Cross space and time into an unparalleled universe of timeless natural wonder. Devour everything, from gourmet foods to glacial fields, quaint towns to crazy treks and azure lakes to alpine landscapes. Over 96-hours redefine the benchmark for all other adventures. Embrace everything. Experience the epic.
As Delta forces most of Australia into a state of suspended animation, you’d be forgiven for asking whether this adventure was fact or fiction. But rewind just a few months to a luckier time in the Lucky Country, the briefest bubble of Trans-Tasman travel and for one shining moment the only limit is one’s imagination. Like bees to honey and a ‘YOLO not FOMO’ philosophy, a 12-strong rabble swarms across the ditch to the awesome island nation of New Zealand and the perfect playground packed with action and laced with adrenalin.
Notwithstanding bubbles and a team already chomping at the bit for a change of scenery, the real catalyst for this extraordinary event is our good mate’s proposal to his much better half. Like a divine revelation, the mission is instantly clear to Daniel and Edan, the architects of this great escape …
… Pursue all things legendary and reset the high watermark for Dan’s adventures. His previous conquests – from Kilimanjaro to Lake Victoria to offshore surfing to skydiving – must appear as mere specks compared to this expedition. It is time to school the maestro. Kia Kaha.
But adrenalin is only one side of the coin. In a spirited evocation of Dan’s historic drinking days and loose French / Belgian ancestry, every activity is spiced with great food and simmered in a concoction of intoxicating fluids.
On board Air New Zealand, we have the Impossible Missions Force, with hundreds of years of collective friendship, and every player fully dedicated to the objective. One team, one dream.
Touchdown. Welcome. To. Queenstown.
We pay our respects to the ‘adventure capital of the world’ by kicking off with a high-octane, jet-powered exploration of the Shotover canyons. Trust the captain. From there, we sail on a magic carpet of endorphins to our winter ranch. It’s straight into the kaleidoscopic jacuzzi for some. Others sip liquid gold (there’s enough to open a distillery) in the shadows of mountains that reach up to the heavens. Inside, culinary artists create a feast, and we float in on wave upon wave of mouth-watering aromas. Bread is broken. Then more spirited banter; grinning faces aglow from an overstocked fireplace. Eventually, flames fade to embers, as does this crew. Sleep, having nipped at our heels into the wee hours of the night, eventually runs us all down.
Like smelling salts, alarm bells snap us into consciousness. But, at 4am, our progress is as slow as molasses, until we finally pile into the 15-seater Sprinter, and shift gears. From Jack’s Point, meandering roads lead us to Hāwea.
Cruising in the dark, David’s Burning Man-inspired tunes fill the van; a sonic shield against the mountain’s warnings and what lies ahead. A rising sun reveals the world around us – and the realisation that you can’t drive more than 2 minutes in NZ without whispering, “What the heck? Is this real!?” under your breath.
Gravel replaces tarmac, and we find that still waters really do run deep as our 20-foot, 4-tonne people-mover drops into a ford, and like an uncoordinated gymnast, defies gravity but lands with a heavy thump sending shockwaves through backbones and chassis alike. There’s a synchronised ‘whoa’ and ‘WTF’ (especially from Josh as he’s snatched from sleep), but it’s a vital jolt into this mountainous arena, switchbacks suddenly at our feet. No longer in the dark, it seems this hike may very well kick your arse.
This Breast Hill hike skips the foreplay and starts off with a bang that quickly ascends 400 vertical metres via an arduous zigzagging path. True to NZ’s reputation, it’s four-seasons-in-a-day here – don waterproof gear and plod along. The wind slaps us about with an icy palm as we reach an exposed first saddle. From here, we follow a long, undulating ridgeline that is a little slippery and, at times, precipitous, but with clearing skies, the views and summit fever propel us forward. Onwards and upwards with precision navigation thanks to Tal’s biological GPS. Pitstop. A midway team photo, courtesy of Seb, who lugs heavy glass with the zeal of a National Geographic photographer.
With greater height, ice and snow appear making footwork tricky across unstable scree-covered slopes. After a few delicate (dicey?) sections and thick fog, we reach a critical juncture: Half the group stands atop a steep quad-crushing tussock covered hill, the other half a few hundred metres behind. It’s hard to make out voices in this open expanse, but the hand signals are clear – earlier whispers of rebellion have snowballed into a bloodless coup d’état and the formation of two autonomous parties. Dissenters demand descent, ascenders assent. Richie stands torn in the middle of the dichotomous camps, his heart set on claiming the peak, but legs screaming in agonised protest.
From here, Dan, Daniel, Richie, Seb, Shaun and Tal (Ascenders) forge ahead at pace. Danny, David, Edan, Jason, Josh and Rick (Descenders) take temporary refuge at Pakituhi Hut and plan their escape route.
The Ascenders go straight for the peak, stopping only to scramble up a monolithic stone slab with stunning views over Lake Hāwea and the surrounding landscape including Mount Aspiring. After trudging through thick snow, the peak emerges, marked by a metal A-frame. It’s a whiteout, but it still feels good, and a moment of silence adds to the appreciation of this incredible natural world that we are so lucky to explore. Shaun takes the opportunity to say some nice words about Dan and mateship and on that note, we start the return journey – first stop the Descenders.
Meanwhile, Pakituhi Hut has been converted into a command centre for the Descenders with satellite links and communication lines opened to commercial aviation operators. Edan is about to get the one element he always felt missing from the agenda.
Ascenders and Descenders intersect just as a faint whirring can be heard and then a helicopter materialises. Without looking back, the Descenders charge into the chopper. It nosedives straight off the mountain and starts a tour that touches down on Coronet Peak and ultimately deliverance to the Sprinter.
The remaining half retrace earlier steps toward lake-level. The weather really turns it on for this final segment and it’s no wonder NZ was the ideal setting for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Nearly eight hours later and with 1400 metres of elevation gain in the legs, we reach Lake Hāwea and plunge into the chilly, restorative water.
Ascenders and Descenders reunite. High on mountain (and heli) vibes, but back at ground level we head to Wanaka for a lake-side sunset. Then, glide over winding mountain passes back to the man-cave. A little while later, we find ourselves at Botswana Butchery for well-earned carnivorous dining. Even later, Queenstown explorations and a quick ‘rite of passage’ for our dear buck, before eventually giving in to exhaustion.
After yesterday’s session, today is all about relaxation – facials, manicures, pedicures, massages, hot baths, and group therapy. Obviously NOT, we’re in the adventure capital of the world. Today is infinite in scope and scale. Kia Kaha.
Instead of conquering peaks on foot (choppers for some), we obliterate them in turbo-charged 2-man dune-buggies. As Hemingway said: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering, all the rest are merely games”.
Engines rumble and petrol fumes heighten senses. 3, 2, 1 … it’s pedal to the metal through steep and muddy, tree-lined trails that randomly arrive at open spaces with sweeping views. Speed thrills some more than others, with Dan most prepared to dabble at the boundary of disaster. His manoeuvre tests rollbars and leaves man and vehicle capsized, wheels spinning hopelessly like the legs of a flipped turtle. A quick search and rescue operation ensues, with buggy (and Dan) luckily found in one piece. With enough manpower we right-size the reptilian frame and return to base.
Ignitions off. Motors quieten. But then, the owner, an ex-rally car driver, rewards (or punishes?) Dan with a high-stakes, high-velocity trip in his off-road beast. Chequered flags wave, and Dan, aside from residual tunnel-vision, is, as always, unfazed: “How was it mate!?” – “Yeah, pretttyyy good”.
Like addicts we hightail it to Kawarau River for our next ‘hit’ – whitewater river-boarding. We hastily sign liability waivers, squeeze into wetsuits, grab bodyboards and step into water cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. As we peel out from the starting eddy, there are a few flashes of panic that say “what the hell did I just get myself into?” as the nature of this one-way street suddenly sinks in. An instant collision with the first rapid that chews and swallows and spews us out, with seconds to prepare for the next set of frothy waves. With about as much control as a leaf in a tornado, there’s only one thing to do: go with the flow.
Some miles later the river widens and deepens, and the turbulence subsides, leaving only a convenient undercurrent to deliver us downstream. Someone spots a cliff jump and we pull into an eddy. Clambering to the launchpad in flippers, we look more like seals than Navy Seals. We dive in and drift to the take-out point, our Masters in Fluid Dynamics complete.
It’s been a big day out and in preparation of backing it up with a big night out, we refuel at Fergburger, New Zealand’s #1 burger institution, and then roll to a nearby brewhouse with craft beers flowing like an infinity pool. Roundtable sessions with a whole lot of bromance and sentimental stories about the man of the trip. ‘Lager on’, we migrate to Attiqa and fully embrace its motto “meet early, stay late”. After caffeinating (martini style) at the House of Gin on level one, we transition to a blazing Rooftop Bar. Hey ya! Everybody dance now. Don’t stop the music, pump up the volume, one more time, all night long. Danny channels the DJ’s tunes and takes the crowd and a glitzy Hens on a marathon of dance sustained by an abundance of salty margaritas. Yep, it’s one of those nights that we don’t quite remember (thankfully) but with mates we won’t forget.
With last night blurring into morning, it’s no wonder 6am alarm clocks feel like jack hammers. Except for two casualties, we regroup in the kitchen, faces plastered with hangovers, but cups of coffee and cement and promises of ‘let’s never drink again’ put us back on track, toward swings and bungies.
On board the 4WD Bungy Bus, we are driven upwards along a narrow, gravel track toward Nevis. As the sun melts away the morning mist, the spectacle of this place is presented. Steel cables, cords and contraptions look like delicate spiderwebs against a massive natural amphitheatre that embodies the genius and wicked imagination of AJ Hackett. ‘Live more, fear less’ goes the motto of Nevis, and that we do. You did not know you were alive until today. Send it! Free fall. Seconds of fear and a rush of adrenalin, but forever memorable. An unflappable Dan makes it look easy, swan diving off NZ’s highest bungy without hesitation. 100% Pure New Zealand. Farewell Nevis. Hello Kawarau Bridge, the birthplace of bungy, where a few of us take another leap of faith.
It’s the end of the road for key crewmembers Danny, David, Josh and Tal, who finish on a high and fly home, following in the path of Jason, who had departed (tactically) before the river-boarding.
For the remaining seven, finally an afternoon to relax and rejuvenate at the ranch (and throw in a 12-kilometre run if you’re Seb and Shaun). Before long, dusk at a dramatic stone winery in Central Otago where we embark on a culinary journey filled with intriguing dishes and tastebud explosions. But with good mates, wine and plenty of ‘war’ stories, it was guaranteed to be a great night regardless of location.