Monday, January 7, 2008
Adventure in New Zealand
Caption: Starting a ski run from Pioneer Pass, down the Fox neve and glacier.
In 1994, I was asked to write an article on Adventure in New Zealand for a friend who was starting up a new magazine. I am not sure whether it was ever published so thought I would put it on the blog as a reference document
In a country where its normal to jump off bridges with rubber bands tied to your ankles, raft in dark underground caves, get dumped with skis by helicopters on mountain tops and go paragliding from local hilltops or scoff champagne breakfasts in a hot-air balloons, its no wonder that 71% of our visitors are coming to our shores specifically to share our outdoor experiences. And being a nation upholding the notion of "Manakitanga", the Maori word describing the relationship between caring and sharing, we're happy to share our treasures and care for you. Whether you want a wet and dirty time in Waitomo or a white, pristine experience in the Glacier region of New Zealand, adventures in Aotearoa can guarantee to keep your adrenaline pumping all day<
We're perched on the top of an 8000 ha skifield. Roy my ski mountaineering guide and I are the only ones here today. At just a spit below 3000 metres on Pioneer Pass, half of my skis are in Canterbury, the other half in Westland. Within a few kilometres and not much higher than us are New Zealand highest mountains: Aoraki (Mt. Cook), Tasman, Dampier, Douglas, Haast, Lendenfeld, Torres, Vancouver, Malaspina, Graham and Teichelmann; named after early navigators and explorers. Dropping below my bootsoles on the western side of the Southern Alps are 8000 ha of seldom skied snow fields of the Fox and neighbouring Franz Josef glacier neves. Looking further we see rapidly advancing rivers of ice, glaciers grinding the bedrock to dust as they slither through primeval rainforests on their way to the rough and messy Tasman Sea, less than 20 km away. Turning to the east on Pioneer Pass we look onto the mighty Tasman Glacier.
My gut knots. My fingers tingle as the adrenaline begins to pump. I have a nervous pee. We're going to ski a minimum of 1500 vertical metres in the next hour. Roy Smith, my guide from Fox Glacier village, coolly leads off, carrying an array of emergency equipment that fills a large back pack. The run begins with a blood rushing drop under cirques where we carve through soft, crisp powder snow leaving a plume of snow arching behind. Next we ski around bergshrunds and weave through crevasses with my heart pumping all the way as my knees object to their role as shock absorbers. We careen over steep and endless snowfields before reaching the top of Chancellor ridge overlooking the spectacular Fox Glacier. Sweating and breathless we look back to the patterns we have etched in the snow and marvel at the absence of human beings. Resting, we look up at Mt. Tasman, known to the Maori as Horokoau, the white shag drying its wings.. An American mate of mine Leo Geary parapented off the top of Tasman four years ago and boasted "it was the best jump he had in his life." So far this has been the best ski run of my life .
Roy points out the route to Chancellor Hut, a small wooden mountain refuge perched on a narrow ridge where we will be staying the night. Ten minutes later after a steep descent to the hut, we are snugly ensconced inside as the primus roars away. Out the window is a jumbled mass of ice slithering its way through dark green rainforest, then melting and joining a rough emerald coloured ocean. Our solitude is interrupted by scratching sounds on the roof. "It must be a Kea," says Roy. I go outside to see a cheeky green and red alpine parrot hanging by his beak from a guy-rope. He then hops onto my skis and begins pecking at the bindings. This fellow wants to wreck my skis. I shout at him to fly away. Inside Roy is calling Colin Tuck, the local helicopter pilot to pick us up in 15 minutes for a ride to Pioneer Hut, situated about 1200 metres above us, for another ski run.
At 46 years of age, a few of my old rugby injuries are playing up and I balk at another hard run. Roy, some years younger than me, initially chides me and then encourages me to have another go. This is another dream run which starts with a very steep descent from Pioneer Hut down the icy stretch called the nose-dive before striking superb powder where I am able to sit back and carve and roll on my skis as if I'm surfing down a water pipe. What a life. The scenery is overpowering and basically elemental. Going beyond the snowline engenders a survival mentality and shears life back to its basic elements. Food, shelter, warmth become my main thoughts as well as overwhelming feelings of uncontrolled excitement and enjoyment.
This was my playground in the late 1960's where I learnt to climb and ski hard. And at the pubs at Fox and Franz I learnt to play hard after weeks of pitting myself against the peaks, passes and snowfields. I love this region - a region of high mountains, limitless and snowfields, wild rivers, dark and exciting caves, rough coastline and Gondwanaland forests - so much that in 1990 I gave up an inner-city Auckland life-style and moved here permanently with Joan and our five daughters. It is now my back yard.
There are over 3200 glaciers in my back yard. Here I've taught my daughters to ski, climb, raft and kayak. After school they ride their horses along remote beaches and laugh at the killer waves mocking them. Here you feel the freedom of life, the freedom to choose your adventure, an inner peace and harmony with nature. To start the 1995 year, I canoed with my two youngest daughters to the far end Lake Kaniere where we camped, swam and caught eels under the shadow of the snow-capped southern alps.. At midnight of 31 December 1994 by a roaring log fire we drank champagne, ate freshly cooked eels and toasted to an adventurous 1995. Four days later I climbed Mt. Rolleston with close friends in the Arthurs Pass National Park and regretted leaving our skis behind as some young skiers shushed past us on the descent thumbing their noses at us. Yes it is possible to ski all year round in New Zealand.
In the late 1960's there was only one fledging mountain guiding company at Mount Cook and that was the extent of our adventure tourism business as we now call it.
But looking back through early Maori history in New Zealand there are scores of legends and stories of great adventures; canoe voyages from Polynesia to New Zealand, long overland treks and month long river trips in large canoes. One carefully recorded adventure tourism undertaking is about a Maori adventurer, Ekehu. He was paid for the longest ever journey recorded in New Zealand's history. Starting in 1846 Ekehu led an Englishman, Thomas Brunner on a 500 day adventure from Nelson down to the West Coast of the South Island and return. Brunner had few outdoor skills and on this epic Ekehu taught his client how to canoe, to raft, the climb cliffs using home-plaited ropes, to live off the land, rivers and sea, and most importantly, how to walk bare-footed. At one stage in the Buller Gorge when they had run out of food, Brunner was moved to write in his diary, " Today, I ate my dog." Such was the love and respect that Brunner had for his guide Ekehu he wrote at the end of the journey, " To Ekehu, I owe my life."
The food has improved since 1846 and if you're a glutton for adrenaline rushes, New Zealand can offer it all with more home comforts than those early days. John Woods, Editor of the New Zealand Adventure magazine gives a statistical overview of what there is to do. "In 1994 there were 377 adventure tourism operators or outdoor providers and there are probably another 300 to 400 smaller operators - many of them part-time and struggling to make a living."
A number of the world's bizarre adventure pursuits were started by New Zealanders. Bungy jumping was the invention of Queenstown's AJ Hackett, whose multi-national bungy jumping business has its world headquarters in Queenstown. Hackett's story is a classic rag to riches one with his business flourishing in France, USA, Australia and New Zealand.
Black-water (cave) rafting was founded in 1987 by John Ash and Peter Chandler who run the very successful Black Water Rafting company at Waitomo Caves
The world's first kayak, cycle and mountain running` triathlon, the Coast to Coast where the art of self-flagellation was perfected by Robin Judkins in devising a crazy endurance event that takes the adventurer from one side of New Zealand to the other over the Southern Alps in one day. Or if you aren't so fit, you can try the two individual event or the two-day teams event.
With a limit of 650 competitors the race is held on the first or second weekend in February each year .First run in 1983, the event is a sell-out each year with hundreds on the waiting list. The spectacular course starts on the West Coast's Kumara Beach with a short sprint to cycles. A 60km ride takes the competitor to the Deception River for a gut-busting 26km mountain run through Goat Pass. Following the run is a 15km cycle to the start of the 67km kayak section down the Waimakariri River. From the river the final section is a 70km to Christchurch's Sumner Beach.
With such a finger-tingling adrenaline smorgasbord of adventure where do you start ?
My advice is to grab a copy of the New Zealand's adventure bible, the 'NZ Adventure Annual and Directory of the Outdoors.' It contains all the outdoor adventure options in the country.
It divides New Zealand into 18 geographical regions and has an index starting with bungy jumping and finishes with walking. As you travel around New Zealand look for the VIN signs, it has a green with the words "VISITOR INFORMATION NETWORK" These offices provide up to the minute information on a huge range of adventure activities and facilities.
If you're like me and hate going in a group or having other people organise your life, you can just start cruising when you arrive in-country and follow your nose. Whether you end up in Northland or in Stewart Island, the extremities of New Zealand, you'll find something to your liking. If you get hopelessly lost go to the nearest pub to the public bar and say " I'll have, ah, our beer." That should get you a free beer and possibly a free bed on someone's couch for the night while you reconsider your options. You can choose to veer off the beaten track or travel to the more publicised/recognised adventure centres of Waitomo, Queenstown, Wanaka, Franz Josef, Fox Glacier, Taupo, Tongariro, Twizel or Mt. Cook where you'll find something off-beat to whet your appetite for more. Don't hurry, enjoy the trail. Wasn't it the great American western novelist Louis L'amour who said, "It ain't what you see at the end of the journey that's important but what you see along the trail."
The list of off-beat nerve tingling pursuits is never ending. Sand boarding the dunes of Northland's beautiful coastline is a thrilling experience as is white-water sledging with a mad Frenchman with an unlikely company name of 'Frogz Have More Fun' on Queenstown's wild Kawarau River. It involves holding onto a miniature surfboard and shooting river rapids. The French tell us white water sledging is a French invention and they brought it to New Zealand, but we don't want to deflate their ego by telling them we've been doing it for years. Tramping, New Zealand's equivalent to Australia's bush walking or America's back packing, is a tough outdoor activity where rugged individuals often go into the rugged hills and mountain with food and outdoor gear for up to three weeks. As at teenager three week trips were the norm and often when we got stuck at the head of a sheer-sided river gorge, we'd make our canvas packs as water tight as possible and using our pack as a flotation device, we'd run the gauntlet and float or sledge through the gorge. And often like the Rainbow warrior, our packs would get holes ripped in them by fair or foul means, and we'd begin to sink.
New Zealand has an extraordinary range of surf beaches in both islands and have led to a whole sub-culture of nomadic surfies and others who think nothing of quitting whatever they are doing to drive for hours at the mere rumour of a good swell brewing. Writing about the surfing options in New Zealand is a book yet to be written. If you want more information look for the nearest car with a surfboard on the rack.
Like our love for the sea, New Zealanders are fast becoming a river crazy nation as the number of kayakers, canoeists and rafters increase dramatically. We have produced a beavy of world class white water kayakers who were raised on a diet of wild-water and spine-tingling rapids and water-falls. So if you are looking for some dramatic white-water rafting or kayaking there are a host of options to choose from short one hour trips to five day journeys.
It is our love of the outdoors, strong physique and the thrill of pushing ourselves beyond our own self-imposed limitations that as a nation we began to gain international fame for our adventure exploits. New Zealanders hold heaps of records that have faded into dog-eared record books. Few people remember Naomi James achievement in the late 1970's as a young women she became the first women to sail round the world solo. Since then New Zealander's have taken on the world in ocean racing and are becoming a force to reckon with in the America's Cup.
Mt. Everest, the measuring stick of a persons endurance, stickability and mental toughness is littered with records unconsciously set by New Zealanders. Ed Hillary, the bee-keeper from next door was the first man to climb Everest, Lydia Brady the first women to climb Everest solo, Rob Hall the first non-Sherpa to climb Everest 4 times. Only last year one of our top Maori mountaineers, Mark Whetu of Queenstown climbed Mt. Everest for the second time with Mike Rheinberger, a 52 years old Australian. As they left the summit, Rheinberger showed signs of physical exhaustion, exposure and couldn't go any further.. The pair spent a night on the summit of Everest and Whetu displayed one of the greatest feats of courage in the history on mountaineering, trying to save his dying mate Risking his life, he stayed with Rheinberger through the night, but next morning Whetu had to make a life-saving decision for himself, leaving his partner close to death near the summit. Whetu managed to get off the mountain alive, but some weeks later on his return to New Zealand had all his toes amputated.
A few weeks later he was back managing his Queenstown-based adventure tourism business, Mountain Works.
Due to the vast experience gained both overseas and in New Zealand, our adventure tourism operators have brought a high standard of safety into amateur pursuits that were once considered a little risky in the past. With professional bodies like the NZ Mountain Guides Association which holds stringent examinations to international standards and require years of progressive experiences, the risk factor is kept in the 'act of God' compartment. While bungy jumping looks dangerous to the first-timer, the operatorshave exceedingly high safety standards and checking systems second to none.
I know some of you have been waiting for elaboration on my earlier reference to a wet and dirty experience. In confidence, I can give you my contacts in the New Zealand underground. Most of these murky experiences such as a trip to the Haggas Honking Holes at Waitomo is a ripper. Haggas Honking Holes is about fun and lots of mud and water. Four underground abseils are needed before crawling your way through sticky mud and worming your way through a tight hole, called the Pooh Hole - the A.A. Milne type of Pooh. The four and a half hour journey slowly makes its way upwards to ground level before climbing steep rockfaces and ladders through sparkling water falls. If you still itching for more fun, you can cap off your trip to Waitomo with a black water rafting trip, floating on inflated inner tubes through underground caverns, jumping down waterfalls
At Waitomo there is also the possibility to go rafting on the beautiful Mokau River, a three and a half hour white water rafting trip on exciting grade four water and to visit the glow-worm caves, one of New Zealand's great natural wonders. Here, you are in the heart of Maori country, steeped in an ancient history and culture. Take time out to learn something of the first New Zealanders.
If you find that a dirty and wet weekend at Waitomo hasn't fully satisfied the thrill seeker in you, head to the South Island for the Stiff Nipple Triple at Franz Josef or the Awesome Foursome at Queenstown. The 'Awesome Foursome' is still the world's most wicked adrenaline trip which is made up of a roller coaster helicopter ride, a 240 ft bungy jump, a high speed jet boat ride and capped off with a spine-tinkling rafting trip, all in one day.
No trip to New Zealand is complete without a bungy jump. Suicide without death is a common description of this home-grown adventure. There are a number of bungy companies operating in tourist centres in both the North and South Islands. There is nothing comparable to AJ Hackett's operation at the historic Skippers suspension bridge. It takes budding thrill seekers about 90 minutes to drive to the site through spectacular river gorge country to one of the most wildest and remote settings. This is the highest bungy jump in New Zealand, 71 metres above the raging Shotover River. The hardest part, apart from paying the price, is when you're standing on the platform with a single rubber cord tied to your ankles, is willing yourself to jump.
The most beautiful spot to be early morning in New Zealand is on the South Island's wild West Coast beaches. Take an early drive down to Gillespies Beach (near Fox Glacier) or Waiho Beach ( near Franz Josef) and look at the white snaking form of the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. You can gaze across cattle- studded farmland, primeval podocarp rain forests, the glaciers, snow fields and to New Zealand's highest mountains. As you gaze to the mountaintops, the Tasman sea dumps huge waves at your feet, reminding you are not important on natures canvas. At Franz Josef glacier the guiding company can offer a 'Stiff Nipple Triple,' which starts with a guided trip on the glacier, an exhilarating glacier rafting trip down the Waiho river ,the freezing melt water from the glacier. The triple is finished with a superb helicopter flight over some of the world's best scenery.
I have walked nearly every inch of this landscape and after nearly thirty years of coming back regularly to get to know it more, I decided a few years back to see the landscape from the sea as the early Maori explorers such as Tutoko and Werita Tainui, and European explorers Abel Tasman (1742) and James Cook (1769) had. But the sea has been described by many great sailors as the roughest in the world. My plan was to kayak the coastline from Gillespies beach to Okarito, about 30 kms by sea. I got one of mates Kevin Baker, a glacier guide at Fox Glacier to join me with his surf ski, and me in my sea kayak. As we stood on the beach watching ginormous waves pounding the beach, local resident Mark Shaw came up and said, "You won't get through that surf boys." I knew we would prove the old bugger wrong. We watched, waiting and sussed out the waves patterns; every 20 or so a few calm seconds. To the horror of old Mark, who must be knocking on 80, we sneaked through before the next monster creamed us into oblivion. I was shitting myself and having an adrenaline coronary but once through the breakers, we relaxed and paddled parallel to the coastline. There lay before a landscape that Kevin described as gobsmacking. Words fail me in describing the sea to mountain vista.
A turquoise wind rippled sea joined green velvet rainforest with the whitest and highest mountains in the country. It makes a man wonder who made it all.
Sea kayaking is becoming one of the fastest growing adventure activities in New Zealand. You can choose between the security of a sea kayaking company, or if you're good, paddle with equally competent friends. In the 1994 New Zealand Adventure Annual and Directory there are 69 canoe/kayak operators listed, a number of them specialising in sea kayaking. Some of the greatest buzzes I've ever had in the outdoors is kayaking in big surf or on ocean journeys where you are battling against constantly changing rips, tidal streams and winds.
After kayaking across Cook Strait, that notorious stretch of water separating the North and South Islands, three times in two months in 1988, a double crossing and a solo crossing, I teamed up with the el supremo of world kayaking, Paul Caffyn, and went to Australia to attempt to be the first people to kayak from Australia to New Zealand. Caffyn is undoubtedly the best sea kayaker in the world. His marathon journeys include the first to kayak around New Zealand, Australia (350 days), Great Britain, Japan and most recently, he became the first person to kayak the whole coastline of Alaska.
After a failed first attempt to cross the Tasman Sea we came back to Hobart for a second try and had a detention order slapped on us by the Tasmanian Police, forbidding us to go to sea again as our kayak did not meet the requirements for sea-going vessels.
If we broke the order we were liable for a $5000 fine and a stint in prison. Knowing of Australia's early penal history and their barbaric treatment of convicts, we abandoned the attempt. So that's a challenge awaiting another devious sea kayaker.
For a memorable cultural, canoeing experience, nothing can beat a leisurely three to five day paddle down the historic Whanganui River. At every bend there is a story waiting to be told by experienced guides who know every mood and tale of the river. You can stop and places like Pipiriki, Jerusalem, 'Bridge to Nowhere' and linger for a day or two. Rivers have ruled the lives of so many New Zealanders, but nowhere as much as those hardy Maori people who live in scattered communities along the banks of the Whanganui.
There are blood rushing adventures round every corner in New Zealand waiting for you to discover.You may wonder why I haven't described the activities in fine detail ? There is nothing worse than someone taking away what is going to be your adventure of a life time. I don't want to rob you of your personal sense of self discovery and the thrill of not knowing what is round the next corner.