Queenstown

 

 

David Whitley searches for respite in a world of fancy dress, bad music played loud and people who like to ‘party’.

 

There is a girl I used to work with who now appears to live in Laos. I know this, because pictures of her regularly appear on Facebook, and she seems to be continually be surrounded by young people having fun in a bar. You may be tempted to think that this seems like the ultimate life; ensconced in Vang Vieng, where life is a constant party and everyone’s up for a good time after going rafting. To me, it sounds like hell.

 

 

There are certain places along the well worn backpacker trails that become hubs of continual enforced fun. Amsterdam is one, the Khao San Road in Bangkok is another and – even though I’ve never been there – Vang Vieng appears to be one too. Enforced fun is a catch-all term I like to use for things such as 100-person organised bar crawls, table dancing contests, shot drinking competitions and playing Twister on a stage for prizes. It is for cretins who like shouting “woooo” a lot and being surrounded by a combined IQ of well under 50. Get caught up in it, and you either have to pretend to enjoy the ‘party vibe’ or have the misery compounded by hundreds of people you secretly despise telling you to cheer up and drink more tequila.

 

Queenstown can err dangerously close to this. It is full of young backpackers who have been travelling around New Zealand on buses together, and have designated Queenstown as the place where they’re going to party every night. (Incidentally, if anyone ever uses the phrase ‘let’s party’ in your presence, run a mile). My first night was spent in a hostel where the bar was pumping out The Black Eyed Peas at ear-splitting volume, interrupted every thirty seconds by an MC saying: “YEAH! We’re gonna have a great night tonight.” It was, all told, horrible.

 

The next day, I walked downstairs to discover that the evening’s entertainment was to be a toga party with cheap shots. Time to check out and move elsewhere. Part of Queenstown’s problem is that it is New Zealand’s adrenalin sports capital. You can bungy, you can skydive, you can raft, and you can do all manner of other weird things that require far more detailed description. I actually enjoy this sort of thing – skydiving and white-water rafting are particularly great. But I don’t like the attitude that surrounds it or – whisper it – the type of character it attracts. Extreme sports bring out the enforced fun lovers in their droves, and before you know it, you’re trapped on a bus with dreadlocked white blokes, pumping fists and watching endless videos of dull people snowboarding.

 

But despite this, I thoroughly recommend Queenstown as a place to go. It is beautiful, and surrounded by some of New Zealand’s most incredible scenery. Skippers Canyon, in particular, is sensational if you get the chance to go there. The secret is to make it what you want it to be. Do a bit of prior research, and avoid anything that bills itself as a party hostel, backpacker bar or the like. You’ll still meet other travellers by going to a good pub instead of a booming hellhole that’s full of drunks in Viking helmets singing along to something drenched in Auto-Tune. They’re just more likely to be the types that are interesting to talk to. The enforced fun capitals around the world don’t have to be that way; it’s just a case of being aware of what you’re going into and exploring the quieter heart that surrounds the shrieking.

 

More photos here

 

*Incidentally, before I’m accused of getting old, it should be pointed out that I felt exactly the same way about enforced fun when I was 20.

 

NZ walk in a day

 

David Whitley climbs volcanoes, checks out ancient Maori sites and crosses from the west coast to the east coast in a map geek’s dream day 

No-one is going to claim that the lagoon at Onehunga is the prettiest sight in New Zealand. The parkland around it makes it a pleasant place to walk dogs, but it’s what’s behind that counts. Manukau Harbour, the second largest in New Zealand, leads out to the Tasman Sea. It’s the west coast, and my plan is to walk to the east coast.

There aren’t many countries that you can walk across in a day, but New Zealand’s odd shape means it is one of them. Auckland is built on an isthmus between two large natural harbours, and the 16km Coast to Coast walkway connects them. Ironically, it runs pretty much south to north – a kink in the landmass means the east and west coasts temporarily turn 90 degrees before resuming conventional positions.

But the Coast to Coast Walkway isn’t just about childish box-ticking for map geeks – it also strings together a series of key sites that offer a different perspective on Auckland than the one you’d get staying downtown.

The route trundles past quaint wooden houses in Onehunga before arriving at One Tree Hill, which is something of a beloved landmark for Aucklanders and has been for centuries. Long before Europeans arrived, the hill was known to the Maori as Maungakiekie – and it was the biggest pa (or fortified village) in what is now the Auckland area. Of the 60 pa found around the isthmus, more than half have been destroyed or severely damaged – mostly through quarrying. What makes Maungakiekie so special is that the defensive terracing on the hillsides and inside the craters is clearly evident. The same goes for the pits used for storing kumara (sweet potato) during the winter. It’s not just a park – it’s an archaeological site as well.

Oh, yes. It’s also a farm. Bizarrely for an urban park, sheep and cows can be found ambling around the hillsides, making it feel more like a country estate than a big city’s green lung. This is largely thanks to Sir John Logan Campbell, who bequeathed adjoining Cornwall Park to the nation in 1901. This turned the hill – a public reserve since 1848 – into a giant green space.

Once past the guard sheep, it’s worth huffing and puffing up to the top. It’s only 183m high, but it feels taller than that. Manukau Harbour quickly comes into view, but once at the top in the shadow of the obelisk dedicated to Logan Campbell, the rest of the city comes into view too. The Skytower of central Auckland is the obvious point to fix upon, but the east coast is there too – the laid-back beachside suburb of Devonport, the craggy volcanic Rangitoto Island and the other islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

Closer in, however, are a couple of other green protrudences that look suspiciously like One Tree Hill. That’s because they were formed in the same way. The most remarkable thing about Auckland’s geography isn’t that it has two harbours, over 50 islands and spans both the east and west coasts – it’s that it’s built on a field of volcanoes. At the latest count, there are 55 volcanic cones within the greater Auckland area, and One Tree Hill offers the best illustration. All the houses heading down to Onehunga and Manukau Harbour are built on the lava field spewed out by an eruption thousands of years ago.

The second volcanic cone on the trail is Mt Eden, a perennial favourite with tour buses which drive up for the views. Walkers go for the steeper route up, which if you tackle it with a determined charge, isn’t all that arduous.

It’s 196m tall, but that’s more than enough to take in views that are arguably even better than those from One Tree Hill. To the west, the thick green hills of the Waitakere Ranges roll out, and the Coromandel Peninsula can be seen out over the water to the north-east.

Again, evidence of Maori terracing and fortifications is present. It stirs a fascination in New Zealand’s indigenous population that goes beyond the usual hakas and cultural performances. Luckily, the best place to learn more is also on the route.

The road from Mt Eden eventually leads to the Auckland Domain, a massive park on the cusp of the city centre. Amongst the cricket pitches, art installations and giant, showy trees is the Auckland Museum. The collection inside is a real hodge-podge of subjects, but it’s the Maori section that’s genuinely excellent – they’ve somehow managed to get meeting houses and war canoes inside, while the information on Maori history and culture is useful too.

After a good few hours of walking – at least four hours need to be set aside, and that’s if you tackle it without detours or lunch breaks – the path eventually leads to the flashier trailhead. Waitemata Harbour is the harbour people think about when they talk about Auckland. It’s the one at the bottom of the city centre. And, more importantly for me, it’s the one on the east coast. Mission accomplished.

 

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