The Princesses of Queenstown

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A WHILE back I won a trip for two to Queenstown – the adventure capital of New Zealand – which would have been lovely except for one thing. I am not adventurous. Well, not in the conventional, law-abiding sense. To add to this particular journey, I decided to take with me the second-least adventurous person on the planet, my second-oldest sister. To paint you a picture, our idea of a catastrophe is if the bar runs out of Sav Blanc. Now, I don’t want to point any fingers but: Mum, it’s all your fault. You see, the woman who brought us into the world is as neurotic as they come, and when we were growing up, she would prevent us from doing anything. She’d catch us up a tree and scream out “you’ll fall out and break your arm”. Put out a hand to pat a stray dog, and there she’d be hissing “it will bite your arm off”. Eat a Dagwood Dog at the Ekka and she was convinced we’d contract Ebola. Oh yes, I can still hear her, even on a good day.
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So imagine the two of us, Scooby Doo and Shaggy, trekking off to Queenstown in the middle of winter, New Zealand’s most adventurous city and in its most exciting season. Never let it be said that our lack of life skills actually stops us from doing something. And I had already concocted a plan. While we were there, we’d try to discover what there was to do for unadventurous types. The idiots guide to Queenstown if you will. So while everyone else was up on the snow fields flaunting their ski bunnies beautiful, we’d be downtown, wining and dining. But just in case of an extreme emergency, as we dashed through the Duty Free store enroute to the plane I grabbed a bottle or two of whisky on the way out, and my sister actually said with that certain scoff of disdain that older siblings have perfected: “What are you doing? We’re not going to need them”.
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And on our first afternoon it all went swimmingly. How hard can it be grabbing a taxi, finding your hotel – in this instance the Novotel Queenstown – and having dinner?. Easy, peasy. It was the next morning when it all started to go downhill rapidly, like that skiing we would never, ever be doing. We caught the Skyline Gondola to Top Station, 790m above sea level, my sister holding on for dear life the entire way. I wasn’t too bad, as I was more worried about the next event. Apparently we were both then supposed to take the Skyline Luge down an 800 metre, slippery winding downhill track. We took one look at what we could only describe as a “death trap”, read the word “hurtle” on the itinerary and went and had a hot chocolate instead. Hey, you can get a burnt tongue drinking a hot chocolate.
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Things were still going pretty well, in fact, I like to think we came into our own on the Appellation Central Otago Wine Tour. Yes, if there were two stars of that show, it was my sister and me as no one can put it away like the two of us. But little did we know what the next day would bring. The itinerary said Snowshoeing, and described the activity as “experiencing the serenity of the spectacular back country”. We both pictured an undulating alpine walk with something akin to tennis rackets on our feet. Perhaps a charming little restaurant serving Schnapps among the pine trees. Wrong. Instead, something resembling crampons – those claw-like shoes you see on climbers on the Himalayas – were clamped to our feet. And then we started climbing, all the while I’m thinking rather airily: “I wonder how we get down from this mountain?”. Next thing we know, we’re in the middle of a white out and hiding out in an igloo. But the worst was yet to come. Our guide then announced we were just taking a short stroll back down the mountain. It was slippery, it was cold and it was white. And I was terrified. So terrified, I grabbed both the male guide and his mate and made them carry me down the mountain, while my sister soldiered on quietly behind me with the female guide. To this day, my sister still jokes about my personal sherpas, who frankly, I nearly killed with my hysteria causing them to lose their balance and footing on several occasions, making the three of us almost slide into a deep ravine. (I might have made the last bit up about the deep ravine). My hysteria, however, was embarrassingly real to the point when we did eventually arrive at the base, the guide suggested I take up indoor rock climbing to conquer my fear.
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We got back to our hotel room, lay on our beds speechless, not able to look each other in the eyes, and cracked open that whisky. But, as we are apt to do, we came good that afternoon when our itinerary suggested a visit to the Onsen Hot Pools. Sitting in a steaming pool, overlooking a mountain, sipping tea and looking at the jet boats below, my sister suggested we could probably try one of those next time. Was she serious? How much whisky had she consumed, exactly?
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But our adventurous non-adventure didn’t end there, as the next day we had a 4X4 tour with Nomad Safaris. Again, we were both picturing 4×4 tours we’d done in Australia. In the Outback. Where it’s flat. There’s nothing flat about New Zealand and before we knew it, we were on the edge of a precipice with one wheel of the 4×4 spinning over a deep ravine (this one was for real), on a slushy road. We were so frightened we couldn’t even look at each other. Instead, I focused intently on the Russian couple in the front: the husband suffered from serious narcolepsy so every minute or so his wife had to smack him over the head to wake him up. It was at that point in our program I wished I, too, suffered from narcolepsy. Somehow we survived, went back to our hotel room, and sat speechless on the bed again. Hands tightly clasped around whisky glasses.
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On our last afternoon we had a leisurely tour on the TSS Earnslaw to Walter Peak High Country Farm. Given we grew up in the country we were pretty confident this was one activity we could conquer. What could go wrong watching a bit of sheep shearing? Again, it was all going so well, until they decided to round up the sheep into the yard and one particular feisty ram took one look at the two of us, and decided to charge straight at us. Yes, if calamity could happen, it would happen to us. I hate to admit it, but what if mum was right?
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We laughed ourselves stupid all the way back to Brisbane and have continued laughing about this adventure for years. Any day now New Zealand Tourism is going to call us both and offer us a role in one of their 100% pure New Zealand ads. Yes, as Crowded House sings in the theme song: Don’t dream it’s over.
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The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Virgin Australia and the Novotel Queenstown.

Boobs, buffalo and Bali

EVERYONE keeps telling me I’ll meet a man when I least expect it, and so it was that I stumbled across Driftwood. On this particular evening I wasn’t looking to meet someone, I was on my way to the toilet after an especially hedonistic night with mates, on the beach, at Lombok.

He resembled some flotsam that had washed up on the beach at high tide. Picture Shaggy from Scooby Doo (both in name and nature) a sarong worn commando (he offered to show me his Mystery Machine), and a suspected lifetime of illegal, green, leafy material, and you’ve pretty much met Driftwood. My girlfriends swear I was swooshing my hair as I spoke to him at the bar, enroute to the dunny. I maintain it was the tropical heat making my hair stick to the nape of my neck that was causing what looked like a primitive sexual overture on my part. Suffice to say, I continued on towards the toilet – replete with coconut door handles not unlike boobs – and Driftwood stayed at the bar, except for the end of the evening when he sauntered past and kissed my head with his whiskey breath.

It had already been a bit of a colourful day on this remote Indonesian island which many liken to Bali “20 years ago”.  We’d visited a traditional village that morning for a cooking demonstration, but I had failed to read the bit which stated we’d be eating what we cooked. Which would have been OK, had it not been for the flies, the heat, and what appeared to be rancid buffalo. What to do? Risk offending the village people, or risk becoming sick?

And so I came up with the only plausible solution at the time. I told my guide I had “women’s issues” and I needed to go back to the hotel…and I needed to take not one, but three of my friends with me. In my defence, I am a woman and I have plenty of issues, so it wasn’t exactly a lie. And here’s where it became even more interesting. For the brave souls who stayed on, not only was there buffalo on the menu, but one of the village grandmothers was breastfeeding her grandson. She wouldn’t have been a day younger than 80. Given the choice between the buffalo and grandma, I am not ashamed to say I would have taken Option B.

Back at the hotel, the party continues. One of my friends – for the sake of this story let’s call her Jodi – gets up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom in her room. She walks out the front door instead and locks herself out into the humid night. There’s cocktails on the beach at sunset, limbo competitions and a slew of satay. Nick’s private pool party is all bean bags and bonhomie.

But there’s a serious side to this trip as well. It’s shortly after the tenth anniversary of the Bali bombing and we’re in Indonesia for the Australian Society of Travel Writers annual conference. Guest speaker Australian Janet De Neefe is talking about how she conceived the Ubud Writers Festival following the act of terrorism which claimed the lives of 88 Australians.

Janet, who went to Bali on a holiday 25 years ago and met her husband on the second day, describes the long weeks and months after the bombing and its effect on Indonesia and its much-needed tourism.

 “Suddenly, everything stops. It is like the end of the party. The place is deserted and everyone is gone,” she says.

 “I had to do something. It was my turn to make a contribution. Bali had been very good to me…we’ve got terrorism on our toes, let’s think of an event that is really meaningful.

 “I suddenly thought ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. Bring in the people who are fearless. Bring in the writers.”

The first Ubud Writers Festival Through Darkness to Light attracted an audience of 300. This year, more than 25,000 people were drawn to Ubud which Janet describes as “the exotic tropics in its most native sense…exquisite.”

Next year, she hopes to attract Colin Firth, yes, Mr Darcy, to the festival.

I am swept up in the romance of her words, her festival and her adopted country. Days later, I arrive in Bali itself and am humbled by a conversation I have with a Balinese man who works at the resort pool.

“You from Australia? We love Australians. After the Bali bombings, everyone stopped coming, except the Australians. You kept coming.”

I think about what I sometimes call the “ugly Australian tourist” in Bali who drinks too much, is way too loud, and is flat out finding some bare skin for yet another tattoo. So I am surprised and delighted at how the Balinese still view most Australians.

And perhaps it’s as simple as that. Maybe Australian travellers to Bali are as crucially predictable as the tide. We sweep in and we sweep out. 

Just ask Driftwood.

 The Global Goddess would like to thank the ASTW for a terrific conference and the Novotel Lombok and Garuda Indonesia for their outstanding hospitality, patience and assistance. For more information go to www.accorhotels.com; www.garuda-indonesia.com And a special shout out to Novotel Lombok General Manager Brian – the Vasse Felix was worth every drop!