New Zealand’s adrenaline centre Queenstown has a rival in one of its smaller, lesser-known rivals. DAMIAN HALL investigates Wanaka’s ups and downs.
You know that kid at school who always put his hand up first but never knew the answer? Well, that was me – and the worst thing is, I haven’t changed. Bedecked in helmet, wetsuit and large cushion-nappy thing, I’d done a few small abseils, swam across a couple of rock pools and was quickly coming to the conclusion that this canyoning lark was a breeze. Then we come to the top of a 12m-high waterfall. At the bottom lies another small but muscular pool and on either side sheer, glistening black rock.
Right,” says Alister, our guide, “we can abseil down this waterfall, or…” he adds with a challenging twinkle in his eye, “you can jump.”
My head says, “Jump? I’d rather get a back, sack and crack wax from Anne Widdecombe,” yet my arm is already in the air and, independently, my mouth has made some noises that sound very much like, “Yeah, OK then.” Twelve metres is actually a very long way and there aren’t any lifeguards or safety nets. Is that tiny pool deep enough to prevent a messy ending? Everyone else has abseiled down and is staring up at me with looks that say, “He’s going to chicken out. Or become a lump of jelly.”
I have to jump, and I have to jump soon – bungee jumping has taught me that time is the enemy of courage. So I shut my eyes and step out … and it’s an amazing, if heart-stopping, rush. Fear factor conquered, along with Alister and a doctor called Chloe (if a doctor’s doing it, it must be safe, right?), we jump from another five ridiculously high ledges into swirling black pools, as we slide, slip, squirm, swim, abseil face-first and flying-fox our way down the steep canyon. Canyoning is sensational and exhausting fun, and it’s only scary if you’ve learnt nothing from your school days.
Locals say Wanaka, located just over 100km from Queenstown at the southern end of the South Island, is like its neighbour was 20 years ago. Mesmerising mountains and giant, gentle lakes are strewn around it like offerings to a gluttonous king. But the town’s a whole lot smaller, quieter and less mental. Though it’s relatively quiet, there’s barrel loads of fun to be had. Most options involve descending at great speed.
A fine way to get a good gawp at the superlative surroundings is to get up in them there hills. There are three ways of doing this. One: take a hike, which you’ll doubtless find rewarding if you have the appetite for a hard slog. Two: try altitude mountain biking. This involves a 4WD journey to the top of the Pisa Range – 5000ft above sea level – from where you bomb down the 15km like a speed demon, trying to stay on your bike while dodging the stinging Spanish grass, rabbits and anyone who falls off their bike in front of you. It’s a helter-skelter heap of fun.
The third way is on a quad bike. These are a laugh too, especially if your guide (cheers, Jim) lets you go on ahead as fast as you want, resulting in you getting carried away and thinking you’re some kind of stuntman and nearly disappearing off the edge. Before I nearly killed myself, we went to the top of the same range and saw tussocked hills spreading east as far as the eye could see.
All three versions offer truly incredible views that are only marginally less spectacular than those offered by a skydive. The thing is, with a skydive, you’re not really thinking about the vistas so much, but more about whether you’ll live or die.
The next day, I find myself sitting on the edge of an aeroplane with my legs dangling out of the door, staring helplessly into the epic, inescapable nothingness. Someone says smile” and points to a camera. I do the opposite. And then we’re gone, into a backward somersault. Then down, down, down … and I realise I’m screaming. Not in panic, but in sheer, unadulterated whatever it is. “IIICCCAAANNFFLLLYY … IIII’MMMAAA BIRRRRDDDDDD … WOOO-HOOOOOO.”
Forty seconds later, the parachute pops open and it feels like being shot back upwards out of a cannon. We drift for another four glorious minutes towards the safety of terra firma.
The floor might be dull, but rocks aren’t. Just round the corner from Wanaka is a top-of-the-range climbing site. I took a half-day rock climbing course and learnt how to belay, “edge and smear” and how to climb for a while without it feeling like your forearms are about to explode (let your legs do the hard grafting). It was nice to be going up, instead of down, for a change and I was soon thinking I was better than Spider-Man. Until I got too cocky, that is, and fell off.
The next morning, driving through the Cardrona Valley, I pass Wanaka’s famous bra fence – literally hundreds of brassieres of all sizes attached to a fence for no reason other than mirth. It seems like a kind of homage to surrealism, and has probably caused a few road accidents.
As my girlfriend can’t be persuaded to part with one of her own, I decide it’s only respectful to leave a personal offering – a clean, if hole-ridden, pair of boxers. It’s hard saying goobye to my lucky pants, but I feel, leaving them with all those bras, like they’ve gone to undies heaven.
You’d think Kiwis have enough ways of scaring people shitless already, but no. They’re constantly pioneering new ones, like white water sledging. The sport is exactly what it says on the tin: white water rafting with a sledge/bodyboard instead of a raft. You’re pretty much at the raging river’s mercy as it snatches you up and pulls you along.
Once you learn to stop fighting and simply go with the flow (and shut your mouth if you don’t fancy swallowing gallons of the stuff), it’s quite a thrill – especially when you get stuck in a small whirlpool that spins you round and round before spitting you out.
Later, I’m told off for going too fast and not staying with the main group (like I had a choice in the matter). Following instructions: something else I didn’t learn at school.”