Otago: Jetboat spin offers unexpected thrills

By Elizabeth Binning

A cold, wet end to a thrilling wilderness voyage is all part of the adventure, writes Elizabeth Binning.

Queenstown is not only beautiful but offers some thrilling adventures right on its doorstep. Photo / Dean Purcell
Queenstown is not only beautiful but offers some thrilling adventures right on its doorstep. Photo / Dean Purcell

Sometimes it's the unexpected things - like finding yourself ankle-deep in a freezing cold river during what was meant to be a relatively dry jetboat ride - that makes a trip memorable.

The Dart River Jet Safaris brochure described the ride as an "exhilarating wilderness jetboat journey, complete with thrilling jet spins".

It went on to say that we'd "navigate the ever-changing shallow channels of the glacier-fed Dart River's braided river system, with your expert jetboat driver stopping along the way to highlight and discuss points of interest that make this unique area of natural and cultural importance".

It didn't mention that sometimes the channels are so shallow that the boat runs aground and everyone has to abandon ship. Admittedly the prospect might not attract many tourists but in my experience it adds to the fun.

We were about half way through the ride when we got stuck. We had already gone up the pristine river - which winds its way through the spectacular Mt Aspiring National Park - and were heading back towards the head of Lake Wakatipu when our driver stopped to show us a neat little pool tucked away on the side.

To get into the pool we slowly navigated our way over the shallow riverbed - an impressive feat given we were only in a few centimetres of water after leaving the main part of the river. Once there we all oohed and aahed at the natural beauty of the turquoise pool and the lovely surrounding bush. But when we attempted to head back we got into trouble.

Our driver knew straight away that we were stuck. The rest of us figured we'd gotten in all right so there must be a way out. But we really were grounded.

With no other option, the driver radioed for help and offered to carry each of us across the rocks to the bush. He was only about two steps from the boat, with a teenage tourist on his back, when that plan went to custard and they both ended up in the water.

After that I decided to roll up my jeans and jump in - with my boots still on - and make my own way to the riverbank. When I looked back I saw all the other tourists waiting hesitantly at the front of the boat - they weren't too keen on getting wet - so I waded back to the driver and together we helped them across the riverstones.

After a short walk through the bush we came out further down the river to find another boat waiting for us. The rest of the trip went as planned. There were thrilling spins and beautiful scenery. But it was that little bit of unexpected adventure that made the journey memorable for me.

Dart River Jet Safaris, based in Glenorchy, offers two kinds of adventures up the river - Wilderness Safaris and Funyak Safaris.

The Wilderness Safari, which we were on, includes a guided walk through ancient beech forest while the Funyak Safari involves an adventure down the river in an inflatable canoe.

On the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy our driver, Stuart, took us back in time to about 800 years ago when tribes travelled through "these parts" as they journeyed through the mountains.

He described how when European settlers arrived about 200 years ago there were no animals, just birds and bats. Walking through ancient beech forest in the national park before the jetboat ride, the only sounds we heard came from birds and it wasn't hard to feel like we'd travelled back in time.

Time travel was a common theme during our long weekend away in Queenstown as I got to learn more about the region's history while on an RD Tour through Skippers Canyon near Coronet Peak.

Gold was discovered in the area in 1862 but the only way into the canyon was on foot or horseback along jagged rocks and terraces that run alongside, and often high above, the fast-flowing river.

Charles, our guide, said there were about 5000 men living in the area during the peak of the gold rush and during that time there was "a lot of hardship, suffering and drowning in the river".

Today access is slightly better. There is a narrow road that winds its way down the canyon though there are warning signs that you travel there at your own risk.

It takes about two hours to get to the station and along the way there's no shortage of amazing views - including rocks with names like "the Light House" and "King Kong". It takes me a while to see it but once I do there's no denying that the large rock jutting out over the valley bears a resemblance to the giant ape.

Charles said work started on the road in the late 1800s. Chinese labourers were lowered over the side of sheer bluff to chip away at the cliffs before drilling holes for explosives. "They would pull on the rope a few times and hopefully be pulled up in time." Unsurprisingly, not all made it back alive.

With no safety barriers and plenty of sheer bluffs, the risks on the road still remain but it's well worth it, especially if you are interested in history.

For those who aren't, there's always the option to pan for gold in Arrowtown - so once again I ended up in ankle-deep water... this time the sandflies were out for a piece of me, too.

Then again, it's those little unexpected details that add to the magic of a trip away.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies several times a day to Queenstown.

Where to stay: Distinction Queenstown Nugget Point Boutique Hotel & Spa offers a full selection of accommodation options.

What to do:

* RD Tours

* Dart River Jet Safaris

Further information: See queenstown-nz.co.nz

Elizabeth Binning and Dean Purcell visited Queenstown as guests of Distinction Queenstown Nugget Point Boutique Hotel and Spa and Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 25 Jul 2014 19:08:49 Processing Time: 787ms