If the gods of adventure travel had their own Mt. Olympus, it would be found somewhere in New Zealand. The Kiwis have long taken pride in their ability to outdo the rest of the world when it comes to flinging themselves from various heights and these adventures are the highlight of any trip to the island nation. When I traveled through the North and South Islands of New Zealand I had many opportunities to experience some of the best adventure travel experiences in the world, but these five were my favorite.
1. Black Water Tubing – Waitomo, on New Zealand’s North Island, is known mostly for its glowworms. This is one of the few places in the world where they exist and millions of visitors descend onto the village every year to walk through the dark caves and see the sparkly insects in person. For those looking for a more adventurous way to see the natural wonder, there’s nothing better than black water tubing through the underground cave system. Although I visited in the winter when the water was freezing, the adrenalin and the wet suit kept me going as I spent two hours tubing along streams and rapids with the only light provided by my headlamp and some bioluminescent larvae. The adventure wasn’t a lazy river by any means, the water was rough at times and more than once I found myself jumping backwards off of small waterfalls. But it was fun – a lot of fun. We actually did get our lazy river at the end when the water calmed and we could all lounge back in the tubes and watch the millions of glowworms sparkle overhead like a biological universe of stars.
2. OGO, human hamster ball – The easiest way to explain this experience to neophytes is to imagine a giant plastic ball filled with some water. Now imagine that you’re in this giant hamster ball as someone pushes it over a hill. That’s OGO. Also known by a competitor’s name Zorbing, this unusual New Zealand experience is absolutely not to be missed. At first I wasn’t going to do the water version of the hamster roll. It was 2 degrees Celsius, about 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the idea of being thrown into a ball filled with water sent shivers up my spine. New Zealanders have such a zest for their adventure lifestyle though, that it’s hard to say no to their excited logic and I soon found myself in front of the giant ball, which was indeed being filled with water. Luckily it was warm water and they really don’t add that much, just enough to make it fun. If you’ve ever wondered what it must feel like to be in a washing machine, zorbing is as close as you’ll get. Even at the time, in the confusing world of diffused light, water and a little uncertainty, I knew I was having a blast. Just as fast as it started, it ended, and as I indelicately extricated myself from the great plastic orb I looked up at the staff person and said, “I want to do that again!” Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to play in the hamster ball all day, but I easily could have.
3. Helicopter ride to the top of a glacier – One of the most amazing things about New Zealand is just how varied its landscape is throughout the country. From swamps and bays to rainforests and glaciers with everything in between, it seems impossible that such diverse beauty can coexist in one place. I discovered the majesty of this natural diversity firsthand when I took a helicopter ride up to the top of the Franz Josef glacier in the Southern Alps. Almost as soon as the Glacier Helicopters flight lifted off, Mt. Cook popped into view, a looming presence throughout the area. We skirted over the lush rainforest and before I knew it, we were on top of the glacier. It’s amazing really; the glacier looks exactly like a glacier should look. It was a vast, frozen river leading from the tops of the mountains to the valley below. We landed at the top for a little exploration and impromptu snowball fights before taking off again to zoom past the massive crevices of the ice mountain. The ride back included even more impressive views of the glacier and the flat plains below leading to the Tasman Sea. It really is strange to see the glacier adjacent to the mild valley below. There’s something surreal about it all and that makes it one of the best adventure activities in New Zealand.
4. Jet boating in Lord of the Rings country – If you travel through New Zealand, it’s hard to avoid the Lord of the Rings. Even if you’re not a fan of the movies, the sights featured in the film are well worth visiting for their incredible beauty if nothing else. One such adventure is by jet boat along Lake Wanaka and the Matukituki River into the Misty Mountains. Jet boats are unique in that they don’t use a propeller; instead they skim across the most shallow of waterways by a jet of water ejected from the boat. Because of the path of the river and the varying depths, the guide had to skim the boat around turns and angle the boat in every direction imaginable, even backwards, to get across without beaching. It was an exciting adrenalin rush as we raced along the waters, turning 360 degrees every now and then and scaring the crap out of some waterfowl. On either side of the river were soaring peaks and glacial waterfalls, all creating a spectacularly serene and mystical experience. I instantly understood why Peter Jackson used this area in his Lord of Rings movies. Even though it was cold and the fog hung heavy in the air, it was a rare pleasure to be all alone in the middle of nowhere surrounded by massive stone giants encircled by a ring of mist.
5. ZipTrek Ecotours – While zip lining may not have been invented in New Zealand (don’t tell them that) that doesn’t mean New Zealanders haven’t adopted it as their own. If there’s an opportunity to jump from improbable heights, the Kiwis will instantly be in love. This particular zip lining experience was made all the more special because of its unique location on a mountain overlooking the picturesque resort village Queenstown. While particularly active during the winter snow season, the lakes and mountains make this a must visit region throughout the year. More than just offer a thrilling ride through the tree tops though, the guides actively educate the participants along the way about the regional natural habitat and the importance of conservation. It’s a great mix of adventure and responsible travel and the killer views don’t hurt either.
Epilogue: Where’s Bungy?!
I know what you’re thinking, how could I write about adventure travel experiences in New Zealand without mentioning the grand daddy of them all, the bungy. Bungy jumping was pioneered in New Zealand, if you can call it that, and there are dozens of sites around the country promising amazing, death-defying experiences. I wanted to try bungy while traveling in New Zealand, mostly to conquer a nagging fear of heights I have. The fear isn’t constant, flying in a helicopter and zip lining don’t bother me, but jumping from an improbably high ledge secured by a rope attached to my body scares the crap out of me. Still, I was willing to try it, but it didn’t work out. Reservations were lost, I was short on time and the opportunity vanished. In truth, was part of me secretly happy the clerk had confused things? Yes, probably, but I double pinky swear I would have done it and if given the chance in the future, I will try again.
What are some of your favorite adventure travel experiences?