On the 12th day of our trip, we arrive in Queenstown by noon, and as we approach along SH6, the town's looming mountain range (appropriately named the Remarkables) is visible, even from miles away. Within a half hour, we're on the Kawarau River, white-water rafting down the rocky gorges that surround the town. It doesn't seem too extreme - until I'm dumped into the river on the second rapid. Still, James and I have both caught the Queenstown bug.
Within 24 hours, we've bungee jumped off the world's original commercial bungee site, the harrowing, 141-foot Kawarau Bridge. (Bungee jumping as we know it today was actually invented in Queenstown by A.J. Hackett.) I have also willingly tossed myself into one of the world's most beautiful skies at 15,000 feet - James missed the 220-pound skydiving weight cutoff by eight pounds - for no other reason than Queenstown made me do it. Seriously. If you have any doubts about your ability to do such things, forget Wheaties; just go to Queenstown.
To bring myself down to earth, the next day, in Dunedin, I wake up at five a.m. (in the exact same bed at the historic Corstorphine House that Prince Charles slept in back in 2005, no less) in order to catch a glimpse of the yellow-eyed penguin, the rarest penguin in the world, on the tip of the Otago Peninsula. These endlessly fascinating creatures get up every morning at dawn and walk down the hillside (where they nest) and into the ocean (where they feed). We hide in purpose-built sheds on the hillside (the penguins are terrified of humans). By an amazing stroke of luck, we see a four-month-old chick, alongside its mother, entering the ocean for the first time. The poor thing immediately freaks out and fumbles about in the water as if it were drowning, but then, in a dramatic turn of events, instinct takes over, and off it swims. It's one thing to watch March of the Penguins, but seeing these amazing animals in the wild makes you feel as if you've witnessed a miracle.
The odometer clocks in at 3,394 kilometers (2,109 miles) by the time we arrive at our final destination, the high-country Grasmere Lodge, outside Christchurch. Located in scenic Arthur's Pass, the lodge, a limestone homestead originally built in 1858, is bound skyward by the majestic Southern Alps, and by 13,000 acres of tussock-covered hills at ground level. It's a scene out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, minus the Mexican-American edge. At breakfast, we're startled by management, who invite us to check out a flock of Kea, the world's only Alpine parrot, which have congregated by the pool.
We head over thinking we'll likely miss them, but these amazing green parrots actually sit around and pose for the cameras. They're not afraid of humans, and they don't run as we approach. What a treat.
I end the day as any honest man just off the road would: at the spa. While I'm pampered with the Mountain Man package (back massage, facial, foot massage, head massage - that's what I'm talking about), James opts for horseback riding. His guide, Heather, tells him about the ominous Mount Bailey, which is right next to the lodge. It's made of fine schist, and people climb up and then actually slide down on their rear ends to the bottom.
I take one look at the steep and staggering peak, which stands at 6,017 feet, and one word comes to mind: no. I didn't spend enough time in Queenstown to do that.