New Zealand

New Zealand – the land of rolling mountains, snow-capped peaks, and lakes with the freshest water known to man. It was an amazing 12 days in kiwiland with some of the most exciting and transformative experiences I’ve ever had.

Pictures don’t do this country justice – every day featured the most gorgeous, breathtaking scenery this planet has to offer. Sometimes life is about getting caught up in that sorta stuff – it puts things in perspective and keeps you from the jadedness that tends to seep into our lives.

We flew into Christchurch on Tuesday night. Our cab-driver had a thick Russian accent and told us about the terror that had struck Christchurch. Back in February 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the city, causing widespread damage and nearly 200 deaths. The quake was followed by huge aftershocks later in the year. “At first only a few hundred people left the city,” our cab driver said. “Then it was a thousand. Then twenty thousand. Now over 100,000 people have left the city. It is a ghost town.” And he was right – as we drove through the dark New Zealand night, I saw abandoned houses, empty streets, and rubble yet to be cleared.

We spent two full days in Christchurch before our trip actually began. There was a local library with free internet and a few shops in town for food, but for the most part, Christchurch was empty and there wasn’t much to do. We spent a lot of time watching movies at the hostel and meeting travelers from all over the world – Denmark and Germany and Sweden.

And then, the trip began. 48 of us packed a coach bus and we were off to our first destination – Fox Glacier. Of the 48, most were study abroad Americans studying in Sydney, but there were also Danes, Canadians, and people studying in Melbourne, Wollongong, and Newcastle.

We hiked Fox Glacier on Saturday. Glacier hiking is much more challenging than normal hiking, and it requires a good amount of concentration and focus. We were provided with jackets, hiking boots, and crampons on the bottom of the boots that dug into the ice. The terrain was amazing –  one minute we were on rock and then there’s nothing but ice. Lots and lots of ice.

Our next stop was the beautiful town of Wanaka. We enjoyed an old-fashioned barbecue and explored the glistening lake that is the foundation of the town. In the morning we ate at a little cafe that, impossibly, served bagels. It was my first bagel in over two months.

Next came the best part of the trip – four days in Queenstown.

Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world. The town is nestled along Lake Wakatipu with rolling mountains in the distance. It is unlike any city I have ever been to – as we pull into town we see bungy stations and skydivers and massive canyons. Apropos of what’s to come, Third Eye Blind’s Jumper plays on my iPod.

Our first full day in Queenstown is filled with about as much adrenaline as you could ask for – jet-boating, helicopter riding, and white water rafting. First up is the Shotover jet-boat ride. The jet boats we rode in held about 15 people and reached speeds up to 60 mph, which feels even faster on water. The jet boats can do full 360-degree spins while coming inches away from massive rocks. When one of the drivers was asked how he learned to ride so close to the rocks, he casually replied, “It’s tough at the beginning. A lot of times you just hit the rocks dead on.” But I was confident I’d be ok, since over three million people had ridden the jet boats, including George Lucas, Ian McKellen, and Curtis Granderson.

After jet-boating, we took a bus up to the mountains, where a helicopter awaited our arrival. As if we’re in a movie, we’re quickly loaded onto the chopper (which fits about six people) and then lift off. Of course, this was no ordinary helicopter ride. The chopper does spins, dips, and dives – and you feel everything. The g-force is amazing. As we fly through the canyons and mountains, we learn that this is the only commercial helicopter ride in the world that flies so close to mountainsides. The only other pilots licensed to fly at these altitudes are in the military.

The helicopter lands on water, and in the distance we see our white water rafts. We wait for others to arrive and then, we’re in the water. Rafting was, by far, the most dangerous activity on the trip, especially since we were in grade 4 rapids. Our guide didn’t sugar-coat anything: “Follow my instructions, or you will get hurt.” Thankfully, no one was seriously injured, though there were a few close calls. Our raft nearly flipped over and at one point was completely submerged in the rapids. By the end, we were all drenched.

The views were unbelievable – the river led us down 16 kilometres through towering canyons, rocky rapids, and even caves. At the end we asked our guide about some of the more serious injuries he’s seen. “Oh, I’ve seen broken noises, legs, smashed faces. People have hit the rocks pretty hard in the past. You guys were lucky.”

Next comes the highlight of the trip – bungy jumping. Yes, I went bungy jumping. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that, at one point in my life, I would bungy jump in New Zealand. The one I jumped was called ‘The Ledge,’ which is actually one of the smaller bungees in Queenstown (only 47 meters). The tallest one (the infamous Nevis bungy) is 134 meters.

The few hours leading up to the jump were some of the most nerve-wracking of my life (but a good kind of nerve-wracking). It was hard to wrap my head around the fact that I was actually doing this. As I stepped into my harness, I was shaking, laughing, praying – basically I couldn’t control my emotions. And then, about a minute before I jumped, complete serenity. I was ready. The bungy guide counted down from three, and with no hesitation, I jumped.

You know that feeling you get when you’re falling in your sleep? That sense of helplessness that overwhelms you? That’s what it was like for a few seconds – complete and total free-fall. And wow, was it thrilling. A minute later I was back on firm ground, a changed man. I’m one of the few that can say that I did it – I went bungy jumping. And it’s one of the best memories I’ll have from the trip.

The final few days of the trip were spent coasting through the beautiful Milford Sound and Te Anau glow worm caves. We also had a home-cooked meal at a sheep farm where we saw a shearing demonstration. In between we saw some amazingly scenic views – Knight’s Point, Mirror Lakes, and Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. We spent one final night in Queenstown and then drove back to Christchurch.

The best part about this whole trip was that I got to share it with so many different people. How often can you get a group of 48 strangers to go rafting, bungy jumping, and jet-boating with you – all on the other side of the world, no less. Other than the activities, the best parts of the trip were sharing them with others and talking about our experiences.

As they say, life is all about the stories. And, well, I can safely say – this trip makes for a pretty good one.

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