Queenstown's future - A hopeful letter from my baby son
Crux Queenstown writer Poppie Johnson wonders what the future holds for her baby son - so she writes an imaginary letter from him to her, 30 years in the future.
There’s a video that’s been doing the rounds on social media lately. It shows Queenstown in the 80s. Peter Beavan, a noted architect, takes the viewer on a tour of our wee town. And I mean wee. The changes are astounding. I know cerebrally that our town is growing very quickly, with substantial construction projects taking place each day. Once you get past the initial ‘oh wow, look, they knocked that building down’, you can get used to things pretty quickly. Building seems slow, glacial if you’re paying rent and a mortgage at the same time, but it’s lightening quick when you look back a year and see a changed skyline.
I had coffee with my son’s godmother a few weeks ago. She grew up here, went to school here and is just about to finish university. To me, she seems too young to reminisce. I was prepared to scoff. Then I listened. There’s a sense of dislocation when she returns each holidays. The school she left is empty now. Beyond that, it’s not just the building that has changed, it’s the ethos, the image, the size. She started at Wakatipu High School when it still took Year 7 students and had a roll of just over 500 students. The uniform was a fleece and a polo shirt. Fast-forward 10 years and the school is on a new campus, has a new uniform, completely new leadership, a thousand students by next year and is expanding again. In contrast, the school I went to in Christchurch was damaged by the earthquakes, but has been rebuilt in the same image, maintains the same student numbers, very similar uniform and, for better or worse, still has some of the teachers who taught me 25 years ago.
It started me questioning the nature of change. If that much change has happened in the last 10 years, if the town is unrecognisable from when I was young myself, then what will it look like for my son in 30 years’ time? Will he return? What will his memories of growing up here be like? Will he reminisce for the simpler times of the early 2020s when the town was still small enough to have a local feel? If I were to ask him to reflect on his time growing up, what might he say?
I hope you’re enjoying that trip around Canada, seems very strange to come home without you to welcome me. I ended up flying into Wanaka now that all the domestic flights head in there. Still can’t get my head around it being the main domestic airport while Queenstown takes all the international traffic. I caught the free electric shuttle bus over, can’t wait until that tunnel is finished, it will be so much quicker.
I had a great day up the mountain on the weekend. Looking down on the road from the gondola, it seems crazy we used to drive that every weekend. I skied a few laps on the six-seater chairlift into the Doolans. It’s nice being able to access all that terrain easily but I’ll always remember that trip you took me on for my 10th birthday - remember, the one where we had to ski up to the saddle and there was no-one else in the basin? There’s a new DoC hut at Wye Creek basin now, makes for a nice pit stop on a long day out. I suppose that’s the good thing about it becoming a national park after they did the big expansion. Coronet looks a little sad, only snow on the upper mountain, that base building seems a little stranded. At least they get good use out of it in summer with the World Mountain Bike Tour.
I wanted to show my girlfriend, Harriet, around the old haunts where I grew up. Turned into quite the trip down memory lane. We went to the house first, I’m so glad you guys held onto it all these years. Even though there’s a few more around, the views are still clear, you chose well. We walked down to Jacks Point Primary to have a look - funny to think I was the first class and now they’re rebuilding it! There was a friendly sports exchange with Hanley’s Primary, they’ve got a great trail that goes between the two. Apparently they have a sailing club out of the Homestead Bay Marina now, we could see the boat sheds and a few people out on the water when we stopped in for a coffee. There’s a lovely bookstore in Jacks Point Village that I’m sure you’re in regularly. I’m glad they kept that area pedestrianised, it’s nice, even with all the apartments above the shops. Funny to think I learned to ride my bike on that land when it was just a field.
Since we’re thinking of moving back and Harriet’s a teacher, she wanted to see the high school, so I explained that I ended up going to two because I went private for the last two years on a scholarship. She couldn’t believe that there was only one high school when I was born. I had a chat with Jim, y’know, my mate who’s a teacher now. He said the rolls of both state schools are steady now, Wakatipu High around 2000 still and Tahuna College at half that. As the second high school, Tahuna was always meant to stay a little smaller. The private school with the sports academy out in Dalefield has 500, they like to keep their boarding and day students about equal. Jim was saying they’re building more subsidised housing for teachers and nurses, down in Kingston, but at least a three-bed terraced house will be affordable. His wife’s a scrub nurse at the hospital, apparently she’s off on a training course for when they upgrade to a full surgical unit next year.
I caught the monorail into town for dinner. Now that there’s no traffic in the town centre, it’s just easier than the park ’n’ ride or catching a robo-taxi. They’ve done a good job of putting it up above Frankton Road, reminds me of the Bangkok skytrain a little. The Park Street stop gives a nice walk into town. I love that the gardens are unchanged. It’s such a special place, and the ice rink looks fabulous with that glass wall that looks out onto Frankton Arm. That was clever design. I still remember the old one, so dark compared to the new one with the grandstand.
Town has definitely changed since the earthquake. I know it wasn’t as bad as people thought it could be. I’ll never forget how worried I was though. 7.4 on the Richter scale is no joking matter. I can’t believe it’s been seven years already. You guys on the other side of the bridge, cut off for three weeks out at Jacks Point. I’m so glad Dad always kept supplies and at least you could get water from the lake. I’ll never forget how relieved I was that you were okay, those boulders that came off the Remarks were awfully close. Anyways, it’s funny coming back after all the rebuilding that’s been happening. Eichardts is gone of course, the replica is nice but not quite the same, four stories just makes it a bit too imposing. All the other older buildings that fell down are replaced now, I’d love to get an old photo to compare.
I head over to Wanaka tomorrow to interview for the job with the Centre for Space Science Technology. They’ve come a long way since they started over in Alexandra. Not quite the Jet Propulsion Lab yet, but there’s some great things happening with the unmanned launches from Wanaka and the Technology Park on Frankton Flats next to the convention centre. I’m glad now that I made it over to the US for my PhD study, there’s still nowhere in NZ to touch it. Hopefully I can talk a few of the guys into coming back if I get the job. Apparently Caltech are looking at doing an outpost campus, a little like Yale set up in Singapore. It’d be pretty awesome if we could get a reputable tertiary organisation set up here, then maybe my kids wouldn’t have to go away to study.
We went for a walk around the peninsula and over to Kelvin Heights just for a bit of a leg stretch after dinner, the foot bridge over is definitely a favourite spot for the Instagram band. All those houses they built on Deer Park Heights change the feel of Kelvin Heights. Between the lights up there and the planes landing, it’s a busy place. Feels like the town centre is all of Frankton and the lakefront now. There’s a few sections still free up there but they’re really pricey, start at over a mil. If we do move back, I think we might have to buy an old house and knock it down, there’s a few in Tucker Beach, still pretty expensive. Even that new subdivision, Woolshed Flats, opposite the entrance to Remarks sold out in a day. At least 10 percent was reserved for the Housing Trust. They’re doing a good job.
It’s been good coming back. Things are busy, busier even than when I left for uni, or when I was back every holidays through my Masters. I seem to notice it more this time, maybe because there were none of those in-between visits. I’m sitting on our deck now, the same deck that I used to run around on barefoot all winter and that you and Dad built as your great DIY bonding project. The lights on Coronet still shine, the moon is rising above the shoulder of the Remarks and in its glow I can the new roofs, the regular red lights flickering as aircraft land all night, and the cars travelling along our new four-lane stretch of highway. I can also see the mountains that are the same as they’ve always been, the elderflower tree in the front garden and the tree that we planted when Dad got his citizenship. Who knows what it’ll be like in 30 years – sure, there’s a lot of visitors but as it’s grown there’s also a few more jobs, more people like Jim, like all my school mates who now maybe have the option of coming home.
Thanks for choosing to bring me up here Mum, I know it wasn’t the easy choice when Dad was commuting to Christchurch for work. Thinking about it now though, all those memories of skiing and swimming in the lake and exploring the tracks, it was an absolute joy of a childhood.
Your Son xxx
Thirty years is a long time. There’s been a lot of changes since the 80s, there’ll be a lot more that we can’t predict as technology gathers steam. Hopefully, most of those are positive. Social and environmental conscience is a higher priority for young people than at any point in the past. They’ll be running the show in that not-too-distant future.
There’s no way to know what the town will look like for my son in 30 years, any prediction is a combination of personal experience, opinion and extrapolation. The changes will be well-documented, there will be photos and videos of each step. It’ll be an interesting ride. I’ll write the follow up piece in 2048 and see how close I was. Or my son can write it.
Future visions generally take two tracks: utopia or dystopia. Either we ruin paradise, or save it. Which you gravitate towards probably says a lot about whether you’re a natural optimist, or pessimist. My vision for my son’s future is mixed. I think there will be some mistakes made along the way, there will be over-capitalisation and development. But there will also be conservation and thought. There will be constants, things that remain the same. My hope is that they are the important ones, the things that stand the test of time and allow us to retain the essence of what is special about our town.
Poppie Johnson is a writer and experienced high school English teacher, based in Queenstown. She grew up between Aoraki-Mount Cook and Christchurch, and has worked as a chef, ski patroller and youth work manager, prior to her career in education. Poppie is currently completing the final year of her Masters in Creative Writing through the University of Edinburgh.
Main image: Queenstown, not in architect Peter Beavan's 1980s tour, but back in the 1800's. Credit: Historic Wakatipu NZ