Jet boat tours are readily available here in Queenstown. The one we selected included the ride on the Dart River, a hike and and 4 wheel drive through the countryside. We could have ridden to Glenorchy with the tour company, but we were so glad we drove there on our own. The route to Glenorchy along Lake Wakatipu was a treat. At times the narrow road and tight curves made it a bit too exciting, but the views of the mountains across the lake more than made up for it.
Glenorchy, a thriving metropolis of 450 souls, seemed to exist solely for the tourist trade. It had two stores, hotels and restaurants, but no commerce that indicated that anyone really lives there. I thought that the jet boats were merely an adrenaline, macho thing, but they really are quite practical here. Once winter snows have melted the rivers are quite shallow and a jet boat can carry a dozen people going about 35mph skimming the surface and only requiring a few inches of water. Even though this area also has about eight meters of rain a year, the hard rocky mountainsides and lack of topsoil, mean that any precipitation quickly drains away and flows out to sea. Many large trees do grow here, but they suck much of the moisture they require out of the air since the ground water runs off so quickly and this makes the air feel dry and comfortable no matter what the temperature.
Every so often the jet boat driver made 360º turns just to keep things interesting, but he really didn’t need to do much - the magnificent scenery kept us very happy. The route took us into Mt. Aspiring National Park (there must be a story behind that name) where glaciers and snow fields graced the mountain tops. The melting snow from these areas gives Lake Wakatipu and the Dart River a peculiar aquamarine cast. At times the water was so shallow we could hear the “pocketa, pocketa” of stones hitting the bottom of the jet boat, but we just kept zipping along.
On the hike we learned about the flora unique to the area. In New Zealand almost all the flora is unique. The theory is that all the continents were originally one big continent and New Zealand was one of the first chunks to break away before mammals even existed. There were no mammals here originally and many of the plants exist nowhere else. This was all very interesting, but we were distracted by the sand flies. They bite aggressively and raise little welts that itch for days for those folks who are susceptible. The story is that the sand flies are in the most beautiful areas to keep the tourists from trying to settle there.
The 4 wheel drive tour was not on a jeep as we expected, but rather a 4WD bus. It drove through more spectacular countryside in an area aptly named Paradise along the shores of Sylvan Lake and the guide pointed out many of the areas that have been used in films, most notably “Lord of the Rings.” Renting out the land to film crews has turned into a big business for land owners in this area and the locals can easily become extras.
We are amazed how large a presence American media has here. When we eat breakfast and watch the morning show on TV we hear about the latest adventures of Birttany Spears and Jennifer Aniston. In the evening we often catch a bit of whatever TV shows have been hot in the US in the last year. We are often left wondering what impression folks in other countries have of us from watching our TV shows and films. We are here doing our own small part to convince them otherwise.