Friday, November 9, 2007

Old men, big mountains, and small balls


By JON DUVAL

On a small peninsula abutting the eastern boundary of the picturesque village center of Queenstown, New Zealand, sits the Queenstown Gardens.

It is by no means a big park, nor does it come replete with sculptures or fountains. In fact, it merits a mere sentence in Lonely Planet, including the phrase "peaceful park on the peninsula." Is it ever a good thing when a guidebook spices up a description through the use of alliteration?

With its diminutive size and lack of literary acclaim, it's no wonder the park garners little attention from the hoards of tourists that throng to the south island's most popular city. Then again, maybe it's the fact that Queenstown, like an antipodean Ketchum, not only offers adrenaline junkies a seemingly endless number of opportunities to risk severely debilitating injuries, but also enjoys the advantage of one of the most sublime vistas in the world.

From the north and west, lush green hills lead steeply down to the village, which is perched on the second bend of the sparkling blue, S-shaped Lake Wakatipu. A decent view, but it's still hard to rationalize the $1,500 flight until you look east and your entire line of sight is taken up with the Remarkables. A jagged line of peaks perched on the edge of the lake, this aptly named mountain range has ripped through the earth's crust, the result of two tectonic plates slamming into each other in a geological sumo match.

But perhaps it's the obvious and overwhelming scale of the surrounding natural beauty that makes the gardens so appealing. Well, that and the Old Men in White Shoes.

I stumbled upon the Old Men in White Shoes with my friend, Sun Valley native Emilie Dupont, while jogging through the park on a Saturday afternoon in autumn. We skirted the duck pond, passed through an elaborate rose garden, crossed over the Frisbee golf course, and headed alongside the ice rink. Honestly, how great is this park? That's when we caught blinding flashes through the hedges in front of us. Our curiosity piqued and rather breathless, our pace slowed from "perceptively moving in a forward direction" to "walking into a headwind on Mount Washington."

Through an opening in the shrubbery, we came upon an expanse of green that, had it been deserted, would have resembled the world's most boring miniature golf course. However, at that moment it looked more like the staging area for a cruise ship departing for the Florida Keys. The artificial grass surface was swarming with men whose ages varied from a relatively youthful 45 years old to a few who might have taken part in Queenstown's gold rush of 1863.

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Shapes and sizes covered a wide spectrum as well, ranging from tall and lithe to a number of squat, rotund figures that perhaps worked as Hobbit extras in "The Lord of the Rings," a good portion of which was filmed in the nearby mountains. They all had one thing in common, however: a uniform that would make the most well-heeled golfer feel shabby.

White leather shoes—loafers for the stylish and Velcro-strapped for the more performance-oriented athletes. Pressed white slacks. Thick white cable-knit V-neck sweaters over white turtlenecks. And for the "coup de grâce" were white hats of the floppy circular-brimmed fashion. Looking upon this scene, there's only one word that could enter the mind of any sagacious, rational-minded individual: sweet.

Directly across the pitch was the back of a an elegant white two-storied house that proffered explanation by way of the words "Queenstown Bowling Club" painted neatly in deep green letters. Ah, the great pastime of lawn bowling, which I had thought of as a game the English gentry took up after they were no longer able to ride across their estates on horseback with their hounds, hunting for the elusive and ever-so-dangerous fox. It looked as if this still may be the case.

Well, I don't have to tell you that this was about all the excitement I could handle in one day. However, on our way down the path we turned for one last look and were rewarded with a breathtaking scene.

A brilliant green lawn, on which these solemn white characters were milling about, as if they had been transported from one of Gatsby's cocktail parties. Only the opulent Long Island backdrop had been replaced with fierce, snow-covered peaks.

All in all, the perfect place to spend that free hour between floating through on a boogie board and jumping out of a cable car into a canyon with only a glorified rubber band attached to your ankles.

Jon Duval is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express.




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