Had my recent trip to New Zealand’s North Island been graphed on its intensity levels, it would have looked similar to the electrocardiogram of a healthy 21-year-old; high peaks and moderate troughs. This was fitting because the reason for our visit was to celebrate my 21st birthday. The sweet lung-lolly found in rural New Zealand beckoned and all boozy traditions were left behind.
Lake Taupo is our destination. Roughly the size of Singapore, Taupo is the biggest lake in the southern hemisphere. It’s the centrepiece for a diverse range of activities and sights, not least of all itself. On the first morning we arrive, nervously tapping our knee-bongos, at the TTS (Taupo Tandem Skydive) drop zone on the North-East shore of the lake. Of our party of ten, five of us are about to make our first contributions to the trip’s vertical metres plummeted category. 4500m (or 15000ft) we will rise into the clear blue sky. Twenty minutes up, eight minutes down.
This will be my third jump. And apart from Dad who’s jumped once, the other three yet to pop their cherries on one of the most remarkable sensations available on the adrenaline market. Despite my relative experience, I’m pleased to have tandem master Joel operating the life support equipment. Joel, part-time movie-maker, full-time plane-ditcher taps on his altimeter strapped to the back of his hand. “Six thousand meters,” he yells over the plane’s engines. “Not even halfway.” To the top floor we go.
Stripped of my anatomical control by Joel’s yanking and tugging at the now tight straps around my waist and shoulders, I’m rag-dolled to the open door behind my cousins and pa. Like a checkout-queue, we pause and shuffle as the next person vanishes out the side of the plane.
Joel and I tumble forwards and I get a look at the plane before we’re on our bellies, arms out, flying. Looking directly below I can see the entire perimeter of the lake. Cars, people, boats, I can’t make out. The air mutes all else and my experience tells me to ignore the desire to scream and just enjoy it. The sensation is unique. There is nothing for your cerebellum to compare your descent to, so although we are travelling at 200km/hr plus, it hardly feels like we’re moving.
At 1500m, just under a minute of freefall, Joel pulls the chute and we pin-drop into our canopy flight. Now the pied landscape starts to show its gradients. Joel presents a high-five and I let out a yee-haa! Through an ear-to-ear grin I ask “do you ever get used to that?”
“Yeah bro,” he laughs. “After about the fifth or sixth time.” I enjoy every bit of the flight down but touching the ground with a gentle thud is a comfort I’m sure even Joel looks forward to.
It’s February and the cicadas are calling; each individual competing with the others for its unique, powerful voice to be heard. It’s a cruel irony that they should be fighting for a place in Cicada folk-law when we are here escaping from a similar inferiority complex. For, even though at some junctures we find ourselves in a populous area, we are all too distracted by our awe for the majesty volcanoes and the lush produce of its sulphuric excrement. This land is so fertile it grows to have the look and feel of the tropics. In addition to the three active volcanoes to Taupo’s south (south to north: Ruepahu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro), Lake Taupo itself is an exploded vent which detonated some 5000 years ago. The land is literally bubbling.
Under the thrust of the Tongariro River we are lucky enough to be exposed to some of the finest specimens of volcanic growth. With full bellies and the adrenaline still wobbling in our eye-balls we arrive at TRR (Tongariro River Rafting).
“Ah, Weest-Islanders,” head guide Dale assumes correctly when we introduce ourselves, revealing our accents. We get wet-suited-up with fleece underneath; the water is ten degrees and we expect to get wet. (Though one (very) disgruntled customer will complain at the end of the raft that he wasn’t informed getting wet was a part of river-rafting. Poor soul.). Dale gives the group the safety and instructional talk (“There’s no p[ee] in wetsuit”) and we get on the bus.
Our raft’s guide is Dan, an American who chases the summer leading adventures like these. Three full rafts are out today, seven to each plus a guide. Our group is split between two. It was a 30 minute bus ride to our put-in point from TRR’s HQ in Turangi. This is a tourist company and at 16 cubic metres per second, the grade-three rapids challenge but wouldn’t take the weathered adventurer out of their comfort zone. Where New Zealand lacks in difficulty, it makes up in beauty.
This profluent section of the river has eroded a crevasse 12 metres into the crust of the earth. Near-sheer walls alive with various shrubberies mean 75% of the land we see is accessible only by water. Massive boulders scatter the shore while smaller boulders and sand line the river-bed which is visible in the calmer sections. We are encouraged to drink the water and it tastes amazing.
Dan counts off the rapids but “raft guides can’t count past four, so we decided to name the rest.” The next, our fifth of 60, is called Pearl Harbour after an American guide who (accidently) capsized his raft full of Japanese tourists. Another was named the Bitch after a wife (also accidently) knocked her husband – while on their honeymoon – off the raft before a particularly shallow and steep rapid. A quarter of the way down we take a break and the opportunity to jump off a rock. Plus seven to the vertical plummet tally. The water takes our breath away but we’re quickly warm again, paddling into position for, and floating like a heavy leaf down another 40 rapids.
We don’t know it yet, but tomorrow trumps this one for excitement, and drama.
To be continued…