Monday, 13 October 2008

Queenstown: Larger Than Life

This week's guest blog is written by journalist and fantasy novelist
Narrelle M Harris.


It’s been said that life never feels more real than when it feels like you’re in a movie. On a recent business trip to Queenstown, New Zealand, it sometimes seemed like I could see how the special effects were done.

Several times a day I heard my fellow conference attendees comment on the mountains. Crisply outlined against a blue, blue sky, the mountains were sharply defined and dramatic. “They look painted on!” people said. “They look like a backdrop. They don’t look real.”

They had certainly looked real enough flying in through heavy turbulence on Saturday, when the more pessimistic (and possibly less experienced) travellers among us were white-knuckle-gripping the seats and praying that we wouldn’t inspect the snowy crags any more closely until we were on foot.

I had my own surreal experience walking back to the hotel after dinner one night. This was the dinner featuring the magnificent golden-sails-in-the-sunset dessert: a chocolate boat filled with ice cream and topped with pirate-ship masts and sails made of toffee. We were all so impressed we took photos.

Queenstown has a lot of hills in it. Actually, it’s easier to say there are very few flat bits in it. This night, walking up the steep hill, I was aware of a curving bank of lights hovering above the town, close enough to be teleporting up cows and hick farmers called Jed for probing.

I glanced up, startled, before realising that it was just the lights of the Skyline observatory. With no other lights on the pitch-dark hill on which it is perched, it just hung there. A UFO with a bar and a luge track that I could reach by cable car tomorrow, if I wanted to see what the aliens were up to. And possibly rescue the cow.

Another not-quite-real thing about Queenstown is its cast of thousands from other nations. The customer service staff in this town are a check-list of the United Nations. At my hotel I met staff from Argentina, Portugal, Italy (Venice – he was particular about naming his hometown) and a contingent of handsome young Dutch men who were studying hospitality and had come out for work experience.

In the town itself I was served decent coffee by a Yorkshireman, sated my need for the Internet at a cafe run by a guy from the Czech Republic and bought groceries from women who sounded like they came from somewhere in Eastern Europe. It was more like a casting call than a plausible local population.

I begin to suspect that Queenstown wasn’t a proper New Zealand town, but rather a sophisticated training camp designed to prepare Kiwis for life in Europe, where they have customs and cultures different from our own.

Even if it is a kind of multicultural movie set, you could do worse than visit Queenstown. If you are not inclined to fling yourself at speeds down snow covered slopes, or straight towards the craggy ground at the end of a big rubber band, there are more genteel pursuits in this lovely little Alpine town.

If you have engineer-geek tendencies, you can go on a cruise around the lake in a century-old steamship and sit on a viewing gantry watching the burly men shovel coal, and the gleaming pistons of the engine pumping up and down. And it’s warm down there, which is good, because it can be bloody cold out on deck.

Queenstown may well be too pretty and possibly even too contrived to be true, with its picturesque mountains and lookouts posing as flying saucers, but if you want an escape from your real, everyday life, this is surely the place to do it.

Find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her other books.