Winter in Queenstown

Life comes at you fast. A day after posting my last blog for NZ I broke my collarbone snowboarding.  Having written in that blog how lucky I had been avoiding lockdowns, the Aus bubble shutting giving me empty slopes, the progress I was making on the board and how buzzing I was for the season. It was a stark reminder how in the blink of an eye everything can change and nothing in life is guaranteed. It was a beautiful day, 20cm of fresh snow had fallen overnight and it was my first real powder day on the slopes being good enough to enjoy it. I had gone with a few friends, who were better than me but never forcing me to do more than I could handle. I had several runs in the morning and it was great fun. Snowboarding on actual powder is like nothing else I’ve done. It’s honestly like floating on a cloud and I can see why so many people get addicted to chasing this feeling. In fact, in the morning I came down my first red run (more difficult than the blues I’d been doing) and then also hiked up to the radio station viewpoint, before boarding down from here which was technically off-piste and a black run, which again I handled well. Gliding on the powder was incredible.

My friends wanted to do a bit more of the off-piste section, which was still a little more than I was willing to handle so we agreed to meet back at the lifts after the run. With that I started to bomb it down the blue run back to the lift, buzzing after just coming down the black and the prospect of a great day ahead. The section I was on had small rolling hills so you have to go pretty quick down the one side to maintain enough speed to go up the other side, so I was going at a decent pace. When I went to turn slightly onto my toe side edge, due to the fresh powder which had started to mogul a little and not being on my back foot enough, the front side of my board dug in gripping the snow. This flung me forward, landing, with all my force and momentum solely on my left clavicle (collarbone). As I landed on my clavicle I heard a crunch, which obviously now was my bone-breaking, not the snow. Before my legs and board came over my head and I was sat in the snow. Thinking “what the fuck just happened” and also “ouch that bloody hurt”. That whole scene I’ve just described from bombing it down to the edge of the board catching to me being sat in the snow in pain happened in the briefest of moments. So fast that it took me a second to take stock of what had just happened. My first thought was that I had dislocated my shoulder, but almost immediately changed my opinion to that of breaking my collarbone. I knew right away I had done some damage and it wasn’t going to be good. I couldn’t move my left arm due to the pain in my clavicle, however, if I kept the arm still it wasn’t horrendous pain. I could sit there pretty comfortably, enough so that I even filmed myself in the direct aftermath for my Instagram vlog. But I was in a bit of a spot seeing as I was on my own and there was no way I could board the rest of the way down the mountain. Luckily I was pretty much under one of the lifts, so someone either saw me crash or sat there in pain and shouted down if I needed help from ski patrol. Having replied that I did, they then informed the lifty once they got off, who subsequently radioed patrol to come to my aid. I was also just over a ridge on the downslope of the rolling hill, so not visible to those coming down after me. Thankfully a nice boarder stopped and asked if I was okay. I responded that no I think I’ve broken my collarbone, but if he could help move me to the side of the run to avoid a potential crash with others that would be great. He took off my board and then dragged me to the side of the run by my leg before heading off again having done his part. Leaving me waiting for a man from ski patrol to arrive and ferry me down the run to the on-mountain medical hut. I had to be strapped into this stretcher thing while he then towed me down the mountain on his skis. It was pretty scary, but he did a very good job even if snow does blast you in the face and everyone looks at you like an idiot haha. It’s a place no one wants to be, and I wasn’t even on the fancy snowmobile powered one. Back at the medical hut, I was assessed and given a sling, some pain killers and gas and air. Overall when just laid there the pain was only about a 4/10 but if trying to move the arm/shoulder area it rose to about a 7/10. But in the sling, it was pretty stable. I got a call from my friends asking where the hell I had got to while they were on the lift, and they were shocked to hear I was in the medical hut. They came to visit and grab some of my gear just as a St Johns ambulance arrived to take me down the mountain from the ski field. Initially, the ride wasn’t too bad but as we started to turn the sharp mountain roads the pain did increase so was offered the chance to puff away on the green whistle which is a strong painkiller and makes you feel pretty high. I arrived at Frankton Hospital where I was sent for an X-Ray before a doctor confirmed the break, gave me a better sling, a prescription for codeine and said “rest up see you in 10 days”. 

In the days that followed, I just sat in front of the TV watching the Olympics drugged up on codeine. Sleeping, which I was worried about, wasn’t actually too bad although I had to prop myself up with pillows. For the first 4 days though I didn’t take my arm out of the sling, however after this amount of time I needed a shower. Showering wasn’t too bad either I just had my arm down by my side. That first week was the worst and having to do pretty much everything for myself still was more difficult although friends were also really helpful. After 9 days I was back at the hospital for a follow up with the fracture clinic. The X-ray although looking worse to my eyes than the day I broke the bone was healing really well according to the Dr and she discharged me for physio. I started physio in just under 3 weeks. It’s now been 10 weeks since and I’m 95% back to normal. To be honest, after about 3 weeks I was back to normal with everyday things and living, I just couldn’t raise my left arm above 90 degrees. But I had it out the sling by this point and after the 6-week point, it really was completely normal except for a few little things I’ve been a bit cautious with. Just last week (8-week mark) I started overhead pressing and push-ups again all now pain-free too. I’m pretty much fully recovered. I think it would be possible to go back up the slopes but I don’t want to do something and then ruin my 2 month road trip around NZ. There is always going to be another winter season and chance to board, but who knows when I’ll have such an opportunity to travel NZ and I don’t want to ruin that. It certainly wasn’t the season I hoped it would be. But I still have no regrets or hard feelings. I got a good feel for boarding and my first experience of a ski resort. I know I’d love to do it again and to continue on the snowsports journey. I’m no longer a beginner and would class myself as an early-stage intermediate. And while it is frustrating not knowing when I’ll be back on the board, I genuinely don’t feel bad about what happened and know I’ll be back one day. Things could have been far worse, a broken collarbone isn’t the worst injury and I’ve been able to do lots of other things which maybe I wouldn’t have had the time had I been up the mountains more. Life is full of adversity and setbacks, it’s how you handle these and move forward which determines your happiness and growth in life. A book I once read said there is a moment between a stimulus and response. In that moment you can control how you respond. How you decide to respond can determine if you wish to continue to be happy or descend into sadness and resentment about a situation. I always try to choose to be happy and grateful, to see the positives in life regardless of the stimulus. 

In amongst all the broken collarbone stuff, New Zealand also went into a nationwide level 4 lockdown (the highest stage). This was due to the first community case of the delta variant which initially was 1, but has since risen to over 1000 cases. This lockdown happened 3 weeks after I broke my bone and lasted for 3 weeks more. So during that time, no one was up the mountain meaning I didn’t miss too much regardless. The Mountains did open up again but as I said sadly I won’t be going back up there as by now there isn’t much snow plus it’s not worth the chance I do some damage again. Most of NZ is now in level 2 of lockdown, which basically means normal life other than the usual cap on venue capacity, masks and signing in everywhere you go. Cases are still bubbling along but touch wood this doesn’t impact my road trip too much over the next 10 weeks. I am also due to get my second dose of the vaccine this week. Making me fully jabbed up before travelling and also coming home at Christmas. With the lockdown and not being up the mountain, it has given me the chance to explore a lot more around the surrounding area in Queenstown and do loads of things which maybe I wouldn’t have gotten around to had things been different with the snow. I bought a car from my mate which has also opened up the option to travel further afield and hopefully will do the job for the entire length of my road trip before I sell it again. I’ll go over a few of these adventures now. 

Remarkables Mountain Range as viewed from the top of Queenstown Hill
Remarkables Mountain Range from the top of Queenstown Hill

Firstly I went on a lot of hikes. The bottom of the South Island has some of the best hikes not only in the country but the world so it would have been rude not to explore at least some of these. Queenstown hill although pretty short and easy, offers you amazing panoramic views of QT itself, the lake and surrounding mountains. It’s just beautiful to head up there for sunset, get some blood pumping on the walk and then just admire the beauty once you’re at the top. The big one in Queenstown though is Ben Lomond which has a peak of 1748 m. It’s about a 6 – 7 hour round trip from QT. It starts pretty steep before flattening out a bit with a gentle climb to the saddle, and then a final pretty punishing hour to the peak. It was also still pretty snowy up the top when I hiked it, so this added to the challenge a little but was certainly worth the effort. The views are even more spectacular than QT hill. Again you can see most of Glenorchy side of Wakatipu Lake but also across the Southern Alps Range toward Mount Aspiring National Park. The sense of achievement having hiked up so high is also a great feeling and to be honest, I just love the effort it takes to hike. I’m not much of a gentle hiker, I like to get my sweat on and put in the work getting a good workout in as well as being rewarded with beautiful scenery.

View from Ben Lomond Summit
View from the summit of Ben Lomond

Another hike this time on the other side of Lake Wakatipu is the Wye Creek Track, this offer views back at Queenstown itself and you’re actually hiking up the side of the Remarkables Mountain range. It’s actually possible in summer to reach the very top of the Ski Field, but we only did the 3-hour return route to Wye Creek. Which again wasn’t too demanding but follows the creek itself up the valley through forest. There’s a few great viewpoints and waterfalls to see as well.

New Zealand also has what it calls the 7 great walks which as described by the DoC (Department of Conservation) “are premier tracks that pass through diverse and spectacular scenery. From native forests, lakes and rivers to rugged mountain peaks, deep gorges and vast valleys…there’s a Great Walk for everyone”. 3 of these great walks are found not too far from Queenstown. There is a Great Walk Season which runs for the summer months so tackling them during winter offers more of a challenge and risk as many of the mountain passes are virtually impassable due to avalanche risk or require specialist equipment and training. This sadly made it impossible to attempt the whole length of some of the walks but I did manage to tick off a few sections. The first being the Keplar Great Walk, which in total is a 3-day 4-night hike totalling 60 km. I went with some friends for the first section up to Mt Luxmore and Luxmore hut. About 20 km for the day, spending the night in the hut before walking back the way we had come. Normally you carry on and finish the loop in a few days as opposed to retracing your steps. This was my first ever multi-day hike or stay in a hut not just in New Zealand but ever and I loved it. The weather of day 1 was amazing as we followed lake Te Anau for an hour or so before climbing up through the forest, breaking the tree line after a few hours before finishing the final hour of the alpine section to Luxmore Hut which was stunning. We dropped our bags at the hut and then carried on another few km further to Luxmore Peak itself, which was a little snowy in parts but manageable. The top of the peak had amazing views of the Fjordland National Park and we were even met by 5 Kea, the only alpine parrot in the world and found solely on the South Island. We then went back to the hut to eat dinner and warm ourselves in front of the fire. The hut sleeps 50 when at capacity but we had it to ourselves and were even allowed to move our camping mattresses down to the lounge area to sleep in front of the fire. Sunset and Sunrise at the hut we spectacular and again we were greeted by the friendly Kea and a dusting of snow overnight. These places are stunning regardless but having no one else around just added to how magical the place felt. The hike back down to the car was a little wet but we made it down in good time and the skies did clear. 

After the Kepler, it was on to tackle a second great walk this time the Routeburn, which is a 30 km point to point hike. Again snow in the alpine section made it impossible to complete the full hike so I went with a friend on a day hike as far as we could before turning around and coming back. We set off from the Glenorchy side around 10 am and hiked around 12 km to Lake Harris. The hike is my favourite thus far. The variety of scenery was amazing. First following the river through luscious forest, before reaching flood plains surrounded by mountains. We then ascended up to Falls Hut, and Routeburn Falls which is a multi-layered waterfall, before continuing into the alpine section where we were engulfed in a massive bowl of snow-capped mountains. From here it wasn’t too much further to Lake Harris which was covered in snow as well as views back down the valley from where we had come. Here you would normally pass over Harris Saddle and down the other side of the mountains to complete the hike but the snow was too deep to go any further so we turned around and headed back. Reaching the car around 6 pm after 8 hours hiking and 24km later. Although a pretty big day the hike is pretty easy and we certainly took our time stopping so frequently to take photos of the beautiful landscape before us. It’s impossible to describe the scenery, so hopefully, the photos help, but even then justice isn’t done to quite how extraordinary beautiful a place this was, again all to ourselves.  

As well as doing many hikes I took a mini road trip down to the Catlins National Park which comprises an area in the southeastern corner of the South Island of New Zealand. The area lies between Balclutha and Invercargill, consisting of rugged coastline, waterfalls, sea lion populated beaches, sheep covered farmland and dense forest. I drove for just over 3 hours from QT to Nugget Point Lighthouse. The weather had cleared at the perfect time for me and the drive along the coast to the lighthouse was bathed in sunshine. I parked up at the lighthouse the only car in the car park (I’m sure you’ve noticed a theme of how deserted everywhere is seeing as no one can enter the country still). The lighthouse was a short walk along steep cliffs before reaching the headland and looking out across the jagged rocks, like chicken nuggets sticking out the sea in the choppy waters below. I managed to get some great photos before the weather turned and the rain started so I head back to the car and drove to Cannibal Bay. Here I walked to the far end of the beach where serval sea lions had come to sleep and rest from their time at sea. I enjoyed the solitude of the beach with just me and the sea lions, however, as I made my way back to my car I was also harassed by an angry cockerel.

From the beach, I then drove to Matai Falls walking the short 20 min return to the waterfall. After this, I drove through Papatowai stopping on the beach and flying my drone a bit before continuing on to Florence Hill Lockout. After this, I turned back towards Purakaunui Falls stopping here, before heading to Purakanui Bay Campsite, where I would be spending the night sleeping in the back of my car. The campsite was stunning and I parked up on the hill overlooking the sea, had some food and got comfortable on the air mattress I’d put in the back of my Ford Mondeo Estate. I did forget a pillow though which wasn’t ideal. I had a pretty early night after an action-packed day but the night’s sleep wasn’t great. I woke up several times shivering as the temp was just above freezing. I just about had enough layers with my ski thermals, tracksuit bottoms, T-shirt, jumper, coat, beanie and sleeping bag, but was still very cold. I even ended up weeing in my water bottle, to act as a hot water bottle having watched Bare Grylls do it once. But it had little effect due to the insulating properties of the bottle. So all it meant is I had a pissy bottle I couldn’t use until I managed to clean it.

View of Purakanui bay out the back of a car where someone is sleeping

After a cold night, I had a few more stops on my way to Invercargill. First, I stopped off at Mclean Falls, then onto Curio Bay, Waipapa Point Lighthouse and Slope Point, the most southerly part of the NZ South Island and closer to Antarctica than the equator. Finally, I headed to Bluff and Stirling point before arriving in Invercargill for the night where I would this time be sleeping in a hostel.  The next morning I drove the 2 hours back to QT after a fantastic few days exploring on my own, testing out my car, drone and taking photos. The scenery was so different to that of QT and very diverse, at times I felt like I was in the welsh countryside others in a scene from Jurassic Park. It was also deserted, I’d drive and drive not passing another car for ages, so I did enjoy myself on the winding roads a little. it honestly felt like I was at the end of the world and no one else was there with me.   

A man at slope point, New Zealand

The final big adventure for my time in Queenstown was heading down to Milford Sound to scuba dive (actually a Fjord, not a Sound, the difference being Fjords are created by glacial erosion, whereas Sounds from river erosion). The trip in fact had been postponed by a week due to bad weather, so I’m grateful we were able to reschedule and fit it in. I went with 3 friends from Queenstown who also had their dive license and it’s safe to say we had the most amazing few days. We left early Friday morning making the 3-hour drive past Te Anau before continuing towards Milford. There is so much to explore down here in the Fjord National Park so we tried to get in the key parts. Stopping at Mirror Lake and Eglinton Valley lockout. We then moved onto Pop’s View Look Out where a Kea greeted us, followed by a 3-hour return hike to Lake Marian which upon reaching the lake left us all speechless and in awe of what was before us. Again photos don’t do the scene justice, towering cliffs rose into the clouds around the turquoise blue lake in the centre. Avalanche debris was strewn all around the base of the mountains. We heard several avalanches on our way to the lake and then witnessed several more while we spent a good 40 minutes just absorbing the scene in front of us. It was beautiful and non of us wanted to leave. After the amazing hike, we drove further up the Milford road to Monkey Creek where the weather was perfect and the view equally outrageous. We then headed back to our campsite for the night, staying at Cascade Creek. Here we cooked our dinner on an open fire, before having a few beers and calling it a night as we would be up early the following morning. We woke at 6:30am and drove the final hour onto Milford, ascending into the thick cloud and emerging in it as we came through the other side of the Milford tunnel before descending into the valley and Milford Sound itself for our day diving. 

It had been over two years since I last went scuba diving and while very excited I was also a little nervous. It would also be a very different dive from anything I’d done before. Having only ever dived in tropical reefs, the water here was about 10 degrees and we would need to wear dry suits, which again I had never done. But all the boys were the same as me so on top of the diving we were also given training and instruction on the drysuit, its use and completed a few training skills in the water before commencing our first dive. As the name suggests a dry suit keeps water out and you completely dry, the only things that really get wet are your hands and head, although you wear gloves and a hood to keep them warm. Therefore jumping into the water and remaining bone dry was a bit odd. As well as keeping water out it keeps air in, so acts as another air space you have to worry about for your buoyancy control. This is where the slight added complexity comes in with dry suit diving. When getting accustomed to this in the skills part, before our dive, all the air got trapped in my feet so I was floating upside-down with my head on the sandy floor and feet at the surface. To correct this you have to do a somersault so the air rises to the top of the suit where you can then vent it via a value on your upper shoulder. Enough with all the technical scuba stuff though, the day was unreal, firstly Milford Sound is just stunning with waterfalls seeming to descend from the heavens above with cloud covering the tops of the high mountain cliffs where they originate. On every side you’re surrounded by steep cliffs above but which also dive below to a depth around 200m. When underwater, although we only dove to 20m it was crazy looking down into the abyss below knowing how deep it extended. There was also a layer of freshwater on top of the seawater, so descending through the first 1 m or so you can’t see much as the visibility is all blurred but as you come through this layer the vis was pretty decent to about 10-15 m. Obviously it not a tropical reef down there so it is a little sparse in places but that was equally cool. There was however still loads to see. We saw loads of lobsters, a few different types of small sharks, various small fish and quite a few big black coral trees, which are actually white. Being back underwater was amazing and although in the drysuit you do feel a bit more cumbersome and not as free I just love being down there in another world. It was beautiful and then coming to the surface floating in this massive water-filled valley was breathtaking. Diving aside we also toured most of Milford on the dive boat, stopping off to swim to one of the nearby waterfalls on land, as well as being greeted by a few bottlenose dolphins who cruised by us while on the boat. It was the most amazing way to see Milford sound and I would recommend anyone with a dive license to see Milford this way as opposed to the regular tour boat. You see the the same stuff, but far less cool and you don’t scuba dive either haha. Descend Diving were amazing too and I would recommend them to anyone, thank you to our divemaster/instructor Zach and Boat Captain Lance, we had the best trip and it was the perfect end to my time in Queenstown. 

It was a long one but that about sums up the past 2 months of my time in New Zealand. Queenstown has been the most amazing place to live and I could easily stay here for much longer. It has everything that I love and there’s so much to do here that you’ll never be bored. While snowboarding was cut a bit short and I didn’t quite get to the backflip haha, I still loved the last 5 months. So thank you to everyone who was a part of that time it was a blast. I now have my final week in Queenstown with quite a few things and parties going on before I will set off on my road trip on the 11th of October. From Queenstown I’ll make my way slowly North, covering as much of the South Island as I can for 4.5 weeks, before catching the ferry over to the North Island, exploring here for 4.5 weeks, COVID permitting. Finally ending up in Auckland and flying home around Mid December. Stay tuned it should be a pretty magical trip. 

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