It takes less than an hour in Queenstown to confirm two long-held suppositions about a mid-winter visit. Firstly, it’s incredibly beautiful, with winter’s snowy breath adding extra enchantment to the already spectacular scenery. My other preconception is reinforced during a late afternoon stroll through town, where shuttle vans disgorge dozens of ruddy-faced skiers and riders, all flushed with the exhilaration and camaraderie of a day on the slopes.
Sporty types with ski boots dangling around their necks or snowboards balanced casually over their shoulders march about the place, exuding the confidence of people who are entirely in their element. And, as I suspected, I feel as if I don’t belong.
Apart from – and perhaps because of – one disastrous attempt at skiing a couple of decades ago, mountains and snow-sports are alien to me. Still, I’ve always wanted to see Queenstown in winter, although drinking mulled wine in front of open fires and sitting in bubbling hot tubs has more appeal than actually getting in the snow.
However, to confidently join in apres-snow chat with the aforementioned sporty types, non-skiers like me need at least one snow encounter, and NZ Guided Nature Walks has the ideal experience. They provide guided snow-shoeing excursions, taking small groups into the pristine backcountry to forge across vast expanses of unbroken snow.
Guides Peter and Marcus assure me that the only skill required is the ability to walk, but my apprehension grows as we snake up the narrow mountain road to The Remarkables ski area, negotiating hairpin bends where precipitous drop-offs plunge hundreds of metres to the valley below.
Half-way up it starts to snow and while to me it appears like white-out conditions, Peter and Marcus are unconcerned.
When I step out of the van the guides crouch at my feet, strapping on sandal-like contraptions that look like beachwear for Big Foots. I’m surprised. My only knowledge of snowshoes is from 1960s TV programmes of wintry wilderness where they strapped on unwieldy tennis racquet-like monstrosities and plodded away over the snowy ground.
Modern snowshoes look nothing like that. They’re sleek and lightweight, and feel extremely stable with amazing gripping power. There’s no special technique involved and within minutes I’ve negotiated a small hill.
We trudge away from the busy ski runs into the silence of the mountains, slipping into a rhythmic walking action which apparently has the added bonus of burning 500 calories an hour. Although we miss the magnificent views afforded by clear weather, for a mountain novice, being up there while it’s actually snowing is a splendid experience.
Not only that, our well-outfitted group looks like they’ve been on a serious alpine mission and when we emerge from the gloom back at the ski run, heads turn our way. I’m confident that tonight when I join other visitors sipping mulled wine in front of the fire, tales of my mountain exploits will rival those of any skier.
Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily flights.
Where to stay: The Dairy Boutique Hotel, phone (03) 442 5164 or visit thedairy.co.nz.
The Rees Hotel & Apartments, phone (03) 450 1100.
What to do: NZ Guided Nature Walks offers half-day, full-day, and private snowshoeing experiences. Prices start at $135 (adult), $100 (child under 14). Call (03) 442 7126 or visit snowshoeing.co.nz.
Further information: For information about visiting Queenstown see queenstown-nz.co.nz.
Heather Ramsay was a guest of Destination Queenstown.