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5 Ways to Cheat Death in New Zealand

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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.

5. Parabungee

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.

4. Fly-by-Wire

wire.jpgA 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:

3. Canyoning

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."

NZ.jpgPhoto: 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.

1. Jetboating

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:

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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