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Place: Queensland

Extreme Adventures - Queensland
By Roger Hamilton

Would you like to book an Air Safari? We fly over Aoraki Mount Cook and the Fox Glacier - it's a wonderful view. Oh you would rather jump out? How about the skydive option from 15,000 ft? Too straight-forward? How about paragliding, or hand-gliding, jet boating or whitewater rafting? Or take a aerial ride in a stunt plane, jump off a bridge on a bungy rope or try the Shotover Canyon Swing?".

I am speaking to Diane, a helpful counter rep at 'The Terminal': A one-stop shop for all your adrenaline needs nestled in quiet Queenstown. In case you were wondering, the Canyon Swing is 'the world's highest swing' - launching you from a cliff face into a 200 meter arc, accelerating you to 150kph, and then back again. This is one of the more recent inventions in Queenstown, where you have the option of being launched in one of ten different methods, from "The Cutaway", "Elvis Cutaway" and "Indian Rope Trick" to "Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood", and where each method is rated from "Scary" (One underpants rating) to "Very, very, very scary" (Five underpants rating).

After much deliberation I decide to opt for Asia Pacific's highest bungy jump, the 440 feet high Nevis Highwire Bungy. Unlike the original 140 feet Kawarau Bridge bungy over Kawarau river, or the 335 feet Pipeline bungy over Shotover river, the Nevis Bungy isn't attached to a bridge. Instead, AJ Hackett Bungy invested NZ$2 million in a tailor-made, purpose built, fully protected "Jump Pod", dangling by high-tension wires over the Nevis Gorge (and when I say 'fully protected', I don't mean you, I mean the pod - it has 30 different patents. Presumably so that if you find a gorge as deep as Nevis on your travels you will think twice before strapping wires to the side and building a similar pod to jump out of, for fear of being sued in the event you survive the fall).

I'm here on the invitation of a great group of New Zealand Entrepreneurs who have taken time out from their schedule to show me a piece of New Zealand. Greame Fowler is a well-known property investor, and author of the best-selling book "NZ Real Estate Investor's Secrets", Kevin Heppleston is an award-winning business coach with Action International, based in Wellington, Gill Daldin and Lisa McCarthy are both franchise owners of an Australian appliance rental business, Mr Rentals. All are making the most of the fact that, as well as having the highest percent of entrepreneurs of any country in Asia Pacific, New Zealand also has some of the most stunning spots to take a break from all that entrepreneurial activity.

Queenstown, nestled on the Southern tip of New Zealand's South Island, promotes itself as "The World's Adventure Capital". How did it find this niche? The town grew out of the gold rush at Shotover River in the 1860's. Surrounded by awe-inspiring mountain, it became a summer tourist spot after the gold was exhausted. It took a century before anyone was attracted to Queenstown in the winters, when the Mount Cook Group turned Coronet Peak into a ski field in the 1960's, turning the area into a year-round destination which in turn attracted more hotels, shops and restaurants.

Bill Hamilton, a South Island country farmer, can be credited for introducing adventure tourism in the 1970's. Here's one version of how the story goes: While trying to invent a high powered water pump to drain water from his land, he created a turbine pump so powerful that when he turned it on: instead of water shooting through, the pump dislodged and end up shooting across the water. After a little lateral thinking, he forgot about the pump idea and built a speed boat around the turbine instead. The Jet Boat was born. Needing less than 3cm of water to maneuver in at high speeds, before long Shotover Jet was taking visitors on breath-taking rides through the spectacular canyons of Shotover River for $75 a pop.

Then, in 1988, AJ Hackett and Henry Van Asch (two speed skiers who had been inspired by a video documenting the attempts of members of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club to copy Vanuatu villagers' ritual of jumping off man-made towers attached to vines) arrived in Queenstown having spent two years at the University of Auckland developing a special bungy cord to bungy jump from. Until then, the only other alternative were the vines that the Vanuatu locals used - not too reliable.

In June the previous year, AJ Hackett had used the cord they had developed for a high profile (and highly illegal) bungy jump from the Eiffel Tower. Now they were ready to go commercial, with a plan to offer jumps from Kawarau Bridge. Despite obvious skepticism from locals that people would be willing to pay to jump from a bridge, business boomed. Within a year, a second site was launched at Skippers Bridge and since then further sites - each one bigger and better - have continually launched with an estimated 350,000 jumpers in Queenstown to date. With each new option, business increased. When the Nevis bungy launched in 1999, demand was so high, the company made back its investment of $2M within ten months.

Adventure tourism took off in Queenstown in the 1990s, and year after year the adventure options have grown, with visitor numbers reaching 4.8 million by 2001 (compared to a resident population of 12,000), 5.5 million by 2005, and a projected 7 million visitors by 2010.

It seems, then, that I am in good company by choosing to bungy jump! After all, this is what people do in Queenstown, right? I hear that up to 100 people each day jump from the Nevis Highwire Bungy. A quick calculation reveals that, with off-days, that's maybe 20,000 out of the five million Queenstown visitors each year. Only four people in every thousand decide to try it? What about the other nine hundred and ninety-six of them? Before leaving the Terminal with my ticket and T-Shirt, I look for reassurance from the others in the group. I ask them what it's like to bungy jump. None of them have bungy-jumped before. None of them want to. Ever.

The humiliating possibility of being the laughing stock of the Jump Pod suddenly becomes a worse fate than ending up spread all over the canyon floor I ask for the release instructions again and would have written them down if I could. But before I know it I am on my feet, hearing the countdown, seeing myself jumping, remembering to scream on the way down as per my brother's instructions ("It makes the video more dramatic"), watching the river accelerate towards me and then reverse back just as dramatically, and then triumphantly releasing myself from the bungy shackles.

Lisa's husband, Austin, decides to jump with me and we hop on the bus. Leaving the sedate streets of Queenstown, we trekked for an hour over sheep country before reaching the 'cable car' that would take us out to the jump pod. The cable car is actually an open metal box with a grill floor, which can squeeze in six people at most. The long, wobbly journey out to the Jump Pod gives us time to reconsider - two of the earlier jumpers had already pulled out. I consider whether I am being brave or stupid or both. I decide both and it makes me feel a little better.

Austin goes first. He looks nervous, which makes me more nervous. It is a very long way down - a little like jumping off a 60 storey building. After being given instructions by the crew, Austin hobbles out to the end of the 'gangplank', 500 feet above rock level, and the countdown begins: "5..4..3..2..1"….. He is still standing there as if admiring the scenery. My heart goes in my mouth. Now what? One of the crew says "It'll only get worse the longer you wait". I remember being told that as a kid when I didn't take my medicine. Is this what this is? They count down again, and this time he's GONE! Just like that, out of sight, hurtling towards the rocks at 130 kph.

I don't have time to reflect on his sudden disappearance as I'm up next. As I get the bungy strapped on, I hear a barrage of instructions come my way. As there is no easy access to the bottom of the gorge, we're going to get winced back up afterwards and there is a simple (yet at the time impossibly complex) process for releasing your feet from the bungy on your second bounce so that you don't get winced back up upside down. If you get it wrong, the consequence is that you will appear back in the Jump Pod upside-down, "…like a hooked fish, at which point we will all laugh at you."

The adrenaline rush lasts for hours, and leaping off the mountain in a paraglider on our return to Queenstown feels like a country stroll in comparison. I can see why extreme adventure sports has become so addictive for so many, and why millions travel to the bottom of the earth to get high head-first. In Deepak Chopra's words: "Living on the edge has become an obsession, and adrenaline junkies are more prevalent than heroin addicts ever could be."

I'll be coming back for my fix soon.

Belief, courage, action

-Roger Hamilton

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