Through the crosshairs of a .300 Magnum, he traced the outline of his neighbour, who sunned himself on a lounger in his backyard. He could see the finest details of the man's flabby gut and the thin blue veins of his arms. He wondered what it would feel like to pull the trigger.

The room was captivated. Gasps rose from the audience of several hundred grey-haired people clumped together in a hall in Wanaka on a Sunday morning, as American writer David Vann spoke about his childhood.

Vann never shot the man next door, but he did take out streetlights in entire neighbourhoods with his father's rifle, about which he spoke animatedly to a captivated crowd.

Wanaka's Aspiring Conversations festival brought a diverse group of writers, politicians, scientists, journalists and academics to the South Island resort town.


Vann led a talk about suicide — he had struggled for 10 years to get his critically acclaimed book, Legend of a Suicide, published. The book is a work of fiction, loosely based around the death of Vann's father, with a narrative revolving around an ill-fated father-son adventure to an isolated Alaskan cabin.

I had flown down on a Friday morning in late April for a whirlwind visit crammed with talks, visits, and a boat trip to a small island to meet a rare weka. Along the way, I had developed a head cold, and was dosed up on Codral and caffeine.

Flying into Queenstown, I watched the plane's shadow scoot along a frighteningly steep mountainside as it followed the Kawerau River.

The road to Wanaka was covered in circular golden leaves that danced under campervans, rental cars and ramshackle people movers filled with backpackers' junk.

Ascending the Crown Range, thorny bushes covered in red berries crawled up the roadside. Just a few weeks later the road would be closed, the campervans, rental cars and ramshackle people movers snowed in. It was my first time in Wanaka.

The lake was surrounded by golden poplar and willow trees, then steep grassy hills, then jagged peaks. In the distance I could see a glacier. The buildings were made of stone. I wasn't in the New Zealand I knew.

The first talk of the festival was delivered to a full house. Australia's former chief climate commissioner Tim Flannery (he was given the flick by the federal government in 2013, when the commission was disestablished) spoke, with Motu senior fellow Suzi Kerr, of climate change, in a forward-thinking and hopeful manner. At the end, Flannery was asked why the bloody hell nuclear power wasn't being used. Too expensive, he said.

That afternoon, I listened to the lively Professor Mike Berridge's talk 'Moods, microbes and the gut'.

The hall was packed again — I had to stand, until a nice woman brought me a chair. From the back of the auditorium, I peered through a gap in a staircase. In front of me sat three women wearing brightly coloured clothes. One had dreadlocks.

The Prof spoke of bacteria and poos and food and antibiotics. He said it was important to eat lots of vegetables, and fluoridation and vaccination were good. The brightly coloured dreadlocked women rolled their eyes.

At a book signing afterwards, the Prof was surrounded by grey-haired women wanting autographs and chats.

I was feeling horribly ill, so I skipped lunch, and the following session, and walked along the lakefront, back towards my hotel.

The weather had cleared and it was beautiful. I patted a few nice dogs — a long-nosed golden retriever, a drooling springer spaniel — and passed a million tourists taking photos of a tree that was knee deep in water. I took a photo too.

I sat down at the water's edge and gazed at my surroundings. I noticed a male tourist with a fancy camera was taking photos of me. From another direction, a man in tight, white jeans was approaching. I walked back to my hotel, had a bath, and took a nap.

I didn't really want to get up again, but my schedule was busy. I took a cab back to the hall to watch Dust to Dusky, a musical tribute to singer Dusty Springfield, also part of the Aspiring Conversations festival, also sold out and jam-packed, and also wonderful.

The following morning started with 'Advance Australia Fair' — an unbearably tense and ego-driven conversation between mansplaining journalists Colin James and Paul Kelly, and writer Stephanie Johnson.

My festival experience ended with the fascinating conversation about suicide featuring Vann with Otago University's Jesse Bering and Suzi Wereta.

I spent a lot of the journey back over the Crown Range to Queenstown Airport thinking about how I could move to Wanaka. I didn't come up with much, so ended up discussing cats with the taxi driver instead.

Colour highlights

This year's Wanaka Festival of Colour runs from April 4-9. Here's our top picks ...

Three of New Zealand's top singer-songwriters, Warren Maxwell, Louis Baker and Thomas Oliver get things going early with the their show Pass the Gat. — April 5

Paddy Free, one half of electronic duo Pitch Black, brings his show The Language of the Land to town for a Friday night show at Gin & Raspberry. — April 7

Jamie Bowen a regular on TV's 7 Days, Comedy Gala and After Hours, delivers his stand-up show Heart Goes Boom/Head Goes Bang, billed as a roller coaster ride through his own crises. — April 8

Jetting in from New York, cabaret superstar Lady Rizo promises "luscious vocals, irrefutable glamour and piercing wit". — April 8 and 10.

Details: This year's festival in Wanaka, the Festival of Colour, will take place over six days from April 4 to 9 and will feature theatre, music, dance and visual arts. The next Aspiring Conversations festival takes place in April 2018.