Another day, another dose of adrenaline in the world’s adventure capital.
Whether its rafting down the white waters of the Shotover river, strapping yourself to a bungy rope, skiing down a black run or being blasted around in a jet boat, people in Queenstown are constantly working on finding the next big thrill.
Who would have thought that a simple children’s slide would provide it.
Well, I say childrens slide – its actually a purpose-built job, but its about the same size as the ones you’d find at the side of the kids section in the local pool. There’s a slight difference here though, because Queenstown being Queenstown, there’s a company that’s pushed even a slide to the limit – by replacing the typical kids splish splash at the end with a 60ft freefall drop.
This is the world of the Shotover Canyon Swing, a team of people determined to find the scariest, most fun-filled, funny and imaginative ways to launch people from the world’s largest cliff jump and off on a 200 metre swing through the canyon below.
Its been up and running for 10 years here now, set up by two keen Kiwi climbers who set out to find the perfect place to build a rope swing. Its based on the same principal that would see many young lads throwing ropes up and around tree branches to build a swing out in the country, except this one reaches speeds of up to 150 kilometres an hour.
And now I’ve been invited along to try it, and its latest way of launching those thrill seekers/crazy people down a cliff face and towards a fast-flowing river at breakneck speeds.
A few days ago I managed to throw myself from one of the world’s highest bungys, and while the drop here isn’t quite as far, its still a daunting prospect to peer over the side of the platform and down to the river below. Nerves are far from helped when Doug, one of the crew members, decides to fall into the back of you and almost push you over the edge.
It’s the first part of what turns out to be a great double act between him and Andrew, the two men in charge of launching me from the safety of a cliff top in a variety of ways. There’s a staggering 70 different ways, and counting, that you can meet your potential demise from the cliff. With my confidence up from the bungy, and no doubt under instruction from the marketing team of Ana and Sarah to do their worst with me, the pair of them set about playing with my mind.
“This is the chair of death. Or the chair of life as we call it,” Andrew tells me, brandishing a plastic patio chair and a strap.
“Your task is to sit on it, lean back, and gently fall,”
Gently fall? I’m dropping off a cliff face, there’s nothing gentle about that. As in introduction to the Shotover Canyon Swing however, it at least means I’m not looking forwards to see the drop. Andrew and Doug had other ways of raising my fears though.
Strapped into the chair, I was instructed to lean back, and so pivoted on the back legs just like I’ve done a million times before at countless barbecues and picnic tables. Except the worst that can happen there is I can overdo it and fall on my back on the grass, to the amusement of whoever is sitting around the table. Here, it’s a sheer drop down a rockface.
“Just lean back Phil, head back, look at where you want to go,” I’m told.
I prepare myself for the inevitable and gently rock back, feeling the chair reaching the limit before gravity takes over. I feel it about to swing back and down into the valley.
“Whooooaaaaaa, hold on a minute,” says Andrew, pulling me back with the rope just as I thought I’d committed myself to the fall. My heart was pounding but I managed to laugh. I thought I’d gone, but now I’m back to square one again, the two crew members ‘checking’ my safety harness and generally milking the whole Chair of Death experience for me.
I pluck up more courage and lean back again – this time they will surely let me go. Afterall, they’ve played with my fears once on this chair.
“Am I going now?” I asked.
The look on Andrew’s face, still holding onto my straps, almost told me otherwise but I couldn’t quite read him. I looked down below me, which was a mistake – up until now I had managed to block out the fact I am overhanging a straight drop to the rocky bottom, a certain death without the various ropes and clips that connect me to the swing. Its like being at the top of the Flamborough cliffs back home, knowing you’re about to fall to the bottom.
Leaning back again, I slowly pushed myself to tipping point yet again, only for Andrew to pull me back upright yet again. I could feel sweat on the palms of my hand and my grip on the plastic armrests to my side was getting tighter.
Again, I start tipping back on the chair, preparing myself for the fall. Andrew pulled me back, and I thought yet again he was playing with me, only to then let go. I felt the shock ripple across my face as the sky suddenly filled my vision, followed by cliff face, followed by river, and quickly followed by the sky again. It was a sequence that repeated itself a few times, faster and faster, as I made my rapid descent to the bottom of the canyon. It was as if I’d been put into a washing machine, the world becoming a blur until the rope took my weight and smoothly swung me out over the Shotover river at speeds of up to 150km/hr.
While the initial fall was a shock, the rest of the swing is hugely enjoyable – and now having got rid of the fear, I found myself laughing as I became a human pendulum in the valley.
Winched back up, Andrew and Doug were clearly pleased with their efforts, and determined to take it a step further. Out came the new slide, a stainless steel affair that is set up on the platform and angled out over the drop. I am positioned at the top.
“What I need you to do is cross your legs, and then just scooch on down,” came the instructions from Andrew.
As we’re both laughing about the word ‘scooch’, and debating whether it would appear in a dictionary anywhere, or gain points in Scrabble for that matter, there was some noise coming from the river below. Two boat loads of white water rafters were drifting by, earning a yell from the team on top of the Shotover Canyon Swing. I could sense Andrew was keen for me to drop off above one of the boats as they pass. He removed the safety ‘string’ from the gap in the fence, and I was free to go.
“Just scooch on out then Phil,” he says, his eyes widening and beckoning me down this new frightful activity.
I felt myself starting to slide, and before I knew it, I picked up speed and launched myself over the edge. I shouted as I dropped – leaving my stomach behind, the full falling sensation was felt as I fell over the edge, seeing and experiencing the whole drop. I whizzed over the heads of the rafters, and slowed down as I reached the far end of the swing.
“You’re a legend bro!” came a shout from someone on the rafting boat. I cheered back and punched my fist in the air.
I watched as the cliff slowly moved past my face as I made the slow ascent back towards the drop zone. Andrew and Doug yet again pulled me back up onto the ledge, their final duty of the day ahead. To give me one last fright.
I was elected to undergo the Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood procedure – strapped to a teddy bear, winched out into the open and turned upside down to face the bottom of the canyon.
“Just wrap your feet around this green rope,” smiled Andrew, clearly enjoying his role as chief drop executioner.
I could feel the blood rushing to my head as I faced the ground, some 109 metres below me. I knew that at any moment, I would be careering towards it at breakneck speed.
“Are you ready? Three, two, one, gooooo,” called Andrew, whacking something on the rope that was suspending me.
It felt like something wasn’t releasing properly, worrying me slightly. He hit the rope again, the shock rippling through the rope and my body. Still nothing.
Then a second later, I feel the acceleration as the pin is pulled on my fate. I make a perfect headfirst arc, swooping up the opposite side to the canyon like a bird.
By now, I’m loving the sensation, and all the kiwi humour. Every time I returned to the top full of smiles and laughter. And every time I reached the jump platform, there were a couple of familiar faces smiling back.
Andrew has been doing the job for five years now, an enthusiast and advocate for the sport of jumping from a great height. He enjoys scaring people witless just as much as calming those down for whom his comedy/suspense/scare act can become too much.
“I love getting people who are scared to go,” he says.
“Sometimes I can spend 20 minutes with someone, then they come back up and wonder what all the fuss was about.”
His words are almost drowned out by the shrieks and laughter of the latest ‘victim’. It was Ashleigh, from Brisbane, who emerged back on the jump platform having been the first of her group to make the leap.
“I opened my eyes after a second when I thought ‘uh, I’m not dead’,” she laughs, trying to stay steady on her feet thanks to some swing-induced wobbly legs.
Next up was Marius from Norway, who is studying in New Zealand but who had decided to take some time out to experience some of its famous adrenalin hotspots. He’d chosen the slide, in part thanks to my recommendation having stated it was by far the scariest of the three jumps I’d just made.
“It was one of the best feelings I have ever had,” he beamed.
“It was out of this world – crazy – and I’m seriously considering doing it
again. The slide was great, it was like being at the playground but far more serious and a lot more fun.
“It’s like the two extremes for me here, studying and getting my head down, and then doing things like this,”
Amid the sound of harnesses being pulled tight, carabiners being clipped and the shrieks of those falling through the air, the laughter, stories and general humour injected into the Shotover Canyon Swing by those entrusted with your life brings a whole new dimension of fun to what can be a daunting, scary and yet thrilling experience.
I headed back to Queenstown with Sarah Norton from the company – no relation, but there were many jokes about us being long lost cousins – and I reflected on the experience. Sarah told me how they love to use the kiwi humour and come across as a bit wacky – but offering a much more personal experience. I have to agree, it was definitely very wacky, and most definitely a great afternoon where I didn’t feel like a number just being thrown over the edge for some cash. The jump crew look after you, talk to you, find out about where you’re from and what you do, before asking that all important question of “how would you like to fall?”
Back at the Base hostel in Queenstown that night, I recognise Murray, my first Magic driver on the south island who drove me from Picton to Nelson.
“What have you been up to today?” he asked me.
I told him about the Shotover Canyon Swing and how i’d jumped three times.
“You didn’t happen to see any rafters did you?” he asked.
Suddenly I thought back to the slide jump.
“I did mate, a couple of boats went under me on one of them,” I told him.
We compared times and they matched up.
“I was the one that shouted ‘you’re a legend bro!” he laughed.
Incredible. You drop off a cliff around here, and there will be someone you know waiting for you at the bottom!
To find out more about the Shotover Canyon Swing, to book or keep an eye on the latest crazy ways to make the jump visit their website at www.canyonswing.co.nz/