A to Z of Adventure Travel: Q is for Queenstown

7 05 2009



Queenstown, New Zealand is commonly regarded as the Adventure Capital of the World for it was here that a Kiwi named A J Hackett took the sport of bungee jumping – created in Vanuatu centuries earlier and resurrected by Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club –  and made it a commercial enterprise. Unlike its participants, it has been soaring ever since and a whole adrenaline industry has sprung up around it.


Situated on South Island, Queenstown sits on Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Although it began life humbly as an 18th century gold mining camp, today its wealth lies in the visitors it attracts from New Zealander and all over the world drawn by its ski slopes and other outdoor activities.


As if the skiing, fly-fishing and mountain biking weren’t enough, A J Hackett’s influence led to Queenstown’s coronation as Adrenaline Central. River surfing, aerobatics flights, jet-boating, canyon swings, ziplining, hang-gliding, heli-skiing, hot air ballooning, quad biking, skydiving and paragliding all flourish surrounded by the area’s natural beauty.


Queenstown also offers some of the best hiking in the world. There are dozens of well-marked routes that range from a few hours to several days or more. Although hikers must carry all of their own equipment and provisions, the Department of Conservation maintains more than 950 backcountry huts along these trails. There is a small fee to use the huts with those on more popular routes generally require reservations, especially during peak season. Regardless of the trail that is chosen, all tracks guarantee spectacular scenery and lots of fresh air.


Many visitors also head to Milford Sound, a breathtaking fjord within Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. Once referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by Rudyard Kipling, the Sound is located 295 kilometres from Queenstown on the country’s west coast. Not only does it have the distinction of being New Zealand’s wettest inhabited spot, but also with more than half-a-million tourists each year, its most visited. The Sound runs 15 kilometres inland from the Tasman Sea and is surrounded by sheer cliff faces that rise upwards of 1,200 metres on all sides. The boat tours that are offered are not only highly recommended in order to properly experience the remoteness and stark beauty of the area, but also often feature in rankings of the best day trips in the world.


Queenstown also offers some of the best accommodation in all of New Zealand with luxury 5-star wilderness lodges providing seclusion and unrivalled views equally popular with discerning travellers and international celebrities alike. And if after a busy day of adventure or simple sightseeing you want nothing more than a relaxing evening with a nice meal and wine, there’s no shortage of great restaurants, clubs and bars in which to recharge.


Queenstown can be reached by road from Christchurch, or is connected by air from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney as well as most New Zealand cities.



Photo by: Destination Queenstown

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009


The First Great Adventure Traveller Quiz

7 08 2008

Are you an Adventure Traveller?



1 – When you think of “Going south to lie on a beach”, do you picture…


a) Heading to Florida and renting a condominium for a week

b) Taking a week off work, sitting at home and applying ‘tan in a bottle’ while watching Oprah re-runs

c) Crossing the Drake Passage in an expedition ship and photographing penguins in the Antarctic



2 – When someone says they’re “going hiking”, do you think of…


a) Walking to the beer store

b) Flying to Peru and trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

c) Renting the summer cottage furthest from the golf course



3 – When you say you are going to “get close to nature”, do you intend to…


a) Go camping in Alaska, watching grizzlies fishing for salmon and listening to wolf howls

b) Drunkenly run naked through a field of daisies chased by the local police department

c) Sit on your friend’s deck eating granola, serenaded by the cicadas



4 – When you tell your co-workers that you are going “on safari” during your vacation, do you mean…


a) Fulfilling a life-long dream by visiting the Serengeti and Masai Mara

b) Stocking up on energy drinks and heading to the 2-for-1 sale at the local Shoe Emporium

c) Taking the children to the Wildlife Park for a picnic



5 – When someone says they’re going “on a cruise”, what springs to mind…


a) Hiring the paddle boat for two hours

b) Exploring the islands of the Caribbean in the outside upper Conquistador Cabin

c) Boarding a Russian icebreaker to reach the North Pole



6 – When you want to spend your 35th birthday “mountain climbing”, do you…


a) Embark on a 21-day trek to Everest Base Camp

b) Take a bottle of champagne and your significant other to the top of the highest hill for sunset

c) Put on your sweat pants and sort out the pile of dirty laundry



7 – An adventurous trip to “the market” means…


a) Heading to Chinatown for some Ginseng

b) Heading to the corner shop to buy a raspberry-mango slushy

c) Heading to China to choose between fried grasshoppers or pickled duck embryos



8 – Your idea of engaging in “extreme sports” is…


a) Skydiving from 15,000 feet over the Great Barrier Reef

b) Watching the High-Definition coverage of beach volleyball instead of curling

c) Riding the inflatable banana on your next trip to the beach



9 – The most “exotic” food you would ever consider trying is…


a) The green Thai curry from the local food court

b) Roasted widgety grubs in the Australian Outback

c) A shamrock shake



10 – “Going fishing” means…


a) Hanging around the water cooler for some juicy office gossip

b) Visiting the local pond with a fishing rod and your iPod

c) Catching piranha with the Akurio people of the Amazon to cook for dinner



Results: If you have to ask…



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

The Wall of Terror

16 06 2008






















“We do have elevators, you know?!” (Tourism Victoria)



Adrenaline has a wonderful way of conning you into believing that things that are quite obviously dangerous and unquestionably stupid are in fact a great idea and jolly good fun. Like face-first free-fall rappelling down the side of a 7-story building. I mean, unless you’re dressed in black and rescuing hostages or unimaginably fearful of elevators, what could possibly prompt you to run down a wall towards the ground tethered by only a rope clipped to your belt?


I had always fancied myself as some sort of Special Forces commando, parachuting in pitch-darkness with a dagger between my teeth, popping the canopy just inches before the ground and then casually overthrowing an evil potentate. When I found myself in Melbourne presented with the opportunity to forward-abseil instructed by the ex-Special Forces trooper who had invented the manoeuvre, well, commonsense simply went out the window!


After reaching the roof, I found myself unnecessarily staring at the car park 70-feet below. I attempted to say “Oh, terribly sorry, I seem to have forgotten my wallet”, and make a rush for the stairwell, but unfortunately the sudden dryness in my mouth had sealed my lips shut and someone had evidently cemented my feet to the roof when I wasn’t looking. Instead, while I stood utterly transfixed like a deer in the headlights of the truck that’s about to render it an elaborate hood-ornament, I obediently stepped into a harness while someone plonked a big helmet onto my head and handed me a pair of heavy-duty gloves.


A wicked wind whipped across the roof-top while dark wispy clouds raced in from the coast, raising hopes that inclement weather would not only save face but also my life.


Alas, it wasn’t to be.


“You’ll be sheltered once you go over the edge.” My instructor said, noticing that I’d started to perform an optimistic rain dance.


I have helped little old ladies cross the road, voluntarily surrendered my seat on the bus and bought cookies from Girl Guides. Death doesn’t scare me. But dying does. Especially when it involves falling face-first into a car park.


It’s funny the things that bother some people.


My rap-jumping lesson continued as a rope was looped through the figure-8 belay and clipped onto the harness that would, in theory, prevent me from leaving a perfect imprint of my face in Melbourne’s new “Adrenaline Walk of Fame” below.


I walked to the edge and against every better instinct, swung my left leg over the low wall. Rush-hour traffic streamed past and I could read the lips of parents gazing skyward exhorting their children to “Wave good-bye to the nice man!”


“Look straight ahead at the horizon” I was instructed, as if concentrating on the black and white building ahead would cause me to forget the literal and figurative gravity of the situation. My right leg involuntarily joined the other followed by a torrent of some of the most foul obscenities I had ever heard. I initially thought it was my ex-military instructor and hoped that something was wrong and the jump was to be aborted…until I realised that the expletives were my own and apologised sheepishly.


There have been many moments in my life when I have done things against my will. Getting vaccinations as a child, eating liver, attending a Celine Dion concert…but going over that wall was, well, special.


The instructor was admirably patient and encouraging, although I had no idea what he was saying as I was too busy watching my life flash before my eyes. After several hours perched on the edge, I finally took the plunge. As my body dropped into thin air, so my eyes dropped from the horizon to the ground and I emitted a silent scream that killed all dogs within a 20-mile radius.


Remarkably, the instructor hadn’t lied and the rope and harness held just as he had promised. Sadly though, the death-grip of my right-hand on the rope prevented me from moving and I simply stood there perpendicular to the building…staring straight down like a gargoyle.


After much coercing by the instructors – and then pleading and eventual threatening – I released the rope and began to move. Confidence growing, I started to run and bounce down the wall, feeling the rope slide comfortably through my gloved hand and watching the face of the safety-man at the bottom drawing closer. I landed gently and beaming an adrenalin-fired smile, started to strut arrogantly…until pulled almost off my feet by the rope still attached to my belt.


My instructor patted me on the back, nodded towards the roof and asked if I was ready to go again. Hoping he wasn’t looking below my waist, I surreptitiously renewed my gyrating rain-dance.


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Welcome to the Hippodrome

1 04 2008


Post-race wallowing




 Recent archaeological discoveries in Italy have revealed that among the first events staged at Rome’s Colosseum were hippopotamus races. Efforts are now being made to resurrect the ancient sport later this summer. 


The hippo is generally regarded as the most dangerous animal in Africa, responsible for more human deaths each year than lions, crocodiles or elephants. Despite their enormous size, they can out-run a human on land and are even more formidable in water.

In ancient times, young hippos would be captured along the banks of Egypt’s upper Nile and transported to Rome, evidence shows. Here, they would be raised by surrogate mothers and trained for competition in the Colosseum. Murals depict vervet monkeys as jockeys with colourful saddles created not only to keep them on their rides, but also to identify them to spectators. A track was laid around the center of the arena and races generally lasted 5 or 8 laps. At its peak, hippo racing was even more popular than chariot racing and was a particular favourite of Emperor Titus. It was only an outbreak of trypanosomiasis – or sleeping sickness – in 80AD that wiped out the hippos and brought an end to the spectacle.

Although this summer’s organisers had originally planned on erecting a temporary track within the Colosseum, it has now been decided that July’s hippo races will instead be held at the open-air Circus Maximus. Hippos are being trained at a ranch in South Africa and in place of jockeys, small remote-controlled robots will be used. 

Photo and April Fool’s Day Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Falling For Travel

20 03 2008


My Siamese-twin and I before the operation 


Having been short all of my life, I have surprisingly never really had any particular fear of heights.

Not that I have been prone to tightrope walking over Niagara Falls or dating supermodels, but whenever I have been in vertiginous surroundings, I’ve never been especially worried. At least not until I stared straight down beyond my feet to the Australian earth 14,000 feet below, and found my palms sweating, my stomach rolling and my head spinning!

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to try skydiving. There seemed to me a great romance in heroically throwing oneself out of a perfectly good aircraft and plummeting senselessly towards the hard, merciless, unforgiving ground.

In Cairns, the temptation of taking that first plunge over lush jungle-clad mountains within view of the Great Barrier Reef was just too much to deny. Within moments I had signed my life away and donned a rather dapper one-piece zippered overall and matching goggles that would have been the envy of Richard Simmons. I emptied my pockets of anything that could fall to earth and kill an unsuspecting passerby and then went through the basic routine associated with courting certain death.

At the airstrip I saw my aircraft: a small, green, converted crop-duster that looked vulnerable to most insect repellents. We clambered in, sat on the floor and within seconds were taxiing for take-off. We climbed quickly, in steep circles. Through the small window I could see the horizon dropping away. The roads disappeared into pencil lines and the mountains became green smudges.

My skydive instructor strapped us together in a manner that would have caused a spinster to blush, and the door slid open with a blast of blustery air and a deafening roar. We crawled down the aircraft on our backs on all fours (see Kama Sutra, chapter 4) until we reached the gaping void. As instructed, I swung my legs out and sat on the edge, my feet dangling helplessly. I could see the rich blue of the Coral Sea stretching away to the horizon and the dark shadows of the Barrier Reef. It was a spectacular view – so what on earth possessed me to look straight down?

I had long had a theory that such a great height would not feel like a great height at all. I was convinced that the view would be surreal, and that standing on your kitchen table screwing in a light bulb would be more frightening.

Well, I was wrong.

As I stared straight down, I felt I could see every single one of the 168,000 inches that separated me from the cruel cruel earth below. My stomach did a magnificent roll and I felt a sort of sheer terror that I had never before experienced. This was not “I’m scared to death”, this was “I’m so scared I wish I was dead.” Fortunately, before I could pass out or embarrass myself, I was hurtled into the blueness and found myself falling loudly and violently towards Australia.

Having accepted death, I felt calmer and began to look around and actually relish the last moments of my life. The view was truly magnificent and I soared about, spinning and turning by moving my arms. I gazed down at the scenery and myriad colours and upwards at the darkness of the sky. Eventually, after what seemed just a few seconds but was actually more than a minute, the parachute opened with a smack and a jolt and we drifted silently and effortlessly, banking to the left and the right. The fear was gone and replaced by adrenalin-fuelled awe and wonder. We landed with a bump, I was untethered and cautiously wobbled to my feet.

There are some things in life that you only need to do once. There are others that you can’t wait to do again and again. For me, skydiving is definitely the latter, but next time I think I’ll skip the bit in which I stare straight down before I make the big jump.


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

The Seven Summits

19 03 2008


The summit of Everest on an unusually good day

(or maybe just Mt Sinai)

In 1924, when asked why he wanted to tackle Mount Everest, British mountaineer George Mallory gave the now legendary answer: “Because it’s there”. When many years later I told my mother that I was going to spend 6 weeks riding in a truck from Harare to Nairobi, I gave the same reason. Fortunately, my mother didn’t realise that Mallory died on his expedition. And perhaps even more fortunately, I returned safely from mine!

Mallory set off for Everest sporting the finest expedition gear available at the time: a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. My equipment was far superior and yet the toughest thing I had to do was negotiate seven border crossings. Although we still do not know for certain whether Mallory did reach the summit, his heroic attempt and his ultimately sad demise assured him a place in adventure history amongst the greatest of 20th Century explorers and mountaineers.

It was almost 30 years before Everest was unquestionably conquered, this time by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary. In the years since, more than 1500 people have reached the top of the world’s highest peak while a far more exclusive club of barely 200 has succeeded in conquering the Seven Summits: the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

Climbing Everest requires supreme physical and mental strength, tireless preparation and training, and a very considerable amount of money, but some of the other six peaks are not quite so daunting. In fact, it’s relatively easy to knock-off two of those mountains and spend the rest of your life propped on a bar stool, sporting a tweed jacket with leather patches and impressing people with tales of your mountaineering prowess. 

The easiest to climb is Mount Kosciuszko in Australia. At 2228 metres (7,310 feet) and just a 9 kilometre (5.5 mile) trek from the nearest access road, Kosciuszko can be comfortably beaten in a day and still leave enough time to throw a few shrimp on the barbie. If you’re heading to Australia give this trek some consideration. Not only will you have conquered one of the Seven Summits, but if so inclined you can also conquer the highest public toilet in Australia!

More demanding is Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. At 5895 metres (19,341 feet), Kilimanjaro shouldn’t be underestimated or undertaken without some proper planning and preparation. Although you don’t have to be a super athlete and the climb requires no technical equipment or special skills, it does require a fair degree of physical fitness and determination.  Apart from getting into reasonable shape, perhaps the most important preparation is finding a reputable organization with whom to climb the mountain.

There are many companies advertising treks to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Some offer prices that seem too good to be true – and you’ll discover why when your guide races you up the mountain so quickly that you collapse from exhaustion or altitude sickness on the second day and have to retreat to the base –without having reached the summit and without the hundreds of dollars you paid for their ‘service’. Conduct proper research before you leave home and use the experience of adventure travel experts to find a reputable company to maximise your chances of conquering the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

Climbs generally take five or six days, but additional days can often be added to improve your chances of reaching the summit. There are a number of different routes available that offer greater facilities or fewer fellow climbers depending on whether you desire support or solitude.  Regardless of the time or route you take to the top, you will certainly never forget standing in the equatorial snow and savouring the view from the top of Africa…and you will have conquered another of the Seven Summits.

If these two whet your appetite for mountaineering, a whole new world will open up for you filled with ablations, seracs, crags, cols, tors and ridges. Or, you can simply retire after Kosciuszko, don your tweed jacket and pipe and head for your local pub armed with your tales of mastering one of the Seven Summits!

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

The Nevis Bungee, Queenstown, New Zealand

22 12 2007


The word is bounced around backpackers in the South Pacific in a whisper of reverence, with a tremor of fear and a frisson of wonder. The Nevis is the ultimate bungee jump in the Land of Bungee, New Zealand. In a country where every other person is throwing themselves out of planes, jumping off cliffs, diving with monsters of the deep, and tying rubber ropes around their ankles, it is the Nevis that inspires the greatest amount of wide-eyed ‘whoa’.

It was in Auckland where AJ Hackett performed the first modern bungee jump off the Harbor Bridge, inspired by the natives of Vanuatu. After jumping he was promptly arrested and then repeated his stunt a few weeks later from the Eiffel Tower, gaining worldwide notoriety for the new extreme sport.

Today the AJ Hackett Bungee World Headquarters is located in the middle of Queenstown, New Zealand, the adventure sports capital of the world. Here you can sign up for your choice of bungee experiences. Some choose The Ledge and jump out over the mountain village (a puny 47 meters), and some choose the world’s first commercial bungee jumping site at the Kawarau Bridge (only 43 meters; bring out the kindergartners). But for the real hard-core chicks like me there is only one option: The Nevis.

The 4×4 ride out to the jump site along cliff-clinging dirt roads would be enough thrill for most normal people, as would the see-through grating on the floor of the cable car that pulleys you out to the jump pod. High above the rugged river in the windy canyon you wait, hard rock music blasting, heart thumping, knees shaking over the Plexiglas floor, the words of your mother pushed to the very back of your mind. One after another your siblings in insanity fling themselves out of the pod, returning a few minutes later with an open-mouthed I-understand-the-universe-a-little-more-now look on their blood-rushed heads. Finally, it is your turn. Your ankles are bound together, your harness is triple-checked, the ropes are attached, and you shuffle out to the jump platform like a dead man walking. Soak up the amazing view of the open canyon walls and tiny little river hundreds of feet below, and remember that swan dives looks best on the DVD you will buy as proof of your courage/lunacy. Take a deep breath, and give a final wave to the camera for posterity.


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post and photos by: Shilo Urban