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.

Exploring the Kinabatangan river, Borneo

ImageThe rain was biblical, but the air roasting at the same time. The canoe bobbed uneasily down the Kinabatangan, in the east of Malaysian Borneo, the river dancing under the heavy rainfall. Passing a few small villages, the villagers washing in the murky brown water, fully aware that 6 foot crocodiles live in the water but with no other option, hours passed timelessly. Suddenly, a small wooden pier appeared on the right amidst the dense rainforest, to which we hastily tied the canoe and disembarked into the foliage. The light was beginning to fail, we didn’t have long to drop off our grubby backpacks before the night trek. Camp, on a quick glance, consisted of a wooden boardwalk raised above the sodden mud of the rainforest floor, an eating area, and three thin mattresses on the floor of an open sided hut, no pillows, no sheets; no need.

Armed simply with black rubber shoes which cost less than five malaysian ringits, and headtorches, we set off away from the boardwalk and into the rainforest. The noises of insects broke the airless silence, the heat a different kind of oppressive, the sky a blanket of brilliant stars when it wasn’t hidden by the canopy overhead. Colourful birds sat on branches, hiding their eyes under their wings, asleep. Fruit bats, wide awake, hung underneath eagerly seeking out any fallen food. Tree frogs chirped from beneath leaves, and more than once we had to divert our route around a line of feared fire ants whose bites, the Malay say, burn for days afterwards. A deep grunt in a clearing up ahead, accompanied by the familiar crunching of the shells of nuts, hinted at something more substantial – a bright white wild pig, alerted to our presence, bolted as we drew nearby. Despite the silence of the rainforest at night, it teems with life, never a dull moment. I returned to the ineffective mattresses and fell instantly into a deep sleep, stripped to the waist and exhausted.

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We rose with the sun the next day, before 6am, the temperature noticeably rising. A quick breakfast of flat breads and we were back in the canoe and pressing into the rainforest further. Early morning is a prime time for wildlife in the rainforest, the bright green kingfishers sitting on the riverbanks welcoming us warmly to the new day. In the high canopy beyond the banks a bright orange orangutan arose from his nest, undoubtedly planning on moving to the next, a strange sight to see such a human creature living like a bird amongst the trees. We floated underneath proboscis monkeys, their unusual noses comical in appearance, and atheletic gibbons whose long limbs flung them effortlessly amongst the high branches of the riverside trees. A small boy waved to us from the other side, about to have his morning wash, brown and sunburnt with a brilliant smile. Every being is in unison with each other in the rainforest, the fine balance all too easily destroyed by the palm oil farming which Borneo suffers from so greatly, but benefits from monetarily. The journey continued, the river winding into the unknown, great promises of adventure and beauty, a land once unspoilt now wrestling its very existence back from the brink, every sight, sound and sense so precious in time, but too fleeting. The sky had become a brilliant blue, and looking up, breathing deep, the wonder of the place filled my lungs and focussed my mind. In Borneo there are no distractions from the simple truth, that you are alive in a world which is beautiful, a truth which is all too easily forgotten.

Beneath the unspoilt waters of Sipadan Island, Borneo

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Sipadan sits in the Celebes Sea, off Borneo’s eastern coast. A conical spit of land breaking an otherwise endless blue, it rises from an otherwise flat sea bed nearly 600 metres, standing solitary and defiant against the horizon. Only a limited number of permits are issued each day for those who have travelled across Borneo, one of the few wild places left on Earth, drawn to the island by tales of wonders beyond belief. Nutrients washed in from the sea have only the small barrier of Sipadan standing in their way, making the marine habitat rich in food for the smaller fish, making it rich in food for the bigger fish.

We set off early from the port of Semporna, in the southeast of Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah region and, with only one break-down en route caused by a stray plastic bag, the going was good. The sea was calm, the sky blue, the temperature rising by the minute. Eventually, the island came in to view, barely piercing the water, only the trees rising more than a couple of metres from sea level. The sand was a grainy white, the shallows a transparent turquoise swarming with life and colourful coral – it truly was an untouched piece of art.

We stood on the warming sand, awaiting our official registration, gazing whistfully into the entrancing water. Dozens of angelfish and bannerfish scattered themselves amongst the coral, to the left a blue spotted stingray shovelled its nose under a rock seeking food, and only four or five metres from the shore a whitetip reef shark waited patiently, passing the day until the night time hunt. We were soon informed that our first dive site of the day would be “South Point”, at the other side of the island, the side facing the open ocean. Back in the small boat, we admired the 30+ metre visibility of the water below us as we raced to the rear of the island, keen to arrive before others.

Under now intense sun, still in the early morning, we donned our equipment and strode out into the unknown. The water was teeming with activity. The coral in the first 5 metres was exceptionally pristine, creating a garden of colour unlike any on land; reds, greens, yellows, oranges, purples in all imaginable shapes, textures and sizes. The smattering of butterflyfish now became a swarm, not one but six reef sharks swam gracefully before us. The sillouette of a green turtle floated peacefully and effortlessly towards the surface in the distance for a breath. The world was silent and majestic, a rare impression of peace in a restless world.

Suddenly, a shadow cast itself over us. It seemed to shift and change shape frantically, there was an unfamiliar noise in the water. I turned, and if I could have gasped I would, as within metres of me whirled a tornado of hundreds of great barracuda, swimming wildly around one another, razor teeth gnashing at the end of sleek, silver bodies. The storm grew and grew, ten metres wide and twice as deep, barrelling across the reef and out towards the ocean. I was gulping down air at an alarming rate, not scared but thrilled, in wonderment at the inconceivable sight. It suddenly tore away out into the blue, leaving us staring at one another in disbelief. In these more remote parts of the World, it seems, life exists on a whole new scale. Sipadan island, barely a speck in the waters of Earth, had played host to one of the most unforgettable encounters of a lifetime, and that was just the first dive…

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The endless ocean – Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

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The sky was an unbelievable blue. It was both warm and cold, there was little wind. Overhead, the sun was utterly spectacular. An other-wordly halo of light ringed around the yellow star like an infinite rainbow, a sight that defied any and all logic, both magical and incomprehensible. The ground crunched underfoot, everything was so dry. There was a sense of something unusual in the air. The ruins of abandoned, rusted trains stood all around us, not another sight for miles. It was … enigmatic.

In the altiplano of Bolivia, pressing up against Chile in the southwest and Argentina in the south, lay the Salar de Uyuni. Three and a half thousand metres above sea level, spanning four thousand square miles, at no point varying in altitude by more than a metre, vast and empty, solitary, cold – here the great salt flats of Bolivia, the world’s largest, kiss the endless horizon in all directions. We stood on the brink of a harsh and seemingly lifeless world, white like a blank canvass, as though God had forgotten to create in this land, and we were unsure of what to expect. Stepping into the awaiting 4×4, sunglasses on to avoid being blinded, we began to move out.

As snow-capped mountains became vaguely discernable on the horizon, the South American Andes in miniature, we pulled up aside a crop of towering cacti, some over a thousand years old, which stood atop a large mound of salt and got out to gather our bearings. Clambering to the top, along the perfectly hexagonal cracks running across the metres-thick crust of salt underfoot, a brief gust of wind dared to disrupt the pervasive stillness and ruffled the spines of the cacti which groaned unappreciatively. We looked out over a vast expanse of crystal whiteness, the occasional dirty line created by a vehicle ruining the otherwise perfect uniformity of the colour, the odd mound of salt laying unattending, harvested from the salar, ready to be transported. A pure, endless white surrounded us, small specks on the land, all around an absolute silence, no birds in the air, no background noise, nothing at all. We stood in the graveyard of ancient lakes without any sense of perspective, or reference. It was discomforting. It was stunning. We pressed on.

Only a short drive onwards, the world suddenly exploded into unbelievable colour. The salar was not a lifeless, empty desert as the previous day had suggested. Before us stood a lake, a lake unlike any other I had ever seen, a lake which was crowded with life. We stood agast as hundreds upon hundreds of bright pink flamingos waded through the water, gaggling amongst themselves, utterly inconceivable. As we looked harder, an almost more startling realisation dawned upon us – not only was it the flamingos that were creating the striking colour, but the water itself was an intense, bright red. This was the laguna colorado, stained bloodred by algae in the water. Having seen nothing but white upon white for the last 24 hours, to suddenly see the world coloured such a vivid red was almost unsettling, but truly awe-inspiring, an experience truly unique to the Bolivian salar, quite incomprehensibly remarkable. The world had never been harder to believe.

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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.