winter begins in Queenstown

Posted from Queenstown Hill, Otago, New Zealand.

Mr. Snowman, the unofficial mascot of QT winter 2015.

Mr. Snowman, the unofficial mascot of QT winter 2015.

It took seven years, but here I am, in July, sipping coffee in a (remarkably) quiet coffee shop at the Remarkables Shopping Center in Frankton, New Zealand, looking at a vista of snow-strewn mountains (also called the Remarkables) wondering if I’ll ever be warm again.

My flat white is going down well, even though I know I’ll pay the price later for having so much milk. But it’s necessary as it seems the Coffee Club hasn’t turned on their heat pump today, and drinking this hot coffee might be the warmest I am during the two hours I plan to sit here and type.

Ah, the heat pump. The most ridiculous contraption employed by Kiwis. It’s mounted high in the room, blasts air in oscillating waves down and across wide open floor plans (as many Kiwi houses are open-concept) gobbling electricity and barely making a dent in the ice that somehow seems to form in all the drafty, uninsulated and single-paned houses here. It’s almost as ridiculous as the oil-fin heaters everyone seems to use. Central heating is a relatively new concept here, but even that comes at a price.

Energy prices here are astronomical. Come winter, when energy is in high-demand, electrical companies up the prices even more, gauging their clients and creating a mentality of energy conservation that has nothing to do with the environment. Rent is expensive. Food is off the charts. Fuel is at least $1 more per litre than Auckland. This conservation is about the all-mighty buck. So come winter the economically-challenged freeze in Queenstown, especially at home, but it’s not without its charms.

The view from atop Queenstown Hill.

The view from atop Queenstown Hill.

The scenery here is one charm that undeniably makes living in Queenstown worth the hefty price. Despite the constant drain on my financial resources I remain inspired and enchanted by this quaint little lake-side mountain-town.

The last time I experienced winter was in Ireland from 2008-9. But that wasn’t much of a winter. The year before was my last real winter. I spent it in Port Colborne, Ontario, where ice storms were the norm and you’re never really sure if Toronto would call in the army during the next snowfall.

This was a cold morning in QT.

This was a cold morning in QT.

Growing up in Canada gives one a special endurance for winter. In Otago, on New Zealand’s south island, the temperatures rarely drop below -10C, usually hovering around -3C at night. Daytime temperatures can still reach 10C, though if the sun is hiding or the wind is blowing, the windchill can be dramatic. Don’t get me wrong. It has gotten colder, but it’s uncommon. Snow rarely stays long if it falls in town, but even the lightest sprinkling can wreak havoc here. Far too many hills, no use of salt and far too many inexperienced winter drivers creates a melee of carnage as those that shouldn’t do and those that can prefer not to. But as a day or two passes, snow below 400m melts and things are back to normal.

A lovely snowfall early in the season.

A lovely snowfall early in the season.

Despite the “mild” temperatures, it’s not unusual to see people in Canada Goose jackets or knee-high Sorrels. Some people appear dressed for freak snowstorms, guaranteeing that if they had to spend the night outdoors on top of Everest they would probably need to remove layers to protect themselves from over-heating. It’s also not uncommon to see people waltzing through town in their ski boots, goggles still perched on their heads, skis slung over their shoulders. It’s amusing, but many rental shops are located in town. Actually, I saw some people in the grocery store in ski boots just the other day.

This amount of snow shut the city down. We got a snow-day at work. But by mid-day most of it melted away.

This amount of snow shut the city down. We got a snow-day at work. But by mid-day most of it melted away.

An interesting thing about Queenstown in the winter is how much the population grows. One would think this place was a summer destination, with the lakes and rivers, numerous trekking routes and all-around visceral natural beauty. But the south island has the best snow in the southern hemisphere on this side of the planet, making Queenstown a preferred winter destination by ski and snowboard enthusiasts. Most stay for months at a time, bringing millions of tourism dollars and, unfortunately, crime. Locals lament when the ski-season starts, stating they must now lock their houses, lock their cars and watch their coats when they’re out at the bars. It’s not uncommon to hear of snowboards going missing from parked cars in town, houses being looted or handbags being lifted from restaurants. This usually honest little piece of paradise changes, but only until the ski-hills close.

You still gotta get outside. And luckily a lot of joints in town have fireplaces to cozy up to.

You still gotta get outside. And luckily a lot of joints in town have fireplaces to cozy up to.

There are a few survival techniques I’ve incorporated into my winter arsenal. The most brilliant one has been the electric blanket. Not without the risks of burning the entire house down, this magical carpet of warmth has made many frigid nights in our uninsulated, single-paned house bearable. Wool has also been a miracle. Smartwool is one of the only reasonably-priced useful things I’ve found in New Zealand that cuts the cold considerably. Wool shirts, wool jackets, wool socks, wool blankets: whatever you can put up against your skin, wool will insulate you and keep you warm. Numerous hot showers also help, but have an exit-strategy, like a handily placed towel next to an inferno. Oh yes, fire is also handy. Find out who has a wood-burner, either your friends, your favourite bars, or not so favourite, and spend some spare time there. And I can’t forget about body-heat. Find a friend, a stranger, go on Tinder, do what you got to do – winter nights are much warmer when you have someone beside you keeping you toasty.

It's been seven years, but I'm accepting you winter. Hit me with what you got!

It’s been seven years, but I’m accepting you winter. Hit me with what you got!

I’m only one month into winter, but I think I’m faring it quite smashingly. I actually shudder when I think about enduring a Canadian winter again. Although that’s still quite likely. My next big adventure will be to get up the mountain. The ski hills have already been open for a month, but I’ve been a bit busy at work and haven’t yet been. At over $100-a-pop I need to make sure it’s a guaranteed good day. Stay tuned and I’ll let you know how riding my old 155 goes in the southern hemisphere.

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