Go fast, go hard or you might as well just go home
People’s ideas of the perfect trip range from one extreme to the other. While not many of us would pass up the opportunity to lie by a pool sipping pina coladas, some of us crave more excitement. We need something to get the adrenaline pumping through our veins – something to make us feel ‘alive’.
New Zealand has so much to offer and is the perfect destination for outdoor pursuits. The best part is that the range of activities available is so wide, you’re sure to find something to suit any level of fitness or bravery. From close encounters with nature’s deadliest animals to aerobatics in the sky, here’s a rundown of 10 of the best adventure activities in New Zealand.
1. Piloting a stunt plane
Abel Tasman National Park has arguably New Zealand’s best weather and a wide selection of great adventure activities, including skydiving, sea kayaking, quad biking and horse riding. It's also home to one of the most exciting and unique high-adrenaline experiences you can find anywhere in the world. At U-Fly Extreme in Motueka, it’s possible to take to the skies with an instructor in a stunt plane and to actually fly the plane yourself. With no previous experience, you can spin the shiny Pitts Special in loops, twists and figure eights. It really is the ultimate thrill.
2. White water rafting
You’re never far from a fast-flowing river in New Zealand, and there are loads of white water rafting options of varying grades. Kaitiaki Adventures near Rotorua will take you on a rollercoaster ride, during which you can try approaching rapids standing up in your raft or spinning round in circles, then top it all off with the highest commercially raftable waterfall in the world – a full 7-metre drop!
Surprisingly, one of New Zealand’s most magical sights is underground – in the glow worm caves of Waitomo. You could take a relaxing boat ride through underground tunnels, where thousands of larvae glimmer overhead, but the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company’s epic adventures are far more exciting. Their Abyss and Labyrinth tours involve a mix of flying foxes, abseiling and climbing before you ride along the black water rapids in rubber tyres. More intense still is the Odyssey – a 2-hour clamber along underground cliffs, which includes some chilling, imaginative ways to cross the chasms as the rapids thunder past an unfathomable distance below your feet.
Jetboating is one of those activities you can really look forward to without lying awake in terror the night before or needing to make up an alternative story to tell your mum. Jetboats were invented in 1954 by a local man called Sir William Hamilton who needed to navigate the fast-flowing shallow rivers of his farmland. It’s hardly surprising that they’ve become massively popular with tourists since then. The aim is to speed as close to the river bank as possible, narrowly dodging tree branches and cliffs, before spinning 360 degrees so fast that every passenger leaves their seat, narrowly avoiding being launched into the water.
If your bucket list includes a skydive, you should look no further than New Zealand. Taupo, Wanaka, Queenstown and Franz Josef are frequently listed among the best places to skydive in the world, and the views are spectacular, whether you leave the plane from 9000 feet or a whopping 16,500. Skydive Wanaka has various photo and DVD options, including a large choice of music that can be synced with your video immediately after your return to earth. They take great care to ensure that their safety standards are up to scratch, and their tandem instructors have thousands of jumps under their belts. Somehow, they succeed in making you feel 100% safe, while simultaneously teasing you with comments like ‘I have a really bad feeling about this!’, ‘It’s really dangerous’ and ‘I don’t know if I can do it!’ A sense of humour may be required!
6. Diving with sharks
It's rare to have the opportunity to get up close to a shark. There's a massive volume of ocean out there and tracking them down in the wild isn’t easy. Cage diving sounds exciting, but is considered by some to be ethically unsound, especially if the sharks are fed with fresh meat and provoked to make them more aggressive. That’s why the Shark Dive Xtreme in Auckland’s Kelly Tarlton Sea Life Aquarium is such an incredible experience. If you’ve never done scuba diving before, they will provide you with the instruction and practice you need before you enter the tank. You will spend roughly 40 minutes surrounded by a wide variety of species. Some are inquisitive, but there’s no danger of them causing any harm, and you being there doesn’t affect them either.
Based in Auckland, AWOL Canyoning runs full- and half-day excursions to the west coast of New Zealand near Piha in the Waitakere Ranges Rainforest. You'll learn a range of techniques to navigate canyons and cliff faces, including leaping into pools, sliding along smooth rock surfaces and abseiling down huge waterfalls. The trips run all year round and they provide all the gear you need, including second-hand trainers. If you own a GoPro, they also have helmets with mounts.
8. Ice hiking
Not only are Fox and Franz Josef glaciers incredible in their own right, but they're surrounded by impressive mountain ranges and rainforest. Walking in the region is rewarding, but putting on some crampons and exploring the ice is an experience you’re unlikely to ever forget. The glacial formations are unbelievably dynamic and include natural tunnels and caves that you can hike and occasionally slide through. The trip also includes a 5-minute helicopter flight each way and entry to the relaxing hot pools in town. It’s a no brainer.
Possibly one of the most unique experiences New Zealand has to offer is sledging. Also known as river boarding or hydrospeeding, this relatively new sport involves lying on top of a float with handles and allowing the river rapids to drag you quickly downstream. It’s far more extreme than it sounds, and potentially quite dangerous if you don’t follow the instructions. Once you get the hang of it, though, you can spin around to your heart’s content and even ‘surf’ the rapids until they either spit you out or suck you under. Be warned, sledging is addictive.
10. Bungy jumping
Queensland, on the South Island, is home to Kawarau Bridge – the world’s first commercial bungy jump. Since November 1988, when the madness began, other jumps have cropped up across the country. The Ledge Bungy is 43 metres but looks much higher in photos thanks to its location 400 metres up the side of a hill. You can do flip jumps here and even a night bungy in the dark. About an hour’s drive outside Queenstown, the Nevis Bungy is suspended over a canyon and is New Zealand’s biggest at 143 metres. There are also many swing and flying fox variations, or you might consider a controlled base jump from the top of Auckland’s Sky Tower. It’s harder than you might think to visit New Zealand and not finish up throwing yourself off at least one elevated ledge.
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Arianwen Morris is the publisher of the travel blog Beyond Blighty - a collection of anecdotes, tips and advice for the independent and adventurous budget traveller. She has just completed a six-week adrenaline-fuelled tour of New Zealand. You can follow her adventures on Twitter with the handle @BeyondBlighty or the hashtag #ScaredBritless.