Queenstown: Just close your eyes and jump

By Rose Garratt

The spectacular vista is outlined from the Ziptrek line. Photo / Supplied
The spectacular vista is outlined from the Ziptrek line. Photo / Supplied

Maybe it was because I dress sporty casual or because I've taken my life in my hands by braving Auckland motorists to cycle into work. Whatever the reason, I was tapped on the shoulder to go to Queenstown and report on what those wanting a break from snow sports could do there during winter.

The short answer is plenty. The long answer may take some time as I'm still trying to slow my heartbeat and catch my breath. Queenstown has long been the adventure capital of New Zealand, and with good reason. There are enough adrenaline-inducing activities to have even the bravest soul reaching for a shot of Dutch courage.

My quest started relatively sedately with a short flight with the Helicopter Line up to Gondola Hill behind the town. That was before the wind kicked up. Our pilot calmly told us three previous flights had been unable to land because of the conditions - but he would try anyway.

By the time he touched down safely I was wishing I could've taken the gondola instead. It was great to be back on terra firma, enjoying the views of Queenstown, but that sensation wasn't to last long as we headed to Ziptrek Ecotours, in the forest near the gondola.

A recent addition to Queenstown's adventure activities, Ziptrek is a two-hour flying fox experience through the forest. It's exhilarating flying through the trees, especially on a windy day when they sway towards you. The wooden launch platforms are high in the canopy, better than any childhood tree house.

There are four ziplines, the longest 250m, so you have plenty of opportunity to live out your Tarzan fantasies while learning about the ecology of the area from the knowledgeable guides.

If flying isn't your thing, you will find another thrill in the Kawarau River with Queenstown Rafting, the country's largest white-water rafting company. It's a wild ride negotiating grade 2 and 3 rapids while keeping hold of your paddle and trying not to fall into the icy waters.

Once the trip is over the rafting base has hot showers and a sauna to warm your extremities. Helping to heft the raft out of the river also provides a bit of a workout.

I wish I had stopped there and headed back to the Crowne Plaza Queenstown to relax in the bar with a local pinot noir, rather than heading to the Shotover Canyon to try canyon swinging.

How bad could it be? When I was standing, kitted out on the edge of the ravine, I questioned my sanity.

The Shotover Canyon Swing experience starts as soon as you check in at their town-based office. The weigh-in was mortifying enough but then the staff get to work on psyching out the customers out.

By the time we got the jump deck I was feeling rather gung-ho, until I actually looked down into the canyon. Stepping, jumping or being dropped off a solid platform into nothingness is a terrifying experience.

The sensation of free-falling 60m at 150km/h is not one I want to repeat anytime soon. I was so petrified I didn't scream. Apparently there are those who really enjoy this adrenaline kick. More than 62,000 people have experienced the thrill, or terror, of dropping off that cliff-edge platform over the Shotover River. The oldest swinger so far is 86.

I don't know how their heart handled it because I still get palpitations when I look at the photos of the jump.

If you need an antidote to all the adrenaline-inducing activities, head to the Botswana Butchery on Marine Parade for delicious dining. Don't let the small quaint street frontage fool you. This building is like a Tardis, opening into a chic establishment with an upstairs bar and roaring fire, perfect for chilly nights or apres ski.

If casual is more your style, you can't go past Fergburger in Shotover St for delicious big burgers and Speights on tap. Open until 4am, this place is heaving at any hour and is guaranteed to quell any hunger pains.

The final leg of the journey was a drive into the spectacular Skippers Canyon. It's advisable not to tackle the trip in anything less than a 4WD, especially in winter, and if you're in a rental car, forget it.

This is the one road in New Zealand where you won't be covered by rental car insurance. Why becomes obvious the further we venture into the canyon. The road is a narrow track that falls away steeply.

We stopped where there was a narrow band of rock to walk out on to, but only if wearing non-slippery soled shoes. I had no fear as I was wearing my heavy-duty hiking boots, but then I tripped, to collective gasps from the rest of the tour. Obviously I survived, but for a second I thought I'd be base jumping without a parachute - and that wasn't on the itinerary.

If the 4WD journey in isn't breath-taking enough, the jet boat ride in Skippers Canyon will have you gasping for air.

The river trips run throughout the year and take you under the site of the original Pipeline bungy jump and perilously close to huge metal structures left in the river once the gold miners had moved on.

To thaw out from the jetboat ride take in Winky's Museum, where you'll find relics from gold mining in the area, including a shoe containing foot bones still intact.

If you're feeling lucky, try your hand at gold panning and you may leave the area marginally wealthier than when you arrived.

You're sure to leave richer for the experience of venturing into this beautiful and remote area.

There is plenty to do in Queenstown if snow sport is not your thing.

Just wrap up warm and take a clean pair of underwear.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Queenstown from Auckland and Christchurch. Phone 0800 737 000

Where to stay: Crowne Plaza Queenstown is conveniently located on Beach Street, with rooms offering mountain, lake or courtyard views. Phone (03) 441 0095.

When to go: The Queenstown Winter Festival runs from June 25 to July 4. The inaugural 100% Pure Winter Games are on from August 21-30. Visit queenstown-nz.co.nz.

What to do:

* Ziptrek Ecotour, phone 0800 947 8735.
* The Helicopter Line, phone (03) 442 3034.
* Queenstown Rafting, phone (03) 442 9792.
* Shotover Canyon Swing, phone (03)442 6990.
* Skippers Canyon, phone (03)442 9434.

Rose Garratt travelled courtesy of Intercontinental Hotels Group with assistance from Destination Queenstown and Air New Zealand.

- Herald on Sunday

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