Australia (Sydney, Tasmania) and New Zealand - 2003/2004

New Zealand - South Island

Next day I left early for Queenstown. Originally I had tried to do a quad bike tour in Te Anau, but that one got cancelled, since I was the only one wanting to do it. This turned out to be a good thing, because it gave me an interesting time in Queenstown. But more about that later.

The thing to do in Queenstown (if you don't do bungy jumping) is to ride in a jet boat. Well, thinking about it, there are quite a few things to do there, but I went for the jet boat ride anyway. There are a couple of companies offering jet boat rides, but the 'thrill ride' is the one with Shotover Jet. They run their trips through Shotover Canyon and they run pretty close to the walls of the canyon. They got a sort of exclusive licence for that canyon, so they can rush down the river at speed without worrying that anyone else will get in their way. As a ride it's pretty impressive looking, since they rush at a slight angle towards the canyon and just when you think that this would now be a very good moment to turn away from the wall, they turn the boat towards it. Since the boats are very flat, it doesn't make much difference in respect of where the boat is actually moving to, but if you make your assumptions on how the boat would move based on 'normal' boats, it seems like there's no way of not smashing into the rocks. Then the boat whips around and goes somewhere else. For me, it was my fifth jet boat ride in New Zealand, so I wasn't quite as awed as the people in the boat who had this as their first ride, but I still was quite impressed.

Jet boating in Queenstown Jet boating in Queenstown Jet boating in Queenstown Jet boating in Queenstown

After that, there still was enough time to take the gondola up a hill in Queenstown. The basic arrangement is similar to the one in Rotorua. There is a sky gondola taking you up the hill and then there are luge tracks on which you ride partly down the hill and then take a chair lift up to the starting point. As a bonus you get a nice view over Queenstown and the Remarkables. There are fewer tracks in Queenstown than in Rotorua (two instead of three), but the tracks in Queenstown seem slightly steeper and faster. To go back down to Queenstown I took the gondola again, but alternatively you can bungy down (that jump looks especially nasty - it's not that deep, but you jump down right next to a cliff face) or take a tandem paragliding trip down. (As can be seen on the picture, quite a few people choose to do that.)

Luge and paragliding

On the next morning I had nothing much to do, so I decided to take a trip on a steam ship. There's an historic ship that connects Queenstown and Walter Peak Station a couple of times a day. There are a couple of possible activities at Walter Peak Farm, but I didn't fancy the horse treks or sheep sharing demonstrations (and I needed to be back in Queenstown around noon), so I stayed on the ship. This had a nice side effect, since there weren't any return travelers on the first cruise of the day, so the ship wasn't too crowded on the return trip.

Lake Wakatipu cruise Lake Wakatipu cruise

The rest of the day was somewhat strange for me.

I'm not sure whether I'll manage to appropriately express why, since it's mostly personal impressions and nothing tangible, but I'll give it a try.

In the afternoon I was going quad bike riding. I had been on quad bikes twice before (actually three times, but the first time was only a quick round on a closed course in Rovaniemi on snow, which didn't really count) and both trips were sort of 'family entertainment', i.e. nice and safe rides (like the one in Tasmania a couple of weeks earlier) that left me wanting to go just a bit faster, just a bit more reckless. I'm not that much of a risk seeker and I'm not really into dangerous stuff, so 'reckless' for me is probably still quite tame for most. But while the earlier trips were fun, I noticed that I tended to hang back a bit, just to be able to have a bit of a quick run, catching up with the one in front.

Now, in Queenstown there's a company that does tours on bikes and quad bikes, advertising with "We provide people with the freedom to ride according to one's abilities; if you can ride well, we won't interfere with your fun!" and "Our guide will stay with you at all times even if you think you can out ride him." While I didn't kid myself by believing I could ride well, it seemed like this would be a tour that would let me fool around with the quad bike just a bit more than previously.

When I booked the tour, I asked about what tour they thought was suitable. I didn't want a complete beginners tour, but then two trips made me hardly an 'experienced' rider. So they recommended the 'Adventure Tour', which was sort if intermediate, which sounded fine by me.

But when I came back to the office for the actual tour, I was immediately feeling very insecure. Because the other guys hanging around and waiting for the trip looked - competent.

It's hard to describe why. There's just a certain difference between someone who waits for something that's new and exciting, someone who wants to be good at something and someone who actually is good and it. I haven't encountered that connected with sports before (since I don't do sport), so I can only compare that with computer games. Warning: This is going to be a bit simplified and stereotypical, just to make a point. If you're playing a networked first person shooter, the really good players aren't the ones getting excited, shouting "I've got you!", having a screen name like "SuperKiller", and using keyboards and mice with dedicated extra buttons. A good player is usually someone sitting quietly behind the computer, with a rather unobtrusive screen name, standard equipment (and maybe a slightly larger than usual mouse pad), who is able to kill single pixels. And doesn't make much of a point of it, since heading the frag count game after game tells you a lot more about the abilities of the gamer than any remark they could make.

And while I can't quite pin down the specifics, the people waiting for the bike trip were similar. They had neither the nervousness and slight jokiness of a newcomer, nor the shiny gear and artificial coolness of a wannabe.

And I was going to ride with them. And I knew that I was outclassed, I knew that I'd be the one everybody else would have to wait for, and I wondered whether I was in way over my head here.

After a while a couple more people showed up and I was getting more relaxed. These ones were clearly 'tourists', so I didn't feel completely in the wrong place. (Ok, everyone was a tourist there, but there is a certain difference between people who want to do something to have done that and people who want to do something they know they like to do and just want to give it a try in a new location.) That feeling held for a couple of minutes, until there was the announcement that the people for the 'Beginner Tour' should go to the bus now and all the newcomers left.

So it was once again me and the serious riders.

Luckily, when we took out bus to the tour site (which is quite a bit away from Queenstown, close to the Nevis Highwire) it turned out that most of them were going on a bike tour and there were only three of us (and the guide) who would ride quad bikes. We first waited while the bikers got ready and were taken for a bit of a test ride. It was quite interesting in a way. While there were getting into their gear, one of the other quad bike riders looked at one of the bike riders and said to me "he doesn't seem to be very experienced in this". I didn't see anything that didn't look any different from what everyone else was doing. When they all had gotten on their bikes and hadn't done anything more than riding back and forth a flat field, our tour guide looked at the same guy and said "it's funny how obvious the difference is between someone who rides well and someone who thinks he rides well" and "that one will probably fall off the bike before the tour is over". (I couldn't see him doing anything different from everyone else. But the guide was ride. The bike riders were doing a similar tour to the quad bike riders, but they had a bit of an extension after out bit we did, which took them higher up the mountains. So when it was time for us to take the trip back to Queenstown, he was the one who went with us, after falling of the bike twice and deciding not to go for the extension, where falls can easily turn into one-way trips down the mountains. Anyway, having inexperienced people spotted as such within a minute after getting on the bike didn't do much for my confidence...)

Despite all this, the trip was great. At the beginning the tour trip went mostly through a 'test area' that looked a bit like a miniature pit and had all kinds of interesting routes through it. I didn't even remotely dare to go through that at the speed of the tour guide and one of the other guys, but at least I didn't fall off the quad bike. After that we headed through a small river and up and down some hills. Especially 'down' was interesting in one place. The tour guide stopped somewhere, told us how to go down a steep decline (lock the brakes, slide with the gravel and try to steer and not to hit any trees) drove on for about a meter, went over the edge and vanished from view. While it wasn't really difficult to drive down that hill (though suddenly the phrase "that's not driving - it's falling with style" came into my head), it looked impressive from above. And while I had done a similar thing in Tasmania, there is a lot of a difference between sliding down a dune and sliding down a gravel path that has trees at the corners.

In the end, the tour turned out to be pretty much what I wanted. I certainly didn't have the feeling that I'd like to go faster or do more interesting things. I was clearly at the edge of my ability here, but that's much better to be able to say "that's about at fast or difficult as I want to go" than going back and saying "I would have liked to do more, but they didn't let me."

Perfect trip.

Quad riding near Queenstown Quad riding near Queenstown

Next day it was time to move on.

Once again I was fairly lucky with the weather. Leaving Queenstown, it looked like this:

Leaving Queenstown

And arriving in Christchurch it looked like this:

Sunny weather in Christchurch

The attractions in Christchurch were somewhat a mixed bag. I usually like science museums, so I went to "Science alive! - The New Zealand Science Centre". It's located in a fairly large building. I went in and they had some exhibition about the functions of the human body in the entrance area. Quite well done and sufficiently disgusting to be of interest to kids (especially the 'climb through the human digestive tract' bit and various other yucky things related to food digestion and snot). I looked at the stuff in the two (living room sized) rooms for about three minutes and wanted to go on to the main part of the museum.

Which didn't exist.

These two rooms (plus a small room on one side for younger children) were 'The New Zealand Science Centre'. I spent another ten minutes going through all the exhibits again and reading all the descriptions in detail, before I couldn't think of anything else to do there and left.

The next attraction I visited in Christchurch was even more frustrating, but in that case it had more to do with me than with the attraction. As might be obvious from my enthusiasm about the heli-hiking on the glacier and also previous journeys to Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Svalbard/Spitsbergen, I'm fond of snow, ice, glaciers, icebergs and all those things. And one of my 'travel dreams' is going to Antarctica. It's not likely that it's ever going to happen, since getting to Antarctica or, more specifically, the South Pole (as opposed to taking a cruise and just visit a few selected bits of the coast for a couple of hours) is excessively expensive. So unless I win the lottery or something like this, I won't be able to go there.

What has all of this to do with Christchurch?

Well, the 'International Antarctic Center' is located in Christchurch and it's supposedly "The World's Best Antarctic Attraction" and "has twice been judged 'best attraction' in New Zealand", so it's probably the next best thing to actually going down south.

For me, it was depressing.

One of the reasons for this was the 'snow & ice experience' that allows you to experience an 'Antarctic Storm' and 'let your body tingle with the exhilaration of being in Antarctic temperatures'.

There's a storm every 30 minutes and when I came to the 'snow & ice experience' room, the count down was at about two minutes. So I tried to rush in and when trying to enter the room I noticed some coat hooks with children sized warm parkas. I though it was a nice idea to have some warm clothing available for children. Then someone stopped me and told me that I'd need to wear some rubber overshoes to keep the snow inside white and pristine. So I had to go back to the place with the overshoes, put them on and rushed back in, with about 30 seconds to go until the storm. When entering the cold room, I noticed that everyone was wearing warm parkas. There had been adult sized parkas available on the other side of the wall, which I didn't notice in my rush to get in. So I was standing there in jeans and t-shirt among a group of people in warm polar wear.

Somebody looked at me and pointed at the timer, which said 'Antarctic storm in 15 seconds'. With no time to get back out and get something warm, I just shrugged. (Someone else said "wasn't the last time we saw you on a glacier somewhere?" There's a bit of a 'typical tourist route' in New Zealand which most people travel along and you sometimes run into people you've met a week earlier. Happened to me at least three times on this trip.) Right then it wasn't that cold anyway. And in the worst case I could just go out the door.

And the they turned on the fans and it got a bit windy. And that was it. A slight breeze in a slightly cool room.

Having just come in from the warm outside, I wasn't feeling cold at all, not even on the bare arms. After experiencing the 'storm' for about five minutes, I figured that I could easily be in there for an hour without feeling cold and that it wouldn't start to get seriously uncomfortable for about two hours.

Since I had rushed in, I didn't read the details about the experience. It was just a room that was permanently cooled to about -5°C. With the ventilation turned on, this would cause it to be a windchill temperature of -18°C.

Admittedly, 'windchill' is a concept that tends to get me on a soapbox. In most cases it isn't very meaningful at all. It has a certain amount of relevance if you're running around naked in the snow, drag yourself dripping wet out of a frozen river or, to a certain extent, if you have been out in the cold for hours and your clothing is chilled to the skin. But in most cases, -5° and windy feels as cold as -5° and calm if you're reasonably dressed.

Another thing that annoys me about 'windchill' is the macho wannabe aspect of it. So instead of having, for example, -8°C and be done with it, people note that it's 'really' -25°C or whatever, replacing a meaningful number with an artificial one. It always has a bit of the connotation 'this is as cold as in Siberia', as if it would be calm there all the time. There is a strong tendency to compare local 'windchill adjusted' temperatures with real temperatures in other places, just to make the local temperature seem colder than it actually is.

Ok, so I don't like 'windchill adjusted' temperatures anyway. And in the 'storm' everyone just came in from the warm outside and was wearing an insulating jacket that had been hanging out in the warmth as well. Even with seriously cold temperatures, it would have taken a while until they would have become noticeable through such a jacket. And those jackets are quite good at protection from winds, so unless we're talking about a really strong storm, the 'snow & ice experience' at -5°C with the 'antarctic storm' felt about as cold as without the wind. And it felt like having just come out of a warm house. Even with just a t-shirt it took a while until the cold came through and became even noticeable. (I later looked up the table about the dangers of cold temperatures and noted that exposure to temperatures as they were in that room was no serious risk for about two hours, which was roughly what I had estimated. There was also the remark that the main danger would be "a false sense of security". I'm afraid they got me there...)

To get back to the original point: The 'antarctic storm' was about -5°C cold. Even if you run around naked, and it may feel like -18°C, for an 'antarctic storm' that's a bit of a joke. With mean temperatures in the interior of the continent of (depending on the area) of -40°C to -70°C in the winter and -15°C to -32°C in the summer, the 'snow & ice experience' was at best the equivalent of an average calm and warm summer day in Antarctica.

As for an actual Antarctic storm, it should be noted that Antarctica also features the highest wind speeds measured at more than 300 km/h. (To be fair, that's at the coast where it's a bit warmer and not in the interior.) An appropriate 'typical' experience would probably be something like -30°C and 50 km/h wind speed and not -5°C with a small breeze.

I'm well aware that this would not be a sensible kind of an attraction for the Antarctic Centre. People could get hurt in there.

But that's exactly the point. Antarctica is an extreme place. And having it reduced to a slightly chilled comfortable attraction just annoys me. This place should inform people about Antarctica and not 'cute it down'.

I'm getting off my soapbox for the moment.

Ignoring the 'storm experience', the exhibitions in the Antarctic Centre are actually quite good. If I hadn't been in a foul mood from the start, I'd probably have enjoyed most of it.

Take, for example, the cold room. They didn't just have some generic freezer room, but had an expedition tent in there, a snow hill with a little igloo-like cave in it and a slide made from ice (which made me wait in the room a little bit longer until everyone had left after the 'storm', just to be able to go up the hill and slide down the ice slide without people watching). The slide was actually nastier than it looked, since ice is very slippery when you are wearing jeans and the slide has a slight curve, so I didn't end up at the bottom of the slide, but in the snow beside it. Fun though.

Before the cold room there was a presentation about the early explorers, which was also nicely done and another room followed with explanatory displays about the continent, which was very smartly done. Quite a lot of stuff to touch and use. On one side, there was a sort of full sized diorama of an expedition camp, with tent, snowmobile, a couple of boxes of gear and a painted backdrop, but also a large box with expedition wear, so you could get dressed up and walk through the scene, pretending you were an explorer.

(I didn't do that, but I didn't mind the idea. If that seems odd after coming down so hard on the 'storm' - I don't mind people 'play acting' in such an environment or taking pictures of themselves as 'explorers'. I what I disliked earlier was the presentation of some theme park attraction as a simulation of reality. If you go on a 'jungle cruise' at Disneyland, it is pretty obvious that this hasn't anything to do with what a real jungle tour would be like. It's simply a theme park attraction and doesn't need to be more than that. But if an 'Institute for Tropical Studies' would present that as a tough jungle experience simulation, I'd be annoyed.)

The exhibition also had some other nice touches, like the chance to stand (sort of) on two poles at once. They a platform that had ice taken from the South Pole and the North Pole under it (well, actually it was water that used to be ice from the poles) so you could stand with one foot over molten ice from the North Pole and with the other over molten ice from the South Pole. Not really meaningful in any sense, but I liked the idea. They also had a small information 'cave' with a very small entrance for children only, which was a cute idea.

The next room had a very good audio-visual show about Antarctica with impressing images, that had me going "I want to be there" all the time.

So except for the 'storm' bit, I would probably have liked the place a lot, until I came to the exit. Where the shop was located. And where you could buy 'Antarctic Clothing', which was just 'Antarctic Branded Clothing', since lots of it were light fleece jackets and vests, that wouldn't keep you warm in the Antarctic for half an hour. I really would have liked to take the makers of this stuff, put them and their merchandise on a plane, drop them off in Antarctica and see how many would manage to survive for 24 hours.

After that came the Hägglund Ride, which was a short trip through the backlot of the Antarctic Centre, which basically consists of three steep mounds and a mud water filled pond. I was a bit underwhelmed, but that might have had something to do with the fact that I had been quad bike riding just two days earlier and the 'steep mounds' didn't seem that steep to me, since I knew that I could have easily gotten over them in a quad bike. But everyone else was impressed and the Hägglund is a fairly strange vehicle to ride in.

But unlike the ride path shown on their web site, the actual trip with the Hägglund just went to the back of the building and to the entrance again and didn't go to the airport and the Antarctic Airport Apron, where the planes for Antarctica really leave.

And here we are at the reason why the whole thing was quite depressing for me. The Antarctic Centre in Christchurch is not just some nice Antarctic themed experience. That's just the public part of it. It is also the gateway for those people that really go to Antarctica. Next to the 'Antarctic Attraction' are the buildings where expedition gear is prepared and packed and people are briefed and fitted out with their polar gear and are actually going south. There was a Hercules airplane standing on the tarmac at the airport, right next to the Antarctic Centre, which was scheduled to go McMurdo station that afternoon. And I had to stand there, next to someone dressed as a silly penguin mascot, doing fake storms and stupid rides in the backyard, while people next door really went to Antarctica.

In a fairly melancholic mood I went to the car and drove away.

Antarctic Institute - nice logo Antarctic Centre snow & ice experience Antarctic Centre Hägglund Ride

Yes, I'm aware I had been drowning myself in self pity and I was melodramatic for the sake of it, but the end of my vacation was also nearing rapidly, so I was in a gloomy mood that day anyway. And also: It's my vacation, I can cry if I want to...

Onwards to Kaikoura...

Back to New Zealand, South Island, part 3

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