Leap of faith

The Happy Camper: come fly with me...

The free-fall from 9,000 feet lasts around 20 seconds. It was terrifying, exhilarating and a serious rush for the senses – it was almost as good as beating Australia in Eden Park.

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold”

– Robert Service (the cremation of Sam McGee)

WHAT ELSE COULD possessed men to settle in such an impenetrable place as Queenstown apart from gold?

We were told today that in the peak of rush in the 1890s, a fellah could sift as much as a gram of the stuff in every pan he dipped into the river.

One mine in particular coughed up over a ton before the excavations in the area eventually ceased in the mid-1990s. It was a cave which we got up close and personal with as we spent the morning white-water rafting the 14 kilometres from a perilous place known as Skipper’s Canyon, near the Coronet Peak snow field, to Shotover where Cian is parked up.

The water is emerald green but every stone on the river bed is clearly visible. It’s as chilly as you can expect a glacial river to be and it acts as quite the eye-opener after a sampling the delights of Queenstown’s nightlife.

The course runs between walls of granite 20-metres high and is ever-changing. February’s devastating earthquake in Christchurch sent giant flagstones crashing to the river to form yet more meanders and obstacles to the run.

Suitably frozen and refreshed, we are ready for anything. Except, perhaps, for hurling myself out of an airplane. But that’s exactly what we did next. In the words of the great Tom Dunne, of Something Happens fame, it was a beautiful day for jumping.

Take a parchute

It was close to 20 degrees, unseasonably warm for Otago in early spring and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, just one crazy parachutist after another sailing back towards terra firma.

The tandem jumpers who strap themselves onto us tourists for a living all seemed to be big, brash, easygoing Kiwis. They had goatee beards, bandanas and names like Sidney, Ricky and Maurice. Each of them looked like empathetic souls eager to please and reassure. Until that is, the man who is about to have my life in his hands comes out with an icy emotionless face.  Miroslav is Czech and (for all I knew) he could have been as nervous as I was.

As I walked to the plane, he asked me how I felt. I told him, “not too bad, a bit nervous though.” There were no reassuring words or a pat on the back.

He just made a half-arsed attempt at a smile and continued to march me onto the plane. Inside we got very cosy: scooched onto the floor, the paying customers were snugly wedged and attached the legs of their instructors. Then one by one we were turfed out again.

The free-fall from 9,000 feet lasts around 20 seconds. It was terrifying, exhilarating and a serious rush for the senses – it was almost as good as beating Australia in Eden Park.

Once the chute opens it is little more than a gentle swing down to the field from where we took off. On the way down, feeling totally safe and strapped in, you can look down on the Lake Wakatipu and across at the mountains where the goldmines used to reside. These days the gold is in the sky-diving racket, but only because so many people wish to come here and do it.

Queenstown is just the perfect place to parachute; in fact, it’s the perfect place to do just about anything outdoors. But it will soon be behind us, it is time to return to the Pacific Coast. Tomorrow we depart, like thousands of others in this town, for Dunedin.

Ireland’s destiny awaits.

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