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 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