There’s only one thing Kiwis love more than rugby and sheep – and that’s chucking themselves off as many big things as possible.
For the ultimate rush, Queenstown – home of bungy pioneer AJ Hackett – is a great place to start. Have a go on the Shotover Canyon Swing, a giant rope swing 109m above the canyon, or try a parabungy – bungy jump from a parachute 150m in the air. Next is the Nevis. The N-n-n-n-nevis is enough to make bikers reach for their teddy bears. At 134m it’s the highest jump in Australasia (third in the world).
Auckland Bridge and the picturesque Lake Taupo are two of the more popular jumps on the North Island.
Skydives also proliferate the country – you could fall out of the sky towards the sparkling Lake Taupo, above the bubbling geysers of Rotorua, or towards the West Coast glaciers, just to list a few.
Among the best places to try whitewater rafting include the Shotover, Kawarau, and Whanganui Rivers near Queenstown, the Arahura River near Hokitika and the Rangitaiki, Tongariro, Hutt Rivers on the North Island.
But what the Kiwis really excel at is thrill-seeking oddities. Take zorbing for example – another Kiwi invention, which you can try in Rotorua. Basically, you strap yourself inside a giant plastic ball and roll down a hill. Brilliant.
River sledging is another quirky one. It’s kind of body-boarding meets whitewater rafting. Each sledger gets kitted up with a bodyboard, and you simply hurtle yourself down a fast-flowing river, screaming your head off.
The Agrodome Leisure Park in Rotorua has got heaps of activities if you want to get your adrenalin fix all at once. You can go jetboating, bungy jumping or try the Freefall Xtreme (a skydive simulator machine).
If you want to get down and dirty in NZ, head to Waitomo Caves. There you’ll find yourself abseiling down a 100m cliff into glow-worm caves, doing a flying fox in the pitch dark, or sitting on a rubber ring and swimming through underground tunnels.
Finally, a serious adrenalin adventure often overlooked by backpackers is mountaineering. Surely you can’t go much higher, literally and mentally, than clambering up some of New Zealand’s dashing yet dangerous mountains? Mount Aspiring National Park and Mount Cook National Park are two of the best spots to get high.
Explore Middle Earth
Whether you go to “Middle Earth” with your sword and cloak, spouting Elvish, or simply with a love of superlative-defying scenery, you can’t help but give in to its allure. It was already a beautiful and mysterious Tolkien-esque world of belching volcanoes, eerie woodlands, endless valleys and foreboding mountain ranges before Peter Jackson got his camera out.
If you’re interested in checking out some of the film scenes, first the bad news. Some Lord Of The Rings film locations are on private land, others are elusive and some are a jigsaw of two, three or more parts of New Zealand, plus heavy technical effects.
The good news? Some sites are unmistakable, and quite magical, and there are heaps of knowledgeable tour companies happy to take you to exact spots, tell you on-set stories and show you memorabilia. In fact, it seems the whole country had something to do with the films. If you’d rather find them for yourself, The Lord Of The Rings Location Guidebook (HarperCollins) by Ian Brodie is your best bet.
In Matamata, two hours south of Auckland (or “Orc-land”), is “Hobbiton”, the only set from the films still standing. It’s no surprise the rugged, bleak and active volcanic region of Tongariro National Park was used as Mordor. If 2287m Mt Ngauruhoe looks vaguely familiar, it’s because it was where Gollum, The Ring and Frodo’s finger plunged to their doom. Wellington is positively hemmed in by locations and the Southern Alps double as the Misty Mountains. The valley that housed Edoras can be reached from Geraldine.
However, nowhere are LOTR locations more concentrated than around Wanaka, Queenstown and Glenorchy, including the River Anduin and the Ford of Bruinen. Queenstown’s Deer Park Heights provided over half a dozen locations, most notably where the Rohan refugees were attacked by the Warg riders and Aragorn took a fall.
A Place in the Sun
In New Zealand, you can actually swim with dolphins in the wild. One of the best places to do so is in the Bay of Islands, on the northern tip of the North Island, where there are 500 bottlenose dolphins in the area and a few tours to choose from.
By singing under water and twirling around playfully, you can find yourself surrounded by these curious mammals. You’ll be kitted up in a wetsuit, snorkel and mask – and then it’s up to you to approach the pod and get them to interact. It’s an incredible sensation finding yourself eye-to-eye with Flipper as you’re floating through the water, belting out showtunes into your snorkel.
Famous for coastal scenery and sunny weather (they get the most sunshine in New Zealand), the Bay of Islands and Northland regions are also rich in culture and history. Sixty per cent of the population is Maori.
There are heaps of activities you can do in the area, from sea kayaking to jetboating, scenic cruises, sailing, diving, skydiving and surfing. Most travellers base themselves in the town of Paihia, where the hostels, bars and tour companies are situated. No trip would be complete without a visit to Cape Reinga.
Along the tour, you’ll visit the Puteki Forest where age-old kauri trees grow. The oldest tree here is 500 years old, and they have been known to grow up to 5m wide and 60m high. You can drive along a stretch of Ninety Mile Beach (actually just 87km long), and do some sandboarding over the 85m sand dunes.
Last stop is Cape Reinga, where the Maori people first arrived in New Zealand. This spectacular coastline is marked with a lighthouse and from here you can see where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide.
Hike A Glacier
NZ has over 3000 glaciers and two of the largest, most spectacular and most accessible are the magnificent Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Only in Patagonia do glaciers exist so close to the sea at such a height as these two fine frozen specimens.
The colossal tongues of ice flow down from Australasia’s highest peaks, Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. We say flow because they are physically moving, at a pace of up to four metres a day (though our crippled climate causes them to recede at a slightly faster rate). The glaciers are of very similar design, though Fox is slightly smaller and quieter.
Guided day hikes, where you’ll be given an ice axe and crampons to intimately explore the curves and crevices of this ancient ice kingdom, are highly rewarding.
For a little more money, but a lot more altitude a Heli-Hike is a truly wonderful way to see either glacier. You’ll fly straight up the deep valley, following the frozen river, then nestle up to the dashing mountain peaks before landing on a ledge close to the névé (where snow collects to feed the glacier).
There are several excellent day and half-day walks for some breathtaking, photo-tastic views. And if you stay in the Fox Glacier township, the early morning views across Lake Matheson, where the twin peaks of Cook and Tasman are reflected onto the mirror-like water, are on postcards all round the country.
Best Foot Fiord
There’s one country New Zealand gets compared to most: Norway – and it’s due to the network of fiords that make up a chunk of the South Island’s south-west.
Such scenic grandeur is hard to match; think towering peaks, often snow-capped or wrapped in thick mist, plunging dramatically into long tracts of deep, dark blue water. Think of a landscape largely impervious to roads and settlement, that goes on and on into the mist. Think of a landscape that receives some of the highest rainfall in the world, making it greener and wetter than the Scottish Highlands. You’re thinking of the World-Heritage-listed and helpfully-named Fiordland.
The most popular spot in this stunning corner of NZ is Milford Sound. A boat or kayak trip is rightly considered essential for all South Island visitors. The views are just as magical, perhaps more so, on a wet day, when the whole place comes alive with waterfalls emerging from every nook and cranny. There’s a good chance you will see dolphins and seals on a trip, too.
If Milford Sound sounds too busy for your liking, check out neighbouring Doubtful Sound. Though arguably less dramatic, it’s more isolated, much bigger and a whole heap quieter.
There are a number of spectacular walks in Fiordland, in fact it’s considered the premier tramping area in a country spoilt for choice. The three-day Milford Track is the most famous, but it’s usually booked out months in advance and there are plenty more spectacular walks in the area, such as the Keplar, the Hollyford, the remote Dusky Track and the Routeburn.
Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, is placed at the bottom of the North Island and is considered the arts and culture capital. The city has a vibrant café scene, with more cafés and bars per capita than New York. As it’s only two kilometres wide, it’s very easy to navigate around on foot between sites, and it’s surrounded by pristine countryside and beaches.
While Wellington may be the capital, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city in population. The big smoke, set towards the top end of the North Island, has cafés and restaurants, plus a great live music scene and plenty of venues to host them. Not only is it a great place to party with fellow backpackers, but the “City of Sails” is known for its sailing and outdoor activities, like bungying off the Auckland Harbour Bridge or jumping from the Sky Tower.
The South Island’s biggest city, Christchurch, has a distinctly British feel, with plenty of parks, ponds and museums based around the hub of the city, Cathedral Square. In the summer, hang out for the Summertime Festival, which runs for the full length of the season and sees plenty of free outdoor events. Come winter, gear up for the snow season with nearby resorts Mount Cook and Mt Hutt providing excellent skiing and snowboarding from early June to late October. Christchurch is fully equipped for the backpacker scene with loads of hostels, car rentals and activities.
Photos: Thinkstock, Getty, TNT