Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Day I Flung Myself Off a Bridge

Tuesday, May 10
South Island

This was the day we would take a drive out to visit Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo about three hours away. We hit the road early to make the most of fall's limited daylight, ready for a more relaxed pace. When we came across A.J. Hackett Bungy, the world's first Bungy site, I was yet unaware of just how far from relaxed I'd be getting.

We grabbed the cameras and descended the spiral walkramp to the viewing deck positioned at one end of the Kawarau Bridge, which stretched over the river of the same name. Not two days before when asked if I'd ever Bungy jump, my answer was a swift no; I'd seen the jolt people received when they reached the end of the cord and it looked painful. But as we watched a man spread his arms and leap into a serene looking swan-dive, then smoothly stretch down and swing back up after reaching the cord's ultimate stretch point, I experienced a nearly immediate desire to do it, myself. There was not jolt, no whiplash, nothing that looked the least bit uncomfortable, aside from the whole jumping off a bridge thing. I was bubbling over with excitement and a little bit of fear (the best combination for anyone who enjoys a shot of adrenaline), but Chris kept a straight face. Remember, not so fond of heights.  I went back and forth.  It's too expensive, I shouldn't do it.  But this is the birthplace of Bungy, how can I not do it?  What a fantastic place to Bungy jump for the first - and maybe only - time!  

Can you guess which way I went?

The guys who strapped me into the safety harness and then ankle straps were immune to the excitement of a first-timer, but it didn't matter. As I watched one guy wrap my ankles tightly I asked why no one had been screaming. They hadn't noticed.  I said there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to keep myself from doing so, and they said that I got to be the first of the day. It was quick once my ankles and safety harness were hooked to the Bungy cord.  I was instructed to walk out to the edge of the platform, which I did in tiny mini-steps. Then it was time for a couple pictures before the leap.  I could hear my heart pounding in my ears as the guy told me to let go of the handle - I didn't realize I was holding on. He told me to reach my arms out and look up, a smart way to keep from not hesitating before hurtling yourself off a bridge, and before I had time to think he counted down, 3, 2, 1, JUMP!  

All I saw was that gorgeous, turquoise colored water in front of me, and all I heard was my own hideous scream as I flew toward it. Seriously, I could never be in a horror movie because my scream was disgusting.  It had the guttural quality of someone who is truly being sawed in half. The vertical fall sent my brain into I'm-going-to-die adrenaline-pumping overload, but once I swung back up, it was all peace. My favorite ride ay any amusement park is the one where they shoot you straight up into the air, and then you free-fall back down. After the free-fall, you usually shoot back up again, then down again, and so on. The feeling of calm after that rush from the fall when you're just floating in the air like a feather is what the rest of my Bungy experience felt like. Just me, swinging slowly up and down, back and forth over the Kawarau River, laughing from the relief of surviving...


Ask me now if I'd do it again, and my answer is now a swift, yes! But given the opportunity to do a second jump for a third of the price right after my big jump, and I said, Thanks, I'm good. Once was enough, and besides, I didn't want to take away from the unique awesomeness of my first jump. I got the T-shirt, the pictures, and a high-five from a couple of Japanese women who praised my courage, and I was set.

When we left to get back to our scheduled day trip, I couldn't come down. My heart rate remained happily up, I was so excited and proud of the very impromptu nature of what I'd just done. I'm a planner, to the extent of practicing certain conversations in my head before they happen so I'm better prepared. Anything on a whim kind of stresses me out, but this didn't. This was amazing and liberating in a way I hadn't expected. Aside from the fear of plummeting to your death, there is something innately unnatural about willing yourself to step (or jump) off of a platform of a bridge. Something to do with our primal need to survive, or something :)  But doing it was kind of an eye-opener for me. If I can just do something I'm ultimately afraid fo doing, instead of obsessing over it and over-thinking it as I always do, it might just work out okay.  I might survive it, and I might just have a great time. Apply that to what you will. As for me, I'm a little less afraid of taking a leap now, and I thank Mr. A.J. Hackett for helping me out with that.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Flying Foxes and Fjords

Sunday, May 8 - Flying Foxes
South Island

Sunday was the day that I would be zipping from tree to tree with ZipTrek Ecotours, an eco-friendly zip-line (or flying fox, as the Kiwis call it) company with a set-up in Queenstown. Before I could do any zipping, however, we first had to make it to the top of the gondola line at the Skyline Complex that sits over the city.  It was a drizzly morning, but the view was still pretty amazing so high up.

In our gondola
Sheep having breakfast.
It doesn't look it, but this mountain side was steep!

The view of Queenstown from the Skyline.

And a good luck kiss before I went zipping.

Soon enough it was time to meet up with the guides for the flying fox at the first jumping platform a short walk down from the Skyline. As Chris isn't so fond of heights, I did this one without him, though not on my own. Along with three other flyers, I geared up and set out to take a ride through the treetops, expertly guided by Haley and Julia. Between the 2 Aussies, local Kiwi, American me and our Canadian guides, we were a diverse group, but you gotta love it when four different countries still equal just one language.
The first platform

Since ZipTrek is not just your typical adventure tour company, from platform to platform we learned about how they work to not only offer adventure tours without damaging the environment, but also how they use these tours to teach sustainability, minimizing our impact on our environment, and the benefits of community outreach.  Much of the money made from their tours goes to local charities and community projects, and even the platforms and lines between trees, once removed, will not cause irreparable damage to the forest.

The first line was scary only because it was the first, and a lovely Kiwi woman named Sonsoray stepped up to go first. (Forgive my phonetic spelling, it's such a beautiful name!) The feeling of flying among the trees through early morning, misty air was exhilarating and freeing.  Doing so while hanging upside down was a whole other experience! I took along our Flip Video camera to capture what I could - beware, wind and screaming may call for you to lower your volume. Upon further inspection, I opted not to include the video of me flying upside down, as there's the slightest chance some profanity made its way out of my mouth, and my mom reads this! (Yes, I'm a goody goody who wants to believe my parents don't know I know such words, let alone speak them.) But here is the one where I stepped off the platform backwards, arms out.

The first five lines were fun, not scary as they weren't steep.  Line number six, however, was another animal.  The sixth and final line of our tour was (and still is, I suspect) the steepest tree-to-tree zip-line in the world.  And I couldn't wait!  I wasn't able to record this one because of safety precautions.  Because the braking system is different for so steep a line, you can't have anything attached to you, like a camera, lest it get caught and royally screw up your chances of a safe landing in the event that the first brake fails. Lucky for us - and everyone else who's taken this tour - everyone made it safely to the final landing site, and from there we hiked down a bit further to the base of the gondola line to take off our gear and say goodbye. As I left my flying fox friends to meet up with Chris in town, I decided that though it was early in the trip, THIS would be my favorite part.

Chris and I met up down by the wharf, where we ran into a bunch of Wilsons on their way out to celebrate Mother's Day. Such great people, and a reminder to try to call home. We headed back toward the gondolas to lunch in one of Queentown's most loved, local eateries, Fergburger. When I tell you we had burgers, it is impossible for you to fully comprehend what we actually ate. Kiwis may make the best hamburgers in the world. Their menu had burgers with beef, venison, chicken, tofu, or lamb, topped with everything from streaky bacon, avocado, all kinds of cheese, curry, and vegetables.  These burgers had to be eaten partially wrapped in paper or it'd never make it to your mouth in one piece, so heavy and dripping with savory goodness were they. Fergburger started off as a shack and is now treated like a national treasure, in Queenstown at least. We felt honored to have been able to digest a little bit of that treasure.

Later in the afternoon was our ride on a jet boat on the Kawarau River.  Everyone put on their waterproof pants and jackets and loaded up for our hour long, high speed ride down the river, complete with 360 degree spins. If we were on a road and not a river, we'd have left some serious skid marks from the hard braking and spinning. It was a blast.

With nothing else booked and the need to chill for a bit, we took in a movie at a cute little theater in town  before meeting up with Kristin, Matt, and friends at a pub for drinks.  It was nice to kick back with friendly people over pints with a rugby game on, though we didn't make it too late of a night.  We had ot be up early for our tour of Milford Sound the next morning.

Monday, May 9 - Milford Sound 

Milford Sound is one of the best known and most visited areas in the Fjordland National Park on the South Island. We booked a tour with the BBQ Bus so we could sit back and enjoy the 5 hour ride there and back, which was great first thing in the morning when the fog gave us all good reason to nod off for a bit.  

Our driver and guide, Nick, told us stories from local lore, as well as the real stories of how several of New Zealand's animals came to the islands. Rabbits were introduced for hunting way back by the Brits, then when they did what rabbits do, the stoat was introduced to control the exploding rabbit population, a mean little cousin of the ferret.  Stoats were ideal because they can run, climb, swim, whatever to catch a bite to eat, and they eat almost anything.  Unfortunately, the stoats soon caught on that whereas rabbits ran very quickly, the native kiwi bird did not quite have speed on their side.  Kiwi birds are ground-dwelling birds with round bodies, that apparently are heaven on a plate to a stoat. It is due in large part to this that the kiwi has become an endangered species in NZ.

Something we saw a lot of on our way out to Milford were deer farms, something we didn't expect. Just as beef cattle are raised for their meat, and sheep raised for their wool (and lambs), deer here are raised in the same way. It was a little strange at first to pass by fenced in fields of adult deer with their antlers sawed off, but it made sense as venison is a popular meat choice in many places.

We made a stop in the town of Te Anau for some breakfast and a pick-up before we got to Milford. Before meeting Jamie from Fresno, Chris and I wandered down the road from where Nick parked the van to get a couple of pies from a tiny roadside shop.  Clearly all those deer farms had made us hungry, for we both went for a venison pie for breakfast. Yum. We have GOT to learn to make meat pies!

Along the way we made several stops to admire more of the area's unique characteristics, and it was nice to get out of the van and take a short walk here and there. Our stops allowed for short walks through forest to see a couple of lakes and a gorgeous chasm carved out by the rushing waters.

                           Mirror Lake

        The walk to Lake Gunn

The Chasm

One really great thing about visiting New Zealand in the late fall is that it's NOT tourist season, and every tour we went on reflected this in its low numbers of people.  It was nice.  Our group of five (all American) was joined only by two other groups on the cruise boat, so there was plenty of room and plenty of food at the nice little lunch buffet.  We found it a little odd that the food was mostly Asian, but hey, it was a good deal.

The day was mostly sunny and the water was beautiful.  The heavy low-hanging clouds lolled on the tops of mountains around us, but that just added to the beauty of it all. We saw one seal asleep on some rocks, got right up under a gorgeous waterfall, and I tried not to fall (more than once) on my rear when the boat tilted.

There's something about being out in the middle of something so enormous as this.  When the boat's engines were quieted, the only sounds came from birds and waterfalls.  The silence between is something beautiful, too, as there seems to be nothing but you and the air you breathe for a moment out on the water.  It's easy to forget that there are people around you and you start to wonder when you last heard silence so heavy and calm.

The drive back to Queenstown was as beautiful, as the fog had burned off in the afternoon sun and we could see the landscape around us. I'm drawn to water, be it sea or lake.  As I look over our pictures, it's apparent that the photos below are my favorite to take.

It was a full day and we were saturated by the amazing beauty of this place.  Until tomorrow then.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Queenstown, NZ & Kristin's Wedding

Saturday, May 7
South Island

We slept a glorious 14 hours without interruption - FOURTEEN! And being that we went to bed at the same time as your grandparents the night before, we were up early and ready for the day.

Good morning, Queenstown - the view from our room by Lake Wakatipu.

First stop, the Saturday Artist Market downtown to get a taste of Queenstown before the wedding that afternoon.

Across the street from our hotel, looking left...

...and looking right.

The walk to town and the market.

Local artists set up by the wharf every Saturday to sell their wares, and I'm a sucker for local artists. Across the tables were hand-painted Maori designs, flattened beer bottle clocks, pottery, jewelry, and knitwear. There was even a man with his guitar nearby to add music to our shopping experience.

The Hat Lady

She said this one brought out my eyes.

We walked around by the water for a while, soaking up the early day sunshine and beautiful view of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables, the mountain range beyond.

Across from the wharf, we wandered into a park where frisbee golf is a serious sport, and trees from around the world have been planted to create a multicultural collection.

A big tree and me :)

The colors were astonishing as we ambled along the pathways, over tiny bridges and hills rising above the lake.  It was a beautifully calm way to begin the day.  Next stop: Kristin and Matt's wedding!

Although a missed email about changing ceremony times made for a slightly late arrival, we got there in time to watch Kristin and Matt take their vows inside a gorgeous little chapel atop a hill at the Stoneridge Estate.  The ceremony was short and sweet, then it was time for pictures before the rain swept in.

Matt, mother of the bride, and Kristin

Luckily there were drinks and hors d'oeuvres awaiting us inside, alongside stone fireplaces and beneath  exposed-beam ceilings - it was all very romantic. Matt's family comes from Auckland, and there were a bunch of them there for the big day, all wonderfully friendly and welcoming to the handful of Americans that made the trip. By the end of the night, we'd managed to not only make tentative dinner plans with one set of cousins once in Auckland at the end of our trip, but plans to get together while in Edinburgh in August with another pair who happens to currently live there. 
The food was fabulous, the company even better, and it was cool to be at the wedding of the girl who once dyed her hair green and wore green eyeliner for lipstick, the same girl who introduced me to punk music and threw me a surprise party for my seventeenth birthday.  

I met Kristin in the 9th grade at St. Petersburg High School. I was insecure and shy, and she was not.  Kristin had a strong sense of self then, and in her life has done it all for herself. She's the only person I've ever known who could just decide to go somewhere and make it happen. Florida to New York?  No problem. New York to Australia?  Sure! How about New Zealand, with a couple stints working in Antarctica? Why not! And now here she was, marrying the man of her dreams, a Kiwi, in his homeland and starting on the next chapter of life.  

It was a fantastic way to end our first real day in Queenstown, and an even better way to kick off our trip. What could be better than celebrating with an old friend and her new, great family.

Thanks for the good time, Wilson family!