South Pacific

Taking the Kiwi Leap in Queenstown

written by | Posted on July 1st, 2009

American writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell called on people to follow their bliss. Tourism New Zealand calls it “getting your life back,” and challenges visitors to give them a week and see what happens.

If you’ve ever met a Kiwi—that is a New Zealand national named after a flightless bird the size of a chicken known for its fearless punching prowess, its keen sense of smell and its ability to lay an egg a quarter of its body size—you’ll understand why the country is considered the epicenter of extreme sports.

“We tend to say New Zealand has it all,” says Kerryn Cook, v.p. of product development for Bellevue, WA-based Down Under Answers. “It’s not a place for flop and drop. More like walking on glaciers, heli-hiking, zipline running in the weirdest places. If you want to get off the beaten track you’ll get there in New Zealand.”

Even the Auckland skyline features an iconic Kiwi move: you not only can experience the exterior panoramic views of the city from the top of the Sky Tower (Auckland’s answer to the Seattle Space Needle) some 600 ft. above the fray—no handrails—but you can take a flying leap off the edge of it. The Sky Jump is a common inclusion in Auckland tour packages and can be booked on site as well.

Most daredevils, however, head to Queenstown. This South Island city, just a 6-hour drive from Christchurch, is rife with adventure. With Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s second largest in the background, as well as the imposing backdrop of the Remarkables mountain range, Queenstown makes an incredibly scenic place to jump and swing between canyons and gorges, and zip over rapids.

The area boasts at least five bungee jumping sites, a gorge swing, jet boats aplenty, whitewater rafting, myriad flying, gliding and parasailing adventures and, well, tamer-toned activities such as alpine skiing, mountain biking and hiking. The streets are crowded with travelers looking for a thrill and outfitters all too happy to help them fill the bill.

A good way for clients to orient themselves with the Queenstown area is through the Skyline Gondola, located minutes from the town center. The top of the line brings the views and the dining venues, and it brings the luge ride down. Two tracks, one gentle and one super fast, send lugers down the 2,400-ft. descent on 3-wheel luge carts. Emboldened riders can grab another gondola to the top and do it again. Gondola rides plus luge start at $29 per adult. Net rates are available through sales@skyline.co.nz.

At the top of the gondola is the Ledge Bungy, considered a most scenic jump over Queenstown, and it is the only bungy open at night. Jumps here are about $100. Just outside of town are myriad bungy jumping sites, thanks to A.J. Hackett Bungy that started it all two decades ago. “Bungaholics” will want to visit the Kawarau Bungy Center—the original. It’s on a highway between Queenstown and Cromwell in idyllic Gibbston Valley, one of New Zealand’s many outstanding wineries. The 130-ft. bridge leap is complemented by a bungy theater and a bungy museum.

Ever inventive, the Kiwis toiled for new ways to milk thrills from scenic heights and came up with the Shotover Canyon Swing. This little attraction on a cliff in the wilderness is pure nirvana for the strong-of-nerve set, who hurl themselves from a platform 300 ft. above the Shotover River, freefall for 196. ft. and arc several times across the canyon in a flying swing. The swing takes the experience of freefall flight a few ticks further than classic bungy ropes as participants swing on a wire pendulum from one cliff face to the other in a heart-pounding swirl of Gs ($115; extra swings, $25 each).

Below them, along the Shotover River, jet boats race the wind in shallow river waters. This purely Kiwi invention carries about a dozen passengers through the winding riverbed at 70 miles per hour, deftly maneuvering turbo-charged turns on a dime. Cost is $70 with Shotover Jet. Above the canyon, paragliders dip and rise, and up-river, whitewater rafters take their shot at challenging rapids. Whitewater rafters can count on class III to IV+ rapids and river challenges. The Kawarau River can be a little more forgiving depending on the season and stretch. Rates at major river rafting companies start at about $109 pp. Companies to consider for such thrills include Challenge Rafting, Extreme Green Rafting, and Queenstown Rafting.