I spent the past week with 39 new friends travelling New Zealand’s South Island on a Stray bus. We covered a lot of territory in seven days, from Abel Tasman National Park in the north and the Franz Josef Glacier on the west coast to Wanaka in the middle of the South Island. By Friday night the bus had rolled into Queenstown. I would spend Saturday #32 in the self proclaimed Adventure Capital of the World.
Queenstown’s moniker seemed like a bit of an exaggeration when I learned that it’s a town of 12,500 permanent residents and the 29th largest urban area in New Zealand. Could such a small town be the World Capital of anything with the possible exception of weather prognosticating vermin? In the case of Queenstown, the answer is Hell yeah! The streets are lined with bars, restaurants, and dozens of ticket agencies promoting no fewer than 212 commercial operations that are sure to scare the crap out of you while also lifting a few bucks from your wallet. I doubt there’s a city of any size where you could do so many adrenalin sports in a single day.
From bungy jumping to whitewater rafting, canyon swinging to hang gliding, this town has it all. If those activities don’t get your heart racing, you could try rock climbing, canyoning or abseiling, mountain biking, extreme skateboarding (off cliffs), scuba diving, snorkeling, shark diving, skiing, snowboarding, parasailing, paragliding and hang gliding. There are many skydiving operations, not to mention antique bi-planes that you can actually fly (with an instructor), 4WD and quad biking trails, and all manner of zip lines. The list goes on and on and on.
On our way into town we stopped at the ‘World Home of Bungy Jumping’ – the AJ Hackett operation on the Kawarau Bridge. It was here in 1988 that Hackett and Henry van Asch started the world’s first commercial bungy jump. Today the 43m high Kawarau Bridge jump has been dwarfed by a 134m bungy jump over the nearby Nevis River.
I didn’t see the point of doing the Kawarau Bridge jump as its no longer the highest in the area let along the World. The much larger Nevis jump was an option but in the end I ruled it out for three reasons: (1) It’s a 140 meter plunge from a gondola; (2) I recently jumped from a plane at the height of 16,000 feet or about three miles; and (3) it’s a 140 meter plunge from a gondola. To be perfectly honest, I have no desire to plunge headfirst into a canyon if it involves being upside down for more than a few seconds. I don’t care if it’s 140 meters or three miles, I don’t like standing on my head and I’m not going to do something that could very well cause me to pass out.
I opted instead to do something that until a few weeks ago I had never heard of. While at Blue Duck Station (see Saturday #29: The Bit In The Middle) I met Richard Steele who brought me up to speed on the finer points of jetboating. According to Richard, the jetboat was invented by a New Zealander named Hamilton. I didn’t doubt Richard’s claim but I checked Wikipedia just to be sure.
“Sir Charles William “Bill” Feilden Hamilton OBE (26 July 1899 – 30 March 1978) was a New Zealander who developed the modern jetboat, and founder of what is now the world’s leading water jet manufacturing company – CWF Hamilton Ltd.” – Wikipedia
With a tenuous family tie to the jetboat, I felt that it was something I should at least try while in New Zealand. There are a number of companies operating jetboats on the rivers around Queenstown. I chose the upstart Skippers Canyon Jetboat over the more established and more popular Shotover River Jetboat. The deciding factor was the mode of transportation to and from the launch site. With the Skippers Canyon option you get to take a bus down the 16-1/2 mile long Skippers Canyon Road. If bus rides bore you, you should know that the World Health Organization’s 2013 global status report on road safety lists the Skippers Canyon Road as the 22nd most dangerous road in the world (fear factor: 7 out of 10). The #1 ranked road was Bolvia’s North Yungas Road (or the “Death Road”). I had a chance to ride a bike down that road in October and I now know how it got its fear factor rating of 10 out of 10.
The WHO report stated: “While fatality numbers are relatively low, this mountain road with its huge drop into the ravine below is so dangerous it requires a huge amount of concentration, patience and even a special permit to even try and tackle it. The extremely narrow path, cut in the middle of a sheer cliff face, makes it hugely difficult to manoeuvre any vehicle.”
On the Death Road I controlled my own destiny, albeit on a bike. Here I was at the mercy of a bus driver. Our driver, Dion, has maneuvered a 20-passenger bus down this road several times a day for a decade so I wasn’t too worried when he started cracking jokes, carrying on a running commentary, drinking coffee, and gesticulating with both hands!
Here are two links to video clips that I shot through the window of the bus and while on the river in the jetboat.
Thankfully it was the jetboat ride and not the bus ride that ended in something called the “Hamilton Turn.”
Again, I’ll turn to Wikipedia for an explanation: “The well known Hamilton turn or “jet spin” is a high-speed maneuvre where the boat’s engine throttle is cut, the steering is turned sharply and the throttle opened again, causing the boat to spin quickly around with a large spray of water.”