The End of a Magic Wander

Cold

Its fair to say the Magic Bus that left Queenstown was full of people desperate to get away from the place.

It wasn’t because they didn’t like the town – far from it – it was purely because everyone was exhausted from the rigors of one of the best places in the world for partying or pushing your body and senses to their limit.

To say the bus was a little subdued is an understatement. Blurry eyes, dazed expressions and an overwhelming desire to sleep were the telltale signs that everyone had done themselves proud. Queenstown had officially got every single one of us, and there were plenty of stories to catch up on from an eventful seven days.

Back on the bus, daft hat and all

As Jack, our new driver, navigated us away from our hostels, we said goodbye to Fergburger, the Remarkables and all the little watering holes that had become second nature to us over the past few days, watching as the scenery changed back into the open countryside. After a few minutes, we passed the Kawarau Bridge, the place where the first ever bungy jumps were made, and one final reminder of what this area is so famous for.

Having said goodbye to our driver Soap, who left Queenstown a couple of days after our epic night out with his new group, we had also said goodbye to his huge bus in which we would all sprawl around in absolute comfort thanks to it being largely empty because of the low season.

Full of energy on the (smaller) Magic Bus

Jack had a nice, small bus, but he claimed it felt like a rocket after downsizing for the low season. He’s only been doing the job for a few months, and has lots of enthusiasm for it. He admits he’s still learning about the route, what there is to see and the activities on offer in each place, but for that reason he also sees the fun side of it too – he’s discovering parts almost as much as we are.

For me, this is the last leg of the Magic Bus adventure. My final destination is earthquake hit Christchurch, from where I’ll be catching a flight back to Auckland and then on to Fiji. That’s in a couple of days time, but first we were making our way back through the mountains and making our first stop of the day.

Kate and the ‘real’ horse

“Is that horse real?” asked Kate, probably too loudly bearing in mind everyone else could clearly see it was a model horse and cart.

We were at a small village called Cromwell, and Kate’s alcohol intake of late had somehow affected her perception of reality. But that was something I could completely understand, with a lack of sleep thanks to a final night out to blame for my higher than normal clumsiness levels. I was also desperate for a coffee, so we headed to a lovely little café with a roaring log fire to while away the half hour break.

After much talk of events in Queenstown, we were back on our way, making a later stop at a salmon farm surrounded by snowy mountains. It came with free food to throw to the fish, and after much fun making them fly out of the water at the little brown pellets, Jack, our guide, had a great idea.

Feeding the fish

“See if you can launch them across the whole area from your pot,” he said, throwing his out in a nice arc across the whole pond.

I gave it a try, and somehow overestimated my strength, pretty much making all the bits of food clear the water and hit the path on the opposite side. It at least got a laugh from a few off the bus, in particular Becky, who continued giggling until we all got another bowl of food and had another go at said exercise.

“Right, everyone together, spread out around the water, and on the count of three,” he told us.

With cameras at the ready, we all launched our food together and ensured we made a lot of salmon very happy.

Salmon, doing a very good Piranha impression

The next bit of fun was a stop at a nearby lake, surrounded by rocks and huge boulders. Sometimes you have to make your own entertainment, and Liam and I decided to have a race down to the water by jumping from rock to rock.

A lake and a challenge…

Liam won it, although he’s a bit younger and a lot more nimble than me on his feet. I did, however, raise the stakes down at the bottom by challenging him to get the furthest out into the water.

He wasn’t quite expecting to see me quickly taking my shoes and socks off and rolling up my jeans, having spotted a protruding rock I thought I’d be able to wade out to.

Liam still beat me

The rocks were slimy and slippery underfoot, but I managed to make it to the rock without falling in, while Liam once again beat me by making it to another rock even further away from the edge of the water. It was simple, but gave us all a few laughs, and was followed by the usual manly stone skimming competition, that later turned into a full on ‘how far can you just chuck the thing’ competition. Jack, funnily enough, had a surprisingly good throw.

The rest of the Magic Bus group at the top

And that was about as exciting as it got for the day. Anything after Queenstown was always going to be a bit of an anticlimax, but in some respects it was exactly what we needed. There was some further excitement down the road, however, when we climbed up into the mountains high enough to reach the snow line.

Snow!

Arriving into Lake Tekapo, it was the first time we’d hit the ‘proper’ snow of New Zealand away from the artificial stuff that had been thrown around at Coronet Peak for the masses to slide down on skis. We checked into the Lakefront Hostel where there was a frosty reception. Not from the staff – they were quite nice – but it was by far one of the coldest hostels I had stayed in yet.

It had a log fire in the lounge, but the lounge was massive and probably not insulated a great deal judging by the fact I could see the condensation on my breath just sitting in it. I kept my hat and scarf on just to stay warm while moving all my belongings to the room I was to share with Becky and Liam.

Great view from the hostel, shame it was just as cold

After Becky finally managed to open the door following a 10 minute struggle with the lock (again, the after effects of Queenstown can be the excuse) we got into the icy cold room to find a cat had left muddy footprints all over the beds. The window was open (in the middle of winter) and one of the resident moggys had obviously found a sneaky little way of getting some kip on a bed.

One room change later, we had moved into another equally icy room and fathomed out how to use the cumbersome wall heater. Various buttons were pressed until finally we could feel some heat coming from the vents.

Brrr

We all headed out to have a walk by the lake (and a warm up!) where we took in the spectacular views across to yet more snowy mountains. There had been some recent snowfall, as the alpine trees were still covered in the white stuff, while a mist was drifting from the surface of the lake, catching the sun and giving a strange eerie effect.

With yet more stone skimming, we were joined by a golden retriever who decided it would be quite fun to try to chase the stones as we were throwing them. He’d wait for the splash, run for a while and then stop, before looking at you.

Here boy!

It didn’t take long for me to twig that he might like playing and chasing snow, so I scooped up a decent snowball and compacted it in my gloved hands. I launched it into the air, only for our new friend to jump up and catch it, covering himself in snow and then excitedly looking for more. It would have provided hours of fun, but the biting cold started getting to us all so we retreated back to the marginally warmer hostel, threw some logs onto the fire and admired the view through the window.

Fun in the snow

And that was about it for the day. It was very much a relaxing stopover. We could have gone to the hot baths or gone snow tubing, but to be honest, most of us were just happy to be relaxing around the fire, reading, writing, catching up with relatives back home on Skype and watching the television. It sounds boring, but after such a hectic week, on reflection it was perhaps just what we needed. What wasn’t needed was an extreme allergic reaction to the two resident cats at the hostel, but i’ve regained the use of my eyes now, and the redness has gone down, so i’ll let the hostel off for that minor down point.

I’ve always loved snow!

With an 8.30am start for the leg to Christchurch, we needed to be up relatively early, but there was an important game taking place on the other side of the world – the small matter of England versus Italy in the quarter final of the Euros. I woke up at 5am and made my way into the communal area of the hostel, turned on the television and tinkered with the digital receiver, only to find it had just six channels. Four of those were showing kids programmes, and not one had anything that resembled football. I checked my laptop to see if the internet bandwidth was any good – it could barely load up the BBC Sport home page. There was no way it could cope with video, and so I gave up, settling for just checking the score every 10 minutes.

By the time we got on the bus, it had gone to extra time and sounding every bit like it was heading to penalties. I feared the worst, and my fears were confirmed when Kate logged onto the free onboard wifi.

“England have gone out, they lost on penalties,” she said. Brilliant.

I can’t say I was surprised, bearing in mind how little time Roy Hodgson has had with the squad, but having seen little of the competition thanks to the time difference, it didn’t seem to matter too much.

Sombre arrival in Christchurch

It wasn’t too much of a drive to Christchurch, with only a couple of stops for coffee and some fuel, before we began to reach the outskirts of the city at around 1pm. Last year, the city was devastated by an earthquake that claimed 185 lives and shook most of the city centre from its foundations. The entire central business district will have to be knocked down and rebuilt, while with more than 11,000 tremors since the 6.3 magnitude quake that brought so much carnage to the city, this is still very much a city living on the edge.

Christchurch Cathedral

There will be a feature on Christchurch, what happened and how it is recovering, online here in the next day or so, which in part has been helped by a double decker tour of the city that we were supposed to be catching at 2pm.

Checking in at the Old Countryhouse hostel, I began to wonder if backpackers were still visiting the city judging by how quiet the place was. It also took a fairly long time for us to be checked in.

“Are you the bus driver,” I was asked out of the blue by the receptionist. It took me by surprise, and I wondered what I’d done to give that impression. Everyone found it amusing.

“Oh, its just you look like you have authority,” she smiled awkwardly. I laughed it off, joking that Jack, our driver, only looks about 12 anyway. Bang on cue he walked in, looking slightly concerned about time.

“Guys, we need to meet the bus in 10 minutes for the tour,” he said. We asked the receptionist how long it would take to walk to the meeting point at the museum for the tour.

“Oh, 25, 30 minutes,” she smiled.

We were in trouble.

“Right, get your stuff in your rooms as quickly as you can and I’ll drive the bus down there,” said Jack, putting in calls to the office to try and delay the tour.

On the way we managed to hit just about every red light that Christchurch had to offer, before eventually getting to where there were two tour buses waiting on a stand. There was nowhere to park, and Jack’s phone was ringing. It was someone asking where we were.

Running for a bus!

“We’ll be sixty seconds,” we overheard him say. He parked up in some parking bays, about 100 metres away from a double decker London bus, and we all ran back round to where we’d seen the tour buses. Jack and I made it first, to find a guide who didn’t seem to have been waiting at all.

He handed us a leaflet, and I pointed out the $79 price tag. Ours was supposed to be around the $25 mark. It was the wrong tour.

Wait for me!

We took to our heels again, and back around the block to where the double decker bus was parked. There we met Ross, the driver and tour guide, who mentioned how he’d been waiting for us and saw us all run off in the opposite direction. We were just grateful he’d waited around for us.

Our London bus tour of Christchurch

All aboard!

Again, there will be more on Christchurch in an upcoming post, but it was a thought provoking look around the city. Few of us have ever been to somewhere that has been obliterated by a natural disaster, where buildings even now are still being pulled down and an entire city has become ghostly eerie, sealed off to the public, frozen in time to the moment that the earth shook the area to its knees.

My Magic Bus group at the Cathedral

We looked at the Cathedral, its famous façade now just a gaping hole, its history laying in ruins. It’s a hugely controversial area in the city, as there is a campaign to have the Cathedral made safe and rebuilt. Sadly, the condition it is in means it is likely to be demolished.

We headed back to the hostel after a sobering hour-long tour. I was fascinated by the city and its people, and I wanted to learn more. My journalistic instinct had kicked in. I had a choice – to chance a mad dash up to Kaikora, at considerable expense, for a chance to watch whales off the coast, or to stay in Christchurch and find a way of meeting and talking to the people here about their experiences.

I think you probably know what my final decision wa

Sounds like fun? Find out more about the Magic Bus at www.magicbus.co.nz

 

 

Go Hard, or Go Home

Queenstown – a brilliant place!

Queenstown – the self-proclaimed adrenaline capital of the world. A place that gave humankind the bungy, made jetboats to navigate ankle-deep water and taught England rugby player Mike Tindall to think twice about where he rests his head.

Fergburger – feeding adrenaline-induced hunger since ages ago

Its one of the planets biggest party spots, a place where you can dance until dawn before taking a gondola to the top of a mountain for one of the most incredible views in the southern hemisphere. You can jump out of a plane in the morning, jump from a bridge in the afternoon and fall into one of the best burgers on the planet at Fergburger in the evening.

And when you’re fed up with adrenaline pumping through your veins, within a few hours you can find yourself serenely sailing through the fjords and valleys of Milford Sound, taking in snow-capped mountains, dolphins that leap from the depths, gushing waterfalls and bright rainbows created by the pure water spray that hangs as a mist

Milford Sound – much needed calm!

The whole town bubbles with excitement, the ski-resort feel of the place filled with people looking to push themselves, their fears and their wallets to the absolute limit.

I had seven days in Queenstown, and arriving at the town’s Base hostel I noticed a poster on the wall. It seemed quite apt for me – having spent eight months making my way around the world, writing about everything from the effects of war and genocide through to China’s love of spicy tripe, Queenstown was not the place for me to come and wimp out.

I’ll do my best…

Do something worth writing home about. Go hard or go home. Phrases that people live by in this cold, southern New Zealand town set on the shores of the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. It’s almost as if the town won’t let you leave unless you’ve done at least something to get the nerves going. I had seven days to fill – I’ll have no excuses.

Soap in his new bus

My introduction to Queenstown came courtesy of Soap, my Magic Bus tour guide, who had promised us a night of all nights when we arrive. After the late arrival into Wanaka, and watching his beloved All Blacks just scrape a victory against Ireland, he was probably in need of a glass of wine, but first there was something else to put a smile on his face.

On the Buses

We’d stopped off at Arrowtown, not far from Queenstown, where we were supposed to go and take in the sights of the old Chinese settlement. It was bitterly cold though, and instead of walking around to look at the tin shacks, we headed straight to a pie shop for some late breakfast. In the meantime, a bright red London bus had pulled up near our Magic Bus, providing Soap with the opportunity to take the wheel, if only for a momentary photograph.

We took in our first views of Queenstown through the windows of our bus, a perfectly clear, sunny day with blue skies providing the perfect way to catch our first glimpse of the Remarkables mountain range and the lake that forms the backdrop for the town.

First views of Queenstown

Our instructions for Soap’s big night out were to meet in Altitude bar wearing something black (again, his love of the All Blacks) at 8.30pm. Aside from the fact the bar gained notoriety as the place where Mssrs Tindall and co enjoyed their night a little too much during the Rugby World Cup last year, promptly hitting all the national papers back home, it is also the bar that comes as part of my hostel complex so it was easy enough for me to find.

My home for a week – and a bar that became famous!

There was one condition attached to joining Soap on his Magic night out however – everyone had to wear some ‘krazy kat’ sunglasses. So we’d all spent time raiding the dollar shops in the main Shotover Street, trying to find the daftest we could find. Sadly, I missed the fancy dress section and settled for some thick rimmed, colourful affair for $5 (£2.50). They were good, but no match for Becky’s alien-inspired attire, or Kate’s oversized love heart shades which were about twice the size of her head.

Any pair will do

It was great to meet up in the bar, with everyone gradually turning up with all manner of weird and wonderful sunglasses on, ready for the night. It started well, with Soap securing a VIP area in the bar – yes, that’s right, a VIP area in a backpacker bar – where

VIPs

we’d down various shots, ask Soap if there was any alcohol in them, and then down a few more, the only rule being you had to be wearing your sunglasses while drinking.

With rivals from the other tour buses arriving by the minute, we made sure we lorded it up in our private, sectioned-off section. The busload of Kiwi Experience guys and girls, all dressed up as geeks for the night, could only look on in envy as we even secured the services of our own bouncer to keep us safe from the crowds.

Erm…is there any alcohol in this?!

The DJ would put a shout out for Kiwi, then rival tour group Stray, only to get a subdued ‘whoop’ from the dancefloor. Spurred on by Soap, when the call came for Magic to give the bar a cheer, we managed to drown out the rest by cheering at the tops of our voices.

Soap’s ‘Kool Kats’

There might only have been nine of us, but we made it sound like there was 99.. The drinks continued to flow, in part thanks to a great two for one offer, and everyone was having a brilliant night. And then the Irish rugby team turned up.

Cian Healy, one of the Irish rugby team who joined us

Now, with two Irish girls in our group, and with the rest of us having watched them play the All Blacks on television only a couple of nights ago, it was quite something to have their company in the bar. After obligatory photographs with them all round, everyone let them get on with their night out – but then the players began hanging around with us.

Big blokes with poorly arms

Not being the greatest rugby fan, I didn’t know any of them, but I recognised a few from watching them play on the television. I got talking to one, a tall, fair-haired guy, who asked me who I was in Queenstown with. I told him we were all on the Magic Bus and had been travelling around both islands for the past few weeks, before explaining about the three main different tour buses.

“You lot sound like a great group,” he laughed, before introducing himself as Chris and shaking my hand.

Some of our Magic Bus gang with Irish back rower Chris Henry

It was Chris Henry, an Irish back rower, and a really nice bloke. We continued talking for a while, just like meeting anyone else in the bar. And the same could be said for everyone else in the Magic group – we began having a good laugh and spending time with the Irish lads as if they were old mates.

There’s a tap on my back.

“Mate, can you give me a hand with this drink,”

It was one of the other players, wearing a bright red hoody and struggling to get hold of a pint glass on the bar thanks to a pretty badly messed up arm that had been strapped and bandaged.

“Just wedge it under my arm mate, that’ll be grand,”

I took the glass and stuck it up under his armpit, and he shuffled off to meet the others.

A regular Soapy face

The night continued well into the early hours, and included a stop off at a bar that served quite possibly the nicest drink I have ever tasted. Called the Money Shot, it’s a secret mix of four ingredients that produces something more akin to a Banoffee Pie dessert than an alcoholic drink.

Creating the money shot

Still going strong – shades on!

With stops at Winnies bar and World Bar, there was more fun and games with the Irish rugby team later in the night at Buffalo bar before somehow we all managed to make our way home, via a detour to the famous Fergburger where I shared my attempt to ward-off a hangover with Mel and Kate, the latter almost managing to bite off my finger while taking a giant bite of the bun.

Irish rugby player stole my shades…

…and then tried to steal my shot!

Unsurprisingly, half of the group managed to miss the bus to Milford Sound the following morning, while the other half managed to catch it in various states. I, however, had a phonecall offering me the chance to do a bungy jump from one of the highest leap platforms in the world. You can read about that here.

The beauty of Queenstown is that there is so much stunning scenery and landscape to see, and the Milford Sound trip is a favourite among visitors. It’s a long drive – a 10 hour round trip on a bus for a two hour cruise in the fjords – but it is worth it.

Ghostly mountains on the way to Milford Sound

It provides a welcome relief from the full-on activities that take up so much time in QT, and even the bus ride is part of the sightseeing. Here, the journeys don’t just get you from A to B, they show you everything else in between too, with stops to check out magnificent mountains, and even a glacial stream with water that flows so pure, you can drink it straight from the river.

Drinking again…this time from a river

Again, we were blessed with the weather, although some argue that Milford Sound is actually better when visited in heavy rain because of how dramatic the waterfalls can be. Either way, the sight of mountains rising straight up from deep under the dark blue icy water of the fjords is quite special, the dusting of snow at the top forming the picture perfect views shown on all the advertising leaflets and photos.

Milford was sound

There’s gold at the end of that. No really, there is – its in the rock!

I was on the trip with Becky and Liam, two of my group from the Magic Bus who managed to sleep through their alarm the day previous thanks to the small matter of Soap’s night out, and we had a great day together sailing around the sound. It was a welcome relaxing day out, with lashings of free coffee and tea thrown in for good measure.

“Jack”…”Rose”…Becky and Liam looking for icebergs

Back in Queenstown, it was time to meet up with a good mate who I’ve not seen for 10 years since we met during my time working at Camp Na Sho Pa with Camp America in 2002. His name is Matt, although he’s always been known as Titty, and he moved to New Zealand shortly after finishing his time in the States. He’s now settled here and calls it home, and part of me can see why he fell for the place when he first set eyes on it.

Catching up with another Nashopian

Titty is in charge of stock for Outside Sports, one of the main outdoor clothing stores and ski and board rental outlets in Queenstown, so it was easy for us to meet up for a beer and catch up on old times, filling each other in with stories from the past 10 years and talking about people we know back home, what they are up to and sharing memories of camp. There was also a bit of chat about our respective teams – Rushden and Diamonds and Grimsby Town – both of whom have had some pretty spectacular falls since the last time we chatted about football together.

It was great to see each other again, and I joined a growing list of people who had passed through Queenstown on their travels since working together in upstate New York all those years ago. One of them, Barney, is apparently working in the area. More on that in a bit.

My week continued with a skydive, a heart-stopping jump out of a plane at 15,000ft above the mountains. I’ll never forget the feeling of leaving the aircraft and falling through the icy cold upper atmosphere, reaching terminal velocity and admiring the view of the Remarkables as we floated back down to the ground. And after all the nerves and adrenaline built up a raging hunger, where else to celebrate my achievement than with a Fergburger.

Its all about the Ferg!

Now, Fergburger is something of an institution in Queenstown. Even before I arrived, three separate people back home had told me that I just *had* to have a Fergburger while in the area. I began to wonder what all the fuss was about. And then I tried one.

The Fergburger menu

The fuss isn’t about nothing. Even the smallest burgers on the menus are veritable giants, but as a celebration, and with the blog in mind, I decided to step it up a gear. I went for Mr Big Stuff.

Open wide! Tucking into a Fergburger

Two huge burgers, bacon, cheese, barbecue sauce, lashings of salad – it is one whopper of a mouthful, and a mouthful that people flock to this little outlet for. They might just be burgers, but they are done incredibly well. Don’t even think of ordering a side of chips, you’ll never have the room. And yet, despite the name, Mr Big Stuff has got an even bigger brother on the menu – the Big Al.

Takes some doing!

That comes with a load of beetroot and eggs on top of the half-pound of meat, bacon, cheese and everything else. Amid all the photographs on the walls of celebrities who have called in for their taste of the Ferg is a lone photo of a Big Al, complete with the world record time for consuming it. Somehow, someone has managed to put one away in just two minutes and 14 seconds. If an overdose of adrenaline doesn’t put you in an ambulance here, trying to stuff one of the Big Als inside you within two and a quarter minutes almost certainly would!

The fact is that nothing comes close to Fergburger for both the friendly, fun atmosphere inside – orders are called out by your first name, often with some chirpy remarks from those behind the counter – and for the quality of the food. And with hundreds of hungry skiers and boarders to contend with every day, its Queenstown’s hang out for a quick, meaty feed and a catch up over the days activities.

Ski time!

Speaking of which, with snow on the mountains, it was an opportunity to get another fix away from burgers – skiing. My journey over the European winter has seen me miss out on a couple of annual ski trips, for which I know I will get no sympathy. Skiers and boarders will know how it feels not to get your ‘fix’ of winter sport in the season though, and despite all the places I have been to, it was still quite hard to see my dad and brother go for their fun on the French pistes without me.

Still, here in New Zealand, while the British Summer is doing its worst back home, the snow has been falling and the ski resorts are open. Thanks to a bit of a discount on some skis and boots, courtesy of Titty and Outside Sports, I bought a day lift pass for Coronet Peak and headed to the slopes.

The first difference I noticed between southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere skiing is that the runs are called ‘trails’ instead of pistes, although the term ‘apres-ski’ is still alive and well in these parts. There’s also a huge difference in the number of lifts and ski runs – Coronet Peak has just three main lifts, compared to the gazillion you can find in the Three Valleys of France. Yet, incredibly, NZSki, who run the ski fields around Queenstown, charge more for a day pass than I would pay in France. $95 (around £48) for the day seemed a bit steep, but I had no option.

After a year and a half away from snow, it was good to be clipping my boots into the bindings of a pair of skis again, although I was slightly concerned I might have forgotten all my technique. I contemplated a visit to the beginner area, full of two green runs and a lot of unsteady-looking learners, before deciding to just head straight up to the top of the mountain.

It always amazes me how quickly skiing comes back to you, and peeling away from the chairlift, I stopped myself and tried to decide which way to go. It turns out, with some of the resort still closed due to a lack of snow, there’s only one main run from the top. And being a northerner back home, it did put a smile on my face that its called the M1.

Been a while since I had a trip down the M1

The first run was a slow one, a chance to get my ski legs back on, work out the trail, get a feel for the skis and the snow, and work out if I could still stop properly. Thankfully, the M1 is a long, sweeping run with lots of wide areas for motorway skiing (although unlike back home, there was a distinct lack of bottlenecks, annoying BMWs up my rear end and no signs directing me anywhere near the M18 to Grimsby)

After a few good runs, gradually picking up speed and confidence, I was back in the skiing zone. It felt good. Combined with the spectacular views across to the lake and the Remarkables, it was a great place to ski despite the comparative lack of runs. But then something even more incredible happened.

I was making my way towards the gentler slopes when someone on a board clattered through a railing near the entry gate to the lift. I heard a laugh – a familiar laugh that sounded like Barney – yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on who it was for sure as they picked themselves up from the tangle of fence, board and legs.

I got on the lift and pondered about who it was. It sounded like Barney, who I last knew as an 18 year old at the same summer camp I worked at as Titty, but with a bobble hat, ski mask and winter clothes, it was hard to see what he looked like. Like a stalker, I hung around at the top of the lift waiting for whoever it was to come back up.

The boarder appeared, and I stared at him through my sunglasses in an attempt to work out if it was Barney. He looked back, saw me looking, and quickly looked away and sat down on the snow nearby. Maybe it wasn’t him.

Yet more stalker moves saw me shuffle nearby to hear his voice. He was definitely English, and it was a familiar voice from back in America, having not changed since 2002. I decided to ask him.

“Mate, are you Barney?”

He looked at me. “It is bro. Who’s that?”

I didn’t say anything, but just removed my hat and sunglasses and smiled as he realised it was a long-lost friend from years back.

“Phillip Norton, what on earth are you doing here?” he laughed, before getting up, shaking my hand and giving me a manly hug.

Bumping into Barney after 10 years

We both laughed about the chances of bumping into each other like we had. It is one of those moments when the world feels very small, yet it was a brilliant coincidence – Barney is actually working for NZSki in the rental department for a season, but had the day off and so was with friends and fellow ski staff trying to improve his snowboarding skills.

Catching up on the lift

We went on to spend the entire afternoon together on the slopes, catching up between runs while taking the lift back to the top of the mountain, and reflecting on the chances of bumping into each other like we had. Until starting work on the mountain, Barney had never done any skiing or boarding, and like me, he’s fallen in love with it from the moment he first tried it.

Barney comes a cropper

He admits he’s got a long way to go with his technique, but he wasn’t doing too badly – aside from the moment where he managed to jam the front edge of his board into a hole in the snow, spectacularly launching his feet over his head and sending him face-first into the white stuff. This, just minutes after hurting his thumb after clattering off the top of the lift, can damage confidence, but in the best way while on the mountain, he laughed it off and was ready for another run.

Barney is in New Zealand for the winter season, and I dare say he’ll be here for some time yet if he can get his visa extended. He’s always had a love of travel, and one of those people who thrives on being in far flung places, a little like me, and I’m quite envious of his ability to float around the world, finding work and making small parts of it home for a while.

Queenstown Winter Festival launch night

There were more friends to meet in the evening, the start of the annual Winter Festival in Queenstown. With fireworks, live music and entertainment promised, I met up with Kelly and Graham, two of my Irish friends who I was on Fraser Island with in Australia. It was great to see them again, catching up over a pint and meeting two of their friends they have been travelling around parts of New Zealand with.

Hello again! With Kelly and Graham (left) from my Fraser Island family

The only problem was the weather – with thousands of people gathered around the lake for the opening night of the festival, there was a great atmosphere as the fireworks lit up the sky, only for the heavens to open the moment the fireworks ended. It sent most people home early, and we dived back to Altitude bar where I supplied everyone with vouchers for a $5 pizza and beer deal, which if I’m honest, I’d been practically living on for a week with it being cheaper than cooking for yourself.

With Clare and Louise…I think…somebody nicked my glasses

The night somehow turned into another classic Queenstown night out. I ended up meeting with Clare and Louise, the two girls from Franz Josef that I’d met in a hostel while they were celebrating Louise’s birthday. With a group of us on the dancefloor, it turned into a great night – after somehow talking me into climbing on a pole following Clare’s demonstration of how to perform on it upside down, we braved the rain to move to Buffalo bar once again where it got slightly messy.

Clare’s attempt…

…My attempt

With tequila being poured from the bar into everyone’s mouths below, a surfboard being given away, and free t-shirts being launched into the crowd every half an hour, I had moved towards the end of my time in Queenstown in pretty much the way I started it.

Oh dear.

Due to ski the Cardrona resort the following day, my two hours sleep didn’t leave me feeling great. Yet despite packing my bags at 6.30am – in doing so waking my dorm – and checking out ahead of a room change at the hostel in the afternoon, I was given the news that the mountain had been closed because of the weather. I went straight back to bed.

A fast boat

And so on my last day, I carried on the tradition of having at least one activity under my belt, and it was the turn of the jet boat. The bright yellow Kawarau Jet is a familiar sight as it makes its way to and from the jetty in the town centre.

Wet and windy!

It was a high speed affair, reaching some 50km/hr along water that you would assume to be too shallow for anything that floats other than a duck.

Somehow, thanks to the water inlet technology that sucks water in through the bottom of the boat and spits it out at high speed from directional jets at the back, it scoots along on the surface in much the same way as a jet ski. And the driver really knows how to get the best from it, dodging around obstacles in the water, almost scraping along the sides of canyons and performing shriek-inducing 360-degree turns on the surface of the river.

Suddenly we’re facing the opposite direction

The only thing he couldn’t do was stop the oncoming weather front from dumping a load of rain on us as we made our way back to the jetty – and at the speed we were travelling and no windscreen, it felt like a sheet of needles hitting us all in the face.

Luge

Its not all high speed, high adrenaline in Queenstown, but it certainly helps if that’s your thing. The Skyline gondola was full of families enjoying the views from high up above the town, as well as the popular luge that runs along a purpose built mountainside track. Mind you, even that can get a bit hairy at times, particularly on the ‘advanced’ track.

One day i’ll grow up

There are quaint boat trips on the lake, as well as the high-octane version, and the town itself is a great place to just wander around, have a coffee and soak up the atmosphere.

Shotover Street, Queenstown

A week in the QT passed me by so quickly, but left me drained. I had certainly taken the ‘go hard or go home’ message onboard, and with home just a few weeks away now, I certainly had to go hard here instead. A couple of weeks ago, I had a vow that I would never, ever make a bungy jump, a skydive was just something people back home do in the guise of raising money for charity, a Fergburger sounded like it was made of some weird animal, and the Irish rugby team were just a load of blokes who wear green and play rugby on the telly.

Oh Queenstown, you certainly gave me something worth writing home about.

Wouldn’t mind your own Magic Bus adventure? Visit their website at www.magicbus.co.nz

Like the look of Milford Sound? Kiwi Discovery run a day trip from Queenstown – www.kiwidiscovery.com

And you too can fly around the Queenstown lake and rivers with the Kawarau Jet – www.kjet.co.nz

 

Swings, Slides and a Chair of Death

Status

Bye then!

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.

The prototype slide test-bed

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.

On The Slide! Take note of the raft you can see…

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.

The Shotover Canyon Swing site

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.

Andrew…thinking of ways to dispatch me

“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.

The cocktail glass can only mean one thing – a variety of ways down!

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.

Going…

“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.

…Going…

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.

…Gone.

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.

A view you don’t normally get from the top of a slide

“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.

Ready to slide with Andrew and Doug

“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.

Having a laugh and preparing for the next drop!

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.

Getting into position

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.

Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood…Shotover Canyon Swing style

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.

Back on terra firma!

“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.

Ashleigh from Brisbane

“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

Marius from Norway

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.

Murray with one of my slide photos he managed to get himself in!

“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/

Terminal Velocity

Freefalling

I love flying – the acceleration of the take off, watching the world disappear below you, a couple of drinks, a bit of lunch and the thrill of coming in to land at a new destination. But one thing Boeing and Airbus don’t usually offer airlines as an optional extra is to cut a whopping great hole in the side of the plane so people can throw themselves out of it.

Besides, who would want to? I mean, it’s a long way up, and falling from such a great height would be ridiculous, right?

Once again, Queenstown has got hold of me.

15,000ft departure…

It seems just about anyone on the backpacking and travelling circuit, be them the barely-20 gap year students, the 30-something career-break grafters or those who,somehow, have just found themselves on the other side of the world, have managed to get a photo of themselves plummeting towards earth from a plane.

It’s almost become a rite of passage for anyone spending a long period of time overseas, as if passport control at Heathrow won’t let anyone back into the UK unless their Facebook profile picture shows them attached to a parachute. I’m even beginning to wonder if British Airways will start introducing a warning not to jump out of the doors as part of the pre-flight safety briefing before long, such is the number of people who are members of the skydive club over here.

Its easy to see why, especially around Australia and New Zealand, with an almost endless number of companies set up to take the paying public up in the skies, only to throw them out of an aircraft.

I must admit, a skydive is one of those things that I had on my ‘to do’ list. Unlike the bungy jump, which I always said I would leave well alone- until this week anyway – dropping like a stone from an aeroplane did strangely appeal to me. And when you’re surrounded by snow capped mountains, a huge, beautifully dark blue lake, alpine forest and scenery to die for, the urge to see Queenstown from above – suspended below a sheet of space-age material – takes over.

A tandem skydiver landing at Nzone

And who better than one of the industry leaders, who have been in the skydiving business longer than any other in Queenstown, to be the ones to take you up to 15,000 feet before sending you on the express route back to the ground. Nzone boasts an impeccable safety record, going above and beyond all statutory industry regulations when it comes to those who take your pictures and strap themselves to you while you fall back to Earth. It was peace of mind for me.

The dropzone

Its natural to be afraid, and as I arrived at the drop zone, a short drive from the main town, I could feel the nerves starting to build. I’d had some time to get my head around the fact I was about to jump from an aircraft, but hearing one of the staff say ‘right, are you all ready to jump out of a plane,’ really does make you wake up and smell the coffee. And when you see the aircraft sitting there, waiting to whisk you up beyond the clouds, it suddenly all feels very real.

Speaking of clouds, they are a bit of a problem when it comes to this daredevil activity – I was actually booked to make my jump yesterday, but the whole area was plagued by low-level cloud and poor visibility. It’s one thing making a jump and landing on a target site, its another thing if you can’t actually see where you’re aiming for.

The weather was fine!

Thankfully, the clouds were breaking up and promising to clear for the latter part of the morning. I was met by Flip, real name Philippa Collins, who it turns out used to be the early breakfast presenter on Capital FM, as well as a continuity announcer for Sky One. We suddenly went into ‘media’ chat about who we might know in the industry, as it turns out Philippa has also worked for a large number of local stations. She told me how she moved here five years ago, fell in love with New Zealand and has now settled, even gaining citizenship.

“Sometimes I do a bit of voice work here and get behind the microphone and miss it, but then I know that I love the life I have here,” she says.

With Flip, former Capital FM presenter

And one of the things she loves, aside from the fresh air, stunning mountain backdrop and a fun-filled lifestyle, is seeing up to 200 people a day drop out of a plane high above the Nzone offices. With the first group up – and very quickly down – Flip ushers me into the parachute packing area, where I’m kitted up with the jump suit, gloves and hat.

Packing the ‘chutes

“Hey, I’m Mira, you’re jumping with me today.”

The outstretched hand from the tall, smiling and relaxed guy, dressed in his bright red jump suit and very much the calming influence I needed, helped to relax me. Mira – short for Miraslav – is from the Czech Republic, and has been jumping from planes for around nine years. Its enough to reassure me I’m in safe hands.

“Right, you need to make yourself into a banana,” is the advice from the pre-flight briefing.

“Keep your legs together, bend them up, arch your back and keep your head up all the way through the freefall. Just like a banana.”

I run through it in my head. I’m sure that when I’m dropping through the sky, it will all fall into place, but I practice just to be sure.

Ready to go!

By now, the cloud is clearing by the minute, and the sun is breaking through more and more. I’m glad – while it feels like I’m about to put my life on the line, at least the scenery will be good to look at.

With a final check of my harness, a group of us are walked to the aircraft. It’s a Cessna Grand Caravan, known as a Supervan 900, specially made for skydiving. It’s a turboprop capable of climbing really high, really quickly – around 4,000ft a minute to be precise – and you can get a fair few people in there. Among them, a few people who are to jump from 12,000 feet, before we continue the ascent to our 15,000ft altitude.

Our plane

With the aircraft engine running, there wasn’t much time to think about what I was about to do. I climbed onboard and followed Mira. The floor of the plane is padded, and there are no seats – you just shuffle along and sit in two lines, almost like you’re about to do that Superman song by Black Lace (you know, the ‘spray’, ‘comb your hair’ thing)

Comedy dance routines couldn’t be further from my mind as I watched the see-through door being rolled down over the opening in the fuselage. My one escape route to terra firma had been closed off – there was no going back. I could feel Mira adjusting the buckles and straps on my harness, double checking it was attached properly. I’m facing the back of the aircraft, but just behind me I could hear the pilot talking about the drop site.

“We’d like a one mile warning,” came a call from one of the tandem instructors. In front of me, my cameraman for the next half an hour was getting waves and smiles from me. I sense the engine noise increasing, and feel as the wheels begin rolling along the grass. This is it – the next time I have my feet on solid ground, I will have fallen to it from a plane.

Grab a parachute, we’re off!

I look outside the window and watch as a grassy bank starts passing faster and faster. The turboprop engine reaches a scream just a couple of metres away, powering us up into the air. My cameraman captures the moment. Mira pats me on the shoulder and shows me his altimetre, indicating how far we have already climbed into the sky. 2,000ft already, and we’ve only just left the ground.

I can feel my nerves building, and look around the aircraft. There are similar nervous smiles all around from the rest of my group booked onto the flight. The tandem instructors are clearly in their element, looking forward to what for them is the day job. Up towards the back of the plane, the first jumpers are putting on their hats and goggles in readiness. Outside, the wings have been surrounded by mountains, the brilliant white snow that has topped them in recent days and weeks gliding alongside us. I can’t help but smile at the most incredible scenery I am flying through.

“We’re just coming up to 12,000ft, so the first jumpers are about to go,” says Mira in my ear and showing me his altitude gadget on his wrist.

We level out and the throttle to the engine is cut. It feels like we’re floating compared to the high-powered, rapid ascent we’ve just made from the ground. The see-through door is pulled open, filling the cabin with noise and wind that blows across our faces. The first jumper shuffles her way to the door, and within seconds, she and her instructor have disappeared. The next one shuffles along the floor. Another girl begins to scream as it dawns on her that she’s about to move towards the door.

I watch as the next jumper has her head pulled back into her instructor’s shoulder, and in an instant, they’re gone. There’s a part of me that’s horrified at how quickly they disappear. It doesn’t quite feel right to watch two people vanish through an open door in an aircraft like that.

There’s more screams from the final 12k jumper as her feet dangle over the edge of the plane. I hear someone tell her to keep her head back. A few more nervous screams, and then silence. The door closes. The first jumpers have gone.

The throttle increases again and we begin climbing further. I’m told to put my hat and goggles on. I feel my teeth start chattering – I can’t make out whether its nerves or the cold that’s causing it. I can feel the effects of the thin air on my breathing, as the reduced oxygen levels this high up force me to take deeper breaths. Mira tries to calm me, sensing my nerves.

“Deep breaths will relax your body,” he says, before motioning me to move forward.

I look outside – it’s the sort of view you normally get high up on an airliner. We’re reaching 15,000ft, about half the cruising altitude of your holiday flight to Spain. And it looks like it. New Zealand’s south island sprawls out below, Lake Wakatipu dominating the view. The mountains that towered above me just a few minutes ago now look like ripples on the land, the town of Queenstown a small patch of grey buildings. Inside, the photographers and instructors are all high-fiving each other, wishing each other well for their dives. I’m encouraged to join in.

I can feel the butterflies in the pit of my stomach. I keep telling myself its safe, but for the second time in a week, my body is starting to fight against the human instinct of survival. Except this time I am not in control. When it came to the bungy, it was my decision when to leap. I was petrified. Today, my life is in someone else’s hands – they have a back-up parachute, years of experience and a calming personality, but this is still a daunting challenge. Why am I about to do this? I’m in a perfectly good plane, one with wings, an engine and wheels that in a few minutes will be safely back on the ground. There’s an element of risk, a danger, a slight chance that I could be that one freak statistic of when it all went wrong. And then I think back to some very wise words I spotted in the Nzone office.

“Why climb a great mountain that does not know you exist? Why run a marathon? Deep in the human consciousness is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic. We do these things. It is something deep within us, the need to feed our voracious appetite for danger and glory. It is the spirit of man.”

The door opens. The green light beside it can mean only one thing. The rest of the group disappears into the bright blue sky beyond. I’m the last one onboard the plane to go.

Life on the edge…of a plane!

“Legs out, tuck them up underneath the plane, don’t let go of your straps until I tap you on the shoulder, and remember to stay in the banana. And have fun.”

They were the last words from Mira as he shuffles me forwards. My cameraman has performed some kind of Spiderman act and stuck himself to the side of the aircraft, the cameras recording my once-in-a-lifetime moment sticking up from the top of his helmet. Being harnessed to Mira in front means I’m the one who has to stick my legs outside first. And then I get to look straight down.

It’s a long way up. A very long way up. And it’s a perspective that I have never seen before. Try as you might on an airliner, you can never look straight down at the ground, nomatter how hard you squash your head against the window. Mira moves forward and I’m positioned right on the edge. A quick photo, and then there’s a couple of pushes from behind. Its Mira leaning forward on his count.

And then we tumble out.

Tumble and fall

For a split second I feel a falling sensation before realising I’m out of the aircraft. My eyes are filled with the deep blues, greens and browns of the landscape below me, while the dazzling whites of the clouds and mountain tops are bright to look at. I lose my bearings and have no idea which way I’m pointing. The realisation that there is nothing below me is an odd one – it feels so unnatural. In a strange way, it almost feels as if I’m laying on a huge scenic canvas below. The wind howls around my body as our speed towards it continues to pick up. I feel it lifting my goggles slightly, blowing around my eyes. For a second or two, its hard to keep them open.

Heading back to Earth

Just 12 seconds after dropping like a stone from the aircraft, we’re travelling at 200km/hr – 125mph – yet it hardly feels like I’m moving. I know I am, the deafening noise and forces I’m feeling confirm it, yet we’ve reached the moment where the force of gravity is balanced out by the drag of our bodies falling through the air. Our acceleration has stopped. For the first time in my life, I’ve reached terminal velocity.

TV

We stabilise, and already the plane we’ve just left is well out of sight. My cameraman suddenly appears and I try to give a smile. Its pretty hard to focus with so much going on, so much to look at and so much to savour.

Over the dropzone

The cameraman holds out his hand, reaching out for mine. I grab it and link fingers for a few seconds, before he glides away again. Mira somehow turns us around and we try again, this time getting hold of each other. We start spinning around, and I start laughing. This is incredible.

Link up!

We loop around each other again, dancing around in the beautiful blue sky. We’re laughing in the face of gravity, every bit of fear and self-preservation urge in my body has been proved wrong so far.

Wham.

The brakes go on

Suddenly, it goes silent. I’m yanked hard upwards as Mira releases our parachute, quickly killing our speed. As quickly as the freefall started, it seemed to be over, yet somehow we’d been falling like a stone for 60 seconds through around 10,000ft. The Remarkables mountains are once again alongside me as we sail around in the air, looking around and enjoying the view. I’m laughing again at how fantastic the experience is.

“And so this is your office?” I ask Mira.

“Yes, yes it is,” he replies, clearly happy with the view from his window.

Below me, the colourful parachute canopies of those jumpers who left the plane moments before me drift around in circles. The brown-roofed buildings of the Nzone offices are growing ever nearer as I try to take in as much of the view as I can. I’m struggling to hear much though, aside from squeaks and clicks in my ears as they struggle to deal with the rapid change in pressure. It borders on painful, but the adrenalin coursing through my veins helps to keep it bearable.

“Keep your feet and legs up when we come into land,” Mira tells me, getting me to practice as we drift around the landing site.

“That’s it, just like that.”

Coming in to land

We turn right and make our final approach to the grassy area and watch as the fence disappears underneath me. I listen to the wind as it ripples through the canopy above us and hold my feet up as we head towards the ground, waiting for a bump that never arrives – it was a perfect landing.

Down to earth without a bump

Considering the incredible speeds of just a couple of minutes ago, the height we’ve dropped and the rate of descent, we touched down on the grass with about as much impact as a feather. Beautiful.

Mira unclips himself from me. I stand up knowing I’ve got a huge smile on my face. I shake his hand and give him a manly hug for getting me down safely and in one piece. He’s already gathering his parachute back up in readiness for his next jump. I’m already envious.

Back on terra firma with Mira

I looked up at the sky. The clouds had cleared and the day had turned into perfect conditions for skydiving. Another group of people were walking out to an aircraft, about to experience the same heady mix of excitement, fear, acceleration and serenity within the space of just a few minutes. A trip to terminal velocity, to the fine line that divides life from death, to the boundaries of the human mind and to the instinct that tells you ‘don’t do it’.

Amid all that is an unbelievable rush, an underlying urge to push mind over matter, a thrill that only a select few people will ever experience. Those who have skydived. As the company says here, there is no such word as try – there is only do, or did not do.

Embrace the fear, Nzone suggests. I’m glad I did.

For more information, pricing or to book, visit the Nzone website at www.nzone.biz or call 0800 376 796 in New Zealand

Facing Fear – Bungy Style

I’ve just done something that I have always said I would never, ever do.

Its something that I always dismissed as being for people made of tougher stuff than me – those with nerves of steel and guts to match. Adrenalin junkies, extreme sportsmen, mad people, call them whatever. But certainly not me.

For me, it’s a seemingly death-defying act that appears to push the boundaries between life and mortality to a limit that I’m just not prepared to take. I like being in control of my own fate and my own destiny too much to put my life, my future and my beating heart in the hands of a glorified elastic band.

Eeek

And then along came Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of the world. A place where fun, excitement and exhilaration is the order of the day. A place where, for reasons I am yet to understand, I thought it would be perfectly normal to throw myself from a suspended gondola and dive head first into a canyon.

I introduce the AJ Hackett Nevis Bungy.

Yep, that little blob is me!

At this stage, I need to supply a few facts as this isn’t your average jump from a crane in a backstreet pub carpark. This is the real deal – the birthplace of the bungy, the home of the pioneers of the sport, and a 134 metre drop over the Nevis River that flows below a purpose built bungy pod.

134 metres. The highest bungy jump inAustralasia, and for that matter, one of the highest in the world.

Add another half on top…

It’s a figure I have been torturing myself with over the past day or so. Grimsby Dock Tower, visible for miles around Lincolnshire, is only 94 metres tall. Add almost half again and its about the same distance that you drop. The Humber Bridge towers reach a height of 155 metres – I have been up them, and can’t imagine the thought of throwing myself from something that height.

Yet somehow, I am.

I spent most of this morning with my stomach churning with nerves. On top, my head was pounding from a night out with my Magic Bus group. Our driver Soap had given us a Queenstown party to remember. Even the Irish rugby team turned up to join in the fun after their dramatic last minute loss against the All Blacks 24 hours ago.

Cian Healy, one of the Irish rugby team who joined us for a night out

It was, most definitely, a night to remember. There will be more about that in a future post, however – with a lot planned this week, I’m taking a break from the chronological norm and hoping to document my time in the adventure centre of New Zealand day by day.

Some of our Magic Bus gang with Irish back rower Chris Henry

So how, after being so resolutely against doing any kind of bungy jump in my lifetime, have I ended up on my way to the mountains so I can throw myself towards a river from a ridiculous height?

It all started when my bus tour visited the Kawarau Bridge Bungy, the place where bungy jumping all began. Its home to the original 43 metre bungy jump that was to become the first commercial jump in the world, thanks to two Kiwis who met while skiing in a nearby resort. Their names were Alan John (AJ) Hackett and Henry van Ash.

The original bungy bridge where it all began

Inspired by watching ‘land diving’ by people on the islands of Vanuatu, they developed the stretchy latex rubber chord that was named the Bungy, after the stretchy bands that were often used to strap items to the roof of a car. After some high profile leaps from landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, they demonstrated that their newfound sport, and chords, were safe.

Their leap of faith spawned an activity that is now going from strength to strength, and watching the video of jumps over the years, and hearing how safe and enjoyable the leap towards ground can be, my mind started to wander. Perhaps it would be quite good to do one. After all, Queenstown is the home of the bungy. I might only ever be here once – I might leave having had an opportunity to do a jump with the company that invented it, right at the sport’s birthplace, and regret it when I’m back home.

And I hate that nagging ‘I wish I had’ thought.

Checking into the Base hostel in the town, there was a sign on a wall. It says you’re not allowed to leave Queenstown without having done something crazy to write home about. My decision was made.

AJ Hackett Bungy offices in Queenstown

And so I made my way to check in at the offices in the town centre, butterflies in my stomach and already feeling nauseous. In the back of my mind, that awful thought of ‘what if’. What if the chord snaps? What if there’s a problem with the harness? What if I’m that one statistic for whom it all went wrong. The prospect of a terrifying few seconds of realising my time is up before gravity and a rocky riverbed colluded to do their worst.

Its all part of the fear, facing up to your own mortality and wondering, as I prepared to leave my hostel, whether it could be the last time I’ll experience the warm spray of a shower or the minty freshness of brushing my teeth.  I guess these thoughts are part of the reason why the human species puts itself through such incredible extremes for a thrill. There’s always a chance something can go wrong, and yes its frightening, but the sense of achievement and the rush of adrenaline will always outstrip those nervewracking concerns.

I’d not eaten, and I didn’t feel hungry, but knew I should get something. Afterall, it might be the last time I experience it. It might possibly be my last supper. So what did I go for? Why, the McDonalds loose change menu of course, but for once I struggled to eat the double cheeseburger. My nerves were definitely getting the better of me.

Check-in at the Bungy

I arrived at the AJ Hackett check-in centre, where the friendly and reassuring staff told me it was completely normal to feel exactly how I quite clearly looked. I was finding it difficult to speak properly, my mind racing away in my head, as I signed the disclaimer. I was weighed, my 85kg bulk being an important factor in the choice of bungy chord. My hand was covered in permanent marker with numbers and codes for the jump and photos. I have also been put forward for a bungy swing, taking the sport to another level by introducing the largest swing in the world to the area.

Snazzy 4×4 Bungy bus!

Before long, I’m being called to the special 4×4 bus that will take me to the jump site. There’s a Dutch guy called Dennis, also heading to the Nevis Bungy. He’s equally as nervous as me. There was little conversation as we both watched the mountains gliding by the window, before we turned off the main road and headed up a dusty, rocky track. Above it, my first glimpse of the high wire and pod. My fears reach another level.

“First jump bro?” asks one of the assistants at the reception building on top of the mountain.

‘Yes’ I nervously nod back, sucking air between my teeth as I look through the windows and see the suspended jump pod swaying slightly in the breeze.

“You’ll be fine mate,” came the reply as he pulled out a harness and asked me to pull it up and around my legs.

‘Make sure it won’t come off’

I look at the mass of buckles, clips and straps and know that my life, in a few minutes time, will depend on them.

We walk outside and I get my first proper look at the jump – and of the horrifying height we’re at over the fast flowing Nevis River below. The third highest jumping platform in the world, built at a cost of some $1.5-million, is suspended by high tension cables in front of me. I’m given a briefing about how to jump and how to prepare for recovery. At this point, the thought of coming back up couldn’t be further from my mind – the prospect of stepping out into the emptiness below me is still the big one that occupies my brain. It is joined by a fleeting, morbid thought that this could be where I meet my end. After all, I’ve seen those videos where the bungy chord snaps. I try to channel those thoughts and images out.

Give over!

I’m ushered towards the basket transporter to the platform. It starts out slow, leaving the cliff and mountain behind, the land quickly falling away below me. The adverts around town say ‘don’t look down’. I can’t do anything but. It still hasn’t sunk in that this is all real.

Nearly there – the point of no return

The door opens as we arrive at the platform. The jump crew unclip my safety line and connect it to the pod, before I’m welcomed inside. A glass floor provides yet another reminder of just how far I’m about to plummet. Somehow I’m selected as the first one to go. I know there’s no way back. Chicken out now, and I’d never live it down. I had made a point of not broadcasting the fact I was signed up for a bungy, so that I didn’t have to put my hands up if I bailed. The only people i’d told, a couple of hours before, were my parents.

“Don’t die,” my dad had reassuringly told me.

Aside from the embarrassment, I would always be disappointed in myself. I’ve done a few fairly brave things through my work – flying with an aerobatics team, jumping from a lifeboat into the Humber, being winched up by a helicopter, that kind of thing – but this was a whole new ball game.

Uh oh

“Just take a seat for me buddy,” I’m asked, before getting into a wobbly chair. My feet are raised and placed into holders, while two padded straps are placed around my ankles. My harness and clips are checked and double checked, which is reassuring. Then my feet are fastened together and attached to the bungy chord, that from now on is quite literally my lifeline.

Slightly worse than the dentist chair!

“Smile for the camera,” I’m told, before a flash above me.

“You’re all set buddy, up you get,” I’m told.

I can feel my heart pounding in my chest as I get to my feet. They’re buckled together, but I can still shuffle forward.

“Keep going mate, keep moving,” I’m told by the crew, clearly keeping the motivation going to prevent any chance of me backing out.

I shuffle onto the patterned steel pad that juts out from the pod. Its small, about the size of a small bath mat, and the bungy chord was moving around near my shin as I inched closer to the drop. There was a black line on the edge, and beyond, a straight fall to the bottom of the valley.

Keep moving…deep breaths

I stood there, looking down against all the advice i’d been given, staring out and taking in the enormity of what I had to do. I was yet again asked to smile for the camera. Somehow, I mustered the most nervous smile you’ll probably ever see.

By now, the palms of my hands were sweaty, despite the icy cold wind blowing through the mountains. My heart was pounding, with a strange sensation that I could feel it beating in my throat. I entered that weird tunnel vision sensation, where everything in the background is silenced.

Below me, I can see the river winding around the valley. It’s some 30 metres wide down there, but from where I’m standing, it appears like a babbling stream. I look at the trees and rocks way down there. They look so small. There are no cars or people to give me any kind of perspective, but in a way that helps. I ask myself a question that has troubled me all morning. What am I doing?

Somehow I have to jump from this, and its not just a little step. I’ve been told to leap out as if it was a dive into a swimming pool. I don’t even like doing that, and at most it’s a couple of metres. Somehow I’ve got to also keep my arms out stretched.

From now on it was me, my thoughts, my search for courage and a fight against every human instinct I’ve been born with to somehow find it in me to jump.

Cheese!

“Ok man, a big dive on one,” came a voice from behind me.

I didn’t feel ready. It’s too early to go yet.

“Two”

Not yet. I can’t do it just now. Its too quick. I need to think. I hesitated.

“Wait, wait,” I muttered.

“Don’t wait around man, use my countdown,” I’m told.

He’s right. The more I stand here, the more I’m going to think about it. I shuffled from side to side. Hesitate again, and there’s a chance I’ll back out. But it’s a leap into the unknown. Will the rebound throw me around? What does the acceleration feel like? Will I know if it goes wrong?

“Three,” starts the count again behind me.

This is it. Now or never.

“Two”

Deep breath. Focus. Look ahead. Arms out.

“One”

I looked out at the horizon, gritted my teeth, and somehow found enough inside me to crouch down and launch myself away from the pod. Instantly the falling sensation takes hold. My ears are filled with the increasing sound of howling wind as I accelerate towards the ground. I feel my eyes bulge and my face contort with fear. Genuine fear. And it was all captured on video:


From deep inside me, I let out a scream – a completely unintentional yell. A loud, fright-filled shout that filled and echoed around the valley. A noise I cannot recall ever making before. It was my body’s release. They say bungy jumping is all from the neck up. Right now, my brain thinks its all about to end.

Look out below!

I feel the wind rushing around my body, my hair flapping around my head. I can feel the arc I have made through the air. I’m in freefall – a full eight seconds of freefall – as I hurtle towards the river that’s growing ever bigger in front of me. By now I’ve hit around 128km/hr and there’s no sign of slowing down.

Unreal

And then something clicked inside me. This wasn’t frightening anymore. It was an incredible feeling, one that suddenly I could enjoy. The adrenaline had kicked in, and this high speed, freefalling rush had hold of me.

Into the abyss

The valley sides were whizzing past by my head and I’m still looking straight down before I felt the gradual pull as the bungy chord trailing behind me starts to do its job. This was another part I’d been dreading – it can look so abrupt when the chord twangs you back up.

Yet this was a gradual, enjoyable deceleration. The wind grew quieter, the speed and falling sensation slowed right down. And I’m going back up.

“Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh” I remember screaming out.

I’d done it. I had faced my fear. And it felt incredible.

Gone…

I reached the top of the bounce, and once again I was on the way back down to earth. The speed and falling sensation picked up again. This time I could enjoy it. I knew I’d be fine. The second phase of the jump, surprisingly, has a greater fall than the first ever bungy from up at Kawarau Bridge. Its another bungy jump of its own. And it did feel like I was on the end of a giant elastic band. It’s a sensational feeling.

Somehow I remembered that I had to release my legs at the top of the next bounce, by curling up and pulling a red chord from near my left calf. I saw it release the clips holding me upside down, itself a daunting prospect, and the jolt made it feel like I could fall free. Thankfully its all down to a brilliant design which means I could be winched back to the pod upright. I stayed still and soaked up what I had just done, taking in the scenery around me, laughing to myself with relief and with a giant smile on my face.

I had pushed myself beyond a limit that I never thought I could do, yet somehow I achieved it.

Back at the pod, it was nice to feel my feet safely back on the platform.

“That was a real nice dive you did there mate. Was that your first time?” asked one of the team, handing me back my camera after getting a great shot of me jumping. I looked at the screen and couldn’t believe the person on it was me.

I watched Dennis make his jump, marvelling at how he turned into a tiny dot 134 metres below me.

On a rope, on a rope, Dennis hanging on a rope…

On an adrenaline-fuelled high, there was one more task I had ahead of me. The Nevis Swing – the world’s largest swing. It launches you from one side of the Nevis Canyon to the other in a matter of seconds. There was a crew of people eager to take me over to it, and I was led by Donal, from Kilkenny in Ireland.

“My dad used to work in Grimsby, sorting peas,” he tells me. It really does seem you can go to any corner of the globe, and there will always be someone with a link to my home town!

A big swing…

I was introduced to the swing operators, and asked how I wanted to go.

“You’ve done forwards on the bungy, you may as well do something different. Upside down?!” I’m asked.

I might still be pumped up and have adrenaline blasting through my veins, but I wasn’t quite ready to go that far.

“How about backwards, you’ll love it,” I’m asked.

“Why not?” I laughed. Well, its something a bit different.

The guys who spend their lives putting people through hell, all in the name of fun, love their jobs.

“We see it all up here, laughs, tears, terror,” they joke.

Here we go again!

Strapped in, I’m winched over to the drop and told to let go of the ropes otherwise I could hurt my hands.

“You need to put your arms out and keep them out,” says Jesse, who’s operating the swing.

He engages me in conversation before secretly launching me mid-flow. I felt my face contort and heard laughter from the launch team which disappeared into the distance as I was sent tumbling through the air and in an arc across the canyon.

The face says it all!

It was a different type of adrenaline rush, one that I could enjoy much more, but without the same level of personal achievement that you get from forcing yourself to jump from a ledge high above New Zealand’s southern alps.


For that, there is only one thing to do – the Nevis bungy, but the faint hearted, while finding it daunting, I am sure would love the sensation of gliding through the air on the Nevis Swing. Its like the best tree swing you’ve ever been on, a playground swing built for adults. But both of them have one thing in common – the beauty of gravity.

Today I learned that gravity can be fun to play with. I learned that falling from a great height can be strangely enjoyable.

And I learned that had I not visited Queenstown, I would have lived my life without experiencing the awesome feeling of a Bungy.

My life, from today, feels a little bit more complete.

The Nevis Swing team. Cheers guys!

With special thanks to my friends at AJ Hackett Bungy. For more information, latest offers or to book, visit their website at www.bungy.co.nz