Today was our last full day in New Zealand and we wanted to try a few of the traditional tourist things before the long flight home.
While Queenstown is the biggest town in the area, it is still a pretty tiny place with a small footprint. A short 10-15 minute walk took us from downtown to the base of the gondola ride. We got in line with everybody else and very soon were efficiently packed into a little pod headed up a very steep incline. At the top there is a building with some viewing platforms. A nice clean operation and a great way to get fast easy terrific views of Queenstown.
Since I’d seen a special on paragliding in the Alps as a kid, I’ve wanted to paraglide. This is different from parasailing. Yes, you strap on a parachute that opens and functions like a wing when air gets in it, but instead of being towed behind a boat, you control where you are going. To get started you might be towed behind a truck on a line but more commonly you just run off the side of a hill, or in my case, a mountain.
I’ve ridden in a hot air balloon before, which is so relaxing and beautiful, but you don’t have control over where you are going. I imagined paragliding as being the closest thing to self-powered flight that I’d ever get.
After getting weighed and matched with a pilot who could wrangle my mass, we hiked up a steep incline to the summit which was a well-manicured lawn. The pilot laid out the chute, checked all the cords, got me into my helmet and harness/seat, and waited for a little gust of wind to make our job easier. “Walk forward with a purpose. Now run until your feet don’t touch the ground and sit down.” That was it. We were airborne. If you have a fear of heights you might get a funny feeling but for me I don’t think my pulse even changed. It has been much more scary standing at the edge of an Olympic high dive than this. This was just fun. The biggest differences from ballooning were the higher altitude and wind noise.
We coasted around for about 5 minutes and then, when my pilot saw that I was comfortable and having a good time, asked if I wanted to do any aerobatics. Of course. Why not? We did some dives and spirals and tight turns which were neat and then it was time to land. I really didn’t want to twist my ankle on a surprise hard landing so we had saved this activity until the end of the trip. Turns out I had nothing to fear. We floated down, ran a couple of steps, and that was that. Total flight time 10-12 minutes. It was expensive but worth it and worth doing in this location for the great scenery. The folks I dealt with run lots of people through every day and were very professional and nice. You can check them out here if you want to see videos and such.
GIBBSTON VALLEY WINERY
Since we don’t drink alcohol anymore, we didn’t take advantage of the many beautiful winery tours and the delicious drinks they offer anywhere in New Zealand. We did stop in at Gibbston Valley Winery for lunch though as it is highly regarded. We were actually a little early for lunch so we just walked across the parking lot to their cheesery and ate a pupu platter of artisanal cheeses instead. Win!
KAWARAU BRIDGE BUNGY
Just across the street is the world-famous Kawarau Bridge Bungy Jump. While not technically invented in this location, this is the first mainstream place that it was available and is certainly the best known in the world.
We were all set to jump, but Melanie said no thanks when she actually saw someone do it. I had the opposite reaction. I knew it would definitely be scary and a rush but it just looked like diving off a high dive board without the pain of hitting the water. I’ve been off of Olympic diving platforms but this bridge was about four times that height so I imagined instead of jumping and then just feeling like you hit the water, you might actually have a brief sensation of falling. It seemed neat but not a couple hundred dollars neat. Melanie sealed the deal when she let me know that she really didn’t want me to do it but just hadn’t said so up until that point.
It is in a beautiful setting on the Kawarau river so we stuck around a while to watch people fall and scream and take some pictures.
CHARD FARM WINERY
Next we headed back across the street and up the side of the mountain to another older winery. We popped into the main building to use the toilet and take a look around. It was nice too but I think I liked the looks of Gibbston more.
The real reason we were here is because the Brodie book said it offered a view of the Kawarau River, and in particular, the place filmed for the Argonath in LOTR (the two giant statues on the river). At the bungy place most of the nice views are behind smudgy scratched plexiglass and the river is carved so deep and close to the road with no place to pull off, there are few places to actually see it around here. For the movie they were over the river itself which was something we couldn’t do without a helicopter or boat.
It wasn’t until I got home that I realized Brodie must have taken his pictures from a hike further up the mountain or helicopter even though he said you could see the spot without one. I opted to find place without a fence and hike down as far as I could. It was tough to find a good view but I’m happy with my final location.
HEADING NORTH THEN EAST
After that it was a whirlwind of typical travel stuff. Get rental car inspected and turned in (No damage from yesterday’s ordeal. I wasn’t expecting any. We got stuck in such a gradual and gentle way.) Hop on flight back to Auckland (VERY casual. They just asked our names and let us on the plane.) Dinner at airport (yuk). Free hotel shuttle to Jet Park Hotel near airport (Good place. Would stay here again.) Fly to Sydney the next morning (4.5 hour layover wasn’t quite enough time to get through customs and into downtown Sydney and back so we just had to sit at the airport). Fly home.
We both had a fantastic time in New Zealand. It is easy if you speak and read English. Natural beauty is everywhere! That is the big take away. It is pretty EVERYWHERE not just select locations. The food is good. The people are so friendly and generous. There is a lot to do and see. Driving places is taxing and takes more time than you’d expect and many smaller towns don’t have a lot of modern amenities, but overall, it could quite possibly be the best vacation I’ve ever had. After having some time to think about it, Melanie still says Yosemite is her favorite vacation, but this ranks up there with traveling to Italy. I am so happy that we got to experience New Zealand and if you have the opportunity to visit, please do!
Now if I could only remember where we buried that treasure chest after we left the troll cave…