Extreme Sports

I'm not quite sure why New Zealand is such a center for extreme sports. Perhaps it's the ready availability of the mountains and other interesting terrain (Mount Cook is often used as a preparation climb for Mount Everest, and was used as such by New Zealand's own Sir Edmund Hillary). Or maybe it's just a desire to do something other than sheep-farming (I'm assuming this is what possessed AJ Hackett to first start doing bungy-jumping). In any case, New Zealand has tons of opportunities to do extreme sports activities. And since I had always wanted to try such things, and the exchange rate was outrageously in my favor, I managed to sample most of them on my trip through.

High Ropes Course

It all started out so innocently. While travelling through Taupo, we stopped off at an amusement park with a high-ropes course. I had taken a high-ropes course at MIT and had really enjoyed it, so I figured I would play around up there while everybody else wandered around. It turned out they were more interested in watching me try to kill myself than anything else, but that's another story.

The two activities that you could do quickly were the Trapeze Jump and the Giant Swing, so that's what I did. The Trapeze Jump is pretty straightforward. Climb up a 40-foot pole, find a way to stand up (with no handholds) on the top on a surface little bigger than your feet, and then jump out into space to grasp a trapeze. You're belayed the entire time. It's perfectly safe. Really.

It actually went really smoothly. I climbed to the top without looking down, just looking at the next handle to grab. It was only when I got to the top, saw how small the pole was to stand on, saw how far down the ground was, that I emitted a "Holy crap!" that made everybody on the ground start laughing. But without a delay to let myself think about it, I got my left foot on top and then put all my weight on it, straightened up, and brought my right foot up. I panicked a bit then, steadying myself on my belay lines as you see in the first picture. But then I leapt, and made it. Piece of cake!
And the Giant Swing, is, well, just a giant swing. I've done them before. That first step into freefall is a doozy, and gave me an adrenalin rush that kept me jittery for the next couple hours, but it's nothing too crazy. Even though nobody else on the bus would do it (including one poor girl who got up there, and then thought too much about it, and had to climb back down after backing away from the edge three times).

So, after the high ropes course, everybody on the bus considered me the crazy daredevil guy. Which was kind of cool, actually. And it helped to get me nerved up to try some of the other things that I might otherwise not have tried.


Later that day in Taupo, we were supposed to stop by a bungee-jump, and after the ropes course, everybody was egging me on to do it, and I was considering it. But then, there was great news - the skydiving place, which had told us earlier that the weather wasn't good enough for skydiving, changed their minds, and told us to come on over. So Sonia and I, who had previously decided to go for a skydive, and really wanted to do it over Taupo which, despite the picture at the right, is supposed to be quite scenic, went over with a few other people. We filled out the paperwork, and then went and sat by the plane. And sat. And waited. Eventually, they told us that too many clouds had come in, and it was raining up at 12000 feet, so we weren't going to get to skydive after all. We were bummed out. But, it turned out okay in the end.

That was it for extreme sports for a while. Just normal sightseeing for a couple days. Then we got to Nelson, on the South Island, after surviving a rough ferry crossing between the islands in the morning. The Magic Bus driver asked if anybody wanted to do a skydive. Sonia and I decided that since the weather was nice, we should take the opportunity, since we didn't want to get rained out again. And boom, off we went to skydive over Abel Tasman National Park at sunset.

It was a blast. Both Sonia and I chose to pay extra to have a cameraman jump with us, who took both still pictures and a video of our skydive. I haven't figured out how to digitize the videotape they took, but once I do, rest assured that they will be here. Both Sonia and I did a tandem skydive (tandem with an instructor) from 12000 feet, which allows for about 45 seconds of freefall down to 5000 feet, and about 4 more minutes of gliding under the parachute. A lot of money for 5 minutes of thrills, but it was worth it for something I had always wanted to do but never gotten around to. The feeling of hanging that high in the air with nothing under you to obstruct the view is trippy. And the rush of the air going past (about 200 km/h or 120 mph) is faster than I've ever been while still exposed to the air. I didn't really get a chance to appreciate the scenery until after the parachute opened, but it was pretty neat to look out at the bay and mountains at sunset.

One weird thing is that neither Sonia nor I got scared. I think this is partially because it happens so fast that we didn't really have time to think about it. It also helps that the ground is so far away that it's not actually scary. I actually got more of a fear jolt from the giant swing than I did from skydiving, because the ground was an immediate threat when I was freefalling there. While freefalling in the skydive, the rush of the air going past was the main thing I was feeling. Or something like that.

Glacier Walk

So, after going skydiving, I couldn't let anything else stop me on the trip. So I tried pretty much every activity offered for the rest of the trip. The next one up was a walk on the Franz Josef Glacier. Since this was one of the main reasons Sonia and I had decided to come to the South Island at all, we really had looked forward to this. We only had time for the half-day hike because of time constraints, but it was still a lot of fun. We walked the two kilometers from the parking lot to the glacier (the glacier has been retreating rapidly), got up onto the ice, put on crampons, and hiked a good ways up the glacier to an ice cave that our guide described as "wicked" about 22 times. The website describes the glacier, so I won't; instead, I'll let my pictures do the talking.


Jetboating was next up. We had been told by our North Island Magic Bus driver that Makarora was the place to do a jetboat ride, even though the Shotover Jet out of Queenstown was much better known. The difference? The Shotover Jet offered a 20 minute ride for NZ$80, the Makarora people offered a 45 minute ride for NZ$48, almost four times more value for the money. So I went for the jetboat ride in Makarora.

I didn't even know what a jetboat was. The idea is pretty simple. You suck water in, and you expel it really fast. This page describes it pretty well. Big advantage? Since there's no propellors to get tangled up, the thing can operate in only 4 inches of water. And since it's got no displacement, its maneuverability is phenomenal. You're just skimming across the water.

So a bunch of us Magic Bus riders get together to try this thing out (there was a minimum of five necessary for a trip, so we had to twist some arms - Sonia decided to stay in and watch a video instead in front of the fire). It was an absolute blast. The driver knows the river inside and out, so even when it was only about a foot deep, he had no problem. He was darting in at the banks, veering off at the last second, and just generally having fun scaring the heck out of his passengers. He even pulled a bunch of 360-degree turns after yelling at us to hold on. Plus, the scenery was fabulous. The river wound their way between mountains with lots of waterfalls and other things to look at, and it was just beautiful. Two of the pretty pictures were from this trip (when we stopped, the driver gave us a chance to unclench our hands from the safety bars to take pictures).

Bungee jumping

Last, but not in any way least, the bungee jump. On our last day with the Magic Bus, pulling into Queenstown, the bus driver mentioned that we would be stopping by the Kawarau bridge, where AJ Hackett had set up the first commercial bungee jump site back in 1989, and that if anybody wanted to try jumping, now would be a good time. This was my last day of activities on the trip. I'd already done everything else I could think of. It had to be done. So I went for it.

Somehow I ended up being the only person from the bus volunteering to do it, much like the ropes course. I felt a little guilty about having the entire bus wait for me, but I asked around, and they all said that they wanted to see somebody they knew do it, so that was okay. We got there a bit early, so even though the driver had called ahead, it was going to be a wait until they could fit me in. Meanwhile, we watched a busload of Japanese teens jump, one every few minutes. After them, an assortment of other people jumped. I watched a bunch of them, trying to psych myself up for it, thinking that if they could do it, so could I. And that it had to be perfectly safe if they'd been operating this site for 13 years without getting sued out of existence. But the reptile brain was still sitting there screaming whenever I looked down the 43 meters to the water below.

After close to 45 minutes of fidgeting, they finally squeezed me in. And then things happened fast. They got the harness on me, wrapped my legs up, and I was out on the ledge in a couple minutes, before I even realized it was my turn. I penguin-walked out to the edge, and really started to panic. It was a long way down. But, heck, I'd already talked myself into it. And thinking about it wasn't going to make it easier. So I lurched over the edge after the countdown. Instead of the confident swan-dive I had pictured myself doing, though, I did more of a pratfall as my entire body rebelled against the idea of stepping off that ledge. My brain started screaming in terror as the water rushed up towards me, and a massive adrenaline rush swept through me. After the bungee caught me and pulled me back up, my body was so overloaded on adrenaline that I could do little more than flop around limply until they got me down.

Yowza! What a crazy feeling. It was pure terror there for that freefall. I'd timed the freefall at being no more than a second while watching others, but it stretched out to a very long time while I was falling and hoping that the bungee would catch me. Again, it's weird because I definitely was falling faster and much much longer on the skydive, but it wasn't nearly as scary as the bungee jump. I think the close proximity of the ground really plays a role in that. I'm not about to go do any studies or anything, though. All I can say is that when I got back on the ground after the skydive, it was no big deal, whereas after the bungee jump, I was still shaking from the adrenaline a couple hours later. Craziness!

That's all, folks!

After the bungee jump, that was pretty much it for me. I'd used up all my fun tokens for the trip, and it was time to start getting the logistics in place to get home. But I had a blast doing all these crazy things around New Zealand. I had always wanted to do a skydive and always wanted to try a bungee jump, at least once, just to see what it was like, and the exchange rate and easy accessibility made the opportunity irresistible in NZ. Fun stuff. I highly recommend trying these things, overcoming your fears, trusting in the technology, and just going for it. After all, these activities are almost certainly safer than driving a car, especially in California. At least that was the explanation I used as I tried to convince my mother that I wasn't insane. It's just your reptile brain leaping up with irrational fear. And conquering that is pretty exhilarating.

Back to Eric's New Zealand 2002 page.

Eric Nehrlich's WWW home page / nehrlich@alum.mit.edu