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Adrenaline City

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."

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