From any angle, but especially from the air, the scenery of New Zealand’s South Island mesmerizes: snow-frosted mountains, deep-green valleys, startlingly blue lakes. In a daydream, in which anything is possible, you might be tempted to open the airplane door and jump directly into the view.
This is no daydream. The Cessna took off from a grass airstrip outside Queenstown and spiraled up to an altitude of 15,000 feet. Lake Wakatipu lies placid far below. Things are less placid within the plane. The drone of the engine is drowned out by the mounting beat of your heart.
At the assigned altitude, your jumpmaster guides you to the open door and you both sit — fixed together by a harness — with your legs hanging out. After what seems like a split-second and also an age, the jumpmaster keels you both out, into freefall.
You plummet for about a minute, reaching the terminal velocity of 120 mph. At full speed, you’re falling at 200 feet per second. Lying horizontally with your arms splayed, everything is a blur. Your goggles shudder against the rushing air. Then the jumpmaster pulls the cord and deploys the parachute. Everything slows down. The blur sharpens into focus. Now you’re hanging vertically. Beneath your dangling feet, the environs of Queenstown spread out like a map. Moments ago, you were above the mountains; now they’re rising up around you.
Skydiving is a relatively recent human activity. Backpack parachutes activated by a ripcord weren’t invented until 1919, and for several decades after they were the preserve of the military. It wasn’t until the 1970s that civilians began to fling themselves out of airplanes for fun, though it remained a dangerous activity, requiring intensive training.
The equipment continued to evolve, becoming simpler to use and more reliable. The invention of tandem skydiving in 1983 opened the sport to novices who could make a jump after no more than 15 minutes of preliminary instruction. Thus, a new tourist industry was born.
Not surprisingly, Queenstown became one of the first places to embrace commercial skydiving. This small city nestled between lake and mountains forged a reputation as the Adrenaline Capital of New Zealand. Just out of town, the Kawaru Gorge Suspension Bridge, 141 feet above the Kawaru River, became the world’s first permanent site for bungee jumping. On the same river and the adjoining Shotover River you can raft or kayak through whitewater rapids or speed perilously through the narrow twists and turns of deep gorges in a jet boat.
In winter ( June to August, this being the Southern Hemisphere), the focus moves up onto the high slopes, and Queenstown transforms into a ski resort. Skydiving continues then, when the mountains are at their snowy best, though remember the windchill at altitude is 40 degrees colder than the temperature at ground level.
For a preview of what to expect in a skydive, iFly Queenstown, downtown, is an indoor facility in which you can experience the sensation of freefall in a vertical wind tunnel. Each flight lasts about a minute, and you can book up to 10 flights in a session. From there, the inevitable next step up the adrenaline ladder is the real thing.
Tandem skydives from up to 15,000 feet are offered by Skydive Southern Alps, operating out of Glenorchy Airfield 40 minutes from Queenstown, and by NZONE, based just south of town. Expect to pay around $275 for a jump, plus $200 for a professional video and photo package.
On arrival at NZONE you’re confronted by the slogan, “Embrace the Fear.” It’s one of the anomalies of Queenstown that a place so breathtakingly beautiful forged its reputation on pushing visitors to the brink of terror. As you go through the pre-flight briefing, you inevitably wonder why you’re putting yourself through all of this. Doubts and mounting fear plague you during the flight to altitude, and then, all of a sudden, exhilarating release.
The jump itself is over in less than five minutes. The adrenaline high will last into the evening. Queenstown at night buzzes with people similarly buoyant from having overcome various fears during the day. A visit here offers more than a vacation; it’s often a pivotal, life-changing experience.
INFO TO GO
Domestic and international flights arrive at Queenstown Airport, located five miles from downtown. The airport has daily connections to the main cities of New Zealand and also to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in Australia (especially in winter, as Queenstown is a popular skiing destination). Until 2011 operations were limited to daylight hours, but new runway lights and other navigation equipment now enable night flights.
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In this era of 6,500-passenger mega-ships, any cruise vessel conveying fewer than a thousand voyagers is considered a small ship, including high-end luxury liners, deluxe expedition ships and the world’s riverboats. The focus on many small ships is the destination rather than the conveyance, the expert chat rather than the Broadway show, the watersport rather than the casino, the scenery and culture rather than the full-service spa and specialty restaurant. Passengers make a travel style choice, forgoing the options and pleasures of a resort-sized vessel for the deeper, more immersive experience of a yacht-scaled ship.
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