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Queenstown, the Capital of Action

In bungee jumping's hometown, there are 75 adrenaline-surging outdoor sports, from river surfing to tandem skydiving

November 08, 1998|JOHN HENDERSON | Henderson is a sportswriter for the Denver Post

QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand — You don't really wake up in Queenstown. You leap up, tingling from a combination of excitement, fear, adrenaline and a little more fear. When you get up in this town, a beautiful, mountain- and lake-lined city on New Zealand's South Island, chances are you're about to do something you've never done before or ever thought you'd do. There's even a chance you'll do something you never knew existed.

Queenstown, recently voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine as the friendliest foreign city, offers 75 adventure sports ranging from hiking to skydiving and every nerve-racking, knee-shaking activity in between. What about tandem skydiving? Or parapenting? It's leaping off a hill or mountain with another person on your back tied to a fixed-wing parapente, something resembling a rectangular parachute. It offers a great view, if you can handle opening your eyes. How about River Bugs? They are one-person sleds the size of a small chair, perfect for going white-water rafting--alone.

Certainly you've heard of bungee jumping. Its current popularity got its jump-start a decade ago in Queenstown. But have you heard of bungee jumping from 336 feet up over a shallow riverbed? If you get up early you can do three of these adventures in one day, but don't try it. Nerves can be frayed only so far.

"We say it's an outdoor paradise," said Andrew Patterson, the city's international marketing manager. "Maybe the U.S. equivalent would be one giant natural Disneyland." Patterson claims he's tried nearly all 75 activities, including one that no longer exists: bungee jumping from a helicopter.

My thrill of choice during a visit last February was white-water rafting down the Shotover River, north of the city, considered among the most dangerous rivers in the world. However, the trip to the launch site made white-water rafting seem like sitting in a Jacuzzi for two hours.

The Shotover is about a 45-minute drive from Queenstown up a beautiful deep ravine called Skippers Canyon. That's 45 minutes by car. A pigeon with a bad wing could make it in about 10. We traveled over a pass built to help transport gold in the 19th century, and the road, er, path, hasn't improved much since. It's about 10% pavement and 90% gravel.

We were in a large van hauling a trailer with six huge rafts. I kept getting visions of some overloaded bus careening down the ravine. I peeked out the window and could not see the bottom. But the view was truly spectacular. The blue-green Shotover River snaked through a deep brown canyon with brilliant sunshine sparkling off the whitecapped water.

The Shotover is not tame. Four people died on the river in recent years, before Queenstown officials took steps to ensure safer rafting. At one time, five rafting companies fiercely competed for clients on the Shotover River. If one company felt the water was too high, with an increased danger of drownings, and decided not to offer trips, another company would often pick up the business. The results could be tragic.

After a tourist died in 1995, the rafting companies declared a truce and, among other things, set strict standards by which they agreed not to raft if the water went over a certain level. It worked. I've rafted all over the world (I live in Colorado), and the Shotover raft trip had the highest safety standards I've experienced. That's why I smiled when Peter, our guide from Queenstown Rafting, started our trip by joking, "Some guides rely on practice. I rely mostly on luck."

The two-hour river trip wasn't quite as wild as some on the Colorado River, but it was much more scenic. We floated lazily past waterfalls and huge, craggy cliffs, occasionally passing century-old skeletons of mining machinery. Only one of our eight boats flipped over. It happened during a rapid called "Toilet," named because everything drops through two huge rocks and is flushed out. We seemed engulfed until we were suddenly shot out of the rocks like a skipping stone.

When one boat ejected six of its eight passengers, the rescue operation was impressive. Before the boats went through the rapids, some guides stood on nearby rocks with ropes, ready for any potential rescue. After the one boat crashed, a guide jumped off a rock to get onto the boat so the two passengers left on board wouldn't have to paddle. Another guide threw him a rope tow, and the boats off to the side pulled in the others. (The only damage in our boat was when a man sitting behind me smashed his glasses against my helmet.)

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