New Zealand adrenaline rush: 2 death-defying weeks

Adrenaline junkie? Me?

My daughter made me do it, your honor.

Regan wanted to go all out during our two weeks in New Zealand; I turned 60 in October and wanted to wrap the year in style, so she didn’t have to twist my arm, much. Except for the whole jumping out of a perfectly fine airplane thing.

Not everything we did required helmets, but it sure seemed like it. Here are highlights and low lights of our top 5 once(?)-in-a-lifetime adventures:

Adrenalin rush No. 5: White water rafting

  • Where/who: Kaituna Cascades, Rotorua
  • Death-defying terror scale: 6 of 10
  • Fitness required: 6 of 10

What makes this grade 5 ride down the Kaituna River famous is the 23-foot Tutea Falls, touted as the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. In the WORLD. A VERTICAL waterfall.

It was cold and rainy and I hemmed and hawed and tried to back out. But Regan wouldn’t let me. Turns out rainy days are perfect for rafting.

After safety briefings and practice runs (what to do should the raft overturn atop you? Breathe, don’t panic, wait until knocking overhead to get out), five of us were off with our great guide, Rob. We got into crouches for a small waterfall, admired the rain forest, and some swam in a lagoon. The gear did a pretty good job of keeping us dry and warm.

Suddenly Tutea Falls was ahead of us. Regan and I were in the front. As rehearsed, we crouched, heads down, holding onto the rope in front. But the water ripped my hand away and I was sucked up, then tossed under. I bobbed up quickly, still holding the oar. Regan was nearby, as was a third passenger. Only two in our raft clung on through the falls.

I don’t recall hitting anything as I fell out, but some people do get damaged ankles or noses being pummeled by the water. 

We were directed to swim a short distance to the side, and soon fetched. We watched the next raft go over–all six passengers fell out! But the final raft popped up with all four still aboard, cheering victoriously.

The adventure was less than an hour but was physically tough, partly due to the squatting, paddling and jostling and yes, getting spit out.

Do it again? Maybe.

Adrenalin rush No. 4: 3-day Kepler Track

  • Where/who: One of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” a 37-mile circuit from Te Anau
  • Death-defying terror scale: 2 of 10
  • Fitness required: 8 of 10

Our first overnight hike was 34 miles over 21 hours, with about a mile elevation.

Regan carried some 30 pounds while I carried about 20 (water is really heavy!), including sleeping bags, dehydrated food packets, cooking utensils, clothes (warm and wet gear), toiletries..and cribbage.

Day 1: 8.6 miles over 5 hours. A steady slog up a pretty forest for four hours before you get above the tree line. Unfortunately it was pretty cloudy so views were hidden. Another hour and we were at the Luxmore Hut around 2 p.m.

Low light: our first hut experience. As foreigners, we paid $257 each for three huts, double that of locals. Despite all my research, I was still disappointed by how primitive they were after a hard day of tramping.

There’s no electricity or heat; everything is communal; wooden furnishings are designed for durability, not comfort. The bunks had thin mattresses; the bathrooms had basic stalls and a wash basin. The dining area had gas-burners for cooking and there was a small heater with a limited supply of wood. Late that night, someone was violently ill and we all experienced it in those tight quarters.

Day 2, Highlight of the trip: 9.5 miles over 7 hours. A stunningly perfect day with glorious “Lord of the Rings” type ridge views for some three hours including at Luxmore Summit.

Low light: Leaving the ridge, it’s a grueling, steep half mile down with many switchbacks. I was fatigued; the backpack was heavy; my legs were rubbery. I broke into tears at one point. (Walking sticks would have helped.) It took us more than 3 hours to reach the Iris Burn hut, which was not as nice as Luxmore.

Day 3: 14 miles over 7 hours. We decided two huts was enough so we skipped the third, pushing through to Rainbow Reach and a ride back to town. It was easy and flat with a water crossing that I did not handle well. I told my daughter I would fall over with my pack at some time…and I did. That was the demise of camera No. 1.

Do it again? Not with the heavy bags and uncomfortable huts.

Adrenalin rush No. 3: Via Ferrata

  • Where/who: Wildwire, Wanaka
  • Death-defying terror scale: 5 of 10
  • Fitness required: 6 of 10

I got hooked on Via Ferratas in Murren, Switzerland–these are “iron climbing routes” in which you are harnessed to a cable while ascending on metal rungs embedded into cliffs.

Wildwire opened in 2015 and claims to be “the world’s highest waterfall via ferrata system,” rising 1,000 feet next to two waterfalls, with precarious suspension bridges and tightropes.

It was an exhilarating 3 hours and 17 minutes climbing right next to the thundering waterfalls or its pools, which pumps up your adrenaline. Especially if you are wobbling while making water crossings as I was. (Demise of camera No. 2.)

Our guide demonstrated how you can hang off the cable, hands free, trusting only in your clip. My heart was pounding but I did it! (An unexpected bonus: the guides will carry your stuff up for you, and also bring snacks.)

Do it again? Definitely!

Adrenalin rush No. 2: Extreme hiking on Fox Glacier

  • Where/who: Fox Glacier Guides
  • Death-defying terror scale: 6 of 10
  • Fitness required: 8 of 10

We had booked nearly a year ahead with Franz Josef Glacier Guides but they lost our reservation! Good thing as we had an awesome 7-hour “extreme Fox heli-hike” adventure with Fox Glacier Guides.

No need to fret about what to wear–you are outfitted nearly from head to toe: Jumpsuit, boots, helmet, harness and backpack, into which you put your lunch, water, raincoat, heavy coat, crampons, and two pairs of gloves. They take preparation seriously as conditions change quickly and guests have occasionally gotten stuck overnight on the glacier!

There’s a safety video and briefing, weighing of everyone and gear, then we’re off on a smooth helicopter ride—our first!–with spectacular views of the glacier, crevices and waterfalls despite some cloud cover.

We had a blast over the next four hours on this sea of ice! We got to use our ice picks and became very good friends with our crampons and harnesses as we navigated delicate ridges of ice lining treacherous crevasses. We were the first to discover a gorgeous blue cave that would be gone after a few weeks.

The glacier changes daily, so our guides would look for promising routes, hammering in ice screws and threading rope for our harnesses. While they confidently scampered on the ice, we slowly picked our way across what seemed to be gaping crevasses beckoning our sacrifice.

The afternoon was anti-climactic by comparison. We reached the “summit” where the day hikers go, and returned on ice steps carved daily by staff. Weather was mostly fabulous with little wind. But boy, it changed quickly. You would look to the top with admiration, then look again to see only a haze of clouds.

Do it again? You bet!

And the No. 1 adrenalin rush: Skydiving

  • Where/who: Skydive Southern Alps, Glenorchy
  • Death-defying terror scale: 10 of 10
  • Fitness required: 3 of 10

This had never been on my radar. I only did it because Regan wanted to. We chose Skydive Southern Alps because it claimed to be “the most scenic tandem skydive experience on earth.” We well believe it! 

We booked the 12,000 feet jump for the day after Christmas, then I avoided thinking about it.

Upon arrival, we got outfitted in jumpsuits, harnesses, hats and gloves, watched a briefing video, met our tandem masters, then…waited. The wind had picked up and Reuben, the crew leader, announced they were canceling the rest of the day. We were disappointed as we had gotten psyched to go up, but were impressed by their attention to safety.

Luckily, we had enough flexibility so we rescheduled for four days later. 

We returned on a sparkling, calm morning, and went through the routine again. I got Reuben as my tandem master and he was fantastic throughout, including taking great photos and videos via a Go Pro on his left wrist.

We boarded the small plane with two other jumpers who were going up to 15,000 feet (where you need oxygen), and a solo jumper. You sit in front of your master, who attaches you to him during the flight. The views captivated my attention so I didn’t think of what was ahead.

All too soon, the solo jumper opened the door of the plane (!!!) and off he went. My daughter went next. She and her master scooted to the door; she curled into the banana position with head and feet up, and they were gone!

We repeated those motions–I sat at the edge of the plane with my legs dangling in space, Reuben put goggles over my glasses, and then we plummeted out of the plane, upside down!

We were in free fall for about 45 seconds, whooshing downward. I was distracted by how badly my ears had plugged up and how dry my mouth was–I may or may not have been shrieking; it was a blur.

When Reuben released the parachute, we were jerked up slightly before settling into a peaceful float with dazzling scenery all around. I had recently gone paragliding and the feeling is comparable. This portion lasted about 3 1/2 minutes.

Finally, we came in for the landing–you hold your feet up while the master maneuvers you back to earth. Seconds later, you’re unharnessed and giddy with adrenaline.

We did it! And survived!

Do it again? No, thank you.

See our top images from New Zealand!

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