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The latest thrill in New Zealand’s ‘Adventure Capital’

Peace on the shores of Lake Wakatipu

Peace on the shores of Lake Wakatipu

That morning I had been happily relaxing, perched on the wall overlooking Lake Wakatipu, enjoying my Fergburger and marvelling at the total bliss and tranquillity of Queenstown. 3 hours later, I was standing on a narrow platform which stuck out from the cliff side, 360ft above the piercing blue river flowing casually all that way below. This would have been beautifully serene: a rich clear sky above me, reflecting itself into the water, and a natural stillness so hard to find. It would, if it wasn’t for the fact that in a matter of seconds I would be launching myself off this platform into the arms of gravity, and hurtling down into the depths of the canyon below.

The moment came, my toes were over the edge and panic overcame me: “I can’t do it, I’m going to cry”.

Pic: Shotover Canyon Swing

“You wouldn’t be the first today, but you definitely can do it”. Totally unperturbed, the cheery Kiwi called Pinky prised my fingers from his arm, nudged me gently in the back and suddenly I was falling, and screaming. The rock face flashed in front of my eyes as I free-fell, like an amateur movie cranked to top speed. Fear, exhilaration and shock surged through my body without me even thinking about it and before I had really grasped what was going on I felt myself slowing. I gradually realised I was upright once more and soaring through the canyon in a graceful, 656ft arc, the Shotover river glinting mere metres below my shaking feet and most importantly, I was alive. I had done it. I whooped, swore and laughed to myself, alone for those minutes, gliding between the mountains like a quivering leaf.

This Shotover Canyon Swing is one of the most demanding high adrenaline activities available to the scores of crazy people who travel from all over the world to scare themselves silly in one of the most stunning parts of New Zealand. It was originally devised by Hamish Emerson and Chris Russell, two local Queenstown guys who simply loved rock: climbing up it, abseiling down it and most of all, swinging off it. They spent years exploring rock faces throughout the Wakatipu Basin, experimenting with cables, ropes and water barrels, and in 2002 the Canyon Swing was born, officially the world’s highest cliff jump.

Queenstown is now almost bubbling over with choices of how to best be in need of spare underwear. The Canyon Swing comes in high up the list: it even rates its seventy deviously devised jump styles using a ‘pants’ system. Aside from forwards or backwards, you can choose the ‘Pin Drop’, the ‘Elvis Cutaway’ or even topple over the edge as you lean back in a chair. Of course, for people like me who feel faint at the idea of sacrificing yourself entirely to gravity and a rope, even the single pant options are a major challenge. The Cutaway is the easiest jump style: you don’t have to jump yourself. They simply suspend you over the canyon and let you go. I was determined this was the only way I could possibly do it, but Kiwi cunning got the better of me. Overcome with exhilaration after my first jump I took advantage of the reduced price second jump. This time I wanted to take things easy and sure enough, before long I was bobbing in a harness over the canyon. It wasn’t until I looked to my side and saw the knife in the hand of the man I was entrusting my life to that I realised I might have been fooled. Over and over again my heart lurched up my throat as he began to cut the rope above my head and I dropped centimetre by centimetre with each small sever. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore: I bounced and the thread I was hanging by broke. And then I felt the wonders and terrors of freefalling all over again.

This ‘Seven Cut’ jump is rated at 5 pairs of pants out of five: ‘very, very, very scary’. Luckily I discovered this once I was safely in the minibus bobbing back along the mountain side to Queenstown and a victory drink. But that is the power of the Canyon Swing, and of Queenstown itself. The place convinces you that things like jumping off a cliff are very good ideas. When I set off to explore the new corner of the world that was New Zealand, I was bombarded with enquiries as to whether I would indulge in any extreme sports. The answer was absolutely, unequivocally no. But the atmosphere in Queenstown is simply infectious. A little bubble of recklessness began to grow inside me as I breathed in the air so fresh it made me shiver. And with some strong encouragement I found myself determined to seize that bubble while it lasted.

But while I was standing on the platform trying to contain my adrenaline, way beyond the scope of any holiday accident claims, it wasn’t the idea of falling and dying that scared me. It was simply the idea of pushing all my natural instincts to one side and actually making myself jump. Because it is easy to see that the safety measures are extensive. Harnesses are painstakingly checked once on, and a full explanation of how the whole swing works is readily available to anyone able to stomach it. The cable system is supported by rock anchors which are drilled 4ft into the rock face, and reinforced by steel rods. The ropes on which you swing have a breaking strain of 2.8 tonnes – enough to hold four cars. All you have to be terrified of is the sensation of ‘canyon rush’, hurtling downwards at speeds of over 90mph just metres away from the cliff face.

Of course, the Shotover Canyon Swing has got stiff competition from the more traditional bungee jump, and in particular Queenstown’s Nevis bungee which stands as the highest in the world at 440ft. But what the canyon swing offers instead is a multi-dimensional experience. As well as the drop, the freefall, and the sense of ground rush as you fall so close to the rock face, you experience the swing: minutes of high speed reflection, relative calm and an intense feeling of achievement, before being finally hoisted back up into the melee of congratulations and adrenaline fuelled accounts. It is a way to experience Queenstown’s awe-inspiring natural scenery at its very best, accompanying it with a huge personal accomplishment (especially if you have a fear of heights), and moments that will stay with you forever. And then, within half an hour, you can return to the Fergburger shop.

The Shotover Canyon Swing runs throughout the year, every hour from 8.30am to 5.30pm, although fewer trip departures are available from May to September. Allow 2.5hr return. Price: NZ$199, second jump NZ$39. Address: Shotover Canyon Swing Shop, 37 Shotover Street, Queenstown, NZ

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