QUEENSTOWN, NEW ZEALAND — First day of our Plan B, and it was a doozy, combining an adrenaline rush in Queenstown with a serene and authentic Kiwi experience in the countryside.
Despite the gloom-and-doom forecast, the day was a beauty. It started with a drive to the rafting base on the Shotover River for a 4.5-hour trip we had booked the previous night.
The outfitter had everything down to a T: After explaining how to put on the wetsuit, they gave everyone a suit, booties, jacket, life vest and helmet. Torsten had brought the GoPro but was told that the camera could not be secured to the helmet. Only later did it occur to us that he could have simply clipped the camera to a strap on the life vest. Rookie mistake!
Once we were on buses, we were off to a harrowing 40-minute drive on Skipper’s Canyon Road — which they told us is one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the world after we were on the bus.
It was built into the mountainside by miners and is a single-lane road with a sheer drop into the canyon about 400 feet below. It requires a special permit to drive, and at the beginning, a sign warns tourists that “rental cars might not be insured beyond this point.”
Beth alternated between terror and amazement at the nonchalance of the guides — one little slip of the driver’s foot, and we’d all be toast. Even Torsten got a little queasy looking out the window, in particular when we had to back up (along with the raft trailer) to let other vehicles pass, or we passed through narrow slots where the road was cut through the rock of the mountain.
But we made it and were treated to the safety briefing. At one point, Sally the trip leader demonstrated, with a volunteer kneeling in front of the raft, how to help someone back in after falling out. The poor volunteer did not know what happened to her when Sally suddenly grabbed her life vest and pulled her face first into the raft.
After the safety spiel, we were divided into groups, and Beth and I were put in a raft with a young couple from Houston, a woman from San Francisco, a couple from Israel who had just finished their military service and our guide, Heath. We volunteered to sit in the front of the raft, and our raft was also the lead raft, so we got a clear view of everything.
The gorge was a stunning display of cliffs and clear blue and ice cold water. In the beginning, we learned the voice commands and felt a little like sled dogs in training: paddle forward, left paddle, hold on, stop!
Between the rapids, there was some time to chat, and our guide told us he has lived in Queenstown for seven years but is from Christchurch (“nobody really is from Queenstown”) and, during New Zealand winters, guides rafting trips in Interlaken, Switzerland.
The rapids weren’t too scary, even if the water level was unusually high for summer, due to all the rain the South Island received. This left time to look around, and we saw old equipment from the gold mining era, mountain goats on the cliffs and a round hole in a cliff overhang, through which we could see the sky.
On two occasions, our guide encouraged us to go for a swim alongside the raft, and almost the entire crew jumped in. It was a great experience to view the canyon by floating lazily in the river, and we could tell that our 5mm wetsuits were really working because only our hands got cold.
For some reason, only our raft got to swim. There were several exciting rapids, where we got splashed by standing waves as the raft dove into the river.
Our group was also the first to experience a dramatically altered rapid, fittingly named Oh Sh*t. The night before, a huge rock had fallen into the river. The guides were surprised and wanted to see how the new rock had changed the flow. So we all pulled over, and Heath jumped into the roaring river and swam to the other shore. After a good 20 minutes, all the guides returned and we kept going.
We ended the trip by going through a 180m tunnel and over a steep drop. During the gold rush, two enterprising Australians had the idea to divert the river through a mine shaft so they could look for gold in the dry creek bed. The project failed but left behind the tunnel.
As our raft turned to watch the others make the final drop, a jetboat roared up. The last part of the river is shared with a jetboat company that operates a shuttle bus from Queenstown in 15-minute intervals, providing a steady stream of customers for rides through the gorge.
We’re pretty sure customers think they’ll get a ride of at least a few miles down the river, but we noticed the jetboats were just going back and forth, back and forth on a stretch of river that was a half-mile at most. It was really just a carnival ride, with the strapped-in customers getting whipped around from side to side, with a few 360º spins thrown in.
That’s not our cup of tea, speeding through a beautiful canyon for 15 minutes and paying $145 for the privilege.
A quick shower at the rafting base and a cappuccino and hot chocolate later, we were on our way to Arrowtown, a small boutique village full of restaurants and shops. We walked around town and had lunch at a French bistro: crepes with Nutella/banana and a vegetarian omelette.
Then we headed east for our day’s destination, Chatto Creek, a small village in central Otago, on the Otago Rail Trail.
We checked into the Chatto Creek Tavern about 4 p.m. Built in 1886, it catered to gold miners, then “rabbiters,” and now is presided over by Lesley, a short, feisty widow in her late 60s, who took a keen interest in us: “Are you happy?” she asked point blank, as Beth went to retrieve a book to read on the shaded front veranda.
While Torsten napped, Beth finished her book and went for a walk on the rail trail, right behind the tavern. The landscape looks a little like the American West, with lumpy dry hills and, after a few kilometers, rock columns and pillars. There was more wildlife along the trail than cyclists: Beth counted nine rabbits, five quail, three magpies, three mountain goats, one falcon, one feral cat and a dead possum.
Beth was looking forward to a beer and had to wake Torsten up so we could get the evening started. She chose a Manuherekia Brewery APA from nearby Alexandra, and it was really nice. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the brewery co-owner, Jono Love, who started a conversation with us as we were sitting outside before dinner: had we biked on the trail, what were our plans for tomorrow, the usual friendly Kiwi small talk.
Later, Lesley told us that Jono wants to buy the tavern, but she won’t sell it to him for another five years because he has school-age children and needs time to spend with them.
We’d seen Lesley’s food and, in her words, knew we “wouldn’t die of starvation.” We started with green-lipped mussels steamed with coconut milk, cilantro and hot chilis, and for entrees, Beth got the sticky barbecued pork ribs and Torsten the lamb shank with garlic potatoes and heirloom carrots.
The ribs were especially good, and when Beth said she loved the sauce, Lesley did the Minnesota thing — “Oh, it’s so simple!” — and wrote out the recipe: tomato sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar and sweet chilli sauce.
As we lingered in the dining room, listening to the happy hubbub, Beth noticed a small creature through the open front door. It was a baby hedgehog! One more thing to add to the wildlife list.
Our room was nothing special, and the bed was a little saggy, but we didn’t care. It felt like a treat to be part of the Chatto Creek family for a day.