparative lull between the end of summer and the start of the ski season.   The hostel I stayed at – Alpine Lodge – was very nice, and came complete with its own resident cat, named Greg.   Greg had his own chair in the lounge; humans could use it, but if the cat wanted to lie down, the human had better be prepared to make his or her lap available.   Also at the hostel were half a dozen people on working holiday permits, staying at the hostel while they looked for work and/or accommodation elsewhere in town.   From what I understand, the job market going into the off-season wasn’t looking so good – this is partially based on the fact that most of the job-seekers had, in desperation, applied to work at a nearby call centre that sells funeral packages.   In that light, working as a housekeeper in Haast seems a positively scintillating life choice. 


            There seem to be more than the usual number of Asian tourists in Queenstown – I’m not quite sure why.   The retail shops here seems to be more motivated than most in their efforts to specifically cater to this market – especially in their selection of cosmetics and health supplements.   As in, most of the gift shops stock hand creams with prominently listed ingredients like placenta, and colostrum (both from sheep, according to the label).   As far as I am concerned, those are two words that shouldn’t be used outside of a hospital, or a birthing class.    I am also not clear on what the purported health benefits would be for smearing something like that onto your skin, and I’m a little afraid to ask.   

            Also in Queenstown, are a huge number of local booking offices for tourism companies.   In the age of internet bookings, the offices seem to be deserted an awful lot of the time – every time I passed one, it seemed like the customer service reps were disconsolately staring out of their door.   There are an unlikely large number of bungee jump and skydive operators in town; I am not sure whey anyone would want to pay money for this sort of thing, which probably means that I don’t quite understand the sport anyway.

            I did get to see someone else bungee jumping, which was interesting.   This was during a raft trip on the Kawarau River, and our route took us under the AJ Hackett Kawarau Bridge Bungee Jump, which is supposedly the oldest commercial bungee-jumping operation anywhere in New Zealand.   The platform looks to be maybe 60 or 70 meters above the river.    Alerted by the bungee operators, our group of rafts pulled over into an eddy to watch the next jump.   The bungee-er did a very graceful swan dive off the platform, free-falling for maybe two seconds before the elastic of the bungee started to slow his fall.   He bounced up and down on the end of the tether a couple of times, and then was lowered headfirst into a yellow inflatable raft, where the bungee operaters began untying the bungee rope from his legs.   It actually looked more graceful, and potentially more fun, than I had expected.   However, at $180 per 3-second jump, bungee-jumping is undoubtedly one of the most efficient ways to spent money in Queenstown.

Kawarau Bungee, photo courtesy Wikipedia

            The most scenic part of the Kawarau river that we rafted was a canyon early on, which was filmed as the River Anduin in the Lord of the Rings movie.   For a film sequence that is not terribly lengthy, the film crew were apparently shooting  in a lot of locations – this is now the fourth river I have come across that is purported to be the River Anduin.   For my money, the Kawarau has a pretty good claim – the canyon is where the Argonath statues were digitally inserted; that’s pretty definitive.   The Argonath canyon is a lot smaller than as portrayed by Peter Jackson, and it’s a little less impressive to think of that film sequence now that I know that the AJ Hackett bungee jump platform is lurking just out of the frame.   

            The raft trip was about three hours, and very nice.   The canyons were pretty; we saw a lot of Paradise shelducks, and the rapids weren’t too bumpy.   We did end up with a backseat driver in my boat, who didn’t seem to have a very high level of confidence that our guide could actually steer the raft without help.    One of the nicest thigns about this rafting company was that they had a sauna waiting for us when we got back and changed out of our wetsuits.   It felt a lot like visiting the Iceberg lodge’s drying room, except without heaps and heaps of wet gear dangling all over the place.    

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

           Earlier today in Christchurch I went to the Botanic Gardens and rented a kayak to paddle up and down the Avon river.   Even for a public park, there were a surprisingly large number of Mallard ducks on the river, all of whom seemed abjectly terrified of my eight-foot plastic boat.   This seems strange, since the ducks have had all of the tourist season to get used to the boats paddling around.   The ducks were still suspicious; they would take off in noisy, panicked groups, fly twenty or thirty meters ahead, and drop back onto the river, only to take off again in a hurry as I paddled closer.   

Herding ducks on the Avon

            After returning the boat, I spent some time walking around Christchurch, or the parts of it that aren’t still cordoned off.    Being a pedestrian in the city can be difficult due to the number of construction and demolition sites, most of which have quite understandably sprawled across the sidewalks and parking lanes surrounding their building.   Walking west from my hostel, the sideways on both sides of the street are blocked off, necessitating a significant detour onto the side streets if you want to get anywhere.   The older, historic buildings have suffered particularly; most are in the process of being rebuilt or demolished, along with most of the downtown’s skyscrapers.   This includes not only Christchurch Cathedral, but many of the city’s old churches, as well as the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Performing Arts Center, and the Christchurch art gallery.   At one of the gates into the red zone, two men in construction hats were chatting with a man in a Gandalf-style robe and pointy hat.   I’m not quite sure what he was doing there - but considering what the city’s been through, I think a little wizardly aid would come in very handy.

            One thing that has sprung up in Christchurch in the wake of the earthquakes are all sorts of temporary structures, based out of garden sheds, shipping containers, converted camper-vans, large tents, and two large geodesic domes that look like Tievak versions of the Epcot golf ball (this is the current performing arts space.)   I got dinner tonight from a Thai restaurant run out of a shipping container that is parked on the concrete pad from what used to be their restaurant.    In fact, is has become so common for displaced restaurants to move into shipping containers that it seems to permeate the Christchurch vocabulary.   As in ‘Then you turn left at the second container on Beally Avenue’, or ‘It’s a big place; they have six or seven containers.’

Butterfly, Botanic Gardens

            So, a quick life update before I finish this post: I am flying out of New Zealand tomorrow, and will be spending a few days in West Virginia visiting family and friends before getting back to Alaska late next week.   I’ll be in the Seward/Moose Pass/Cooper Landing area visiting Alaska friends and family, before heading out to the Iceberg Lodge sometime in mid-May.   My car is still buried in snow, though my cousin reports that the car’s roof is now visible for the first time in several months, so I guess there’s progress.

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