Nina Karnikowski plucks up the courage for a different kind of mountain ride.
Brave is not a word I'd use to describe myself. Wuss is perhaps a more apt descriptor, and one that has occasionally been tossed my way. Like the time an eight-year-old me volunteered to be showbag-holder at the Easter Show while my friends got tossed around on the rides. Or the time an adult me created a seven-child pile-up — causing two of the kids to cry — on a bobsled track by braking the entire way down.
So as soon as plane wheels hit tarmac on a recent trip to Queenstown — the adventure capital of New Zealand — my wussy heart started to race. In the cab on the way to our hotel, there was talk of mountain biking and whispers of bungee jumping. I considered a drop and roll out the cab door, but I was too much of a wuss to pull it off.
On arrival, I was thrilled to discover an adventure of a different kind had been planned for our first day — an "Art Adventure" that would have us chauffeured around town, sketching the magnificent mountainscapes as we went. Now that kind of adventure I can handle.
"You don't have to go far to find an amazing view to sketch," says Alice Blackley, the chief of Art Adventures, as she drives my travelling companion and me to the first of two scenic sketching spots the following afternoon. She's right.
Every corner we turn, there's another picturesque mountain to gawk at, another verdant field yawning out beside us.
As we stare slack-jawed out the windows of Blackley's van (which she's had fitted with swivelling seats, a pop-up table and blankets under each seat for wintertime sketching expeditions), she fills us in on how she came to start Art Adventures in 2011. Having studied, created and exhibited art in New Zealand and overseas for more than 20 years, she took inspiration from the idea of European painting holidays and, realising no one was doing anything like that in New Zealand, decided it was just what the burgeoning art scene in Queenstown needed.
She bought her van, employed four local artists as tutors, and last year converted the bottom level of her house into a public studio and gallery. "I wanted to give travellers a new way of experiencing the environment outside of adrenalin experiences," Blackley says. "And my hope is they'll continue sketching while they're on holiday."
We pull up at the lake house of a stunning private property called Bendemeer, set within 130 hectares of rolling pastures. Blackley sets up folding chairs on a wooden deck overlooking the lake, with willow trees draping its banks and a family of ducks wobbling through its glinting waters. We're given a bag packed with take-home materials including a Moleskine sketch pad, four watercolour pencils and a small paintbrush, and instructed to do a simple line sketch of the scene using our left hand. It's been more than a decade since I last sketched anything, and I clumsily scratch heavy lines across the page — a circle for a boulder here, a straight line for a horizon there. Two minutes later we're told to stop, and I can't help but remark on the similarities between my work and the recent drawings of my four-year-old niece.
"That's the point of this exercise," Blackley says. "To teach you not to be precious, and to get into the rhythm of it. Remember — no one's looking, no one cares what you're doing, just go for it."
Her advice helps as we work our way through more sketches, each focusing on a different skill — line, shadow, tone, texture — until we're told to grab all four pencils and "go all out" on a full-page sketch using all the techniques. Blackley checks our progress along the way, delivering mostly constructive criticism until I get "That's lovely" about a series of dashes I've used to create movement in a poplar. My ego swells with the compliment, and suddenly I'm Van Gogh painting haystacks in Provence.
After a brief afternoon tea break at Amisfield Winery, during which we nibble petit fours while Blackley shows us sketches from local artists, we head to our second location. Set back from a country lane, it's a forest clearing with a rustic aluminium shed in front of us, some deliciously plump Douglas firs to our left, craggy Coronet peak in the distance, and soft clouds streaking the sky.
Blackley encourages us to note where the light is coming from and the mass of different objects then gives us the go-ahead, telling us, "Just be free and have fun". And we do have fun as we scribble away, growing increasingly confident, and finally plucking up the courage to dab at our pictures with the brush.
We're so focused and caught in the moment that time disappears, and before we know it Blackley is herding us back into the van.
We finish the afternoon looking at local artworks and critiquing our own efforts at her small in-house gallery, with New Zealand pinot gris in hand and opera music piping through the sound system.
My artistic talents may leave a little to be desired, but I've learnt a great deal and have certainly had an adventure - one that hasn't involved heights or speed or anyone calling me a wuss.
And that's just the kind of adventure I hoped for.
The writer travelled as a guest of Hotel St Moritz.
Air New Zealand flies direct year-round from Sydney to Queenstown from $299 one way. 13 24 76, airnewzealand.com.au.
The Hotel St Moritz MGallery offers rooms overlooking Lake Wakatipu to the Remarkables ranges from $295, or rooms without views from $200. (+64) 3 442 4990, mgallery.com.
Art Adventures costs from $310 for a half-day excursion. Private artist studio and gallery tours are also available. +64 (3) 442 3678, artadventures.co.nz.
Three other Queenstown art adventures
What could be more highbrow than taking a private art tour of the region in a Bentley with Black ZQN? The guides will introduce you to the local art scene, stopping off for some sipping and supping at one of the boutique vineyards along the way. blackzqn.com
Milford Galleries Queenstown is where creative locals head for a hit of quality painting, sculpture, ceramics and cast glassworks from New Zealand contemporary artists. Once you're done perusing this intimate space, cast your eye over the jaw-dropping views of Lake Wakatipu and the ranges towards Glenorchy. queenstowngalleries.co.nz.
The ground floor of Kapa is essentially a souvenir shop, albeit a rather fancy one (jewellery by Boh Runga, singer Bic Runga's sister, is a highlight). But venture upstairs and you'll discover a small and quirky gallery featuring contemporary sculpture and artworks at decent prices, as well as traditional Maori carvings. kapa.co.nz.