Hold on for a fast and fascinating day, writes Paul Rush.

I am facing my fear on the river. Speed wobbles; cheap thrills, 360-degree turns and blasts of cold spray are testing my courage in South Island's most dramatic mini canyon.

Jet boat rides have a high terror quotient but the Shotover Jet is the dizzy limit. "Big Red" is rocketing 8km downstream and then 12km upstream from Queenstown's Edith Cavill Bridge in a rock-wall-brushing, high-velocity blast.

I'm hunkered down in the midst of red-jacketed thrill seekers watching Skippers Canyon flash past in a blur. As we cruise into a section of open water, I see the driver's arm twirling above his head as a warning.

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We brace for a classic 360-degree turn. The spin is so rapid and exhilarating; we instantly become adrenalin-junkies, screaming with fear and delight, our faces wreathed in broad smiles with sparkling droplets of spray catching the sunlight on our cheeks and noses.

It's a great feeling skimming over the water on a white-knuckle ride — a power trip of the first order with 760 litres of water per second pumping through nozzles the size of a coffee cup.

Hurtling under the bridge, our driver skilfully whips the boat past rocky outcrops and skims around boulders, twisting and turning, slewing sideways and defying the odds of losing control.

The lower reaches of the river offer a new challenge. The braided channels are only 10cm deep in places and constantly changing, but our skipper's many hours of training mean that the run lines are dialled into his memory.

The whole experience is spectacular and exciting, pushing the boundaries of speed and insanity and creating a whole new dimension of trust to balance the innate fear of disaster. But hey, I'm in the Adventure Capital of the World and the point is to feel alive, find the adventurer in your soul and have a blast.

This jet boat ride is one of Queenstown's classic thrills that leave you fizzing with exhilaration but having shot the rapids I'm keen to explore the precipitous Skippers Rd.

I hop on board a Land Rover called Frodo with an experienced off-road driver, who also runs the ever-popular Lord of the Rings Scenes Tours and has 1200 Skippers runs under his belt.

Gold mining has left an ugly scar on the otherwise picturesque Shotover Valley.
Gold mining has left an ugly scar on the otherwise picturesque Shotover Valley.

With this sort of pedigree I have no excuse for feeling fearful as we rumble over the pass below Coronet Peak ski field and descend the narrow, one-way road, churning up clouds of dust. I'm gasping at the steep drop-offs and the collapsed sections of the once neatly-stacked protective rock wall. I'm getting dust and spray all in one day.

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The men who discovered gold in the South Island were a bunch of crafty codgers, as sharp-set and sharp-witted as a butcher's steak knife. Dunstan pioneers Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly made a monumental gold strike in 1862. They quietly beavered away for two weeks until they had amassed 40kg of the precious metal (worth $2 million today).

Two Queenstown sheep shearers, Harry Redfern and Thomas Arthur, struck gold on the Shotover River a year later at Arthur's Point and took 5kg from the banks of the Shotover and Arrow rivers in one week. After two months they had gold valued at £8000. After much soul-searching they reluctantly deigned to spread the good news abroad.

"Gold's pretty high in value now," my guide tells us. "One of our drivers owns a gold dredge, generator and pump and can talk about prospecting until the cows come home but won't reveal his favourite possies."

All around us are weirdly-shaped rock formations like Lightning Rock and the curiously upside-down Elephant Rock with four padded feet stretching upwards in a form of rigor mortis.

Castle Rock is silhouetted on the skyline and diving into the base of the gorge is a magnificent stand of wilding pines, so uniform I can't believe they are not a man-made plantation.

At Deep Creek we try our hand at gold panning, eagerly scanning the fine gravels in our pans for a mere hint of precious metal sparkling in the sunlight. Today, however, there's no colour, no tell-tale glint, not even a fly-speck or grain of auriferous material.

A helicopter whooshes overhead and a group of white-water kayakers that ride shotgun with commercial river rafters are testing their skills in the rapids. Just when peace reigns again on the river, a jet boat rounds the bend with a hiss and a roar, sending up a shower of spray. Untamed wilderness is becoming a rare commodity these days.

Soaring 90m above the Shotover is the historic Skippers Suspension Bridge, which we choose to cross on foot as the Land Rover is eased across with just centimetres of clearance each side.

On a broad terrace above the bridge is a virtual ghost town, the remains of Skippers Township, once the main gold settlement on the river.

Tea and scones are served on the veranda of the old Mt Aurum Homestead as we survey the camping ground and the beautifully restored schoolhouse. There's a veritable goldmine of photo opportunities here with stunning scenery on the walks to Londonderry Terrace, Bullendale, Dynamo Flat and the Crystal Battery.

I have taken a breathtaking ride in Frodo to the utterly wild and desolate regions of Mordor and Bruinen Ford. No Black Riders were encountered on my journey but I discovered an historic world forged in hard-won gold and dreams of riches beyond belief.

FACT BOX

Shotover Jet has thrilled three million people since 1970. They offer Family Pass special rates and there are Package Deals for combining Shotover Jet and Nomad Safaris.
Nomad Safaris run scenic 4WD tours and camping adventures around the Wakatipu Basin, Skippers Canyon, Macetown, Glenorchy and Arrowtown. Day and half-day tours are also operated on the Trails of Middle Earth, visiting scenes portrayed in the Lord of the Rings movies. The Skippers Road is off-limits for rental cars.

ONLINE
queenstownnz.co.nz
shotoverjet.com