New Zealand Adventure Sports
Bungee jump off a bridge. Fly a helicopter toward a sheer mountain wall. Paddle frothing white water. Tim Cahill explores New Zealand's South Island, the undisputed home to all activities energized.
Photograph by Peter McBride
Walk into the Queenstown, New Zealand, airport and you might imagine that you're in the lobby of a movie theater specializing in horror films. There are images—posters and murals—of people falling from great heights, mouths agape in silent screams.One features a woman shot in black-and-white, apparently plunging to her doom; the only color in this wall-size poster is the terrified red of her eyes. The pamphlets on the racks feature various near-death experiences: unfettered horseback rides through raging rivers, jet-boat adventures, helicopter tours, white-water rafting trips, various death marches, near-vertical mountain biking experiences, tandem paragliding rides, ATV adventures, as well as the somewhat less than lethal Lord of the Rings tours, which highlight locations from the movies.
See more New Zealand photos >
There were planeloads of young, healthy-looking people—American, Japanese, and German, but mostly Australian—milling about, examining the pamphlets of doom. In general, my impression was that Queenstown thrived on cheating the Grim Reaper. The town, I was to find, is the extreme-sports capital of the Southern Hemisphere. No, I take that back. Queenstown must be the extreme-sports capital of the world. That made me wonder why New Zealanders call themselves Kiwis, which I thought was just a kind of indigenous flightless chicken.
Here, in the southern part of the South Island of New Zealand, you could jump off enormous cliffs, climb back up on iron rungs, then rocket down the same hill again on a kind of combination luge and bicycle. Or paraglide down. There are more commercial ways to kill yourself than anyplace I've ever been.
The liability laws in New Zealand, I was to discover, are somewhat less stringent than those in most other developed countries. The forms you sign tell you that. They say, in essence, Go ahead and sue us. You won't win. Don't like it? Don't do it. This is as it should be—a sensible precaution for an island with an economy that is largely fueled by adrenaline-based tourism.
Not that much ever goes wrong, anyway. Kiwis have been coaching people over cliffs for a long time, and they are pros. Still, just before I jumped or dove or swung across some yawning abyss, I always double-checked my gear—seat harness, biners, latches, ropes—and the person outfitting me always said the same thing. It is my single most pervasive auditory memory of New Zealand. They, those Kiwi sadists, said, "No worries, mate. She'll be 'roight."
And then I was plunging toward my doom. Doing stuff I'd said I'd never do. It was more fun than I'd ever imagined.
New Zealandborn writer Amanda Jones got me into this—whenever I'd see her at writers conferences she'd tell me New Zealand was the place for me. She put me in touch with a few savvy Kiwis and soon stacks of mail came from Queenstown detailing dozens of elaborate plans, most involving perceived danger of a high degree. Since nothing sounded remotely safe, I chose a few stunts and left the rest to my Kiwi connections, who were friendly in the New Zealand manner but frighteningly organized.
I was, for instance, going to kayak a place that had a disconcerting, if not actually virulent, name: Doubtful Sound. I'd bungee jump, swing across some canyon, leap a few waterfalls, and walk one of New Zealand's many famous trails. Amanda was coming down from her home in California with her husband, Greg, and their two daughters to visit her parents. I'd meet her sometime during my second week in country, then play things by ear. Meanwhile, I'd been stuck with photographer Peter McBride, chosen for the assignment because he likes to do this stuff.
So here we were, Peter and I, motoring north, having completed our kayaking trip around Doubtful Sound, which lies near the bottom of the South Island. We had a tiny rental car. Our schedule for the day was to visit the world's first commercial bungee jumping site, on a bridge over a river just outside Queenstown proper, and then we'd join Amanda and Greg for lunch. We were driving on the wrong side of the road, English style, and there were a pair of rental RVs puttering along in front of us on the two-lane highway. They were making us late for our jump.
Peter, who was driving, pulled out to pass, but at that moment the rear RV swerved out into our lane, forcing us off the road. Peter veered onto the wet green grass that served as the highway's shoulder. The car lost traction, and he cranked the wheel so that we were back on the road, but he overcompensated a little, and then we were traveling, at, oh, 45 miles (27 kilometers) an hour, sideways, tires screaming as we rotated across two lanes of traffic. The vehicle was making a slow revolution as we rocketed into the slick grass on the other side of the road—the residual centrifugal force spun us around, inches from a metal reflector pole; then we were running backward pretty hard but coming around again in such a way that we narrowly missed yet another reflector pole. A back tire blew then crumbled, and we plowed our way to a dead stop on the side of the highway.
We just sat there for several minutes, breathing hard, then got out and examined the damage. A flimsy front fender was trashed but easily pulled away so it wouldn't scrape the wheel. We changed the rear tire but decided to leave the fringe of grass that we'd picked up and that hung from the bottom of the car on all sides. It looked properly Polynesian, like a grass skirt.
"I have an overwhelming urge, " Peter said, "to catch up to that guy and discuss his driving habits."
"Peter, " I said, "Look. It's a rental RV, the guy isn't used to using side rearview mirrors, and he's most likely elderly." I let that sink in for a moment. "Which means when we do catch up, it ought to be a snap to kick the crap out of him."
But as it happened, the spare tire wasn't tracking straight and we couldn't really do much more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) an hour, wobbling down the road as we were. This was highly annoying. Not only were we missing a chance to discuss highway manners with a villainous malefactor who didn't use his mirrors, we were going to be late for my first bungee jump. I consoled myself with this thought: It would have been exasperating to die in an auto accident on the way to a bungee jump.