CONSIDER how the average adventure sport gets started: one person does something that seems to invite death — or at least mangling injury — like jumping off a bridge while attached to a rubber band or rolling down a hill in a giant hamster ball. A second, slightly saner person asks, “How can I make it so people can do this safely but still feel like they’re inviting death or mangling injury?” And hordes of young thrill-seekers come running.
In this scenario, chances are that at least one of those two people is living in New Zealand. Driven by an adventurous national spirit and blessed with an extraordinarily rugged landscape that calls to adrenaline addicts like a jungle gym calls to children, New Zealanders and visiting foreigners have pioneered an impressive range of commercial adventure activities over the past few decades. The list includes jet boating, Zorbing (that hamster ball), cave tubing (black-water rafting), Shweeb (monorail biking), river boarding, fly by wire, canyon swing and, most famously, bungee jumping.
As a result, New Zealand could fairly be called the frontier of adventure travel. And I wanted to understand why: why New Zealand versus any other country blessed with mountains, lakes and rivers? A hiker by disposition, I had come to the country to experience the landscape through the soles of my boots. But between hikes, I planned to view the country from the end of a giant rubber cord, via the thrust of a powerful machine, and in the not-terribly-protective shell of a helmet and wet suit, all in a quest to find out what drives the people of this country to the ever-more-extreme.
So my wife, Jen, and I headed to Queenstown, the South Island town that Tripadvisor recently named the top adventure and outdoor destination in the world. Queenstown is often described in guidebooks and on tourism Web sites as a “natural theme park” and “the adventure capital of the world.” Once you’ve been there, it’s hard to dispute the claim. It’s a less developed version of Aspen or Lake Placid with about six main streets and a lakefront promenade. Every other store seems to sell either souvenirs of wool and wood or adventures in nylon and neoprene. A glut of hotels and hostels caters to the money-to-burn and need-to-earn crowds alike.
The kitsch and adventure peddlers have largely pushed out the charm, but who’s looking at the town? You’re in a cathedral of peaks, and Queenstown is just a pew. A remarkable saw blade ridge of granite (actually called the Remarkables) overhangs the village and the lightning-bolt-shaped Lake Wakatipu, on whose shore the town rests. Every adventure activity you’ve ever heard of is on offer (rafting, sky diving, mountain biking) and probably several you haven’t (snow-kiting, parapenting, white-water sledging). The adventure economy invades the town itself with jet boats leaving from the lakefront and parachutes landing on the town’s rugby pitch.
Adventurers inundate Queenstown in the summer the way snow does in the winter, a parade of the young, tan and largely unkempt who, I observed, seem to fall into one of three categories: backpackers, guides and trampers. The first group is there to do every crazy thing its members’ budgets allow, and the second is there to make sure the first group survives, then to go and do even crazier things on their days off, like BASE jumping or whitewater kayaking. The trampers — identifiable by the waterproof covers on their packs — primarily use Queenstown as a base for the surrounding hikes, perhaps sampling a packaged adventure or two.
Seeking a little more solitude, Jen and I made our way to Wanaka, where friends had lent us their vacation home. Wanaka is Queenstown’s laid-back cousin, an hour north and similarly situated at the base of chiseled mountains on the shores of an azure lake, but without the same preponderance of in-your-face adventure advertising. It has plenty of hotels and activities, but not so many that they detract from the natural splendor of the area.
IF Queenstown and its surroundings is indeed a natural theme park, then the jet boat was its first ride. Invented in 1954 by a Kiwi farmer named Bill Hamilton (later Sir William) as a way to travel up rocky rivers, jet boats at full speed can now traverse water as shallow as six inches. In the 1960s, a Christian youth camp on the shores of Lake Wakatipu began selling jet boat rides as a fund-raising effort, an operation that eventually inspired imitators around the world.
The key to the jet boat’s appeal is its accessibility: unlike most things you can do in Queenstown, it is just fine for the faint of heart — that is, if you don’t mind gallons of water rushing at you. From the booking station in the center of town, I took a shuttle out to the river and was quickly outfitted with a life vest and a spray jacket and ushered onto a red boat with seats for a dozen. Our driver whisked us upriver and down, threading our boat through a needle-eye of jagged cliff walls at absurdly high speed. Whenever the water was deep enough, he would throw the boat into a 360-degree spin, whipping us by the cliffsides with a hair’s breadth of clearance, making the children on the boat (and their parents) squeal. The driver would pause occasionally to tell us about the area’s gold-mining history and let us enjoy the views of beech trees cascading down to stone walls cut at sharp angles like the teeth of a great stone shark. Then he would power the boat up to full speed and repeat.
It was good, wet fun, but ultimately too safe for my taste — safer, in fact, than our theoretically peaceful hikes. Avalanche Peak, for instance, on the northern end of the same spine of mountains on which Queenstown sits, is a steep, 3,000-foot climb in just over two miles, passing through beech forest hung with pale green lichen and then tussock grassland. At the ridge itself, we found a narrow blade of rock spiked with poles showing the way to the top. No railings were there to catch us if we slipped on the snow still covering the trail or lost our balance shimmying around an outcrop. The summit was that much more satisfying for the risks taken; we must have stayed up there for hours, basking in the exclusive company of peaks into which our efforts had earned us entry, the stripes of snow on their slopes fanning out to the horizon in concentric waves, the euphoria entirely of our own creation.
The day after jet boating, I continued my quest to understand New Zealand’s adventure culture with the activity that had put the country on the adventure map: bungee jumping. The roots of bungee, as every booking agent will tell you, are in Vanuatu, where, legend holds, a woman fleeing her abusive husband tied vines around her feet as she leapt from a banyan tree. She landed unharmed, but her husband, not noticing her use of the vines, jumped after her to his death. To this day young men in the region duplicate the feat (with vine) as a test of manhood.
“We were both fairly into jumping off things,” said the bungee pioneer Henry Van Asch of his business partner AJ Hackett in the 1980s. They met through speed-skiing, which is essentially ski racing without turns. “AJ called me up and said he had ‘this rubber thing.’ ”
After seeing footage of the Vanuatu jumpers and Oxford University students who imitated them, Mr. Hackett and Mr. Van Asch became convinced that people would pay good money for a similar near-death experience. With the help of Auckland University scientists, they developed a reliable latex rubber cord to absorb the shock of the fall and later a pulley system to bring the jumpers back up again.
The pair acquired a lease to fix up a 100-year-old bridge on the Kawarau River and started their first jump site in 1988. As word of the activity spread and media rushed to cover it, bungee jumping became the spark that rocketed Queenstown into the international tourism spotlight. They had 28 people on their first day; now the four New Zealand sites alone serve almost 100,000 people a year.
I was ambivalent about bungee jumping. It seemed like sky diving (which I had done) with shorter free fall and inferior views. I expected that, like jet boating, I would find it fun, but not blood-pumping.
What I failed to take into account was that you still have to fling yourself off a bridge. The Kawarau Bridge site is fairly developed now, with a large modernist structure atop one bank housing a bungee museum and a cafe, set between walls of stone tumbling down to the turquoise river, interrupted only by the occasional hardy tree. Out on the gorge, two viewing platforms accommodate the voyeuristic urges of people considering a jump and of the friends and family wishing they wouldn’t. The whole place has an unrestricted feel, as anyone can walk along the bridge and observe the jumpers putting on their harnesses and starting to freak out.
I paid my money, got my weight written on my hand in red marker, and waited my turn. A woman on the platform seemed ready to bolt; the bungee operators tried to talk her down (which, in a twist of normal crisis management, meant persuading her to jump), telling her to “go to her happy place.”
When my turn came, a man with a lip ring and a bandana wrapped my legs with a towel and a harness as Pantera and Green Day played on speakers behind my head. I had agreed to be dunked in the river up to my shoulders, and I was just waddling to the edge of the platform when it occurred to me to ask: the bungee’s going to slow me down before I hit the river, right? This isn’t going to hurt? The guy with the lip ring shrugged. “One way to find out, mate.”
Unexpectedly, fear took hold as I considered the river 141 feet below. But lip ring was counting down, and my wife (as well as passengers in a tour bus) was watching. So I dived, arms outstretched. Blood, water and adrenaline flooded the pathways to my brain. I vaguely remember reaching for a pole so I could be lowered into a raft, then nothing until I was hugging Jen back on the viewing platform.
To give my adrenal cortex a rest, we drove south to Fiordland, the national park south and west of Queenstown. From the town of Te Anau, we hiked the 37-mile Kepler Track, an alpine crossing between the shores of two lakes with gut-punch views of the park’s famous fjords and miles of fern-covered beech forest on either side. It was obvious that the landscape was a siren song that lured people to its beauty, but the question remained: why did it inspire them to do such odd activities once there?
Henry Van Asch believes New Zealand’s confluence of innovation and adventure can be traced back to the two groups of people who colonized the country: the Maori who sailed thousands of miles on small boats in the 1200s and the European sealers, whalers, miners and, later, farmers of the 1800s. When exploration was no longer a part of daily life, it morphed into a leisure pursuit. “Hillary climbed Everest in the ’50s, so climbing was big,” Mr. Van Asch told me. “But then a lot of the peaks got conquered, so people were just sort of forging out in all sorts of different directions to find new adventure.”
Jon Imhoof, an American who pioneered river surfing in New Zealand, had a similar take: “We have this American ingenuity. They talk about Kiwi ingenuity — used to be most farmers could fix most anything with a bit of No. 8 chicken wire. The whole adventure tourism, a lot of the innovation is an offshoot of that.”
Mr. Van Asch’s reasoning was plausible, but Mr. Imhoof’s comparison brought up questions. America’s national character, history and landscape resemble New Zealand’s, at least in the West. Why aren’t Americans out there thinking of new ways to jump off bridges?
Not all of New Zealand’s adventure activities have become as successful as jet boating and bungee jumping. Some ideas fall short of expectations, such as fly by wire, an invention of the artist/electrician/entrepreneur Neil Harrap that from 1997 to 2007 allowed an untrained person to take control of a small, uncovered aircraft and pilot it solo at 100 miles per hour around a pivot point. Mr. Harrap attributes his failure to a lack of marketing. “People don’t buy things anymore; they are sold things,” he said, while noting that he still fields calls from tourism operators looking to replicate the ride.
Yet others achieve a modicum of success, such as Zorbing, in which participants roll downhill in a giant inflatable globe. Started in the mid-’90s on the North Island, Zorbing quickly spread franchises to more than 20 countries, most of which are no longer operating. Still, the Zorb company sees 40,000 to 50,000 “globe riders” a year. A marketing manager for the company, Andy Havill, thinks the innovative quality of Kiwi adventure tourism has more prosaic roots. “We don’t have as stringent insurance requirements, unlike the U.S. where you might be able to sue someone for anything,” he said. “New Zealand is more lenient in that sense … it fosters that innovative spirit that you need for an adventure tourism operation.”
LATER that week, I dived into the same river I had bungee jumped over to try my hand at one of these lesser-known activities: river surfing. It doesn’t seem so bright on paper: running Class III and IV rapids armed only with a helmet, wet suit and boogie board. But I wanted some real danger. Without really knowing quite what I was getting into, I along with 10 other people hopped into the water, practiced a few moves (pivot turns for control, barrel rolls for style) and swam out into the mercy of the Kawarau.
I didn’t fully grasp why the activity was called river “surfing” until we kicked our way through a fierce rapid to a narrow eddy alongside a cliff. Pausing to catch my breath, I looked out toward the churning white water and saw a guide hovering in the middle of the rapid as though suspended by a tow rope. He was actually “surfing” the standing wave, the water pushing him up while gravity pulled him back down.
Quite a number of people have run rivers with some type of board over the last 30 years, but Jon Imhoof believes that he started, in 1989, the first commercial operation taking tourists downriver on boogie boards. Mr. Imhoof was a surfer from Hawaii who ran hiking trips in New Zealand in the summer. He was missing the waves, so one day on a trip to the river he brought along a boogie board and discovered the magic of surfing a standing wave.
One by one, we swam back out into the white water to catch the wave next to the guide. As long as we kept the nose of the board up and in good position, we would hang motionless in the middle of a Class III rapid, liquid powering by like a horizontal waterfall. It felt like water-skiing, only the water was moving and we weren’t. We finished up the day by running a Class IV, trying to duck under waves so burly that the water bruised my nose.
Our last hike was the Routeburn Track, but our timing coincided with one of those once-in-a-season Fiordland storms that dumps a foot of rain in a couple of days. A van dropped us off at the start of the hike, and within 30 minutes, our Gore-Tex was soaked through. My hands quickly started to go numb, as I had stupidly forgotten my gloves.
But we never considered turning back; it felt like the sheer extremity of the environment was urging us on.
Surprisingly, it was while standing alone in the wilderness with only the rain rushing by that I finally understood the adventure pioneers’ inspiration: this country, with some of the most rugged terrain the planet has to offer, challenges you to test yourself against it. If you’re a speed demon like Mr. Hackett or Mr. Van Asch, you want to see how far and fast you can fall and still survive. If you’re an engineer and farmer like Bill Hamilton, you build something to conquer those shallow rivers crisscrossing your land. If you’re a surfer used to challenging Hawaiian breaks, the unmoving waves of the Kawarau might as well be taunting you.
And if you’re a hiker caught in a storm, you use a little Kiwi ingenuity. So I grabbed a spare pair of wool socks from my pack, tucked them onto my hands like mittens, and tramped on through the deluge.
Originally posted 2012-03-02 13:44:11.