Queenstown, October 2017

After my week of adventures in Australia, I flew to the land where The Lord of The Rings was filmed, New Zealand. Even flying over and looking down at the snow-capped mountains of the South Island brought tears of excitement to my eyes. My first stop would be Queenstown, an adventure capital, and I had been quite nervous for the many months since booking the trip as I intended to jump off bridges and out of planes while there. As scary as jumping out of a plane seemed, I was more frightened of the bungy jump because I had to do the jump myself rather than a tandem jump where I let the experience happen to me. For Queenstown I booked two bungys and a skydive, as well as a Lord of the Rings film site tour, but I saved my New Zealand tattoo for Auckland. This did not mean, however, there would not be time nor room for a Queenstown tattoo.

When I arrived at my hotel, I overheard the receptionist telling the guests ahead of me about a luge ride in town. It was still quite early and I did not have anything else planned for the day, so I headed there as well even though I did not know exactly what I was in for. As I understood it, the luge was like a go-kart, but powered by gravity. It was a quick walk to the bottom of the mountain, and as I waited in line, I decided to book the full luge ride package, which included five rides. The hotel receptionist told me that three rides would be enough, but it did not cost much more for five and I did not want to limit myself in case I became addicted. The package also included the gondola ride up the mountain to see some amazing views of Queenstown and the surrounding landscape.

I entered the four-person gondola by myself and eagerly rode up the mountain. It was a little squeaky and nerve-wracking when it stopped in the middle with no indication of starting again, but it was great fun to be carried up the mountain. At the top, I paused to capture the scenery and walked over to the luge section of the mountain. I picked out my helmet, and then waited in line to be taken further up the mountain by a ski lift to get to the beginning of the track. It was amazing they let children go on it alone considering it was completely open with only a bar in front and plenty of room to slide out underneath it.  I hopped off and waited in yet another line to propel myself down the mountain. The first ride had to be on the beginner course with a training session. I saw that everyone was lined up and waiting for their turn and watching everyone else and I began to get a bit of stage fright, especially after seeing some older people have trouble operating the luge.

It was my turn to be trained, so I sat in a luge and followed instructions. Initially, I was not leaning back far enough so I got stuck a couple times, but I soon got the hang of it and was given the green light to go down the track. I was super slow and wobbly at first and was passed often, but as my confidence grew, so did my speed and I soon finished the course. As it was the beginners track, it was a smooth and not so windy decline. At the bottom, I had to stand in line for the ski lift and was impatient to go again. The advanced track was next and even though I had passed the beginners course easily, this one was definitely faster and with the more experienced riders, more intimidating. In addition, it was a school holiday that week and there was an entire classroom full of rowdy, impatient little boys running around. They were racing each other down the mountain, so most of the older people, including myself, were happy to let them go in front. I was pleased that all of them politely said thank you as they eagerly passed us by.

I grabbed my luge and started off and easily mastered the advanced track. The extra turns and hills were great fun and I liked the higher speed as well. I could have stopped at three, like the hotel receptionist said, but I loved it and was thrilled to have the extra chances to get to know the course and go faster and faster, even racing some of the little boys that I was worried about before. After the luge I found a little Irish pub and watched the AFL Grand Final. I had no idea what was going on but it was exciting to be part of the event in such an international crowd. After the match and a few drinks, I realized I had not had dinner. I found an Indian restaurant on my way back to the hotel and gorged on naan and lamb kabobs. A wonderful first day in New Zealand had ended.

I had a Lord of the Rings Glenorchy tour scheduled for the morning of the next day with the first of my bungy jumps afterwards. The tour was led by an English guy who called himself “Badger,” and he was small and wiry and full of energy. He took us to some gorgeous sites, including a grand view of The Remarkables, a mountain range used over and over again in numerous scenes. He also gave us a lot of behind the scenes anecdotes. After visiting the various locations, we stopped in the forest that was used as Lothlorien and Badger brewed up some tea while we tried on elven cloaks and played with replica swords. I had thought this was dorky in the Game of Thrones tour too but ended up enjoying it, so I encouraged the rest of the reluctant group to dress up as well.

Another interesting sight on the tour was this incredible thorny bush that the Maori used for tattoo needles. I considered harvesting a couple for myself so that I could travel and tattoo without getting flagged by metal detectors, but I knew that I could not bring vegetation in or out of New Zealand and I did not want to risk it. There were these Americans on our tour who did renaissance fairs and showed everyone their costume photos and tried really hard to make the trip about them. There was apparently an afternoon trip that was different from the morning one, and I regretted not having known about it, but not so much after learning they would be on it.

Plus, in the afternoon I had other plans, which I was very nervous about. I had some time before I needed to check in for the Kawarau bungy and so I managed a quick lunch. As I checked in, I had to answer a number of safety questions. I included my left hand deformity, even though I doubted it would matter. They asked me about whether I would be able to grab a stick and I responded that I could do so with my right hand. They weighed me and wrote my bus number and weight on my hands. I sat down and nervously waited to be called. While waiting, I talked to some other jumpers and discovered most were doing the Nevis bungy, which is the highest one in New Zealand and the one I was doing the next day. I wanted to do Kawarau first because it was the first commercial bungy site and a tourist attraction.

I was surprisingly calm on the bus ride there. I was even calm when I saw the bridge and the height it spanned over the Kawarau river. There was a boat at the bottom with guys meant to grab us and row us to shore after we finished the jump. I walked up to the platform and they told me I was going to go first even though I had wanted to watch someone else do it in front of me. I was stressed about how to jump off and I wanted to follow someone else’s technique. I had intended to simply let myself fall off, but I was told that leaping off creates a better photo. The only other person on my bus doing it refused to go first and so I shrugged and allowed myself to get kitted up. The guys doing it were joking around and teasing me and pretended like they did not know what they were doing, which was a good distraction.

I was placed in a light body harness and then had to sit on the ground so that my feet could be wrapped and bound and attached to the bungy cord. The operator asked me if I wanted to be dipped in the water and I initially said no but then was convinced to at least touch it. I was distracted enough by the conversation and activity around me and continued to be calm throughout the strapping-in process. I don’t think I had yet fully grasped what I was about to do. Then I had to stand up and shuffle my way to the edge of the platform. This was hard to do as my feet were tightly bound together. I did not fully look down and over the edge as the operator told me to look at a camera to my left and smile. I struck a pose. Then I had to look at another camera and I posed again. My focus was then brought back to the task at hand. I finally looked down and registered what I was doing. I saw the river at the bottom and swore a little and covered my face. The operator quickly counted down from three and I jumped, remembering to leap head first, and watched the river come toward me.

I could not breathe or scream or even think. I just felt. I felt free and crazy and tried to reach for the water, but then the rope pulled me back and suddenly my body was twisting and jerking around. I screamed in real terror and confusion not knowing whether my body was upside down or sideways. It was very disorienting and I felt completely out of control and freaked out. As I slowed down I saw a pole being lifted toward me. I reached for it and missed and swung out of reach. I reached again and grabbed it but then could not hold on as my body was still swinging wildly about. I reached a third time and was able to hold on and get pulled toward the boat. The guys brought me down and unwrapped my feet. I was in such disbelief at what I had just done that I robotically followed their instructions. I posed for another photo and then was brought to the edge of the river. As I climbed the stairs, I felt a rush of relief and accomplishment. The jump was only seconds long but would stay with me for a lifetime. I stopped to watch the other girl from my bus and applauded her courage as she was the only one of her group of friends who dared to do it. I also saw the number of people photographing and videotaping the jumpers as it was a public site and many tourists came only to spectate. I hoped that my pink hair made their photos a little more fun.

I then went to the shop to view my pictures and video. It was thrilling to see myself jumping off the platform and relive the moment, so I bought the entire package. I was so proud of myself and celebrated with a beer while already looking forward to the next day’s jumps. I spoke with one of the staff while waiting for the bus back and he said that I would enjoy Nevis so much more after having done Kawarau, which is exactly what I had intended in my planning. When I returned to Queenstown, I found the second Irish pub in town and had a quiet pint. On the way back to my hotel I had a couple slices of pizza and went to sleep. That night I dreamt of flying.

The next day I had a Nevis bungy and skydive combo. The skydive was scheduled first, but the morning drops had been canceled because it was too windy. I was able to be scheduled for an afternoon jump in case the wind died down and in the meantime, I would do the bungy. I had wanted to do the bungy first anyway, jumping from the lowest point to the highest, so I thought that worked out fine. I went to A.J. Hackett and checked in for the Nevis bungy. Again I mentioned my hand and again they asked me about it because this time I had to pull a strap from around my legs. I assured them I would be able to and proceeded to get weighed and numbered.

Because I had done a bungy already and knew what to expect, I was not as nervous for the Nevis except that it was over three times as high as the Kawarau, which was an admittedly scary thought. The drop was so much longer and it was a private site in the middle of nowhere with no tourists cheering us on. Unlike the Kawarau, the Nevis jump was off of a platform suspended by cables over a canyon carved out by the Nevis River. When we arrived at the site and I saw the height of the platform from the side, I definitely freaked out a little bit. It was also a different situation knowing I had to follow instructions in mid-air. After the third bounce, we had to pull a strap attached to our feet to release them so that we would be pulled back up right side up. It was okay if we couldn’t, except that it would be an uncomfortable return trip. After knowing how disorienting the first jump was, I was stressed that I would not know which was the third bounce nor be able to pull the strap, but I was comforted knowing I would not die if I could not manage it. We were also told to leap off the platform head-first, rather than jumping off feet first, for a smoother ride down, but I already had that covered.

There was a girl on my bus who was also doing the Nevis bungy and we bonded over it. She was the only one of her friends willing to do it and it was her first bungy, so I was happy to comfort her by telling her about my experience the previous day. To get to the platform, we had to be transported via a cable car across the canyon. It was rickety and a little unstable but we had already been put in harnesses and our bungees were attached to the car for safety. I was last in the group this time and had to watch everyone else go before me. That was hard because they were jumping for the first time and they were scared. One girl refused to jump and was standing on the platform for the longest time and had to be encouraged to finally go. Plus, most people were unable to pull the strap and came up upside down with bright red faces, which was my biggest fear at that point. There was a window in the floor for us to watch the others’ jumps and everyone told me not to look down. When looking down, however, my depth perception was off and I could not tell how high up I actually was, so it was easier for me to do that than to look at the platform from the edge of the canyon. Plus, I do not have a fear of heights when I feel I’m on stable ground, and the platform rocked a bit, but seemed stable enough.

When it was my turn, I was delighted to see that the same guy who operated my Kawarau jump was with me again at Nevis. We joked around a bit as he strapped me in and even switched the strap that I had to pull to my right side so that I could grab it easily with my right hand, rather than the left, which was customary for everyone else. I posed for a photo or two and was then led to the edge of the platform, again slowly shuffling as close to the edge as possible. I looked down and took a deep breath and this time, as soon as he said 3-2-1 go, I leapt without any hesitation. The fall was magical. I felt so light and free and really enjoyed the jump, which almost felt slow motion, even though I knew I was speeding toward the ground. Because it was three times higher than Kawarau, the first bounce was a long stretch and I came up two-thirds of the way and into another drop, staying mostly vertical the entire time. The second bounce was also easy and smooth without any of the jerkiness and disorientation that I had felt the previous day. A longer drop is definitely my preference and I enjoyed the bungy so much more. At the third bounce, I had plenty of time to find the strap and give it a quick jerk and my feet were released. When I felt my feet loosen and my body flipped over, I panicked a little and grabbed onto the bungy cord, but my body stayed attached and I had a pleasant ride back up to the platform. I screamed in delight and took in the glorious views of New Zealand. I was pulled onto the platform by the crew and they unwrapped my feet and got me into the cable car and back to the canyon’s edge. I viewed my video and photos and loved how one of the photos showed my body leaping through pure sky, making the Nevis platform appear as high as it actually was.

I smiled the entire bus ride back and felt proud of my accomplishment. The bus driver even told us stories of the area. New Zealand, unlike many other countries, celebrates its indigenous people and respects their culture and mythology. The lake in Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, is New Zealand’s longest lake and one of its deepest. According to Maori legend, the lake was formed by slaying a giant monster. Manata, the beautiful daughter of a local Maori chief was forbidden to marry Matakauri, the man she loved. One night, Manata was kidnapped by a fierce giant from the mountains named Matau. The chief was so distraught about his daughter that he promised Manata’s hand in marriage to the man from the tribe who could rescue her. Matakauri snuck into Matau’s lair under cover of darkness and rescued Manata, and the two were happily married at last. But Matakauri wanted to be sure that Matau would never threaten his wife or tribe again, so he set out to find the giant and kill him. He found Matau asleep, curled up on his giant side and set fire to him, burning him where he lay. The fire burned a deep gouge into the earth and caused the ice and snow on the surrounding mountains to melt, forming Lake Wakatipu. The name translates to “Hollow of the Giant.” The waters of the lake rise and fall up to 7 inches every few minutes, and this is said to be caused by Matau’s still-beating heart, which could not be destroyed.

After my jump, I was pumped for the skydive, and upon returning to Queenstown, I headed directly to the skydive registration desk to check in. Unfortunately, all drops had been canceled for the entire day due to high winds. I was crushed, but looked into booking a skydive for Auckland and found one that jumped at 16,500 feet, the highest in New Zealand, so I figured that would make up for it. Since I suddenly had a free afternoon, I thought I would explore more of Queenstown. I walked along Lake Wakatipu and marveled at the surrounding mountains, and then went into town. There was a burger joint, called Fergburger, which always had a huge line and a two hour wait. Because it was not peak meal time, there was a line of maybe four people, so I got in it. I enjoyed my massive burger with an ice cream shake while watching the birds hop around me. Then I went to the Minus 5 Ice Bar, because I had never been to such a thing before. The receptionist was from Grand Rapids, so we talked Founders while I was getting dressed. The bar provided coats and gloves for the frigid air inside the bar. I walked into the bar and it was like being in what I imagined an igloo would look like, except rectangular. All the décor and seating was carved out of ice and the bartender was making drinks and pouring them into glasses made of ice. I ordered a Peachy Penguin and sat down with it. This place was really cool, literally, and the cocktail was quite tasty.

After sipping for a while, I started to feel a chill and all the other patrons were leaving, so I finished my drink and went back outside to warm up in the still sunny day. Not knowing what else to do in such a small town, I remembered the tattoo shop, and decided to get a commemorative tattoo of my experiences in Queenstown. As I had primarily traveled there to bungy, I knew I wanted a bungy tattoo. I had a spot on the back of my arm that had three empty triangular shaped spaces around the Connecticut knife, the Indiana girl, and the Colorado snowflake and I had thought that if I were to get a spontaneous Queenstown tattoo, it would be a red rubber band bunched up in the background.

The shop, Otautahi Tattoo, was closing soon, but they took me in for a quick tattoo. I consulted with my assigned artist, Cameron, and he sketched a couple of ideas in red marker on my arm, but nothing looked right. Next to the knife, the zig zag, wrinkled bungy cord looked like intestines, and a regular rubber band looked like a plain red loop with no purpose. Cameron thought it would work to add a figure attached to the cord so that it would be more recognizable. I thought he could attach the cord to the Edward Gorey girl’s foot, but that did not look very good either. His drawing of a plain silhouette with a bungy cord was appealing, however, and I thought it would look cute in miniature and appropriate above my “be brave” tattoo from Key West. We agreed on that and agreed on an all red image and the tattoo was done very quickly. With the red ink out and a needle still in hand, Cameron also touched up the red in Birmingham Betty Boop’s dress and the bohemian feather from Prague.

After the tattoo, I went back to the Irish pub that I had visited the first night for a few pints and some live music to put a finishing touch on my Queenstown trip, still reeling from my Nevis jump. I absolutely loved everything about Queenstown. It is tiny, but gorgeously nestled in the mountains and full of things to do. Everyone is on a perpetual high from their risk-taking adventures and full of conversation, ready to tell each other about what they did that day. I regret not spending more time there as I wanted to see more nature, like Milford Sound, have another chance at the skydive, and do some other activities, like white water rafting. I have a feeling I’ll be back. I am thankful, however, that I crossed off an item on my bucket list and acquired a Queenstown tattoo as a souvenir. As I wrote this entry, my heart started pounding as I relived the moments leading up to the jumps, and I have a feeling that there will be more bungy jumps in my future as well. After all, Nevis is the fourteenth highest in the world, so I have at least thirteen more to do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *