As I stood on the grassy slopes of Bob’s Peak, I tried not to think about what we were preparing to do. Luckily the streets below were hidden from view, although the tiny dots of the boats out on the crystal blue lake didn’t fill me with confidence. Pius, my large and over-friendly Italian guide, checked my straps briefly, apparently trusting my clumsy attempts at fastening the harness. If I’d known that his checks would be so perfunctory I’d have taken more time over them myself.
‘Are we ready?’
His accent made him difficult to understand, and with the alpine wind whistling about my ears it took me a few moments to translate his thick vowels. Before I had a chance to answer he’d positioned himself behind me, and I felt his hand tap my shoulder.
It would have been easy at that moment to sit back down on the grass and call it a day. Somehow, though, my instincts for self-preservation had been temporarily silenced. This was Queenstown, after all: the self-proclaimed Mecca for extreme sports. I began pumping my legs, my feet hitting the turf hard as I struggled against the machinery – and the large Italian – strapped to my back. At first it felt as if someone had tied me to a car as a prank, and I almost turned around to check that everything was as it should be. Then the thought of Pius’s withering look made me pound my feet even harder. We were nearing the edge of the cliff now, and with it a sixteen hundred foot drop down to the town below. My mind flitted back to those straps again. I really should have spent more time tightening them.
And then something changed behind me. Where there had been resistance before there was now a slight tug, as if Pius had sprouted a pair of wings and was trying to pull me off my feet. It was an odd sensation, simultaneously lifting me up and dragging me back, and I was almost too busy marveling at it to notice that I was suddenly a few inches off the ground. I may have been lifted off my feet but we were still traveling forward at some speed, the cliff edge disappearing beneath us as Queenstown came into view, the houses looking no larger than Monopoly pieces. After a few seconds I remembered to stop wiggling my legs, and I pulled down self-consciously on my helmet strap, trusting it to see me safely home. Sixteen hundred feet looked an awfully long way to fall.
* * *
At the start of the day I hadn’t intended to end up nearly half a mile above the ground, with a large Italian strapped to my back. My plan had been to bungee jump at the site of the very first bungee, the now-infamous Kawarau Bridge, and I’d driven there filled with an irrational desire to throw myself from it.
If the story of the commercial bungee started at a rickety bridge just outside of Queenstown, however, then the true origin of the semi-suicidal sport lay further north. As part of the harvest ritual on the Vanuatu Islands the young men used to build a tower of lashed-together branches, which they would then tie themselves to with long vines, before throwing themselves from the top. If they were lucky they’d have cut the vine to almost exactly the correct length, and it’d pull them up just as they hit the ground, lessening the blow and simultaneously wrenching their legs out of their sockets. If they were unlucky they’d cut it too long, the results of which you can imagine for yourself. As harvest festivals went, it was a spectacularly messy one.
Fortunately for adrenaline addicts the world over, a documentary on these rituals happened to be watched by members of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club in the Seventies, and they decided to stage some attempted jumps of their own. Their equipment was still primitive, but it provided them all with a bit of a giggle in between lectures, and nothing more was thought of it.
Until Kiwi entrepreneur A J Hackett happened upon a video of the Dangerous Sports Club in action, that is. While others might have wondered why these English intellectuals were throwing themselves off things with such gay abandon, Hackett immediately saw the dollar signs flashing before his eyes. Enlisting the help of friend and fellow speed-skier Henry van Asch, he began to pioneer what became the modern bungee cord. Their first tests were undertaken at the Ponts de la Caille near Annecy in eastern France, and once the equipment was ready they decided to launch their new adrenaline sport in the highest-profile manner possible. In June 1987, A J Hackett threw himself off the Eiffel Tower.
The stunt resulted in his immediate arrest by some stereotypically dour-faced gendarmes, but he was released a few minutes later into a blaze of media attention. The following year the Kawarau Bridge bungee opened, and since then over 500,000 people had thrown themselves into space above the torrents of the Kawarau River while attached to a long strip of elastic. A J Hackett was now a very rich man.
When I pulled into the Kawarau parking lot my eyes weren’t drawn to the bridge itself, however: I was too busy looking at the crowd. Some of the revenue from the bungee had been poured back into developing the jump’s facilities, which now included a space-age visitors’ center and a large wooden viewing balcony. It was here that I joined the gathered masses to worship at the altar of Hackett, fifty of us jostling for elbow-room as we waited for the poor fools on the bridge to jump. It might have resembled a public execution, but the $140 price tag told the true story. At least you got the hangman’s noose for free.
The first jumper was obviously a regular visitor, as he barely needed any encouragement to throw himself from their ramshackle platform into the crisp New Zealand air. I watched as he hung for a second in midair, before gravity reasserted itself and he plummeted towards the river below. They’d set the bungee slightly longer than normal, and his head dipped in the water before the cord pulled him up again, dragging an arc of spray behind him. He bounced a couple of times, the cord jerking him from side to side, then the crew launched their small yellow dinghy and gathered him safely in. The whole experience took a little under three minutes, including the time it took to return him to dry land. I’d expected the bungee to be thrilling, but I’d never expected it to be so brief.
As I stood watching the conveyor belt of jumpers I decided not to bother signing up for it myself. I knew that I’d be berated for it when I returned home, but the hefty price tag had sapped any desire that I might have had to throw myself from this particular bridge. Outside of Las Vegas there couldn’t be a quicker way to lose $140, and I didn’t exactly have the spare cash to throw into this churning river. Besides, Queenstown was reputedly the adrenaline sports capital of the world. Surely there must be something more satisfying to spend my few spare dollars on?
* * *
A quick examination of the map showed me that the Shotover Jet was located nearby, so I decided to give that a chance. I knew very little about jetboats, apart from the fact that one of them had ruined my attempts at photography at Taupo’s Huka Falls earlier in my trip. I figured that I should keep an open mind, though, and this particular company had been recommended to me by a couple in Fiji. Their literature told me that they’d ferried over two million passengers down the Shotover River, which by my calculations made them at least four times as popular as the Kawarau Bridge bungee. With figures like that behind them I had to see what all the fuss was about.
In a nutshell, jetboating was exactly as it sounded. The hi-tech boats had an internal propeller that sucked water in through the hull, then drove it out again through jet nozzles at the rear. Not only did this unique propulsion device allow them to reach speeds of forty-five miles an hour in the Shotover River’s narrow canyons, it also offered them a flexibility of movement that was unknown in regular craft. Here at Shotover the boats had two engines and two nozzles, allowing them to turn sharply, brake, and even send the boat into a 360-degree spin. It put Hackett’s little yellow dinghy to shame.
Once I’d been suited up in a full-length waterproof coat and scarlet lifejacket we were herded onto our boat, the crew ushering us through the iron gates like cattle. With the sun sparkling off the surface of the river it all looked remarkably tranquil, and I wondered if Shotover’s reputation had been exaggerated. It seemed like a nice spot for a picnic.
I didn’t have to wonder for long. Once our pilot was in place he checked that we were all securely fastened, then the boat roared into life. I’m not a huge fan of rollercoasters, and I generally believe that anything worth seeing is worth seeing slowly, but I couldn’t keep myself from grinning as we hurtled away, my back pressed firmly into the seat. Taking the bends we were flung viciously from side to side, and even in my nervous state I marveled at the company’s excellent safety record. Perhaps it only felt like I was about to be flung into the icy waters of the river.
The experience was over all too soon, although a quick glance at my watch told me that it had taken slightly more than twenty minutes. My legs were a little shaky once I stepped onto solid ground again, but I couldn’t keep an idiotic smile from spreading across my face. To my great surprise, jetboating had turned out to be fun.
* * *
I took a few sips of water to restore a degree of calm to my battered nervous system, then I began to consult the map again. My day of adrenaline sports in Queenstown was only half over. Now that I had the bit between my teeth, I wanted to make the most of it. It occurred to me that I’d already experienced extreme speed – what I needed next was extreme height. The bungee still looked too expensive, and it finished far too quickly for my liking, which sent me back to the drawing board. Where else could I experience the thrills of extreme heights without having to dunk my head in a river? What else was there in Queenstown to jump off, apart from the bridge?
This might go some way towards explaining how I came to be strapped to an overweight Italian sixteen hundred feet off the ground, the houses of the town laid out beneath me like a Lego set. I shuffled my butt back in the harness, just to make sure that there was no chance of falling out. On the way up Bob’s Peak I’d heard stories about a tourist whose equipment had failed, sending him plummeting into the backyard of an unexpecting resident, breaking almost every bone in his body in the process. At the time I’d written it off as an extreme sports myth, but it now felt worryingly feasible. I tugged on my helmet strap again, just to be sure.
Suddenly there was a ringing sound behind me, and for a fraction of a second I thought that it might be some kind of alarm, warning us of our impending death in an old lady’s flowerbed. Fortunately Pius’s laughter set me at ease.
‘Sorry, that’s my cell phone. It seems someone wants to talk to me. They always call at the worst time, eh?’
I managed to stutter a cursory yes, trying to drag my eyes away from a particularly solid-looking paved yard.
‘Too damn right. You feeling okay?’
I wasn’t sure that he’d heard my last outburst, so this time I gave him the thumbs-up.
‘You feel like doing some acrobatics before we land?’
To be frankly honest, part of me wanted to say no. No matter how hard that part screamed in my head, though – while pointing out the very solid ground that lay over a thousand feet below us – I still managed to give him the thumbs-up again. I figured I might as well live a little, even if it wasn’t for very long.
‘Hold on tight then.’
At first I barely noticed the change in direction, but then the ground slid away, our bodies spinning in a tight spiral that sent the world reeling past my left ear. Then Pius span us the other way, and I tried to imagine the s-shaped trajectory that we were following through the sky, if only to take my mind off the fact that the earth kept moving beneath us, and that I was rapidly losing any sense of up or down.
After a couple of minutes we resumed a steady course, and I felt a hand tap me on the shoulder.
‘That was good, eh?’
I swallowed against the dryness in my throat and managed to prize my hand off the strap long enough give a final thumbs-up. It had been good, if incredibly unnerving. Suddenly the bungee wasn’t looking quite so daring after all.
Once we were back on the ground, having crash-landed clumsily in the sports field of the local school, Pius set about folding away the parachute while I unbuckled myself from the rigging. A quick glance at my watch told me that I still had a couple of hours to spare before the sun went down, but I’d already had enough excitement for one day. What little adrenaline I had left would be just enough to propel me back to the van that had become my home over the past few weeks; then I intended to sit very still for at least half an hour, while my equilibrium restored itself. With my feet firmly planted on the floor, of course.
Pius grinned as I stepped shakily out of the harness, my feet remarkably glad to feel the reassurance of firm ground again, but still uncertain of its solidity.
‘Not bad for two heavy pricks, eh?’
I couldn’t help smiling and nodding in agreement. No, it wasn’t bad at all.
(This excerpt is adapted from the book Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand, available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all good book retailers.)