New Zealand - Day 12 Queenstown

Sleep was glorious. We made it as least as late as 9:30 before finally waking up. And then it was possible to have a leisurely morning enjoying the view from our balcony, without having to rush to drive somwhere. We finally made it up and out of the room a bit after 11 for some exploration of Queenstown before our rafting trip. First stop was a local fish-and-chips food truck that parked right about the corner from us. They were frying up fresh-caught local blue cod so we got a double order of that and ate looking out over the lake. Then it was off to do some shopping or at least window-shopping, since Queenstown is rather the fancy, expensive town. There were some amazing clothing shops selling gorgeous 100% NZ wool clothing, but the prices were just a bit too high for us. We also scouted out bars and restaurants for the evening, but did not see anything that looked too amazing.

We made a brief stop back at our room to drop off everything we didn’t need and then strolled up to Shotover Street to Queenstown Rafting. There was a brief safety talk (in short, listen to your guide, don’t be an idiot) and then they piled us into a van and drove us to the base camp. We got geared up with wet suits, life jackets, and helmets before climbing into a second van. This van took us up river to the launch point for rafting. It was a big van and had a long trailer holding the rafts attached to the back of it. The road to the launch point is a narrow-ass twisty-as-hell gravel road that used to be the old miners road, during the gold rush days in Queenstown (second most gold found in a river after the Yukon). Driving it should probably be considered an extreme sport, especially when you’ve got a full van and a trailer to haul around. There is at least one turn where the road is so narrow that not all the van’s tires are actually on the road.

In order to keep people from thinking too much about the plunge to certain death that lurks mere centimeters away, the rafting guides kept up a running patter that is half safety instructions and half impromptu stand-up comedy (usually at the expense of the Australians). There were a couple really good jokes told, the best being:
Q: What does a Kiwi call a sheep in high grass?
A: A satisfying encounter.
And so forth. Eventually, we arrived at the launch-point and were split up into groups. Each raft was supposed to only have 5 people in it (except in cases where there was a group of 6 they didn’t want to split up), but there were some language issues with this Korean guy who managed to erroneously end up in our raft (so we had 6 and someone else had 4). Our guide was Stephano, from Argentina, who spent his winters working in NZ and his summers in Switzerland. Not a terrible life.

The first part of the river is relatively tame and the guides use it to teach you all the commands you’ll need to survive. The most important ones are “Forward” and “Get Down”. If you don’t paddle hard when you hear “Forward”, you’ll probably hear “Get Down” since your raft isn’t going to hit the rapids the right way. Choi, our renegade Korean, had very limited English skills, necessitating some extra work needed with commands like “Jump Right” and “Hold On”, but eventually it seemed like everyone was getting it. The bane of this part of the trip were the sandflies which were out in force today. Since we were mostly covered in thick neoprene, there was limited target areas for the flies to attack, so they swarmed all over our hands. Our guide’s suggestion of keeping your hands wet and relatively still did work to alleviate some of it, but both Beth and I ended up with bites on our wrists and fingers.

Stephano was not pleased with having an overly heavy raft, so after the first small rapid, he conferred with the trip leader and ended up giving away one of extra people. Our final raft make-up was Beth and I in the front, Choi in the center, and then a couple from Australia in the back (Ting, who was originally from Malaysia, and her boyfriend, who might have said 4 words the entire trip). The main part of the trip were the rapids that occur in the second part of the river. When the river is running higher (like when my sister and I rafted it 5 years ago), most of these rapids are class 4 and 5. The day we went the river was running a bit lower (which was at least partially related to the drought conditions) so nothing was worse than a class 4. But the lower river did make it a more technically challenging trip, since there were so many more exposed rocks that had to be navigated around.

Ting provided the entertainment for the trip, since she started screaming before we hit any rapid with the volume and intensity increasing as the motion of the raft did. But despite her vocal proclivities and Choi’s marginal comprehension, the crew did a good job of paddling and Stephano did a great job of steering and we hit every rapid perfectly. The rafts all stay close together, giving you a view of the other rafts running the rapids as well, so we saw a bunch of groups that did not do as well as we did. No raft flipped and there was only one unintentional over-board situation (and the girl who fell out was shaken up, but nothing worse), but quite a few of them got stuck in at least one of the rapids which necessitated from interesting acrobatics to free them.

There were 6 named rapids in all (Cascade, Toilet, Oh Shit, Pinball, and two more I can’t remember), plus a 170m dark tunnel (originally built as an unsuccessful attempt at diverting the river for mining purposes). After we finished shooting all the rapids, we drifted a bit more downstream before finally arriving back at the base camp. Stephano spent the last part of the trip talking about all the injuries that he’d seen on the river; the most common were broken noses and wrists suffered when failing out of the raft, but when the river was running really fast, people get hurt in all kinds of ways. Beth was horrified by the litany of accidents he ran over and did not seem to think the risk was worth the reward of the trip (though she did have fun on the river, minus the fly bites). Hot showers back at the rafting place and then back on the bus to go back to Queenstown. We walked back to Nomads’ and started looking at places for dinner. There wasn’t anything that seemed amazing, so we decided to head back to The Bunker and give their tasting menu a try.

This did not end up being the best of decisions: while the wine pairings they did were superb, the food itself ended up being very disappointing, especially for the price that we paid. The initial amuse was possibly the best thing of the evening, a shotglass of cold tomato borscht with smoked mussels and an heirloom tomato bruschetta, served with a local sparkling wine made in the Champagne style. The sparkler was pretty damn near perfect, the soup spicy and smokey, and the tomatoes soaked in local olive oil. We were off to a good start, but that did not last long. The next course was local crayfish with gnocchi. The crayfish were not very good and the sauce they were in was completely forgettable (I in fact do not remember what it was). The wine was a stunning Fume Blanc from Amisfield Wine Company, so at least it wasn’t a total loss of a course. We moved onto the second appetizer course a bit more downspirited. This was local abalone served in a sort of pieroggi in a cream sauce. The abalone wasn’t bad—nice and chewy as fresh abalone should be—but it wasn’t really good either. The wine was another stunner, though, the Reserve Chardonnay from Gibbston Valley. I’m not a fan of almost all Chardonnay’s but this one was exceptionally well done. A quick intermezzo which was grapefruit sorbet topped with a stonefruit compote was lovely and then we got our main. It was local salmon (locally-farmed, since wild salmon really isn’t a thing in NZ) with some green veggies in a red pepper sauce. Again, not bad, but not anything special either, but once again the wine was the star—a Dry Riesling from Peregrine that balanced perfectly with the fish. Then it was a cheese course, which was basically the same cheese plate we had had the night before, but with only 2 cheeses not 3. Beth was outraged. The wine was the Amisfield Late Harvest Riesling, which went really well with the cheese. The final course was their crème brûlée, which was pretty terrible. A good crème brûlée should be caramelized on top and a taut custard underneath. This one was burnt on the top and rather soggy in the center. We were not impressed. The wine was a Pinot Noir desert wine from Wooing Tree which we were fans of.

After the disappointing dinner we weren’t much motivated to go out further, so we wandered back to Nomads’ and made an early night of it. The next day we were off to visit the wineries of Central Otago, including all the ones whose wines we had enjoyed so much at dinner. We also had lunch reservations at Amisfield, which was supposed to be one of the best winery restaurants in the country, so we were looking forward to a better culinary experience.

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