Tag Archives: extreme sports

Queenstown: Winter Festival, skiing, bungy and general indulgences

Some people thought we were mad to travel to New Zealand in June, mid-winter down under. “If I had six months off work to travel, I would stick to hot climates and beaches”, they said.

Mark and I, however, love winter – especially snow. Soon after we met, one of the first things he ever asked me was whether I ski. When I replied that I had lived and worked in the Alps for two whole ski seasons I could almost see the giant box he was ticking inside his head.

Some of our best trips and happiest memories together have been in ski resorts. We are even talking about having a winter wedding, partly because of the appeal of a honeymoon in the mountains…

So we were excited about the prospect of getting some time on the slopes in NZ, and even more so when we heard that there would be a “Winter Festival” in Queenstown at the end of June.

Unfortunately the Winter Festival was hardly the Glastonbury in the snow we had hoped for; the only evidence of any kind of festival were a few flimsy signs dotted around town. Hardly any of the standup comedy, freestyle ski and snowboard performances and general boozy partying promised on the festival’s website could be found.

Still, we were there with Anya and her friend Russ who had flown down from Auckland for a long weekend, so we were able to make our own fun.

The ski fields in NZ are all smaller than what we are used to in Europe or the States – just a handful of lifts and pistes. Luckily the conditions were great after a big dump, so plenty of snow to play in anyway.

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Gabby the campervan came into her own for skiing – it was brilliant having a massive vehicle for all of our gear, not to mention a warm, dry place to make lunch and avoid the crowded, pricey cafe on the mountain.

making lunch

making lunch

As Russ couldn’t ski, the next day was a day of indulgence at the Amisfield Winery in nearby Arrowtown. We all went for the “trust the chef” option: five courses with wine matching made for several enjoyable hours of indulgence.

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beetroot and apple soup

beetroot and apple soup

bluenose fish

bluenose fish

Unlike the time in Argentina, Mark and I managed not to fall asleep on the lawn, although it did look rather tempting.

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Instead, we sneaked into Anya & Russ’ s posh resort for some spa time and to watch the sun set.

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It’s a hard life!

Although such languid relaxation is possible, Queenstown is more about extreme adrenalin rushes. Mark had never done a skydive and I had only done one in Oxfordshire, with delightful views of the M4 and a sewage plant. So we were both keen to take the plunge (literally). Regrettably it wasn’t to be – bad weather meant our booking was cancelled four times and we left NZ without jumping out of a plane.

We consoled ourselves with visits to Queenstown’s legendary Fergburger and next door, Fergbaker for classic NZ pies. The “Ferg”empire is so famous, people we met in Peru told us we had to go!

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We also had some lovely walks around the lake.

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But all was not lost in our quest for adventure: I signed up for the 134m Nevis bungy jump, the biggest in Australasia. There were smaller ones around Queenstown but I figured if I was going to ignore every sane instinct and fling myself off a tiny ledge into stomach-churning freefall, I may as well get a superlative under my belt. “Go big or go home” as they say around here!

Even weeks later, I’m thrilled to say I did it! Definitely one of the scariest challenges of my life, although the most intense fear came in the days leading up to the jump. I tortured myself with ill advised Google searches for things like “bungy death”, “bungy accident” etc which Mark thought was hilarious (easy for him to laugh when he refused even to consider signing up).

On the day however, something took over and I became very focused. The music choices played on the way there helped. Fact: nothing makes you feel more of an invincible badass than “Eye of the Tiger”.

Before bungy

Before bungy

ready to go

ready to go

Of course, the stomach flips returned as my turn to jump got nearer. One of the Nevis team led me to the ledge. I vividly remember how hairy his forearm was, I was gripping on to it so hard.

He gently extracted himself and just as my mind began to race, he simply said, “don’t think about it, just do it, 3, 2, 1″… Magically, obediently, as if possessed I shut down my rational consciousness and leant forward, as if diving into a swimming pool.

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Rational thought returned the instant freefall began. I was so shocked I had jumped I didn’t even scream, but just took it all in, wide eyed and gasping at the ground accelerating towards me. Somehow I remembered that I was meant to pull a cord to release my feet on the second bounce – as soon I was the right way up I began giggling uncontrollably with pure joy and relief.

After I was pulled up to the solid floor of the cable car, the feeling of euphoria was unmatched.

After bungy - manic grin and teary eyes

After bungy – manic grin and teary eyes

For the video, click here.

Although the bungy wasn’t for him and his pesky fear of heights, Mark also experienced a similar moment of insanity and glory on the Nevis swing, the world’s biggest swing.

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We did this in tandem which was great fun. I thought it would be a cinch after the bungy but it was a pretty terrifying drop – what made it easier was the fact that someone else pushed the release button rather than the crucial moment being all down to you.

In any case, the wise words of the steady, calm Nevis worker have now become a life mantra for me: “don’t think about it, just do it”. That goes for anyone considering longterm travel too!

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World’s Most Dangerous Road, Bolivia

written by Mark

Don’t tell Leila’s mum, but one of our highlights of our time in La Paz was cycling down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (a.k.a. “Death Road”, whichever makes you feel more comfortable). The numbers vary depending on who you ask, but we heard that on average around 13 people died each year when the road was the major route over the mountains to La Paz.

Thankfully, they built a new road in 2007 so this old 64km WMDR route is only used by cyclists, tour buses and the odd other vehicle. Still, our guide Jubi was aware of about 24 cyclists who had died in the last 14 years, so the name “Death Road” is no false moniker.

So, armed with this information, our group was just itching to set off.

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Given the infamous WMDR history, safety is given the utmost priority. Barracuda Bikes gave us high quality Kona steeds with hydraulic disk brakes and full suspension.

We were given a good briefing and even made an offering to Pachamama to bid us a good trip: a drop of 96% strength alcohol for our bikes and the road followed by a drop for ourselves.

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Then we were off. The first 25km or so was down a tarmac road, good to give us all a feel for the bikes.

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Then the 37km down the Death Road itself began. The road is narrow (often only one car width wide, with vertical 200-300m drops on one side and a cliff on the other. The surface is gravel, and loose in parts.

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Those who have seen the Top Gear episode where they drive on this road will know it can easily crumble away beneath the vehicle. For that reason it is the only road in South America where it is customary to drive on the left – so drivers can more easily see how close they are to the edge.

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The dust kicked up by cars was often suffocating; we were caked all over by the end of the ride.

The road is littered with crosses and graves, a good reminder to check your speed.

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We took care to stop for regular breaks and take lots of photos. Jubi was a bit of a joker.

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The ride was great fun, with just enough danger to keep it interesting. I’m pleased to say everyone in our group got back in one piece.

Annoyingly, we left La Paz the next day before we could pick up our “Death Road Survivor” tshirts, but Leila did come back with one souvenir after taking a tumble.

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