Published: June 2009
By Jeff Wise
Faster! Higher! Farther! More! Pushing adventure travel to its very limits, Queenstown, New Zealand, has blurred the line between fun and fear.
Just over ten years ago, on a Victorian cast-iron bridge near Queenstown, New Zealand, Henry van Asch's first customer leaped off toward the swirling currents below. Bad for business, normally. But van Asch and his partner, fellow ski bum A. J. Hackett, had taken the precaution of attaching a long rubber cable to their client's ankles. And as he bounced back up into the clear southern air, a new trend was born: commercial bungee jumping.
Van Asch and Hackett didn't invent the sport, to be sure. For centuries, as a test of manhood, South Pacific islanders have jumped off makeshift towers with vines tied to their ankles. In the late 1970's, English university students updated the practice by substituting rubber cords for vines. What van Asch and Hackett pioneered was a system for bungee jumping over and over again, quickly, and charging people for the privilege. The idea was at once both crazy and brilliant, offering the thrill of a suicide attempt without the aftereffects.
Soon, a bungee fad was sweeping the globe. It was perfect for the adrenaline-hepped Gen-X culture, which latched onto anything "extreme" as totally cool. Everyone wanted adventure--and not just the kids. Tired of snapping photos of the Trevi Fountain or lying inert on beaches, the overachievers of the nineties attacked their vacations with the same fervor they brought to their careers. The market responded, and there are now more than 800 travel agencies in the United States specializing in adventure travel, peddling everything from Himalayan treks to canoe trips down piranha-infested rivers.
Meanwhile, back where it all began, Queenstown was thriving. Always a hub for gung ho adventurers, the town became a kind of open-air research lab. Riding boogie boards down whitewater rivers, bungeeing out of helicopters, pulling loops in aerobatic biplanes, paragliding off mountaintops: as fast as someone could dream up a new way to break your neck, Queenstown had it.
It took me years to plan my first trip, but just as I was ready to leave, fate took one of its irritating twists. Two weeks before my flight, I went skiing for the first time in 10 years. On my sixth run I fell and cracked a rib. Bungee jumping?River surfing?Even coughing made me wince with pain. One sharp, short thud and my mission had changed: from throwing myself hell-for-leather into an exploration of adventure sports, to finding out how much fun you can have without any sudden movements.
Queenstown is a long way from anywhere, but when at last your plane begins its descent from the east, you instantly remember why you decided to come. It's gorgeous. The southern summer dulls the hills to shades of yellow and brown, punctuated by the bright green of trees. The shimmering turquoise of Wakatipu Lake mirrors the bright sky. So tranquil is the scene that the adventure hype seems a million miles away--until you spot the tiny multicolored dots of paragliders swooping down from the ridge above town and the rooster tails of the jet boats roaring along the Shotover River.
At the Queenstown airport I picked up a rental car and headed out on the serpentine road that skirts the edge of the lake. After passing through the few sleepy blocks of Queenstown proper, I continued along the shore, wending past thickets of gorse and constellations of bright wildflowers. In 15 minutes I was crackling up the gravel driveway to Punatapu.
A cluster of low yellow farm buildings, Punatapu Inn is the labor of love of two doctors, Sue and Pat Farry. Longtime residents of the area, they seem to know, or be related to, just about everyone--which isn't hard, given that Queenstown's full-time population is only about 9,500. In the eighties, when they decided to build a house, they chose a lovely spot near a the lake, a knoll surrounded by hills, without another building in sight. As the years went by they added a shed and a barn for a goat and deer farm. After their sons went off to school, they decided to turn the place into an upscale inn. My suite (one of just four) occupied what was once the barn, done in an esoteric blend of old and new: salvaged doors and roof beams, rough pink stucco walls, and wooden pillars juxtaposed with brushed-steel kitchen counters, suspended halogen lighting, and heavy black steel plates.
Even more delightful, given my condition, was the innkeepers' medical expertise. Pat chuckled when I told him about my ribs, as though minor fractures were as common hereabouts as hangnails. "There's no third-party liability in New Zealand," Pat said. It's a useful factor, he pointed out, in the development of adventure sports: "If you have an accident rafting or hang gliding, you can't sue anyone." On the other hand, he said, New Zealand's generous social services provide free hospitalization. The news, somehow, left me cold.
Not that you have to break any bones in Queenstown, Sue hastened to add. Most of their guests favor quiet pastimes like hiking, trout fishing, and floating down the gentle Dart River in inflatable canoes. While the thrills get most of the press, Queenstown has, over the past few years, quietly expanded into all sorts of mellower attractions, including new wineries, art galleries, and exceptional restaurants.
In consideration of my fragile condition, Sue made an appointment for me the following morning with Harvey Maguire, a big, bearded fisherman whose grizzly-bear demeanor belies his many decades as a jazz musician. Maguire is also a local radio personality, the host of a morning fishing report.
"There's two sides to Queenstown," he said as we barreled along in his dusty truck. "The natural side, and the creative side--things like jumping out of airplanes. That sort of activity you could have anywhere, but the operators set up here because it's a touristy area and they can make a buck. That's not the real Queenstown."
Since I was a novice, Harvey decided we would try our luck on the lake, where I'd have room to flail the rod around. We hopped into his motorboat and zipped to the foot of Cecil Peak, a pyramid of heath and rock, where Harvey tied a bit of fuzz called a Yellow Humpy onto my line and showed me the proper casting technique. All it required was a flick back, a pause, and a flick forward. After three hours I just about had it down. In that time four trout managed to escape from my hook, and two matagory bushes on the shore did not. They put up a good fight, though.
For another hour or so we drifted slowly around the lake in the sunlight, scanning the breeze-ruffled water for the sinuous form of a fish, concentrating on the whisper of the flying line. To an untrained observer, it might have appeared that nothing at all was happening. But what a sweet nothing it was.
"Remember, we come from pioneering and farming stock," Pat Farry explained. "Every bloke has his shed, a little place out back where he can knock about fixing a car engine or potter around with his woodwork, tackle whatever problem happens to interest him, and get away from the wife for a while."
It was in just such a South Island shed that, in the 1950's, a farmer named Bill Hamilton rigged up a new kind of boat for navigating the area's shallow rivers. Broad and flat-bottomed, it generated momentum by sucking water up from below the hull and whooshing it out the stern. The jet boat proved an exceptionally useful design--and, more important, provided a spine-tingling ride. Transplanted to the gorges of Queenstown's Shotover and Kawarau rivers, jet boating became a staple of the tourism industry.
So far, the only danger on my trip had been to the trout--and they hadn't been much threatened, at that. But the signboards and brochures were luring me with their siren call. It seemed a shame to come all this way without doing something at least a little thrilling, broken rib or not. The folks at Shotover Jet assured me they hadn't had any fatalities yet. So I gently massaged my side, gave it a good long thought, and drove to their riverside headquarters.
A dozen Japanese tourists and I climbed into a battered aluminum runabout, where a sunburned young pilot named Steve grinned maniacally behind a pair of wraparound sunglasses. Off we zoomed. The river was beautiful, a chalky, wavy carpet winding between the stony banks of the ravine, but it was hard to pay much attention--Steve sent us careening directly toward a rock outcrop, turned just in time to slip past sideways, then threw the boat into a sudden, lurching, 360-degree spin. Steve, I decided, had a bright future as a cabdriver. But eventually I realized I wasn't going to be killed, and settled into that zone of wary appreciation that can actually be labeled fun.
But how many people, I asked, are willing to risk their lives for a thrill?He shook his head. "You have to have perceived danger, but without any actual danger," he explained. "Ours is really only a visual thrill."
It sure didn't feel that way. When I got up to say good-bye, my knees were still wobbly.
The Queenstown region is crammed with beauty: the broad lake, the twisting, rapids-filled rivers, the trout-choked streams, the forests, the gentle hills, the craggy peaks. Unquestionably, though, the centerpiece is a line of mountains called the Remarkables. In winter they rise up, snow-dusted, like an enormous waylaid iceberg; in summer, defrosted, the crests loom like a row of blackened teeth.
There's something about a mountain that makes you want to scramble all over it. So after a few days I checked out of Punatapu and headed across the valley to the Remarkables Lodge, a converted homestead only a few hundred yards from the wall of the mountains. Owners Steve and Jeannette Brough, another pair of semi-retired professionals, bought the place four years ago and set about creating a quirky hideaway decorated with stuffed animal heads, old skis, and sepia photos of rugged outdoorsmen.
The Remarkables are even more magnificent up close, but they also look more deadly, all steep, serrated slopes and precipitous ravines, rising nearly 7,300 feet from the back door of the lodge to the top of the highest peak. So I was surprised to learn that they're easily climbed--you simply have to go up the other side, where the slope is gentler. Back in my by-now-dusty rental car, I headed a few miles down the highway and turned off onto a dirt road. From there I drove a nerve-rackingly narrow, rutted track through seemingly endless switchbacks, the valley below growing wider and more distant with each mile, until I arrived at the base of the Remarkables ski area.
Except for a few parked cars belonging to other hikers, the place was deserted. A trail wound up into the bowl of the mountain, scarred with boulders and fields of scree. The higher I went, the fainter the route, until I was picking my way through a jumble of rocks as I followed a barely visible trail of dust. Another thing I've noticed about mountains is that they're damned hard work, and when you're actually on them, not too magnificent at all. But finally I approached the ridgeline, and lo, there it all was, laid out before me: the mountain wall falling away below my feet, the majestic valley. A picture can't begin to capture the feeling you get when you witness such a scene, and words can't really describe it; so I stood and admired it for a while, then sat on a rock and let the sun warm my face. Then I looked around, sighed, and turned to walk back down the mountain.
It took me a long time to get hold of Henry van Asch, the man who did so much to make Queenstown what it is today. He was traveling, his people told me when I first called; then he was in town but occupied with a variety of projects, which include real estate, a sheep farm, a clothing company, and, of course, running the bungee operation.
It wasn't until my final day in Queenstown that I finally pinned van Asch down. We met for lunch at the Gibbston Valley Winery, a mile or so down the road from the Kawarau Suspension Bridge, where it all started in 1988, and sat under an umbrella in a spacious courtyard, surrounded by acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. When former TV journalist Alan Brady planted his first vines in the area 18 years ago, wine experts had scoffed, citing the southern latitude; but his efforts bore fruit in every sense, and wines from the region regularly win international awards.
Among the local gentry drawn into the wine-making business, I was surprised to learn, was Henry van Asch. Still boyish at 35, with a broad smile and tousle of curly blond hair, the onetime downhill speed skier has, like Queenstown itself, broadened his interests. "Getting older mellows you out a bit," he says--though not entirely; after all, he named his winery Havoc Farms, as an approximate acronym for "Henry van Asch Out of Control."
We both ordered the same thing, smoked venison carpaccio with pine nuts and a cream sauce. Van Asch, having clearly learned to savor the good life, isn't worried about the rising tide of gourmandism threatening Queenstown's adrenaline-junkie way of life. "The other day I read an article that said the whole adventure side of Queenstown is over," he said. "That's nonsense. Even if people want to sit in a wine bar in the evenings, they still like to do fun, exciting stuff outdoors. A lot of people do a lot of mundane things in their lives. Adventure sports are a way out of that."
Well, I had come this far. My ribs were beginning to heal, I was fortified with wine, and I was sitting with a man who had sent nearly a million people leaping off bridges without a fatality. How could I tell folks back home that I hadn't bungeed?
In a few minutes we were at the bridge, staring at the blue-green current below. It was a long way down. On either side the walls of the gorge rose vertically, shrubs and trees clinging to the rock face. Off to my left, a busload of tourists stood waiting, cameras poised. "Ninety percent of the people who come here just watch," Henry said.
"Ninety percent don't jump?" I asked. Suddenly I felt part of a small, lonely, foolish minority. But it was too late--my turn had come. Two burly men in tank tops and rubber flip-flops motioned for me to sit down, and one wrapped my ankles together with a towel and then a nylon strap. If the chance for a thrill had drawn me here, only one thing was keeping me going forward: fear of humiliation. My head felt light as they told me to stand and waddle my way to the edge of the wooden planks. A magnitude of air opened up below me, aglow in sunlit blue and green. There was nothing below, nothing at all.
I heard a voice at my side: "We're going to say 'Three, two, one, bungee!' And then you're going to jump. Okay?"
My stomach was floating up around my esophagus. "Okay."
"Three, two, one . . ."
For a fraction of a second I hesitated. Then I pushed off. Ears roaring, the bright colors of the day swarming my eyes--I was falling, unrestrained, fully in the grip of gravity. And then a faint tugging at my heels, growing stronger, and the blur of color resolved itself into the surface of the river, and I was hanging in it upside down, my arms wet up to my elbows.
I was not dead. I was alive. My ribs did not even hurt. The terrible splendor of the deadly gorge now seemed suffused in a beautiful light. I was safe at the bottom of my bungee. Oh, what joy!
But wait: with amusement, and then alarm, I realized that the tension in the cord was pulling me upward, higher, higher above the water, until I was again a hundred feet up, flailing madly, screaming with all my might, caught willy-nilly in a mad, mind-bending panic.
And that, come to think of it, was exactly what I had been after all along.
The busiest times of year are the southern warm months (December to March) and the winter ski season (June to September). But thanks to a construction glut over the past few years, hotel rooms are usually easy to come by. Dress is extremely casual, but even in summer the weather can be cool, especially at night, with temperatures dipping into the forties. Tips, while not expected, are usually left in cash rather than on a credit card slip.
Nugget Point Malaghan's Rd., Arthur's Point; 64-3/442-7273, fax 64-3/442-7308, www.nuggetpoint.co.nz; doubles $150. Clean, bright, and efficient. The best rooms have balconies with stunning views of the Shotover River valley.
Punatapu Glenorchy Rd.; 64-3/442-6624, fax 64-3/442-6229, www.nz.com/Queenstown/Punatapu; doubles $344, including breakfast. Queenstown's most luxurious accommodations are just 10 minutes from town yet still feel blissfully isolated. If well-connected Pat and Sue Farry can't get what you need, it can't be gotten.
Remarkables Lodge Hwy. 6; phone and fax 64-3/442-2720, www.nz.com/Queenstown/RemarkablesLodge; doubles $296, including breakfast and dinner. In sheep-farming country, this four-room lodge surrounded by gardens has a hot tub and swimming pool, tennis courts, and a helipad.
Restaurants & Bars
Boardwalk Seafood Restaurant & Bar Steamer Wharf; 64-3/442-5630; dinner for two $44. Looking out over the Queenstown waterfront and the lake beyond, the Boardwalk offers an extensive menu, including super-fresh raw rock oysters and grilled New Zealand crayfish.
Casbah 54 Shotover St.; 64-3/442-7853. Where those who didn't bungee can take risks--on the dance floor.
Chico's The Mall; 64-3/442-8439; dinner for two $34. Where "bar meets grill," and the live music kicks until late.
Gantley's Arthur's Point Rd.; 64-3/442-8999; dinner for two $50. Karyn and Ian Mill have turned a 136-year-old former inn into a cozy restaurant, with whitewashed walls and dark timbers lending a rustic touch. The kitchen's pinnacle of achievement is the breaded lamb's brain in caper cream sauce.
Gibbston Valley Restaurant Gibbston; 64-3/442-6910, www.nz.com/Queenstown/GibbstonValley; lunch for two $30. After a tour of Queenstown's largest vineyard, settle in on the terrace for a bit of grub to go with a bottle of the local production.
Lagos Bar & Café Steamer Wharf; 64-3/442-5969; lunch for two $13. Nothing beats a plate of warm lamb salad out on the wooden deck; save some bread for the trout frolicking around the pilings.
Vudu Café 23 Beach St.; 64-3/442-5357; dinner for two $30. A stylish little bistro in town. For a taste of New Zealanders' creativity with lamb, try the lamb rump with spinach, roasted eggplant, and marinated artichokes.
A. J. Hackett Bungy Bungy Center, Shotover and Camp Sts.; 64-3/442-7100, www.AJHackett.com; $60, including T-shirt and transport from town. The original commercial bungee jump, 140 feet above the Kawarau River, is still one of the most beautifully located.
Shotover Jet Shotover Jet Beach, Arthur's Point; 64-3/442-8570; half-hour ride $40. Career through narrow gorges at speeds of up to 45 mph, inches from jutting rocks.
Gibbston Valley Winery Gibbston; 64-3/442-6910. Queenstown's first winery welcomes visitors to tour its vineyards and its wine-aging cave--and, of course, to taste.
Harvey Maguire, Fly Fishing Adventures 64-3/442-7061, fax 64-3/442-9088, webnz.com/flyfishing; $330 per day. Fishing guru Maguire promises to "put his clients over trout," and he's a man of his word.
Lakes District Museum Buckingham St., Arrowtown; 64-3/442-1824. A small museum that traces the history of the area with artifacts and photographs.
The Skyline Gondola (Brecon St.; 64-3/442-7860) rises to a spectacular overlook 1,460 feet above Wakatipu Lake.