Adventures in Central Otago are designed to inspire and excite, writes Tim Brewster.
I'm standing on a wire cable halfway up a waterfall. Above me tower the schist peaks that run along from Treble Cone Ski area. Scene of the Misty Mountains route, hunting ground of Orcs, flight path of the eagles and, when not masquerading as Middle Earth, home to kea, native falcon and paragliders drifting about in the thermals.
Thanks to the safety briefing at the start of Wildwire Wanaka's Twin Waterfall via ferrata climb, I'm hooked on to thick steel cable and a rod fixed in the rock with not one, but three carabiners.
Ahead of me, the young Singaporean couple who started off cautiously, have eased into a rhythm upwards, reassured by the secure harness set-up, professional guidance and well-placed rungs.
It's a stunner up here. Winding away from me out west is the mighty Matukituki River valley shaped more than 10,000 years ago. It got its classic u-shape from the last glacier which blundered through like some giant bogan lurching home from the Cromwell races.
Random piles of moraine rubble are scattered all over the place, waterways and lakes gouged out and entire mountainsides mauled like so much playdough.
At valley's end is the snowcapped ridge of the Southern Alps and Mt Aspiring National Park shielding the hinterland from the worst excesses of westerly storms. Beneath my feet is a void filled with pure Central Otago air. A lot of it.
What I don't see or hear is the clatter and bustle of big-box tourism with buses, tour
co-ordinators and a constant hustle to get to the front of the line for pretty much everything.
I'm in a group of four and the guide, Alice, knows our names. (She needs to. "Don't unclip that one yet, Tim. Do your safety one up first.")
This is outdoor tourism — Wanaka style, a poster child for quality over quantity, an approach many in the area feel is crucial for a sustainable long-term visitor industry.
For those who haven't seen it, the land and lake west of Wanaka township is an unpolished gem.
It's an area that captivates most who venture into it and, thanks to a group of independent tour operators with unmatched expertise in their respective fields, visitors and locals can explore its many dimensions safely.
Regardless of your ability (or height threshold), they've created a suite of outdoor, immersive experiences that will remain with you long after that toy souvenir bungy sheep has stopped its baa-ing.
Wanaka Wildwire opened two years ago after a kilometre of steel cable and 2500 hardened steel steps were installed on the rock faces of a 700m waterfall.
The brainchild of Wanaka couple Mark and Laurel Morrison, the idea was to give people the buzz of climbing without them having to know any of the technical details, Mark said.
A former mountain guide and expedition leader for 20 years, Mark has a lot of experience assessing risk and individuals to provide a safe adventure outing. It shows.
Even for someone at the height-induced panic-attack end of the spectrum like myself, the Go Wild beginner section — the first of three stages topping out at Lord of the Rungs and a helicopter pickup — is achievable and highly rewarding, with excellent support from the guides. And then you can walk back down a proper track . . .
Age ranges have been from three, (I'm guessing a climber's kid) up to 84, with responses overwhelmingly positive.
"The opportunity for people to achieve something so big has an incredible effect on them," Mark says.
Maybe you want to see what the river's all about? Jetboat operators Brent and Sue Pihama have been Wanaka residents since the mid 1980s and set up Wanaka River Journeys more than a decade ago to guide visitors through the winding braids of the Matukituki.
Although the buzz of a jetboat ride is a Kiwi classic, you won't get glacier views like this anywhere else.
Other unique aspects of the trip are guided walks through the native beech forest and historical kōrero on the spiritual connections between humans and the land. Did I say immersive?
A packrafting option to really be at one with the river has also been a popular choice recently.
If you want to delve below the surface of the rumpled mountainsides, consider an outing with Deep Canyon, further up the valley.
It has been set up by some of the country's top alpinists and you'll don wetsuits to clamber, slither, dangle and leap into caverns and pools worn smooth by streams and shaped by the aforementioned bogan glacier and old-school plate tectonics.
Ever heard about that island in the lake with a lake on it?
Chris Riley, of Eco Wanaka Adventures, and his niche brand of performance tourism has been taking people out to Mou Waho for decades.
His predator-control programme and restoration work alongside other dedicated conservationists, has meant the island is a cacophony of squawks, cooing and song from bellbirds, native pigeons, biscuit-stealing buff weka and other feathered natives rarely seen in such numbers outside of a reserve. Eco also offers guided walks up to view Rob Roy glacier and helihikes to alpine tarns and LOTR locations.
A 4WD tour of West Wanaka Station is another outing for some excessively stunning scenery. Ridgeline Adventures has exclusive access to this high-country farm bordering the lake and provides an excellent commentary on the land and the farming heritage of the area.
Via Ferrata translates to 'iron road' from Italian. The origins are from a World War I method of fixing permanent pegs, rungs and rope ladders into rock to help move troops over steep rock faces.
Air New Zealand and Jetstar fly from Auckland to Queenstown. Wanaka is just over an hour's drive from Queenstown airport.