by Stu Wilson
I’d traveled 8,000 miles by air from the comfortable confines of home in America to a remote Pacific island nation 1,000 miles off the coast of Australia. I’d never before left the North American continent. I find myself on a little wooden platform built off the side of the historic Kawarau suspension bridge, 143 feet above the swirling clear waters of the Kawarau River, just outside of Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. A large group of onlookers watches from a viewing platform below. My life is in the hands of the AJ Hackett Bungy crew, whose members are now wrapping a towel tightly around my ankles. As I steady myself on the platform and try to appear brave, I watch with interest as one fellow tries clumsily to thread the sling that’s attached to the end of the bungy chord through my shoelace. He turns inquisitively to his co-worker and asks, “Hey mate, is this how we do this?”
New Zealand is not completely defined by the friendly and whimsical nature of its citizens (known as Kiwis), nor by the sensational nature of its homespun participatory sport creations. Adventures of a more cerebral and picturesque sort abound as the South Island of New Zealand is home to some of the world’s most stunning scenery. A strong national conservation ethic, a dearth of heavy industry, and sparse population density combine to frame the dramatic southern alps, mysterious lakes, lush rainforests and glacier-fed rivers into one of nature’s more dramatic picture postcards. The beauty of it all is that, unlike Yellowstone National Park on Labor Day, one gets the feeling that one has the place to oneself.
The Milford Track is rightfully considered one of the world’s great walks (tramps, in Kiwi parlance). Lacking the worldwide name recognition of the Milford, however, proves a blessing for the neighboring Routeburn Track. A shorter hike than the Milford (three days instead of four), the Routeburn tends to be less heavily traveled, a feature especially evident at the overnight huts. There the Department of Conservation rewards the rigors of the day’s tramp by thoughtfully providing hot showers, drying rooms, bunk-style sleeping accommodations, and kitchen facilities. No less dramatic a visual experience than the Milford by most accounts, the Routeburn features a steady dose of alpine scenery, skirts the mouths of plunging waterfalls, and traverses mountain lakes. I found the expanse of starry sky draping the surrounding peaks above the second night’s Falls Hut awe-inspiring.
New Zealand’s wonders aren’t confined to those on land. Off the coast of Kaikoura, north of Christchurch, Dusky Dolphins congregate near shore in groups numbering from 75 to 300. Being social animals, they seem more than happy to interrupt their feeding to provide a boatload of wetsuit-clad humans a chance for close aquatic encounters. When a group is sighted, the skipper positions the boat in the oncoming path and advises participants to take to the water. The sight of 200 leaping, pirouetting, twisting, plunging, splashing mammals bearing down upon me was an unforgettable one. Although we were asked not to touch the animals, they certainly drew close enough to hitch a ride. We learned we could capture the attention of these frisky underwater kittens by emitting erratic shrieks, whistles, and melodies. Our swim fins allowed us to remain momentarily competitive as we engaged the dolphins in the downward loop chase, the simple head-to-head race, and an assortment of other aqua-gymnastic stunts. As the group of dolphins moved off en masse, I was left wondering just who entertained who.
New Zealand, privileged by its remoteness, is done justice by a minimum stay of two weeks. Those drawn to remote wilderness and exquisite scenery do not do themselves a disservice by spending all of their time on the South Island. Organized adventure tours, which vary widely in style and content, are an excellent way to experience this outdoor-oriented country efficiently and economically.