Monday, May 25, 2020


Queenstown sunrise over Lake Wakatipu
and The Remarkables mountain range

My friend and fellow children’s book author Caroline Hatton visited New Zealand in March 2020 (late summer in the Southern Hemisphere), arriving before the World Health Organization declared the spread of coronavirus a pandemic. She took all the photos in this post.

Upon arrival in Queenstown, we used disinfecting wipes to scrub anything we might touch in our lodging. Then we made a call to change our flight to return home from New Zealand instead of Australia, now that we could no longer go there because of tightened border controls. We aimed to fly in a few days, not sooner, so the U.S. would have time to improve new health screens at airports, to spare us long waits in packed crowds at risk for contagion, as shown on the news. There were no plane tickets available in four days. None the day after. Or the day after—none until eight days later. Hopefully, as the world shut down to fight COVID-19, our flight would not be canceled, New Zealand would not lock down, and the U.S. would not close its border to us. But what if we caught the virus here? Maybe medical care would be more readily available in Queenstown than Los Angeles...

Day after day, Nature staged new light and color shows for the view of Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables mountain range from our balcony, especially at sunrise and sunset. Our hostess offered help to arrange “things to do” which involved paying to see something or go for a ride: a Jeep ride, jet boat ride, coach ride to bungee jumping (or bungy in New Zealand), zip lining, rafting, canyoning, a jet ski or bike rental, a winery tour, farm tour, Lord of the Rings movie sites tour, horse ride, flightseeing from a plane or helicopter, a Skyline Gondola ride with buffet lunch, skydiving (outdoor or indoor), and so much more! The streets of Queenstown were lined with shops selling air, land, and water adventure combos, with each day’s adrenaline special featured on a chalk board on the sidewalk.

Routeburn Track
But my idea of fun is to forget civilization and find peace in the wild. So we planned to walk on the alpine Routeburn Track. Guides take groups on multiday tours, on segments no longer than ~8 miles (12 km) with overnight stays in simple lodges, but we would rather hike (tramp) by ourselves. We would go out and back in one day, and let the weather and our mood determine how far we would get.

Looking down at the Routeburn Flats
The drive from Queenstown to the start of the Routeburn Track began along bright blue Lake Wakatipu. Snowy peaks rose on the horizon like a promised land as we neared Glenorchy. We drove on, beyond pavement and onto gravel, to the track starting point. We trekked through beech forest, over swing bridges, past waterfalls, above clear, gemstone-colored pools, and out on grassy flats between mountain ranges. As a fern lover, I went crazy over the diversity of species, each one a new favorite. We had the Earth to ourselves. Only rushing creeks and birdsong broke the silence. Such solitude spells bliss any time. As a bonus in these pandemic times, it gave me a break from staying on high alert to maintain physical distancing.

Past the Routeburn Falls, we climbed only far enough to glimpse the austere, bushless heights beyond. We returned to the empty Routeburn Falls Hut to eat sandwiches we had made, and headed back to beat the rain predicted on a handwritten sign, which also advised to “Take care of this planet, the only one with chocolate!”

Wanaka Lake
The next day, we drove the Crown Range and Cardrona Valley Roads to the smaller town of Wanaka. First, tight switchbacks climbed above the Kawarau River valley, then soft curves took us through farmland with rocky heights behind, and around bald hilltops. In town, the local newspaper headline, “Coronavirus slams Wanaka,” made us read the beginning of the article. To our relief, the South Island still had no known COVID-19 case. What the virus was slamming was the tourism industry. When we ate lunch at a lakefront pub, after 2 p.m. to avoid crowds, only one other distant table was occupied. At the Thursday afternoon Wanaka Farmers Market, only six artisans set up tables, as if the fierce wind had blown away not only the visitors, but also the vendors. We had a nice chat with a local, New-Zealand-greenstone (nephrite jade) craftsman. His lovely accent made his wisdom sound even better.

Glenorchy Lagoon
On the next day with no rain forecast, we returned to Glenorchy to walk around the lagoon in early morning light, drive to Paradise to see how well-named it is, and choose a track for a half-day walk.

Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)
The lagoon rang with occasional quacks from wild ducks and squeaks from Black Swans (Cygnus atratus). In well-named Paradise, horses, sheep, and cows kept an eye on us from luscious pastures below snow-tipped summits. We turned around where the unpaved road crossed a creek we deemed too deep for our car, but only because it was a rental. After a picnic lunch in the car, protected from biting sandflies, we climbed the Invincible Mine Track in cool tree shade for views of mountains, our preference over walking in full sun on the flat Rees-Dart Track in the valley.

Two days before our scheduled departure, we entered the Kiwi Birdlife Park as it opened, to avoid crowds. We saw many Kiwis! All we had to do was walk in the three dark Kiwi Houses and let our eyes adapt to dim red lighting. And there they were behind glass, round brown fluffy chicken-like things with a long thin beak, poke-poke-poking the soil as they scurried around looking for food.

Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus)
Later, an open-air show featured a Morepork Owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae), a Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus), and other birds in glorious flight. Another star was the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), a reptile found only in New Zealand and a species that has survived since the age of dinosaurs. Tuatara means “peaks on the back” in the indigenous Māori language. And New Zealand’s Tuatara beer mimics the animal’s distinctive allure with a row of pointy glass bumps rising off the (bottle)neck.

Back in our lodging Wi-Fi bubble, we learned from online news that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had announced at 2 p.m. that New Zealand would go into lockdown “in 48 hours.” Did she mean exactly at 2 p.m. that Wednesday? Oh no! Our flight from Queenstown to Auckland, the capital, was scheduled for 5 p.m. that day and the one from Auckland to Los Angeles at 11 p.m. Online searches failed to find a lockdown time or whether foreigners would be allowed to fly home because it would be considered “essential travel.” No seats were available on any earlier flight. We could drive 21 hours to Auckland on the North Island in time for our international flight, but only if we left immediately, except rental cars were not allowed on ferries. Could we return our car before taking the ferry and rent another one after? We broke speed records packing to leave, but decided to wait for official updates. On Tuesday, a government web page specified the lockdown time on Wednesday: 11:59 p.m., almost an hour after our departure for the U.S. We would have ample time to spare!

But how certain were we that we wanted to go home? The coronavirus had reached New Zealand later than the U.S., Europe, or Australia. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had jumped at the chance to control the outbreak by acting early and strongly. She had a plan. It was science-based. She had made it sound clear and simple in a calm, convincing, and compassionate manner. “We currently have 102 cases. But so did Italy once… Be strong. Be kind.” Sheltering in place in touristless Queenstown seemed safer from COVID-19 than in populous Los Angeles County where the statistics were worse. We talked about horses racing back into burning stables.

If I had had a magic wand guaranteeing that I could go home when I wanted, I would have stayed in Queenstown for another month or two, where the town was deserted, fall colors were beginning to flicker under snow-powdered mountain ranges, and serenity felt inescapable even in the face of an uncertain future. But that Wednesday, I went home where I belong, after packing up that serenity inside me. By then, the U.S. State Department was tracking some 50,000 Americans stuck abroad and seeking help to go home.

At writing time, five weeks later, it turns out that I have felt safe from contagion because I have stayed home, never going outside except for a daily 3-mile walk at 5 a.m. when no one else is out. Meanwhile, New Zealand appears to have eliminated the coronavirus, but in the U.S., the numbers of cases and deaths are still increasing and the long-term plan is to learn to live with COVID-19.


Join Cathy Mayone’s adventures on New Zealand’s South Island including, in the Queenstown area, Arrowtown, the Otago Wine Trail bike ride, the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, Te Anau, the Milford Sound, and Lake Wanaka.

Follow Owen Floody’s exploration of the South Island including the Routeburn Track (years before the flood damage and partial closure of February 2020).


Prakash Tripathi said...

Great Article Man, Keep it up TOURISM PLACES 2020!

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