A day on the Dart

Queenstown. It’s the jewel in New Zealand’s tourist crown, a bustling little town nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it’s a gorgeous spot that in my lifetime has transformed from a sleepy South Island holiday destination into the self-proclaimed ‘adventure capital of the world’.

While bungy jumping is the most famous game in town, thrill-seekers can also sky dive, paraglide, jet boat and do pretty much anything else that involves handing over a fistful of cash for a few seconds or minutes of screaming their heads off.

Having thrown myself from a bridge several times in the past I was in no hurry to do it again, and jumping off cliffs or out of planes didn’t appeal much either. After the fun that I’d a few weeks earlier at the Huka Falls, another jetboat ride sounded much more enjoyable – but I’d been on the Shotover Jet in the past, and while the trip was full of thrills and spins, 25 minutes on the water for $130 NZD didn’t seem like great value to me.

Luckily a friend of mine had mentioned jetboating on the Dart river as an alternative option. This glacier-fed river flows down from the Southern Alps, through a national park and into Lake Wakatipu, and is one of those beautifully unspoiled parts of the world that the South Island seems to specialise in. The trip with Dart River Jet Safaris was more expensive than the short rides closer to Queenstown, but given that we’d be in the boat for well over an hour, with a bit of a tour and nature walk thrown in as well, it seemed like the better choice.

And indeed it was.

Sunrise over Lake Wakatipu

After a traumatising (for her) and hilarious (for everyone else) experience in Taupo, Lauren had decided to sit this adventure out. So it was that Dustin and I found ourselves driving out of Queenstown as the sun was emerging from behind the hills. It took us all of four minutes before we had our first photo stop of the day.

It certainly wasn’t the last.

Lake

Our coach left the little village of Glenorchy promptly at 9am, my need for coffee from the local cafe meaning that I was last on the bus as usual. We trundled out of town, our driver warming up the crowd with a mixture of history and amusing stories. Next stop: Paradise.

Road to Mt Aspiring National Park

While it’s more likely that the area was named for the number of Paradise ducks than its attractiveness, there’s no doubt that it’s a lovely spot. The gravel road passes near a large wooden homestead that dates back to the late 1800s, but it’s the countryside that really grabs your attention. All grassy meadows and rolling hills, it’s not hard to see why this landscape has appeared in the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Prince Caspian and any number of TV commercials. It must be hard to be a sheep in these parts, tripping over cameramen all the time.

The closest we saw on this day, however, was a couple of iPad-wielders. Similar to a camera, I guess … except far, far worse.

iPad

Coming to the end of the road, we jumped out of the bus and onto a short nature loop through the forest. Growing up with this sort of scenery – and having recently hiked both the Tongariro Crossing and Queen Charlotte Track – it was hard to get excited about this little jaunt in the woods, but I guess I would have been thrilled if, say, I’d never seen trees before.

Trees

Still, in between conversations about soil moisture content and crawling into holes in large trunks, we spotted one wooden item that I’m pretty sure didn’t grow there by itself.

Little Dave

A left-over prop from the Lord of the Rings filming, this over-sized chair was used to make the human actors playing hobbits seem smaller than they actually were. It’s all just a matter of perspective, really. Literally.

Right on cue as we emerged from the forest a distant roar signalled that our jetboat was fast approaching. Jetboats, in fact – a full quota of passengers meant that two of the company’s boats would be on the river that morning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Nabbing the best seats in the house beside the driver (better views, less water in the face, that kind of thing), we were soon on our way. The Dart river is shallow and treacherous at the best of times, the shifting gravel meaning that conditions can change in a matter of hours. As if that wasn’t enough, the lack of rain in recent weeks had left the water levels even lower than usual. The reinforced hull meant that we weren’t likely to spring a leak if we ran up onto a bank, but I was half-expecting a need to get out and push at some point.

Fortunately our driver had more knowledge and skill than myself, and we managed to keep ourselves off the rocks the entire time. Up the river we flew, somehow always picking the best path to follow as the river kept splitting into different channels.

Dart river

Dart river

We turned around after about twenty minutes, the river finally becoming too shallow and narrow for us to continue. The landscape was spectacular, and while the thrill of the jetboat made the experience more enjoyable, it was the cloudy river, craggy mountains and dense forests that truly impressed.

Back down the Dart we sped, passing our start point in a shower of spray and heading onward with the current.

Dart river

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Somewhere near the end of the ride I managed to nudge the wrong dial on my camera and put it into black and white mode. Not quite what I was aiming for, but it made for a fun, somewhat less tranquil photo (and a reminder of why I never take selfies).

Jetboat self

Finally, after more than sixty minutes on the river, and three hours after leaving Glenorchy, we bounced our way into Lake Wakatipu and sped across the northern tip back to where we’d started. It was our driver’s last day on the Dart, and there was genuine sadness in his voice when he told us that.

I could understand why – while his normal job on the Shotover was undoubtedly full of screaming tourists and petrol fumes, it could never compare to the majestic landscapes and raw beauty of the places we’d just been to.

A Wilderness Safari on the Dart river isn’t a particularly cheap proposition – it’s a little over $200 NZD as I write this. Unlike many tourist attractions in the country, however, I think it’s actually pretty decent value for money – much more so than the shorter rides on the Shotover and Kawarau rivers, and in a far more spectacular location to boot.

While the company was good enough to offer us a discounted rate, I would happily have paid full price – and that’s not something I can say about every experience I’ve had on this New Zealand trip.

So in short, if you’re thinking about taking a jet boat trip when you’re in Queenstown, this is the one to choose. Save your pennies (perhaps just one enormous Fergburger per day) and put them towards this experience instead.

Parked boat

———-

Where I stayed:

We opted to spend our three nights in Queenstown at Haka Lodge, which turned out to be an inspired choice. The hostel is only a few months old, converted from a couple of adjacent townhouses a few minutes from the town centre. Although this leads to some interesting split-level action, it also lent a nice cozy feel to the rooms.

Haka Lodge

Haka Lodge felt like the owners had gone around to a dozen other hostels, noted down everything they hated about them, and then built a place that avoided all of those things. The internet was both free and fast, for the first time in New Zealand. The dorm rooms had heavy, custom-made wooden bunks that didn’t squeak … with curtains, a reading light and individual power sockets.

The showers were clean, and had plenty of hot water. There was a large kitchen, terrace and common space, and the private rooms were more like a budget hotel, with touches extending as far as rolled-up towels on the bed when we arrived. Yeah, it’s the little things.

It’s not often I go into rhapsodies about a hostel – at the end of the day it’s just somewhere to lay your head, right? This place, though, was something special, and no more expensive than anywhere else in town.

If you’re on a budget and you’re going to Queenstown, stay here. It’s as simple as that.

Thanks to Hostelbookers and Haka Lodge for providing our accommodation in Queenstown, and Dart River Jet Safaris for the discounted trip as part of the Tourism New Zealand Explore media programme.

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