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Monday, February 19, 2007

5, 4, 3, 2...

New Zealand.
Wow. Wow. Wow.

I know that seems an elementary description, but there’s no way that I can adequately do written justice to the plentiful natural beauty of New Zealand. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of stunning landscapes over the last eighteen months, but New Zealand’s South Island is like nothing I’ve visually experienced before. It’s not one or two stops that embody a worthwhile landscape, one or two “must-dos” in a list of other tourist destinations. ALL of New Zealand is worth seeing because every part, big town or small town, mountain or valley, lakefront or oceanfront, is breathtaking.

My first stop was Queenstown, in the south of the South Island. My plan over the next three weeks was to spend about two weeks on the South Island (hailed the better of the two) and one on the North Island. Everyone who had come to New Zealand before me, as well as every article I read on New Zealand suggested renting a car and driving the country. Not only would I be on my own schedule (buses run infrequently here), but I’d get to see much more of this glorious place than I would depending on public transport. But I’d be alone. Safe? Worthwhile? I decided yes. I loved driving, period. This couldn’t be anything but a good decision. So, upon arriving at the airport, I approached all the rental desks only to be told that ALL cars on the South Island were in use (is that possible?) and it was unlikely I’d be able to secure a car at all during my time in the country. No. Unacceptable answer. I had decided on the drive, I HAD TO drive, so I tasked my concierge, an able porter named Mike who, while schlepping my bags to my room, reminded me three times that he was “also the concierge.” “Mike the concierge, please find me a car, then.” To which he responded, “No worries, mate. I’ll get it done.”

Queenstown is, from what I saw, an Interlachen for adults. Most of my friends have been to Interlachen on the post-college Europe trip. For those who haven’t, Interlachen is the Swiss chalet town that functions on ski season tourism in the winter and lake district adventures in the summer. Queenstown is similar. But, oh-so-much-better. Lying on Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the Remarkables mountain range, Queenstown is a gorgeous valley of a small, buzzing town hawking every kind of adventure sport under the sun: kayaking, white-water rafting, jetboating, 4-wheel driving, scenic-flying, skydiving, paragliding, canyoning, and, of course, bungee jumping. The original home of the bungee at Kawarau Bridge, there are now two other jump sites, as well as bungee swings that combine the freefall of bungee with the adrenaline of a mid-air swing. All frighteningly enticing…

Add to the adventure, the 200+ bars and restaurants in the tiny little area, there’s little time to want for things to do in Queenstown. Stores sell outdoor clothing, equipment, and supplies. Every café/restaurant/storefront also books day tours. So as you’re drinking your latte and devouring your eggs on toast, you’re also contemplating which combination of daredevil trips will merit your attention. Likely, you can just have the waitress add it onto your bill. It’s big business here in Queenstown, but it works. On my first night, after merely sitting baffled on the square deciding my vices for the next few days as I poured over the requisite brochure reading from various outlets, I met James and J---- (I never got his name, and when three days later, we were all still hanging out, I couldn’t ask…) who kept me busy sampling different pubs each night, and 4WD’ing around Arrowtown (a neighboring town) by day. The Kiwis are easily the friendliest people on Earth. Yes, even more so than Aussies (if that’s possible!)

On my own, without the J-boys, I did a Fly-Cruise-Fly to the Milford Sound, which is actually a fjord NOT a sound and an awesome example of the many natural wonders in New Zealand. I flew in a Cessna over the Remarkables (yes, shotgun) to the Milford region. Fly #1. Then, I took a boat ride down the water, into the inlets, out toward Tasman Sea, then back again (remarkably similar to the Chilean-Argentine Patagonia lake crossing). Cruise. We then boarded the Cessna once again, to fly back over the snow-capped mountains before landing safely in a sunny Queenstown for the rest of the day. Fly #2. An amazing morning. Onto the Shotover Jet, a highly publicized jetboat (a quick little zipper that can do 360 degree turns) excursion that ran down the gorge filled Shotover River. A let down, not at all the thrill-ride advertised (though the Spanish couple next to me were whopping like they were doing a bungee jump, rather than a fuel-injected boat ride), but there I met a great couple from California, Ken and Iris, who figured into my later travels.

Then I headed up to the Gondola, which overlooks the city. Opting not to indulge in the Luge track and race against myself like a loser, I walked over to “The Ledge” bungee jump. There I watched jumper after jumper brave their fears, hurling themselves…gulp…off a mountain. I desperately wanted to bungee jump. How could I be in New Zealand and NOT jump? The safety record was impeccable, the rush was guaranteed, everyone lived and raved once done. I HAD to do it. But each day I put it off, finding another activity to keep me busy, even preferring to sit on park benches reading, munching on a burger and fries (best I’ve had in my life from a Cory suggestion, Fergburger), or people-watching. I decided that IF a rental car came through, I’d drive to the “original” bungee bridge and do it there on my way north, out of town. Authenticity of jump would be preserved and a car rental company would decide my fate. When I arrived back at the hotel that night, Europcar had phoned. They had a rental for me. It would arrive in Queenstown tomorrow. 10 AM. Yay, I had a car! I would be the New Zed (as they say) explorer I so desperately wanted to be. Shit! I had to bungee.

10 AM became 4 PM as I waited patiently reading and eating YET another burger. I know, I know, I’m on a diet after Queenstown. When they delivered my little silver Mazda, I wasn’t exactly at my most pleasant, as I would be starting a 6 hour drive in a foreign country--driving on the wrong side of the street, sitting on the wrong side of the car--at 4 PM. Meaning if I wanted to drive in daylight I had to forego my bungee jump at the Bridge. No way. I could not use the car as an excuse. So, after Mike the porter/concierge loaded me up, I set off for the Bridge.

I stood at the Bridge for over an hour, watching from various angles. I stood with photo-snapping tourists, with fellow decision-wracked compatriots, with successfully jumped adventurists. I went on the Bridge and looked down wishing that I had a friend to goad me into doing it; it’s at these moments when a travel companion would come in handy. Better though, I had to find my own courage. And, I did. When the guys on the Bridge started to shut down for the day, my moment came. I marched into the office, hands shaking, knees already buckling, and plunked down my credit card. Barefoot and ballsy, I walked out onto the Bridge to get “secured” which translates to a towel (YEP, a towel) folded and wrapped around my ankles, wound by a elastic cord, and fastened to a longer elastic cord clipped to a harness around my waist that cupped my ass. That’s it. The guys were talking to me the whole time, questions about where I was from, what I did. Stairway to Heaven was playing. Apropos, in an ironic and morbid way. I looked down when I stepped out on the platform and lost my nerve. I was asked to smile for the camera then wave to the pack of Japanese tourists with cameras at the ready down below. “I can’t do this,” I said to Will, my friendly Kiwi bungee boy, as I started to turn around. “Yes, you can, Marie. The longer you stand up here, the harder it is. You’re going to be thrilled in one minute’s time. I’m going to count back from five. Ready?” But, I didn’t get any time to be “ready,” as Will went right into the countdown. “5, 4, 3, 2…”

I didn’t hear 1. I splayed my arms out and threw myself off that bridge into the air. I have NO IDEA how I did it or what came over me at that moment. As I sailed off, mountains ahead, river below, I heard Will say, “Damn, that was an awesome dive,” to Henry, his bungee co-worker. All I know is, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had. It was over before I knew it; then I was just bobbing up and down over a raging, turquoise river as my stomach flip flopped, confused by the defiance of gravity. I finally screamed, letting out all the pent-up adrenaline I had bottled inside for the past hour. A throaty, satisfied “Waaa-hooo” that echoed off the surrounding hills. Mission complete. (And, I looked good doing it!)

Back into the car, nothing could stop me from smiling all the way to Franz Josef. A feat, in and of itself, given the way the drive went… That’s a whole other story. New Zealand is turning out to be not only more beautiful, but way more interesting than expected…

More soon,


PS. I got the BEST comment from a Kiwi who read my Oz blog... Check it out. I'm VERY proud....

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