Standing on the side of the mountain as the sun rose overhead, I started to cry. Fellow travelers were making their way from the hut to the tiny cart that would carry them across the gorge to a gondola suspended between two opposing peaks. I watched them walk by. Kind of. Ten minutes earlier as we’d checked in for the first event of a very big day, I’d been forced to hand over my glasses. Everything was blurry, made worse by the tears that were now running freely down my face. The day was just getting started and I was already done.
Queenstown is extreme. It caters to adventure seekers from around the globe. They come in search of sky, sea and their own personal limits. Or maybe that was just me. We’d arrived the day before, coming south from a family visit in Christchurch. The town was buzzing. People in hiking boots with tanned skin and big backpacks milled about, jamming the entrance to the main tourist centre.
By the time we got through the doors, there were only two spots left for the ‘awesome foursome’. We would board a bus with a dozen others and drive deep into the mountains for an-all day experience – white water rafting, jet boating, heli-touring and bungy jumping. I put on a brave face and asked the guy behind the counter. — “What would we do first?”
“You’ll be rafting. We have four groups going up tomorrow and you’ll each go to a different start point. The bungee will be your last.”
Perfect. I’d have all day to work up the courage to jump. An adrenaline-induced life choice, rather than the sick to my stomach step off a ledge that I’d been dreading since the afternoon we landed in Auckland two weeks earlier. We’d read about AJ Hackett’s big bungy – The Nevis. It promised an 8.5 second free fall, the highest in New Zealand and fourteenth in the world.
We got up in the dark and walked a couple blocks to the meeting point. There were sixteen in our group. Friends, couples and a guy from the UK who would strike up a conversation with anyone who made eye contact. Once in our seats, the driver introduced himself and shared the plan. We’d head straight to the Nevis, and do our jump as the sun came up over the mountain. The skies were clear, the winds calm – it would be spectacular.
Wait what?!? I raised my hand. “Um, we were told the bungy would be last.”
He gave me a practiced look, something between, it’s totally okay to be scared and – you already paid, so I don’t really care if you jump. I slumped back in my seat.
The drive into the Southern Alps did nothing to calm my nerves. In hindsight, it was worse than anything we’d do all day. While we navigated a winding gravel track along the edge of a cliff, UK had started nattering about terminal velocity, the highest speed attainable by an object, when you factor drag against gravity. The object in question would be us. Would we have enough time in free-fall to achieve it? I wasn’t the only one to protest the topic. After a few arguments and some loud boos, he gave up and muttered quietly to himself for the rest of the drive.
My gut was in knots by the time we arrived. I’m not great with heights and we were going to be jumping from a suspended gondola. The plunge was four-hundred-and-forty feet. As we checked in, I learned that we’d have to leave all our belongings in the hut before heading out, and that included my glasses. I knew I wouldn’t be able to jump with them. That would be stupid. But I didn’t expect to be without for the next couple hours. And now that they were off and I was faced with the prospect of getting into the cable car and offloading at the gondola sans spectacles, I lost my nerve.
This is when having a travel companion is the most valuable. He reminded me that we’d just spent $800 each and if I didn’t do it, I’d be pissed off later. He was right.
The cable car that takes you out is completely open. You can look over the edge and down into the Nevis River Valley. Made zero difference to me. I couldn’t see shit. Once on the gondola, you can stand in a section that has a clear floor and watch everyone as they appeared below. Again, useless for me. All I could see were the people around me and the scrawl of black sharpie on my arm that reminded me how much I weighed. We’d jump in order, heaviest to lightest. J was second. I was second to last.
His jump was good. Everyone cheered him on. I watched from the side and took a few pictures, mindful of how much my knees were shaking. I caught the look of relief on his face as they pulled him back up and into the gondola. There’s no getting off at the bottom of this ride. On purpose anyway. He told me I’d be fine. But as the rest of the group took turns, they began heading back to solid ground. No sense waiting around. By the time they attached the cord to my feet, there were just four of us left. There was no shared encouragement, or peer pressure.
I shuffled to the edge. The attendant put a reassuring hand on my back as I peeked out. He gave me the rules. I had to jump on my own, but if I didn’t dive, he’d push me. At this height, anything other than head first could result in my spine snapping. Cool. Thanks. Good talk.
Standing on a tiny square metal platform, above a river so small that it probably couldn’t even wash the blood away, I bent my knees…and jumped. The shock was instant. I’d just thrown myself out of a perfectly good structure. I was falling. It felt terminal. I’d been given directions, but my mind was blank. I just yelled. Fuuuuuuuck!
Then I hit the end of the rope and bounced. I opened my eyes. Not dead. I started to fall again, slower this time. And on the second bounce, reached between my knees and grabbed the rope that would release my feet. One tug and I was sitting upright in the harness for the trip back up to the gondola. I’d done it. I was still grinning like a fool when a hand reached out to haul me back on board.
The rest of the day was a breeze. The jet boat raced down the river and spun around, putting my nose inches off the cliff wall. Totally fine. I almost got launched out of the raft when we hit a sizable rapid. The guide had to grab me by the vest and throw me into the middle of the boat. Whatever, all good. We did things with the helicopter that would have made Tom Cruise shake. I loved it.
On the bus back to town, I couldn’t stop yawning. An expected effect, post adrenaline rush. Everyone was quiet. Even UK. He’d caught the bungy cord awkwardly in his free fall and it had torn one shoe in half. A few toes peeked out, probably bruised by their close encounter. No one consoled him.
Those ten hours remain my most extreme. I don’t think I’ve pushed myself as far out of my comfort zone since then. Or, maybe it grew three sizes that day (yes, that’s a Grinch reference). I’m no daredevil. I routinely look up death and injury stats for the places we’re going. But it gets easier. The edges of my fear are duller now. I’ve rubbed up against the things that scare me the most and come away stronger. I’ve learned that there are risks worth taking. I read the fine print, but I don’t let it stop me from flying through the air, wind whipping through my hair until the cord catches and the ground stops rushing toward me. If nothing else, I’m pretty sure I’m an inch taller now.