A SWING­ING TIME

In New Zealand’s South Is­land ad­ven­ture hub of Queen­stown, thrill-seek­ing vis­i­tors are cat­a­pulted in all di­rec­tions, re­ports Barry Oliver

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

THE scenery is wow-wor­thy as we thread through the craggy canyons of Queen­stown’s Sho­tover River. Not that there’s any time for sight­see­ing on a jet­boat in New Zealand’s ad­ven­ture cap­i­tal. We’re zoom­ing and driver James — or pilot, as he likes to be called — seems de­ter­mined to scare the pants off his pas­sen­gers, get­ting so close to the rocks I’m con­vinced dis­as­ter’s im­mi­nent. He’s ap­par­ently only happy when his pas­sen­gers — 12 Aus­tralians in this case — are show­ing dis­tinct signs of ter­ror.

The 360-de­gree spin is the ul­ti­mate scream-maker and James shows it’s a ma­noeu­vre he has per­formed more than a few times. Af­ter the first one, he counts to make sure we’re all present and cor­rect. Funny guy. He hasn’t lost any­one so far, he says, but there’s a first time for ev­ery­thing.

Some­one asks him, a lit­tle ner­vously, how long has he been driv­ing jet­boats with such aban­don. ‘‘ Five weeks.’’ Be­fore this can sink in — is he jok­ing? — we’re back at break­neck speed (up to 85km/h), dodg­ing by a whisker the coal-black rocks jut­ting from the side. In fact, driv­ers (sorry, pi­lots) aren’t al­lowed closer than 50cm but since the front of the boat is cut away it ap­pears much closer.

Dur­ing an­other brief stop to catch our col­lec­tive breath, James tells us that pi­lots used to bump rocks — the front of the boat was padded — but those days are long gone.

I ask what the red light means that’s flash­ing on the dash­board. He says it’s the fish finder. This time I’m fairly sure he is jok­ing.

How did he get the job? James says he was turned down a cou­ple of times but kept bad­ger­ing the bosses un­til they gave in. ‘‘ You start in the mid­dle and work your way to the sides,’’ is his ex­pla­na­tion of train­ing, which in­volves 120 hours of prac­tice be­fore be­ing given a li­cence to ter­rify in­no­cent tourists.

It’s win­ter and with the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture a cool 5C no one is keen on go­ing over­board (we’re kit­ted out in bright red life jack­ets, a neat match with the boat, just in case). Whiteknuckle grips are the or­der of the day: at least the handrail is heated.

Cam­eras, on the boat and on shore, record our fear. When I scan the pic­tures later I no­tice James, with a broad grin, is look­ing straight at the cam­era. And my mum told me al­ways to keep my eyes on the road. Sho­tover Jet is based at Arthur’s Point, 6km from Queen­stown. Prices are $NZ99 ($84) adults; $NZ59 chil­dren. A sec­ond ride is half price. www.shotover­jet.co.nz. FOR some­thing so vi­tal, I’d like my paraglider to look a lit­tle more sub­stan­tial. It would be fine borne on a stiff breeze but this one, rolled into a ball and care­lessly tossed in the back of the van, doesn’t do much for me in the con­fi­dence de­part­ment. Yet it’s go­ing to carry me — and my pilot — safely down from the top of Coronet Peak near Queen­stown, a drop of 1760m. At least that’s the plan.

We trans­fer from van to ski lift for the last part of our jour­ney to the top (I am clutch­ing the trusty paraglider to my chest), then scram­ble up a small snow-cov­ered peak to what’s go­ing to be our launch site.

Pilot Jas­mine says take-off is a mat­ter of me stay­ing on my feet and run­ning. Eas­ier said than done with me weighed down by a bulky ski jacket and with 20cm of snow un­der­foot. Pre­dictably, the first at­tempt ends in us be­ing dragged un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously along the ground to the edge of the peak. Take two is more suc­cess­ful and sud­denly we’re air­borne, with a bird’s-eye view of the skiers and board­ers on the slopes be­low.

I’m se­curely hooked in, sit­ting in front of Jas­mine — at least I’ve scored the pointy end — and not go­ing any­where but that doesn’t stop me hang­ing on for grim death. For much of the time, Jas­mine is busy ma­nip­u­lat­ing a cam­era on a long pole. Smile, please. (Cam­eras are a big part of ad­ven­ture ac­tiv­i­ties in Queen­stown.) When it’s passed to me I have lit­tle choice but to let go of my pre­cious grip for a few sec­onds to shoot a (very quick) video. That’s enough of that.

Tur­bu­lence gives us the shakes as we drop be­low the moun­tain peak (please re­turn to your seats . . .) but it doesn’t last long and most of the ride is su­per smooth, at least in busi­ness class. That’s un­til Jas­mine demon­strates some twists and spi­rals and other stom­ach-churn­ing moves that rapidly put me in dan­ger of an em­bar­rass­ing mo­ment. That’s enough of that, too.

Land­ing is un­event­ful — we hit the ground run­ning — and it’s time for the usual pic­ture rou­tine. Jas­mine’s are fine but, for some rea­son, my short video is all over the place. Must be the cam­era. Tan­dem paraglid­ing flights with El­e­va­tion Paraglid­ing cost $NZ180, in­clud­ing trans­port from Queen­stown; www.el­e­va­tion.co.nz. SOME tame folk take the short gon­dola ride to Sky­line, 400m above Queen­stown, for the views of Lake Wakatipu. Oth­ers just want to jump off. The Ledge Sky Swing is hid­den at the top and is op­er­ated by A.J. Hack­ett, a name syn­ony­mous with dare­devil leaps into the un­known. The bold and the brave jump 47m — day and night — from a spe­cially con­structed plat­form. Like me, you can al­ways make do with a run down Sky­line’s luge (chose from two tracks). Any­way, the bungee site is closed when I drop by. Hon­est. Gon­dola rides $NZ20 adults; $NZ9 chil­dren, or with one luge ride, $NZ26 and $NZ16 re­spec­tively; with a luge ride and the Ledge Sky Swing, $NZ99; www.sky­line.co.nz. MI­NUS 5 claims to be the coolest bar in Queen­stown and there’s re­ally no ar­gu­ing the point. The name re­lates to the con­stant tem­per­a­ture and ev­ery­thing, from ta­bles and seats to walls and glasses, is made of ice.

There’s a rush to bag one of the few seats when our group of about a dozen, suit­ably rugged up in sup­plied coats and gloves, is let in for a 30-minute chill-out (long enough to be en­joy­able, short enough to avoid hy­pother­mia). Soon, though, the cold starts to pen­e­trate and chilled pos­te­ri­ors are shifted, putting stand­ing space at a pre­mium.

Bar­man Leigh gives in­struc­tion on hold­ing the icy glasses: two (gloved) hands are es­sen­tial to avoid dis­as­ter, or at least los­ing your drink, a vodka-based cock­tail that’s in­cluded in the en­try price.

The small bar is dec­o­rated with 18 tonnes of sculpted ice carv­ings — kan­ga­roo, bear, cow­boy — putting me in mind of one of those fancy cruise-ship buf­fets. Leigh says they’re fash­ioned with a chain­saw and re­placed ev­ery five months or so. Th­ese, though, are fairly new: the last batch went into pre­ma­ture melt­down when fire sprin­klers ac­ci­den­tally went off overnight.

The ice bar con­cept was dreamed up by two Ki­wis while trav­el­ling in Rus­sia. Now there are sites in Auck­land, Syd­ney, the Gold Coast and Cairns. Leigh’s party piece is pour­ing vodka into an ice slide with some­one poised, open-mouthed, at the bot­tom. He has no trou­ble find­ing a vol­un­teer.

In the pub next door you can watch the Mi­nus 5 drinkers through a glass screen. It’s called the Boiler Room, ho, ho. Steamer Wharf, Queen­stown; open from 10.30am; en­try is $NZ25 adults; $NZ12 chil­dren; www.mi­nus5­ex­pe­ri­ence.com. THE Sho­tover Canyon Swing, 15 min­utes from Queen­stown, in­volves a 109m plunge down a cliff face with a 60m freefall. Jumpers, who reach 150km/h, then pen­du­lum across the canyon for 200m. Choose from 10 start­ing po­si­tions, rated from scary to very, very, very scary. The old­est jumper so far is an 86-yearold, the youngest 10, and a Lon­don post­man sur­vived 14 swings in suc­ces­sion. Ap­par­ently he had a great de­liv­ery. Priced at $NZ159 with Queen­stown pick-up; $NZ39 for an ex­tra swing. www.canyon­swing.co.nz. www.queen­stown.nz.com www.newzealand.com www.airnewzealand.com.au

Wet and wild: Queen­stown’s rugged sur­rounds pro­vide plenty of ex­cite­ment for ad­ven­tur­ous vis­i­tors. Top left, tan­dem paraglid­ing; bot­tom left, the Sho­tover Canyon Swing; main pic­ture, aboard the Sho­tover Jet

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