I've been researching New Zealand like mad for the past day or two, prepping for an upcoming trip. More than anything, what I've discovered is this: while there are an absolutely humbling number of relaxing things to do in beautiful settings -- winery touring, hiking without end, lazing on the beach -- New Zealand also boasts a tourist economy based in large part on assisted near-suicide. It was they who popularized bungee jumping, for instance, and skydiving enthusiasts will tell you there's no better country in which to jump out of a plane at 12,000 feet. But these days, bungee-jumping is old news, and as Kiwis continually try to outdo themselves in the adrenaline department, the list of semi-absurd, totally insane adventure sports grows daily. Here are a few of the strangest. Photo above by Peter McBride.
Jumping off a bridge or Auckland's 328-meter Sky Tower not high enough for you? Try parabungee, which looks like a normal tandem parasailing trip until you cut the harness linking you to the jumpmaster / parasail pilot. Here's a video of someone doing a 1000-foot parabungee jump, and then cutting the bungee cord, essentially base-jumping from the end of his cord. Yeesh.
A bizarre but exhilarating experience where you control a high-speed plane on a leash, at speeds of up to 170km/hr. From the sound of it, you'll feel (and look) a bit like Evil Knievel, without the broken bones. Compared to parabungee it's definitely tame, but strange nonetheless:
This ain't your parents canyon adventure. When most people hear "canyoning" (including, until recently, me), they think of canyoneering, which is the process of moving through canyons and finding your way, even if you have to climb out and rappel down into an adjacent drop. Not so canyoning. Going down is the point, and the more waterfalls you can jump or rappel down, the better. I'll let National Geographic's Tim Cahill, who's actually done this, explain:
We clipped into fixed ropes at the tops of waterfalls, and Ros showed us how to ride the falls to the deep pools at the bottom. You lie on your back, put your arms over your head so that you don't break your elbows on rocks, inch forward, and rush down with the water, sometimes falling almost a hundred feet. We rappelled into shallow pools, did a Tyrolean traverse across the stream at one point—"no worries," Ros said, "you'll be 'roight"—and at the bottom, we slid through a long, narrow, sinuous passage that Ros called "the Tunnel."
Photo: Peter McBride
2. Canyon Swinging
If rappelling down the canyon wasn't thrilling enough for you, there's always the canyon swing. It works like this: there are two cantilevered platforms sticking out of either end of the canyon, and a sort of bungee cord connects them. You strap on one end of it and jump. Again, Tim Cahill:
The world dropped out from under me. I plummeted 90 feet (27 meters), and then the swing started. I found it was rather faster than I'd imagined. This was a little different from the bungee, since I wasn't used to falling into a 300-foot (91-meter) warp speed swing from a sitting position. Meanwhile, as I swung under the station where my rope was anchored, I couldn't help but notice that the wall of the cliff rushing by me to the right seemed but a few feet (about one meter) from my face. (I was probably 40 feet [12 meters] away, but it seemed too damn close.) Then, soon enough, I was swinging gently back and forth, taking in the view. Double paragliders were doing loops overhead, jet boats were tearing across Lake Wakatipu below, and the luge-bikes were winding down a cement track at truly silly speeds. Ah, Queenstown. I was winched back up to the anchor platform by the safety rope.
Not particularly suicidal but definitely thrilling, jetboating is a Kiwi invention: "An inboard engine sucks water into a tube in the bottom of the boat and an impeller driven by the engine blows it out of a nozzle at the stern in a high-speed stream. The boat is steered simply by directing the stream." (Thanks, Lonely Planet.) I had never heard of jetboating before, but apparently it's doable in almost every New Zealand river town of any size, most notably Queenstown, where a bracing trip down the Shotover river -- the same one you can rappel down and swing across -- gets you within inches of jagged rocks. Wear a rubber coat and plastic underpants for this one. Here's some video: