Falling from the high wire in Queenstown, New Zealand

The small bus pulled up to the corner of Camp Street, the driver checked my name and we jumped in.  “High winds again”, she said. “You’ll have to be lucky.”  My efforts the day previous had been scuppered by similar weather, but something felt different today, and we agreed to take the chance and press on towards the valley.  I was absolutely, utterly hell-bent on throwing myself 134 metres off the Nevis high wire bungee.

Upon arrival 45 minutes later, it was easy to see why the wind posed a problem.  The Nevis was called a “high wire” for a reason – it was a small shed-like structure suspended in the valley by a few high tension wires.  The wind, rather than a steady stream, was gusting sporadically, which was causing the small platform to buck unpredictably in mid-air with every blow.  There were, however, momentary periods of calm and the Kiwi’s  – ever the optimists – were ushering us eagerly towards the near edge of the fall.

The valley itself was stunning, and in the moments when my eyes weren’t transfixed on the platform hanging in midair, I was able to take in the beauty of the burnt oranges and deep browns of the vast chasm ahead.  A rushing river meandered its way through the rock, having probably carved the valley in the first place, maintaining its wild claim on the land.  I was jolted back to the task in hand when a small mechanical lift wound its way along the wires towards us and came to a relatively gentle stop.  We stepped on, four of us, and it began to whirr back, hundred of metres above the river below, towards the central platform.

Adrenaline began to kick in.  There was a glass panel in the floor of the platform which showed the bungee cord hanging in the distance below.  It began to clunk upwards and I was brought forwards and sat in a chair.  “You go on three,” he said.  “Pull the lever at the bottom and you’ll rotate the right way up, otherwise you’ll hang upside down until we get you back.”  He tied the rope to my ankles, grinned, and shuffled me to the ‘plank’ poking out over the platform edge.  He dropped the rope limply down by my side, it was surprisingly heavy and I almost went with it.  I spread my arms, my heart began to pound, I could feel my pupils dilate, alert. 

“Three”, I looked down.

“Two”, the river rushed below.

“One”, I looked straight ahead.

“Go”, I threw myself forwards.

I hung for a moment, and then plumetted.  The acceleration was startling, and in a second the ground was rushing rapidly towards me.  I fell 134 metres in about ten seconds, weightless, at the mercy of the thick chord tied tightly round my ankles.  I screamed in utter delight the entire descent. 

Some people don’t see the point of bungee, but I couldn’t disagree more.  You’ll never feel more awake, more tuned to every sense, and more alive than you do in that 10 seconds when your life is completely out of your control.

Climbing the Franz Josef Glacier

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We stood deep within the valley, adorned with luminescent yellow wind jackets of surprising weight, loose rubble underfoot, the ‘V’ walls rising either side. I had been in similar, more impressive surroundings previously. However, unlike those occasions, this valley came to an abrupt end. About 500 metres ahead, at the approach of a bend, the way was blocked by a wall of ice. Shades of metallic blue and transparent white were dotted with specks of stoney grey, the entire mass with a surreal watery sheen, stretching 300 metres to the sky and running 12 kilometres off into the distance. Our task for the day was to climb to the gacier’s peak, armed with axes, crampons and not a few layers. It seemed quite the task.

Approaching the foot of the glacier, the sheer magnitude became ever more apparent. The relentlessly powerful ice had carved out the entire valley, and in relatively modern times had been known to advance 70cm per day, taking with it rubble and boulders bigger than a bus. Now in a phase of rapid retreat, the glacier was no less intimidating, rising steeply towards the heavens, unwelcoming. We strapped our crampons on nevertheless, and the jagged metal teeth bit into the ice with a satisfying crunch as we stepped on to the foot of the glacier. It immediately struck me, as I removed my outer jacket, how incomprehensibly warm it was in the valley. Standing upon increasingly thick ice, climbing slowly up, hacking a clear path, the warmth in the air defied the very existence of the frozen water underfoot. However, as we came up against another wall of irridescent blue, it’s existence was most certainly undeniable.

Pressing on, at first on top of the glacier, but soon within, the ice had moulded into the most fantastical shapes, from cracks and holes to full blown arches and corridors. At times we had to force a way through with our axes, the ice constntly shifting and changing, there being no set route, no safe passage. Now and then the icey path within the ice became so narrow that we had to slide through sideways, brushing front and back against the ice, drips of meltwater slipping torturously down our backs and on our faces. At one point, a boulder the size of a small car was suspended overhead by nothing more than the ice walls either side of us – we all managed to find some acceleration to pass underneath despite the crampons. Occasionally it was necessary to climb up narrow tunnels, at others take a wide berth around 300 metre crevices delving into a blue nothingness. Guided at all times, we felt relatively safe.

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Emerging from the cold embrace of the glacier we arrived at our summit, nowhere near half way along the length of the ice, but far enough. On the surface, small pools of pure glacial icewater had melted, safe to drink, tasting like nothing else on earth – pure, crisp, cold, energising. On the summit the cliff walls either side took on a new vivacity, dozens of waterfalls streaming down, lush green shrubs clinging to tp the rock, the sun bringing vitality wherever it shined. One waterfall split in two, running perfectly parralel with one another down the valley; an alpine parrot shrieked it’s unique shrill and soared off down the valley. Even in the face of the destructive power of the glacier, life had found a way to thrive, and turning back, facing down the shimmering, alien ice-blue glacier and further on to the barren grey of the valley foor, distantly quaking before the ice, we began our descent back to civilisation.

Kayaking in Abel Tasman, New Zealand

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Hauling the bright yellow kayak over the burning sand under thirty degrees of sunshine was a thankless task, but we were lucky to be enjoying such weather within Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand. It was December 23, which added to the surreal nature of the experience. Having crammed the camera into the small dry hatch, and clipped our rubber skirts around the seals of the seats, we pressed off, and began the 17 kilometer paddle north along the shore.

The water fell away from the nose of the kayak with consumate ease, the surface stretching away to the horizon, flat as a sheet of glass before meeting a cloudless sky, the boundary between the two almost indiscernable. To our left, shrinking as we moved away, the land consisted of a dense, lush green atop a few rugged, unstable rocks, tree roots holding the rubble in place. Occasionally a horseshoe bay would sweep back into the mainland, offering pristine sand and crystal shallows, but in every other direction the endless blue was only occasionally broken by a jagged outcrop of rock, weather-worn into incredible shapes, an apple split in half, a fantastical spire. As Bark’s Bay fell away, the water only got clearer, the tip of the paddle easily visible when plunged under the water, with the ripples dying just a few feet away.

Approaching one of the rocky spits of land, a group of New Zealand Fur Seals basked in the glorious sun, flopped lazily on their backs, occasionally ruffling their furred collars and grunting in annoyance. The Fur Seals mate and raise their young on these rocks, which are of supreme importance to their survival, a fact which was made abundantly clear when we drifted within a few feet of two dominant males fighting for supremacy. The bigger the rock, the better chances the male has of finding a mate, and there were only so many rocks to be won…

Approaching the half way point, sunkissed and dehydrated, we pulled in to one of the pristine coves for a light lunch. The warm sand ran for a dozen metres before hitting the now familiar rock and green of the mainland, which then flew into the sky with dramatic gradient, promising a spectacular view. Unable to resist, despite the ache from paddling, we climbed the steep slope to the top and stood over one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen – greens and blues that even the most talented artist could not capture, a yellow sun perfectly spherical, the sandy bay a crescent moon. Descending in awe, the experience was hightened when, paddling in the shallows, a large stingray the shape of a fat teardrop glided effortlessly past us, combing the bay floor, before falling back into the distance. Nature was everywhere, and she was bountiful.

As we pressed on, the wind began to pick up, making the final few kilometers hard work. However, prepared for this, and knowing the only way back was the way we had come, we linked kayaks with out fellow kayakers and raised our oars, a sheet tied between them, and sailed effortlessly back to Bark’s Bay, passing a couple of tiny, playful blue penguins splashing in the water, defying everything I thought I knew about penguins and the cold. Abel Tasman National Park had rewarded our hard work with a stunning display of nature and beauty, a display that to this day lives vividly in my memory.

The caves of New Zealand

Waitomo Cave, New Zealand

Leaning back on the rope, securely tied overhead, I eased back towards the pitch black tear in the ground below me. The headtorch attached to my helmet could only penetrate so far into the 40 metre fall below. The rest was mystery.

Feeding the rope through my “control” hand, I began to descend. The cold hit the second my head passed beneath ground level, the boots, wetsuit and thermal jacket unable to keep it out. The narrow beam of light showed where to place my feet, highlighting deep shades of stoney grey, wet from recent rain, allowing little comfort or grip. The sliver of light overhead became smaller and smaller, and suddenly the wall fell away from my soles and I was hanging in midair, no concept of the space around me, unable to see the bottom.

Soon the rocky surface below came in to view, and I eased myself on to the rocks, disconnecting myself from the rope, standing at the bottom of a deep, dark funnel within the earth. The cave extended away in only one direction, limiting the options but making the decision an easy one. Guided by my headtorch, and using the ropes already placed along the walls I pressed on – the route in was no option, an exit would have to be found seperately. Ducking and squeezing through the cave, the sound of running water turned from a distant whisper to a present rush, and rounding yet another bend the ground came to an end, met by an underground “blackwater” river passing across the path, running for unseen miles. Despite this it seemed lighter here, somehow, although deeper and further from the kiss of the sun. As I stepped into the chilling water, and climbed upon a buoyancy aid, the reason why became clear.

All along the seemingly endless black above me hung millions of glowworms, lying in wait for their prey. Tiny blue-white lights lit up the depths of the cave like infinite stars in a clear night sky. They guided the way as the water pushed me onwards through the cave, often coming down the walls almost to the waterline, until the river became shallow enough for me to stand and make my own way. At the earliest opportunity I pulled myself out of the water, the wetsuit offering little comfort, and began to press along a gently upward winding narrow path. At points the way became so narrow and contorted that progress was almost impossible, but I managed to press ahead, ever upwards, a good sign. I sensed an almost imperceptible rise in temperature, but with it a definite, thunderous noise of falling water. I entered the next chamber.

It was a 15 foot, underground waterfall and it blocked the way forward, tumbling down into the small cavern in which I stood and flowing way through a small gap off into the darkness. The waterfall needed to be climbed, without ropes. Taking grip, the downward force of the water was intense, opposing every reach and every push, occasionally blinding as the flow increased and decreased, irregular but constant. Pulling and forcing my way up against the water, using whatever holds the rocks offered, I eventually managed to slide my stomach over the lip of the drop, soaked to the core, fingers numb. Hauling myself to my feet, weighed down by the water held in the wetsuit, I squelched over and through to the next cavern.

A steep slope led upwards, I had to squint. Pressing my face into the narrow space, the warmth of the sun brushed my cheek, giving that last ounce of energy to slide up the stone and out into the world. I was filthy, cold, wet and exhilerated. I felt alive.

Lost in the Great Barrier Reef

ImageThe horizon curved around us, stretching in azure blue with not another boat in sight. Looking overboard, the surface of the water was made of transparent crystal, the bottom of the ocean clearly visible 25 metres below, such was the stillness. Our dive boat, a small white speck on an endless blue, had moored up at Flynn Reef, on the outer rim of the Great Barrier Reef, and we were decompressing, waiting eagerly to get back into the 29 degree celcius water. The divemaster was mapping out the coming dive on the whiteboard, giving us bearings, fin-kicks to measure distance, turning circles. He promised a great dive if we could maintain enough air to allow us to get amongst the farther corals. That shouldn’t be a problem, we agreed.

It was time to dive – we undertook our equipment checks which by this point are second nature, and took a giant stride out into the unknown. The noise of entry and the fizz of bubbles that accompany it are always the only chaotic part of any dive, and as soon as we had followed the mooring down just one meter the familiar, peaceful silence of the warm ocean had engulfed us, and life and colour was everywhere. Brilliant streaks of sunlight led us down to the sandy ocean floor 20 metres below, we checked our compasses and set off on the route unguided, just the two of us, surrounded everywhere by beauty. Bommies, small underwater islands of life, scattered across the seabed each one covered in a different aray of greens, yellows and reds. Hard coral stood like miniature fortresses guarded by their faithful fish, soft coral stretched out as though awakening from a deep sleep. Turquoise parrotfish pecked at rocks, batfish floated by with their signature shape, a giant trevally soared past the size of a small shark. We followed the coral to shallower water, gliding along a solid wall of colour for what felt like eternity, the tiny creatures watching us intently from within. The underwater world was welcoming us, with unspeakable splendour.

As we got lost gliding through endless swim-throughs and along the reef wall at 10 metres, several ‘nemo’ fish ushered us away from their anemone homes, a blue spotted stingray shovelled its nose into the sand in defiance, several green turtles slowly swept within inches of us, unconcerned by our presence, each shell a distinct pattern of pentagonal greens and browns. Utterly lost in the brilliance of the moment, only our diminishing air could drag us back to the surface; we signalled to the boat that all was well, and snorkelled across the glass-like surface back to the boat. “I said an hour,” said the divemaster. I looked down at my computer – 73 minutes flashed back at me. Looking sheepishly up, I met his stare as I removed my mask, and what did he say? “To be honest mate, I don’t blame you. Beautiful, isn’t it?”. I sit here now and think yes, it truly is, beautiful

Fishing like a local in Fiji

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My introduction to fishing was not your typical father and son weekend at the side of the local river. In fact I never had any interest in fishing until a large, jolly Fijian on Waya Sewa island offered to take a group of us out on his friend’s boat to catch dinner ”traditionally”. Having dived amonst the islands comprising the Yasawa chain, northwest of central Fiji, I was well acquainted with the colourful life below the surface and was a little reticent, but it was a way of life amongst the islanders and I found myself waiting at the pier.

Eventually a small, rusty looking motor boat approached, stalled, and floated the rest of the way to the mooring. The captain greeted us with a toothy grin and a garish floral shirt, and we jumped aboard noting both the lack of fishing rods and the lack of bait. The boat sparked into life and shuttled over to the other side of the island, skimming over the coral beneath the water’s surface. Stopping, the captain dropped anchor, grunted approval and slid a brown woven bag out from under his seat. From within he pulled out a beautiful (deceased) parrotfish and a crude, gnarled machete and proceeded to ruthlessly carve the scales off the sorry fish and cleave it into pieces, driving the knife into the wooden seat when finished. He then handed pieces out to each of us, along with nothing more than a length of wire with a wicked, curved barb at the end. This was fishing, Fijian style.

The idea was to poke some parrotfish on to the barb, and drop the line down to the bottom. If you felt a bite, you simply had to pull the wire up as quickly as possible. We sat for a while, occasionally pulling up the line, having lost a tussle with an unseen fish. An hour in and without success, the captain was getting tetchy, when all of a sudden my line went taught. With excitement he shoved me out of the way, grabbed my line and hauled it up with superhuman speed. I – or rather he – had landed a (tiny) snapper. The fish was quickly and unceremoniously put into the sack, and swung down against the floor of the boat with a thud. Truly no nonsense. He grinned.

That was the only fish caught that afternoon, but it wasn’t the only catch. Within moments of the snapper incident, my girlfriend got a bite. Again the captain took over, but as he reeled in the line he pulled up a thrashing, hissing moray eel. Chaos ensued as the captain rushed to cut the wire and release the moray, everyone backed away and one of the other fishers fell overboard in panic. Once we had all recovered, we decided that was that and the captain steered us back to Waya Sewa. He docked, jumped out and strode off without a word, taking my one measly fish off with him, grinning.