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A Day of Extremes


I want to get this out of the way right off the bat: bungy jumping is not nearly as scary as it sounds. Honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed by the whole experience. Sure, it’s pretty scary when you get out to the edge, look down at the river rushing by over a hundred feet below, and think, “My God, I’m going to jump off this ledge.” And then there’s a rush of adrenaline when you’re hurtling toward the water, the sound of the wind rushing past your ears mingling with the roar of the river. But then it’s all over, and you’re being flung way back up into the air on the end of a big rubber band, and falling again (but not as interestingly this time), and you bounce, bounce, bounce to a halt and they start lowering you to the raft waiting in the water below.

Total time from stepping out onto the ledge: about 15 seconds. Thirty seconds, tops, if you include the “look at the cameras so we can take your picture and try to sell it to you later for $45” bit. Even if you generously call it a full minute, that’s still over US$100 per minute of action. That’s expensive! But even disregarding the price, it’s just over too quickly to really be that fun. If I’m going to go out of my way to be scared out of my wits, I want it to last until it hurts, darn it. I want to feel the panicked claws of terror tearing at my chest. I want more.

Okay. I’m sick.

But for my money, I’d skip the bungy jumping and stick with sky diving.

But now I’ve gone and got the narrative out of order. Let me back up for a moment. Dore and I woke up bright and early at our camp site in the mountains, just in time to catch the last bit of pink and orange mountain glow in the clouds. We made good time breaking camp, and drove through Queenstown to make it to the bungy jumping center. We did our jumps, then packed up and headed in to town for lunch. (That’s New Zealand for you. Wake up in the mountains and go bungy jumping before lunch.) We had Thai for lunch, and it was actually quite good. I still had a bit of lingering sinus congestion from the cold, and the spicy food helped.

Next, we dropped by the i-Site center again and booked our spots on a glacier hike for the next morning. That done, we were pretty much done for the day. Wait, no, there was one other thing. Now, what am I forgetting? Let me check my notes… Oh yes, that’s it. That glacier was about six hours drive from Queenstown, over a pass and through hundreds of kilometers of the densest rain forest, steepest hillsides, and windiest, narrowest roads you ever imagined in some of the most remote country I’ve ever seen. All during a downpour.

Actually, the drive was about equal parts stunningly beautiful, exhilarating, and awe inspiring. The first hour or so wound up out of Queenstown through high mountain meadows. I’ve never been to Scotland, but if ever anything looked like Scotland I think this did. Eventually we got near the west coast of the island, and the road turned north. Here the landscape rapidly changed to temperate rain forest. The deepness of the greenery was incredible. When the hillsides weren’t so steep as to be almost cliffs, the forest was completely impenetrable. We looked at the forest at the side of the road to see if we could see in, but it was impossible to see deeper than about six feet, tops. There is absolutely no way you could find any sort of path through that.

The only breaks in the forest were the myriad waterfalls that tumbled down the mountainsides for hundreds of feet in all directions, and the roaring creeks and rivers that crossed or were crossed by the road. We must have seen over a hundred waterfalls, and crossed dozens of bridges. Most of the bridges were one-way, which was disconcerting at first, but there is a well defined right-of-way system that, combined with the very few cars that were on the road, makes them actually quite trivial to navigate.

As we drove, the rain came and went, ranging from a light drizzle to a torrential downpour. Surprisingly, despite the fact that the roads were wet, wound every which way up and down the mountainsides, and had next to no shoulder, the driving was not too bad. No, really, I mean it. We found the roads to be incredibly well maintained, with any trouble spots clearly marked. It really helps that all of the tight turns are clearly marked with a “suggested” speed that, by and large, is not too conservative. I found that as long as I kept within about 10-15 kmph of the suggested speed things were just about right. It was really nice to have one less thing to worry about!

We drove for a long time (I think it was about six hours, total) and finally made it to our destination: the tiny township of Franz Joseph, which lies a few kilometers shy of the glacier itself. We originally planned to stay in another DOC campground that was up the road a bit, but with the rain we decided that it would be much more comfortable to say in town. We only had to inquire at two places before we found a double room available. I’m really loving this shoulder season travel thing. I think we’ve only had one or two things that we couldn’t do because they were booked solid. We dropped our stuff in the room, then caught a quick dinner at a bar/restaurant next to the hostel. It was pretty awful.

After dinner, we went on a little adventure. The hostel manager had told us of a short hike nearby that had glow worms that could be seen after dark. We hadn’t done anything physical all day, and I was a bit antsy, so I convinced Dore to come with me. We borrowed a flashlight for Dore from the front desk, and I grabbed the flashlight that I had brought with me, and we headed off into the darkness.

We found the trail head just where it was marked on our little township map. The trail led into the forest right off the side of the highway. There were a few lights along the road, and in the dark the trail looked like a gaping hole in the wall of trees. We looked at each other, turned on our lights, and went in.

It had mostly stopped raining at this point, but the air was very damp. The trail was like a tunnel, and drops of water fell occasionally from the canopy above us. Dore and I shone our lights around to the sides and above us, but the forest was too dense to see anything beyond a few feet. It was quiet, too, with only the sounds of dripping water and the crunch of wet gravel under our feet.

Dore was pretty freaked out at first, and I have to say I was a bit outside my comfort zone. I’m definitely glad we had two lights; it was pitch black at the bottom of the forest. I was also glad that there are no large predators in New Zealand. I definitely wouldn’t have been comfortable if there were lions or leopards or something about, however rare they may be.

After about ten minutes of walking, we came upon a little wooden footbridge bridge crossing a stream. This was as far as we could go, since the other side was damaged by flooding. We turned off our lights and waited in the darkness, letting our eyes adjust. It was a bit spooky, but at the same time really cool. I felt extremely adventurous. Slowly, we started to see some faint points of light in the forest, near the banks of the stream. We’d found the glow worms! The glow worms were pretty neat, but actually a bit anti-climactic after our trek through the rain forest at night. We turned on our lights after a few minutes and started back.

On our way out we ran into a few more people that were headed up the trail, obviously for the same reason. We were really glad that we didn’t see them until the end of our trek, as we realized that most of the adventurous feel of the place was due to the fact that we hadn’t seen anyone else the entire time we were hiking. I think that I would have been really bummed if we had encountered someone on our way up the trail, and I feel really blessed that we were able to see it as we did. I’m a bit sorry that the other folks didn’t have the same chance, but there’s really nothing I could have done about that. C’est la vie.

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