A jet boat tour of Skippers Canyon, New Zealand. And a report from Australia!
QUEENSTOWN, NEW ZEALAND – I hadn’t intended on doing much of the “adventure stuff” on my trip.
First of all, I’m at an age where I prefer the quiet of a kayak ride to the pounding thrust of a jet boat or the adrenaline-pumping feel of a bungee jump. Second, as travel editor I see a lot of stories from people who come to New Zealand and do all sorts of wacky things, such as rolling down hills in clear, plastic balls or ziplining through the gum trees and such, and I thought I should do something different.
I had planned to spend most of Saturday in lovely Milford Sound, a land of fjords and glaciers and alpine mountains and clear, cold waters on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Alas, the weather (for the first time on my trip) didn’t cooperate.
So Louise, the incredibly helpful and well-connected operator of the Queenstown House hotel, a great, little hotel in a wonderful, quiet location two blocks from the downtown action, suggested…a jet boat ride. But not just any jet boat. She explained how the Dart River people and the Shotover Jet boat companies get lots of p.r. but that far fewer folks take in the Skippers Canyon ride. Okay, sure, let’s do it.
After a glorious morning drive down the deserted shores of Lake Wakatipu to witness a glimpse of the southern Alps near Glenorchy (see photo), I found myself shortly after noon on a 20-passenger bus winding down a one-lane-plus-three-quarters-of-a-meter-wide dirt road towards Skippers Canyon, dramatic rock formations on my left and an enormous, and I mean, enormous, cliff that plunged several hundred meters down on my right.
I was, in a word, terrified. I don’t like heights much. I’m a chicken, basically. And I don’t like riding in a bus down a mountain road with no guard rails and big ruts and bumps and bounces, knowing that one false move and I could be a goner. Of course, we met someone coming up the other way in a private car and had to back up – yikes – with seemingly inches to spare so they could get past us.
It was, thankfully, only about 20 minutes of rough stuff. And then we found ourselves deposited in a dry, lovely canyon with high rock walls and a swirling, grey-green alpine river. We donned our life jackets and got a briefing on holding on tight and set out for a half hour of exhilarating, jet boat action. Not the most environmentally friendly activity in the world, I would think, but a huge rush.
Our driver, Ben, who’s 29 and apparently started this sort of madness at age 12, gave us more than a few 360 degree spins and swooped and swirled and gunned his boat within inches of craggy rock outcroppings and through rapids coursing between giant pillars of stone. We could see a fair bit of abandoned mining equipment left by the gold rush folks who came here in the 1860s, and we also stopped for a minute at a stretch of the canyon where Liv Tyler caused a huge storm of water to rush down on the black riders or Nazgul in the first part of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
As a big LOTR fan, I was, I’m not ashamed to say, thrilled to see where some of the movie was filmed. The day before, I had wandered up the river in Arrrowtown where Tyler had ferried Frodo across the water, just seconds before unleashing the flood on the unsuspecting Nazgul. So it was pretty cool.
We got to walk a bit over a swaying suspension bridge over the canyon, a spot where they used to do bungee jumps.
Skippers is a family affair, so I like that. And the drivers – both boat and bus – were hugely professional. If you don’t mind scary mountain roads, give them a whirl. If you’re put off by that sort of drive, there are plenty of jet boat operators to try.
Louise at Queenstown House is a hoot. She’s friend with politicians and was at LOTR Oscar parties a few years back and also attended an investiture in Rome with her brother, who’s a monsignor. She’ll offer up plenty of local knowledge, but you get the feeling she’s a pretty tough business woman when she has to be. They have a great happy hour with free local wines and plenty of chatter with other guests if you’re so inclined. She also makes a great porridge for breakie with dates and local honey and crushed almonds. The units sit on a hill a couple blocks from the action in Queenstown, which has plenty of fine dining and fast food options, plus galleries, souvenir shops and tons of snowboard shops for an area that relies heavily on snow sports in the winter.
Queenstown House has wonderful views of the gondola and you might see hang-gliders spiraling down on to the nearby rugby field. The views of Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables mountain range are wonderful, particularly at sunset.
And there are tons of entertainment options around; from fine hikes and jet boats to rides on a steamboat on Lake Wakatipu. Not to mention the fabuluous Otago wines at places like Peregrine, Carrick (awesome place for lunch), Chard Farm and Amisfield.
Next: A flight to Napier/Hawke’s Bay and a day at Cape Kidnappers Resort/Golf Course. But first, here's a great item from the Star's Richard Ouzounian.
APOLLO BAY, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA - Who knows when you're going to find culinary greatness? My wife Pam and I were on a perfectly nice tour of the Great Ocean Road out of Melbourne, heading down to see The 12 Apostles, when our bus stopped for a lunch break in this small beach town.