It hasn’t been an hour since I left Queenstown airport, and I’m standing 141 feet above a gorge, feet tied with a thick cord. I have never felt such primal, wild terror, not like this; not once in 31 years of life. It swells and shape-shifts with every second I spend on this ledge above the Kawarau River. I will fall and smash my skull; I will projectile vomit. Finally, the one fear sticks—I will have a heart attack, and hang limply mid-air. The cord feels like tentacles tightening around my chest.
I’d vowed never to bungee jump, but planning a trip to the “world’s adventure capital” gave me a false sense of bravado. Commercial bungee jumping was invented here in 1988, at A.J. Hackett’s Kawarau Bridge Bungy Centre, and I didn’t want to be a chicken. Up on that ledge above the river, I wasn’t impervious to the beauty around me. The waters sparkled even in the wan winter sun; rust-gold tussock on the cliff face held memories of a glorious autumn. Finally, I closed my eyes and jumped.
I leap to the sound of applause from onlookers across the bridge, and fall with the grace of a rag doll. My stomach lurches up—actually, down—to my throat. Yet when my fingers dip into the river, I whoop gleefully, for I have touched the icy water of a glacier carved in the Ice Age, 15,000 years ago.
In Queenstown, the drama begins long before touchdown. From the skies you see a city sprawled on the basin of Lake Wakatipu, which means “hollow of the sleeping giant.” According to a Maori legend, the S-shaped lake flows in the hole left behind after Matau, an evil giant, was set afire by a local warrior out to rescue his beloved from his clutches. Jagged and gigantic, The Remarkables mountain range has risen around the lake for millennia, dwarfing everything in its wake.
Sensational landscapes shape Queenstown, but it is adrenaline that stokes its fire. En route to the town centre, cabbie Ian Paddle tells me he came here to honeymoon from Australia three decades ago and never went back. “Which other city lets you walk on glaciers, fall from airplanes, swing through canyons, and race across rivers in a jetboat? You can now have a chopper fly you up The Remarkables, and come down skiing or biking—isn’t that amazing?”
(www.bungy.co.nz; children aged 10-14 NZD155/Rs7,450, adults NZD205/Rs9,850.)
One of us in this 4WD thinks they are about to die. You can tell who—my poker face is crumbling; the knuckles clutching the door of the 4WD are chalk white. Guide Chris Hogan is whistling on the wheel, driving along the Skippers Canyon Road, on an absurdly narrow path clinging to a near-vertical cliff wall. One wrong swerve and the car would go tumbling down into the Shotover River like a plastic toy. “You know, you’re doing so much better than the last couple I drove here,” he turns to me. “The man put a shopping bag over his head.”
A perfectly reasonable reaction, if you didn’t count the backdrop. Queenstown is barely behind us, yet I am surrounded by undulating brown hills that seem like ocean waves stunned to stone. Often Chris points to curious rock formations in the distance; a gorilla with a sloping forehead; an elephant with its trunk and feet in the air. The Skippers road is a darling of every “World’s Most Dangerous Roads” list there is, but Chris rubbishes the claim “because no one has died here.” He admits that insurance doesn’t cover rental cars here, so only commercial operators like him end up bringing tourists in.
The route isn’t just another pretty face of New Zealand—it is its most historic. Part of the Skippers road was hacked by hand following the Gold Rush, for seven years starting in 1883. It was here, around the Shotover River below, that the metal was discovered in 1861, luring hopefuls from around the world to make their fortunes at the world’s second largest alluvial gold deposit. Far in the distance, I spot Mount Aurum (aurum is Latin for gold), carved like a half-moon rising above the valley.
Down at the base of the canyon, the river is eerily silent. I try to imagine miners from Europe and China sweating away with their pans and shovels, nurturing families in these very spots. The river is a robin’s-egg blue and startlingly clear. Nowadays jetboats bring tourists daily, whizzing between narrow crags at 85 kmph, doing 360° spins to make riders squeal. I pocket a pebble for a friend who collects rocks from around the world. Chris helps me find one threaded with quartz veins. “It has gold,” he nods.
Further along, several thousand feet above us on Coronet Peak, dot-like workers of ski fields are making snow so the area’s favourite slope can open in five days. By afternoon, a cloudy greyness is upon us. The car is mostly in the Shotover, sending wild echoes of splashes everywhere. Chris points out a deserted stretch of bank that was The Ford of Bruinen in the Lord of the Rings, the point where Frodo was chased by the deathly Ringwraiths on horses.
Further ahead, I see someone. A black figure hunched by the riverbank.
“Someone’s looking for gold!” Chris veers the car towards the figure.
Tim Bridget, a 40-something Christchurch resident, is here on vacation. “Don’t get excited, I haven’t found much,” he smiles sheepishly when I introduce myself. I sit on my haunches and notice the grooves on his pan that help separate gold deposits from the sand. “The key,” says Tim, “is to look for black sand by the riverbank; it has iron magnetite, which is 17 times heavier than water. Gold is about the same, and you often find their deposits together.” He hands me another pan and I imitate how he collects the sand, slowly swirling it clockwise and anticlockwise, allowing it to be gradually washed away in the river. I peer into my pan and find six flecks of gold!
Chris gets the cookies and hot chocolate, and we drink by the river. “I am a history buff, and all New Zealand really has is the Gold Rush. I save my panned gold in a bottle, and hope to cover its bottom someday,” grins Tim. Chris recounts how his farmer friend panned enough gold to make rings for two daughters. He is still collecting gold for his third.
The last leg of the drive takes us to Arrowtown by the gold-bearing Arrow River. With its 19th-century cottages and tree-lined avenues, it seems to be living in the 1860s, when it was built during the Gold Rush. There’s even a Chinese settlement by the river, built by Chinese miners in 1868. Our drive ends back at the Kawarau River. Upstream from the bungee bridge, shafts of sunlight light up a narrow part of the gorge where the gigantic Pillars of the Kings rose in LOTR. This is where Frodo gazed at the statues, their left hands raised ominously as warning to enemies.
(www.nomadsafaris.co.nz; adults NZD195/Rs9,400, children NZD95/Rs4,600.)
The 12-seater Cessna aircraft is fast gaining altitude over Lake Wakatipu. “See The Remarkables?” Nick Holding, who is harnessed to me at the back, yells over the roar of the engine. “We’ll fly three times their height—”.
“—and at 15,000 feet, we jump off this plane,” supplies Reuben Faletuai, the photographer sitting in front of me, and takes a selfie to capture my owl-like goggle.
Suddenly, a buzzer goes off and the door slides open. The plane hovers mid-air, and Nick and I start to glide towards the edge. I look below and see what you usually see long after your flight takes off—preferably with you in it.
How did I voluntarily sign up for this?
A few hours ago, I breezed into the office of NZ One Skydive. If I was going to jump off a plane after all, Queenstown was the place to do it. Televisions on all the walls played videos on loop; I avoided the part where they zoom in on a guy muttering prayers before he becomes a speck in the air.
The actual spot is a 30-minute drive away, and nothing really registers until Nick, a pro skydiver and my jump partner, comes over and tells it’s his 17,000th jump. Reuben’s bounciness rubs off me, and when we are up in the Cessna, I make all the goofy faces he asks me to.
When Nick and I finally jump, my brain is on lockdown, in denial that I am free-falling at 200 kmph. But in seconds, it registers that I’m hurtling towards the snow sprinkled on mountain peaks like dusting sugar. I have a Cheshire cat grin plastered on my face as I can see every wave and wrinkle on The Remarkables. Lake Wakatipu is the colour of my potter friend’s favourite glaze, a deep midnight blue. Reuben and I hold hands like formation skydivers. My mouth is agape due to wind pressure, as if I were gulping mouthfuls of sky.
The parachute opens with a jerk after one minute. Everything falls silent, and I feel curiously floaty. We lose some height, and I can’t believe I am seeing rows of poplars and the crooked shadows they cast on the ground in one frame. I may as well be a vulture or a drone: vegetation on The Remarkables looks like cute broccoli florets, the sheep farm below like a board game.
That night, I treat myself at Fergburger, a Queenstown legend believed to make New Zealand’s best burgers.
I’m no climber, but I wonder if this is why mountaineers surmount peak after peak—that perspective is such a potent drug. I bite into the juicy Sweet Bambi venison burger, looping this wonderful day. I’m almost back up, where streets look like mysterious geoglyphs from where I stand—nay, fly.
(www.nzoneskydive.co.nz; dives from NZD299/Rs14,300, photo & video from NZD199/Rs9,500.)
The cruise ship has just slid into the Tasman Sea, but it looks like it’s curtain time. Colossal rock faces emerge on either side of the water, high enough to scrape the skies. Ancient rainforests cling to cliffs like velvety shrouds (sometimes, rain or snow loosen the trees on the rock face, causing a ‘tree avalanche’). This is Milford Sound, a fjord in Fiordland National Park. It sees one million visitors each year, and is the favourite pin-up of New Zealand.
Many choose to tramp the four-day Milford Track—counted as one of the best hikes of the world—to reach Milford Sound. But kayaking and 1.5-hour cruise rides are equally dramatic ways to discover it. The deeper the ship goes, the more Middle-earthian the fjord looks to me. The wind buffets us, and we sway like a bunch of drunks on deck; waterfalls cascade down 500 feet like veils of mythical mist. I spot fur seals sunbathing on rocks, but not the dolphins and rare Fiordland crested penguins that live in this region. My face is stiff as ice, but inside I am hopelessly melting.
It takes a five-hour bus ride to reach Milford Sound from Queenstown. I return by helicopter, after a scenic flight that gives me unprecedented views of this region sculpted by Ice Age glaciers. I see how no two faces of granite are the same. Some cliffs poke the pillows of clouds, others are topped with snow. Some mountains are two-toned like I never imagined—their bottoms are green with rainforest and top halves are golden brown rock. From this height rivers look like squiggles drawn by a toddler. Our helicopter is but a white speck in this raw, rugged region, which is often called the eighth wonder of the world. I know then—the whole world might come to Milford Sound, but everybody leaves with their own special story.
(www.realjourneys.co.nz; day-trip packages include coach from Queenstown, cruise, and scenic flight back to Queenstown, from NZD614/Rs29,500.)
Clink clink clink. I snap the two carabiners on my harness like a crab clicking its pincers. Nearby, climber Michael Rooke lays down the rules. “Always, always attach both carabiners on the guide wire, the second you climb a metal rung. They’re the only things that’ll keep you alive on the highest waterfall via ferrata of the world,” he squints at the 1,000-foot Twin Falls lashing down a granite crag.
Wanaka’s laid-back, lakeside location belies how outdoorsy it is. An hour’s drive from Queenstown, the resort town doesn’t play second fiddle in the punch department—it lies in the Southern Alps and is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. A 20-minute drive brings me and six novice climbers to a cliff face fitted with metal rungs, metal wires, and bridges of—not metal—just rope.
We scale a boulder for practice. Heave yourself up a rung, clip one carbiner on the wire—“don’t forget the second carbiner!”—and repeat. “Real” rock climbers might snigger, but via ferrata demands a newb’s steadfast attention. The cliff is near-vertical, and climbers rise hundreds of feet with only iron rods for company.
I develop a cautious rhythm of clip, climb, unclip; clip, climb, unclip. I’m forced to be present and think only of the next rung, no further. It’s meditative—there’s even a misty waterfall for ambient music. I take a peek at the ground; it is farther than I’d like it to be. I move on.
Apart from booming encouragement, Michael tells us how it took them seven years to glue the rungs into the cliff. Did he say glue? I pull at the rung above me, breathing easy when he adds that each can hold several tonnes. I am only doing an intermediate climb, but I can’t help think of how via ferrata (‘iron path’ in Italian) was born in the Dolomites of Italy to help WWI soldiers cross the terrain.
Over the next three hours, I scale over pools formed in rock gaps and cross wobbly plank bridges. Sigh-worthy scenes are everywhere; deer scampering on grasslands below, the Alps at my eye-level, wearing toupees of clouds. At times I freeze because I can’t see a way out, but there always is. Some fellow climbers do better: one couple takes tons of romantic photos; a scrawny college kid moonwalks—moonwalks!—across the ominous rope bridge between two crags. He then goes back to swing on it like a spider monkey.
Munching sandwiches at the top, Michael tells me how leading a via ferrata climb is about reading people. “Go easy on the cautious ones. Watch the moonwalkers closely, and don’t let them know,” he winks.
(www.wildwire.co.nz; intermediate Wild Thing climb NZD249/Rs12,000.)
By my second day in Wanaka, Queenstown’s high-octane energy almost wears off. Walking along willow-lined Lake Wanaka becomes a twice-a-day ritual, one that includes watching hopefuls trying to get the perfect shot of what Kiwis call “that Wanaka tree.” The bent willow rising from the waters with the Southern Alps in the backdrop is claimed to be the most photographed tree in New Zealand. When I learn that I have missed front row tickets to the aurora australis by just one day, I experience only the mildest regret.
Unlike Chris’s 4WD in Queenstown, Mark Orbell’s three-hour Land Rover drive promises no stunts. “But it’ll be a Wanaka that even 99 per cent of locals haven’t seen,” he claims, when I meet him one morning. It sounds like a tall order, but I begin to see what he means when we leave behind the 45-kilometre-long, 1,000-foot-deep glacial Lake Wanaka behind. Driving past the Matukituki Valley and the eponymous, emerald river, we enter West Wanaka Station. The 30,000-acre private farm is unchanged since the 1850s and doesn’t allow visitors except those brought in by Mark’s company, Ridgeline Adventures.
It might have something to do with being surrounded by meadows and sheep being sheared, but I begin to feel pleasantly isolated. We drive deeper into the farm, into a very different world. The higher Mark goes, the more of the 3,000 resident red deer and 12,000 sheep grazing below emerge amid green-gold plains. Wispy pink manuka trees look like cotton candy, and the mountains have their heads in the mist.
At the summit, I step out onto a stretch of alpine tussock grassland, a sight I will never forget. About 100 feet in front of me is the Rocky Mountain, and we are separated by a carpet of cloud—a thick inversion layer at my feet. I haven’t seen anything quite like it—this play of gold, white, and black in various states of matter.
Wanaka’s surprise doesn’t end here. After the drive, I take a scenic flight that goes round the “Matterhorn of the South.” We delve deep into the national park and fly above glaciers, silver beech forests and clear pools reminiscent of Blue Curaçao. Rocky mounds rise from the water like hairy backs of giants. Slowly, we approach the 10,000-foot Mount Aspiring, which is perennially snow white. Circling the Toblerone-shaped mountain, I think of all those who came before me: the Maori who crossed this region to go west, the Europeans who drew up maps, and miners and settlers who shaped this valley to what it is today. I feel like a speck amid this wilderness magicked millennia ago, and love the feeling to bits.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.