Chapter 12: Armed only with latex and lunacy...

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Monday, November 24, 2003

...I took on the Nevis. But I'll get to that shortly.

I woke up on Thursday feeling a little ill, as the bug that had been traveling between passengers on the Magic circuit (and which I'd so far avoided) finally caught me. It wasn't bad - just the standard swollen neck glands, sore throat, and general blah-ness - but it was persistent, and I still feel it somewhat. The day on the bus wasn't as fun as it could have been, then, and I slept through most of the ride. The hour-long morning hike at Lake Murchison was nice, though.

I was not looking forward to that evening, because we were making a forced overnight stop in the middle of nowhere at a place called Makarora (population: 40), which seems to exist solely so that the Magic Bus can stop and dump loads of easy money into the pockets of the Makarora Tourist Center (hostel), which doubtless turns around and gives some of that money back to Magic. Ostensibly there are lots of good-value wilderness activities you can do in Makarora, like rafting, hiking, jet-boating, and light aircraft tours, but I wouldn't know because most of them were cancelled due to the drizzle and wind, and I didn't feel good anyway.

Actually Makarora wasn't so bad. It was very remote and scenic, and the tourist center had a cute alpine feel, like all the towns around here. The weather cleared up, and I met some more people from the bus, relaxed, read, and eventually had a good night's sleep. The only thing that bummed me out is that the Makarora stop is a big night out for the bus, as there's nothing to do but buy a few kegs and drink lots, so because I was trying to get healthy I missed out on a good bonding session with my bus-mates. I didn't feel a whole lot better Friday morning, so I popped some Tylenol Cold medicine and enjoyed a rather spacey ride to Wanaka, which is like a miniature Queenstown on Lake Wanaka. We had lunch there, stopped at a fun tourist trap called PuzzleWorld, and then continued on to the original New Zealand bridge bungy jump on the Kawarau River (um, the River Anduin for you LOTR geeks). The AJ Hackett Bungy offices are at that site, so it was a good opportunity to schedule any bungy jumps that we wanted to do in Queenstown.

I had pretty much decided when I got to NZ that I wanted to do the Nevis Highwire Bungy, as it's the highest in the country, but the Tylenol Cold medicine sealed the deal and guaranteed that I didn't think too hard about it. There were 4 other guys (all English) and a girl from Sweden who wanted to do it too, so we signed up in a group for an 8am check-in time the next morning. I spent the rest of the day strolling around Queenstown, which is one of my favorite places in the world so far. The town only has about 10,000 residents, but there's an equal number of restaurants, tourist shops, bars/clubs, and adventure sports centers lining the very active main streets. The setting is magnificent: the town is nestled against gorgeous Lake Wakatipu, and the rugged Remarkables mountain range looms directly across the water. Queenstown has everything, especially for adrenaline junkies - there's rafting, canyoning, hiking, skydiving, parasailing, jetboating, skiing, snowboarding, 4-wheel off-road driving, mountain biking, and of course, bungy jumping.

I hardly slept at all on Friday night, partly because of my cold, and partly because I was nervous about the Nevis. I know I had just jumped out of a plane a few days before, but there are a few differences. When tandem skydiving, you're not actually the one who has to jump out of the plane. You're just along for the ride, while in a bungy jump you have to fight every self-preservation instinct and toss yourself off the ledge. Also, from 12,000 feet you can't actually tell that the ground is rushing up to meet you at an incredible speed. It just feels like you're in a wind tunnel, while in a bungy jump, imminent death seems very possible because the ground is right THERE.

Somehow I forced myself to trudge down to the Bungy center at 8am yesterday to meet my crew and sign in. I think my adrenaline was pumping too much to notice whether I still felt my cold or not. On a happy note, they weigh you at check-in, and I haven't gained any weight on my trip yet, much to my surprise! My muscles must be wasting away. Ha. Anyway, after check-in 18 of us nervously piled into a small bus for the 45-minute drive to the site. We entered the private road, climbed up an alarmingly steep section, and came out on top of the gorge. The Nevis Highwire Bungy is the world's first gondola bungy jump, and the gondola jump pod is suspended by cables 134 meters (440 feet, or 40-ish stories high!) over the Nevis River. As soon as we saw what we were in for every one of us had second thoughts - even the ones who had done other bungy jumps before.

We rode over to the gondola in groups of six in a little open-air suspended cable car, and the gondola was big enough to hold all the jumpers and 2 or 3 crew members. We jumped in order of descending weight so they could make adjustments to the bungy cord easily, which surprisingly meant that I was one of the last to go. Unfortunately that meant that I had to watch 12 or so people jump before me over the course of an hour, which was plenty of time to completely freak myself out. The pod has a glass floor, so you can watch the jumpers fall below you... and it seems like they're falling for a loooong time. And that mighty rushing river looks so tiny way down there! It didn't help that I got to see all the reactions of the jumpers as they were hoisted back into the pod: maybe 1/3 of them were thrilled, 1/3 were wobbly but OK, and the other 1/3 were visibly shaken. I was amazed that no one backed out, and no one got stuck on the edge either.

My turn came, inevitably, so while they were bringing the previous jumper back up they velcroed my leg pads on and sat me down in the chair next to the ledge. Sometime around then I switched into auto-pilot mode; most people do, because if you overthink it it's too easy to back out or freeze up. I just listened to the instructions while they attached the cord to my legs via a pontoon-like thing between my feet, and resigned myself to the fact that in one minute or so I'd be hurling myself to a gruesome death at the bottom of a gorge. Pearl Jam's "Even Flow" was playing on the stereo, which seemed "extreme sporty" enough, and I looked at the camera, smiled, and gave a big thumbs-up.

They shuffled me over to the tiny little ledge that juts out from the pod, and told me to stick my toes over the edge. I did, looked down (waaaaay down), and questioned my sanity for the thousandth time that hour. The guy told me to dive out as far as I could so that I'd fall head first, and then he counted down: 5, 4, 3, 2... and I did it on 1. That first split-second feels like that sensation that you have occasionally just before you fall asleep - you know, where you think you're falling and wake up with a panicked start. Only the feeling lasts about 100 split-seconds longer, and it's 100 times worse because it's real. After the initial lightning-quick shock, though, a big grin spread on my face and I let out a long "woo-hoo" as I free-fell for 6 seconds or so and watched the canyon walls rush by and the water below zoom closer.

The 2-inch thick latex bungy cord finally extended all the way just before I reached the water, and then gently brought me up to the top of my first bounce. I looked up at my feet and the gondola above and waved, and then fell back down again. At the top of the second bounce, I pulled a cord by my leg which released my feet from the bungy, which brought me up into a seated position. I sat and bounced for a while, and then was pulled back up into the pod where I smiled like a maniac and exchanged jump stories with friends. After we got back on firm ground we got to watch expertly-edited videos of our jumps, and I have to say I looked completely confident and graceful! In summary: it was terrifying, and that's gotta be the fastest $140 (US) I've ever spent, but I loved it and I'd do it again. My whole New Zealand experience is starting to feel like my own personal episode of "Fear Factor," only there's no Joe Rogan, and I'm not getting paid $50,000.

Last night was the Rugby World Cup Finals, and it was England vs Australia, so EVERYONE - even your correspondent - went to a sports bar or pub and watched the game. And drank. A lot. Somewhere along the way I finally learned the rules and gained an appreciation for the sport. It's much more fun to watch than US football or baseball! England won 20-17 in a nail-biter of a game, which meant that the pitchers of beer really started flowing afterwards because 90% of the backpackers here are English.

I didn't roll in until 3:30 or so, and today, consequently, was one of those "rest" days. The weather the past 2 days has been superb - 80F and not a cloud to be seen. It's most unlike the New Zealand I've come to know, so I made the most of it today and sat around in the park people-watching, working on the tan, writing in my non-online-journal, and listening to tunes. I love Queenstown so much that I extended my stay for a few days. I'll be here until Thursday, when I take off for Dunedin and then Christchurch. Tomorrow I'm doing a day trip to the Fiordlands National Park - specifically Milford Sound, which is supposed to be amazing.

Talk to you soon,

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