Ghostly memories

Long ago and faraway we hitched a ride to Queenstown. It was 1960 and we two 16-year-olds walked down the road to the township and the glittering waters of Lake Wakatipu. We expected to see a township but this was really a little burg, like all the small towns we’d passed on the way South.

But if the village was a small, that was redeemed by the backdrop of the Remarkables. (An early surveyor discovered that the mountains ran straight from north to south, one of three comparable  ranges in the world).

It was getting dark and we knew we had to find somewhere to sleep that night.

No luck.

So remembering a movie in which one of the characters found a prison cell to sleep in, we fronted up to the police and asked if we could do the same.

“Bugger off” snapped the constable. So, as dusk fell, we were out in the street again, wondering where we could pitch our tent. We walked and walked and found a suitable green area on the gentle slope.  We had no other choice so we pitched our pup tent – in the local graveyard. We fell asleep easily, but in the middle of the night we heard a ghostly screech.

We were young. Innocents in a graveyard, aware of the Past not far beneath and the Present threatening to send us there too. In short, we were scared witless, but forced ourselves to peek through the tent’s flap – and saw a huge sheep heaving its bulk against the wires between strainer posts. It was just scratching its fleece and we sighed with relief, and tried unsuccessfully to go back to sleep.

We wandered around the place in the morning and then hit the road again.

Fast forward to 2020.

My wife and I were checking out at our Tekapo B’n’B when our host asked where our next stop would be.

“Queenstown” I said and she frowned.

“It’s very busy there nowadays” she added. As we chatted I thought about two dates: Sixty years!  What happened to all those years?

  1. Surely the once-upon-a-time village couldn’t be that busy? We soon got our answer – traffic backed up a mile on the approach to Queenstown.

Roadworks we thought. Wrong again. We’d arrived just in time for the Queenstown Marathon which drew 12,000 visitors, athletes and their supporters. Two days later they’d gone. The pace dropped, the roads were clear and the visitors had gone. Queenstown again moved at a sedate pace, with 20,000 permanent residents as opposed to the 1,000 or so living there in 1960.

The tourism boom began in the early 1980s according to Te Ara. In that decade the town had to cope with one million overseas tourists; by 2019 the number had rocketed to three million. The waterfront with its inviting pavement dining, now resembled Auckland’s Ponsonby.

Buskers sang on the promenade, jet boats raced across the lake’s waters and nearby, tethered to the wharf, the faithful 108-year-old steamer, Earnslaw,  where on its trips,  passengers could see stokers shovelling coal into its furnaces.

So yes, Queenstown is a bustling little town now – and a lifetime away from the cemetery.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.