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New Zealand: Exploring the State of Adrenaline

Bungee jump off a bridge. Fly a helicopter toward a sheer mountain wall. Paddle frothing white water. Tim Cahill explores New Zealand's South Island, the undisputed home to all activities energized.

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Adventure Guide: New Zealand's South Island

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There was more tramping done on this trip, another helicopter ride to a chalet set on a mountainside across the Matukituki Valley from Mount Aspiring, a boat ride to an island where we climbed to a lake, but my favorite event was canyoning. Not canyoneering, which is the process of moving through canyons and finding your way, even if you have to climb out and rappel down into an adjacent abyss. No, this was something else entirely.

We had driven down the Matukituki Valley, to a steep mountain stream, the Niger, that fell off Mount Niger into the Matukituki River. A hardy Kiwi woman—is there any other kind?—outfitted us in thick wet suits, gloves, rubber booties, worn sneakers, helmets, seat harnesses with attached biners, and a figure-eight rappelling device. Then we climbed straight up about 600 or 700 feet (183 or 213 meters).

Our guide's name was Ros Goulding, and she said that we'd be moving down the river, waterfalls and all. "There are eight rappels, and 14 slides," she said. "One of them is a tunnel." She got us in the river and had us all make a short jump off a waterfall into a deep pool below. I slipped several times and proved myself to be such a klutz that I could see Ros felt I needed special attention.

We rigged a rappel, and she sent me first. Each drop required a different technique. "When you get about halfway down, turn your back to the wall and slide down the rest of the way like that." Then she sent Amanda and told her to stop on a ledge halfway down, undo the rappel rope, and jump into the pool. Like I couldn't fall off a ledge.

We clipped into fixed ropes at the tops of waterfalls, and Ros showed us how to ride the falls to the deep pools at the bottom. You lie on your back, put your arms over your head so that you don't break your elbows on rocks, inch forward, and rush down with the water, sometimes falling almost a hundred feet. We rappelled into shallow pools, did a Tyrolean traverse across the stream at one point—"no worries," Ros said, "you'll be 'roight"—and at the bottom, we slid through a long, narrow, sinuous passage that Ros called "the Tunnel."

It was almost like being in a cave. The water was voluminous and fell fast on the steep slope, but the stream itself was narrow, I'd say maybe 15 feet (5 meters) across in some places, so the overhanging trees filtered the light in such a way that the sun fell on the river in only a few places, and then only in slanting rays. There was no way you could experience this except from the stream itself. I thought this combination of beauty, spills, and thrills—along with the variety of skills needed—had to be the quintessential Kiwi experience. It helps that, despite the promises in the airport, I never hurt myself once.

Well, that's not entirely true. Peter and I took the car back to the airport and left it in the lot—crumbled fenders, grass skirt, and all. We were walking toward the terminal and a large family with several young kids was walking toward us. I stepped off the sidewalk to give them room and somehow twisted my ankle, fell on my face, and banged my elbow on the cement. It was the only injury I'd suffered on the whole adrenaline-charged trip. Irony sneaks up on you like that.

Later, in the airport, a young American guy who'd just arrived was staring at the horror movie murals of screaming people. "Can you really do all that stuff here?" he asked.

"All that and more."

"Anyone ever get hurt?"

"Nah, not that I saw. These people are pros."

We stared at the giant black-and-white photo of the screaming woman with deep-red eyes. My elbow ached like a bastard.

"The sidewalks are tricky, though."

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Adventure Guide: New Zealand's South Island

New Zealand Photo Gallery >>

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