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.