Amanda Jones
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New Zealand Nature Extravaganza

One day, I happened to be present during “circle time” at my daughter’s preschool. Circle time is a pow-wow at which small people with an underdeveloped sense of appropriateness get to divulge random family secrets. On this particular morning, my daughter’s revelation went like this:
“My grandmother is having a birthday.”

“Oh really, are you celebrating with her?” said the long-suffering teacher.

“Well, she’s really, really old,” (tragic sigh). “My Mopsie is about to die.”

All fidgeting stopped. Children love death.

“How terrible. Is she sick?”

“Well, “ said Sofia (age five), savoring the attention, “She has terrible, terrible oldness.”

My mother is, in fact, in the pink of health. There is absolutely nothing wrong with her. Upon the aforementioned birthday she would be turning 70, and a darn well kept 70 at that. But Sofia’s dramatic performance served as a proverbial ah-ha moment for me. She was correct—my mother would not live forever. And my father, a sprightly eighty-year-old, would not either. Right then, with 40 small people staring at me pityingly, I decided we needed to pull out all the stops for my mother’s 70th birthday. We’d celebrate with a family vacation. And, just to prove to Sofia that her grandmother was not about to kick the bucket, we’d make it an adventurous, thrilling, outdoorsy sort of trip.

My parents still live in New Zealand, where I was born. After considering the options, it was decided there was probably no better place to go for an adventure than the Motherland. We would travel to New Zealand’s glorious South Island on a generation-spanning nature extravaganza.

New Zealand has two main islands—the North and the South. The South Island is the larger of the two and has 800,000 inhabitants, roughly 1/5th of the country’s entire population. This means there are few people in a land with scenery so dramatic I’ve never met a traveler who is not captivated. There are lakes, fiords, rivers, mountains, beaches, forests and plains, practically untouched and most open to the public. And in the heart of all this is my favorite area, the Lakes District, and its central towns of Queenstown and Wanaka.

Adventure junkies come here to fling themselves off bungee bridges, rock climb, go canyoning, heli-bike or submit to a litany of hairy-edge thrill sports. There are, however, tamer activities for those not so inclined. Wine tasting for example. The area makes some of New Zealand’s best wines. There’s also wonderful hiking, boating and trout fishing. And so in March—late summer in New Zealand—Sofia (5), Indigo (7), my husband Greg and I flew to Auckland, collected my parents, and flew south to the town of Wanaka in the Lakes District.

Wanaka is exactly the kind of place Americans visualize when they think of New Zealand. A cobalt lake flanked by majestic mountains, snow capped year around; rivers coursing thorough valleys, and waterfalls plummeting down cliff faces; undulating grasslands—sheep-dotted—cladding the lowlands and reaching the pristine shoreline, and a small town of not-many-people tucked at one end of the lake.

The town has modernized enormously in the last twenty years. During my university years we’d go skiing on the country’s best ski hill—Treble Cone—nearby. Back then it was a town with a raucous pub, a hamburger joint, and shops selling gumboots and strange sheepskin hats. Nowadays, Wanaka (population 3,500) has restaurants of all nationalities, nightclubs, luxury lodges and shops that stock things you’d actually want to buy. Not wasting a moment, we launched ourselves into adventure. I’m not sure if it is the lack of litigious instinct among New Zealanders or their cultural bias against being told what to do, but there are few places left in the world where you can pay to endanger your life and not have to sign a release. Canyoning, for example, is one such sport, and I was determined to do it.

Canonying is when you are handed a thick wetsuit, a helmet, and a grotty pair of used tennis shoes and force-marched up a steep hill. You then the next 4-5 hours descending a rapidly flowing river by rappelling down waterfalls, sliding through corkscrew tunnels in rocks, hooking to a zip line and hurtling over the canyon, or leaping from cliffs into small, swirling pools of water below. “Sounds like a damn fool way to fall off your perch (die),” my father said, shaking his head.

Needless to say, we did not take the parents or the children canyoning. Instead they went sailing on the lake in a luxurious, privately chartered 52-foot catamaran. My father was, in his day, a die-hard, squadron-saluting sailor. I knew I was abandoning my children to a rigorous day of introductory boating with my father. I could imagine the scene, “Toughen up girls, that’s just a little blood. A sailor never cries.”

Meanwhile, Greg and I were driven into the Matukituki Valley by our alarmingly young guide from Deep Canyon Adventures and given a brief in instruction on how to stay alive while dangling from a rope with a waterfall surging over your head. Apart from a close call with hypothermia, canyoning turned out to be one of the most fun things I’ve done in a long time.

An hour drive over the pass from Wanaka is Queenstown, a larger town of approximately 20,000 high-voltage Kiwis who have dubbed their town “the adventure capital of the world.” One local put it perfectly, “Queenstowners push the limits of extreme sports. They can’t look at a cliff without thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to tie a bit of underwear elastic around my ankles and jump off.’ Or, ‘Hey, look, there’s a class six rapid. How about diving in on my old boogie board.’”

Queenstown is the global epicenter of bungee jumping. It was invented here, (or at least adapted from the vine jumpers of Vanuatu). My father, to whom a man’s unflinching valor is tantamount to his worth, and who is still slightly suspect about the mettle of Americans, challenged Greg (an American) to take the plunge. AJ Hacketts Skippers Canyon, at 330 feet high, was once one of the tallest bungee bridges in the world (South Africa has now upped the ante with a mind-numbing 530-foot jump). And Skippers has to be one of the more dramatic, isolated locations to plummet off a bridge, tucked back into a remote area that was once one of the largest gold strikes New Zealand’s 1800’s gold rush history. Greg, knowing his honor was in question, leapt without so much as a downward glance. My father smiled and yelled down after him, “Good show, old chap.”

I declined to bungee but submitted to the Flying Fox, a harness contraption that took me zipping across the canyon on a wire, face down, spread-eagled. There was little fear factor involved. In fact, I felt like a trainee superhero. Sure, I was flying hundreds of feet above a rushing river, but with a governor preventing me from achieving desired maximum velocity.

A helicopter ride in the South Island of New Zealand is, in my opinion, about as close as it gets to an earthly peek at paradise. I’d done it several times, but the family had not, so I contacted an old friend, Brendan Thow, a skilled backcountry pilot who owns Alpine Choppers, a heli-touring company. We arranged a heli picnic.

Cloud is a common sight in the South Island, even in summer, and cloud can ruin a helicopter flight. We were in luck, the morning dawned a flawless periwinkle. Brendan swung the helicopter low over serpentine rivers, hovered over snowy mountaintops, banked to clear knife-edged ridges and shot through valleys. “Gobsmacking, innit? He said through the headset. It was Gobsmacking indeed.

We landed beside an alpine lake with water so crystalline it magnified rocks and trout. We continued over hilly sheep stations, tracing the Dart River and skimming forests. We put down on a snowy glacier and walked to the edge to meditate on the uninterrupted nature below, not another human in sight. And then we reached the wild West coast, a sweep of pebbly shore and steely seas where we circled over a pod of surfing dolphins and swept past colonies of seals and penguins.

After a mountaintop picnic, Brendan flew into Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s most visited scenic wonders and the final destination for its most popular multi-day walk, the Milford Track. With one of the highest rainfalls in the country, I’ve been to the Sound many times and never seen more than a miserable few cliffs shrouded in drizzle. Seeing it bathed in radiant sunshine I finally understood its appeal. The mighty Mitre Peak rose like a scepter from a sparkling sea and Sutherland Falls fell straight and strong from its noble height.

That night we went to the Bath House, one of Queenstown’s fine dining restaurants, to celebrate my mother’s birthday. Over her champagne she announced, “Just this day alone has been the best present of my life. To see all this beauty in the company of my granddaughters, well…” With that she got weepy, as mothers are wont to do.

As part of the “do it up big” theme for my mother’s birthday, we were staying at Punatapu Lodge. Located 15 minutes outside Queenstown, Punatapu is a small, sophisticated, rural haven. My mother, a gourmet cook, is very snobby about the food she eats. Punatapu has a reputation for outstanding cuisine, so I booked the family suite and we moved in. While one of New Zealand’s top chefs cooked a five course gustation menu for the adults, I furtively cooked mac n’ cheese for my kids on a hotplate. While we ate venison and green-lipped mussels in the formal dining room, they worked their way through the vast video library in our room. It was a beautiful arrangement.

One thing my mother was determined to do was the Shotover Jet. Invented by a New Zealand sheep farmer-cum-engineer in the 1950s, Hamilton jet boats can roar at speeds of 85 miles an hour in water only four inches deep, turning and stopping on a dime. Put a machine like this in the hands of a South Islander and, naturally, they fill it up with tourists and tear up narrow river gorges at insane speeds, heading straight for boulders and rock walls. Throw in a few 360-degree turns just in the nick of time and you’ve got the ride of a lifetime. I’d done it once before when I was 18 years old, only then it was the dead of winter and they’d given us towels to wipe the water off our faces before it froze. Surely, I thought, this would be a hairy enough adventure to disabuse Sofia of the notion that Mopsie was about to leave this earth.

The family cackled and whooped as we hurtled over the shallow rapids of the Shotover River, barely dodging cliffs walls. My mother looked like she was barely pushing 60 as she disembarked. There’s a lot to be said for a shot of adrenaline.

The trip was a rip-roaring success. It was wholesome and it was fun. Even the photos have a kind of harmonious glow. In fact they look as if we’re in an advertisement for life insurance. There we are, a happy family running down the beach; standing beside a picture-perfect lake; raising a toast on top of a mountain, or grinning at each other after risking our lives. There was a lot of laughter and memory-making adventure, but there was also the sentimental element of my children discovering my homeland—the beautiful and exhilarating New Zealand.

On Sofia’s first day back at preschool I loitered in the shadows to listen to what she’d report.

“How was your trip, Sofia?”

“We had big adventures.”

“How is your grandmother doing?”

“Well, actually, she won’t be dying.”

The other children were visibly disappointed, and, recognizing she’d lost her audience, Sofia made a diving catch.

“My Popsie, though, he’s about to fall off his perch...”