Wanaka and Queenstown are the adventure co-capitals of New Zealand. The latter gets most of the international love, but those in the know wouldn’t dare overlook the former.
While Wanaka may be geographically small, it punches far above its weight. One exciting, action-packed weekend is just enough time to dig into the laundry list of adrenaline-heavy activities on offer in Wanaka.
“Right Chris, you’re first up.”
I was at the front of our foursome, so it was what it was.
“Careful to keep your chin up because there’s a rock sticking out at the bottom. But make sure to tuck your head down as you hit the water otherwise you’ll face plant.”
I unclipped both of my carabiners and laid down on the dry rocks, face first, arms extended. They called it the Superman Slide for a reason.
I shimmied forward until gravity took over and off I went.
Within two seconds I hit the ice-cold water. Even the Russian judge would have given me a ten. I popped up and tapped my helmet, indicating I was okay. Then, lacking as much grace as humanly possible, I hauled my extra heavy wetsuited self onto the rocks and clipped in to the next cable.
I was canyoning.
Everyone became friendly on the ride out from Wanaka as the road conditions gradually deteriorated. After half an hour we came to the end of a dirt and grass track; our starting point. We stripped in the morning sun, tried on a dozen different pieces of gear, chose our favorites and got on with the task at hand.
Final kitting out — bathing suit, rash top, long sleeve wool top, wetsuit bottoms + suspenders, wetsuit top, wetsuit booties, second-hand sneakers, neoprene cap, helmet and gloves. Despite the layers of gear, swimming was surprisingly straightforward if a bit awkward. Floating? A forgone conclusion.
Like I said, surprisingly easy. I took this trip in early December, late spring in the Southern Hemisphere, so snowmelt (lack thereof, actually) from higher elevations affected our trip. Some routes were off, but not ours. We had just enough water to manage the day. And that first seeping of frigid mountain runoff water in to every nook and cranny of my wetsuit… what a wake up call!
Like the idea of awakening the body with a dose of shockingly cold water? Don’t miss my spine-tingling dip into Fiordland National Park’s Doubtful Sound
We pulled ourselves up a steep ledge, tree roots offering an assist, heavy wetsuits and secondhand sneakers slowing things up. Once at the top our guide Chris gave very specific advice — step here, DO NOT step there and unless you want to break a leg, go cannonball style. I paid close attention, turned around and nudged Kristin; “Can’t be second all day, you’re up.” She laughed and demurred. I was, after all, in front. I verified the landing spot with Chris, planted my feet and went… twenty exhilarating feet into the froth, a waterfall’s outflow churning away below.
The Superman Slide was great fun, mostly due to its head-first nature, but there were plenty of other adrenaline rushes to be had. When you can’t see the bottom of an impending slide, uncertainty takes over. But I trusted the guys. Again unclipped, I crossed my arms in the brace position and scooted on my bum until gravity did its work.
I tipped my head back and kept my eyes focused on what was to come. A luge run on fast forward, that’s an apt description. A bit left, a right turn, then BAM! I closed my eyes and penciled in to the next pool. A nose full of water, yup, but I was good to go. Another helmet tap and the others soon followed.
Zip-lining was the least exciting aspect of the canyoning trip. A few lines crisscrossed the canyon and offered an interesting contrast to the water-based activities, but if you’ve ever zip-lined, anywhere, it would probably rate a bit “meh”.
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I had never abseiled before and despite a few dry runs before the real deal, never really got the hang of it. As per instructions, I tried to keep my weight back and remain perpendicular to the cliff face, feet flat against the rock. Easier said than done! Water streaming directly onto my chest made that a difficult proposition. Not to mention the waterfall spray going right into my face.
Am I the only person on Earth that can’t open their eyes underwater? What a pain in the neck.
My legs wound up flailing as I blindly searched for a grip and the cable spun me around at the waist. I lowered myself down the last twenty feet to a slippery rock ledge, wiped my eyes and unclipped.
While waiting for the others I carefully navigated a rocky path behind a waterfall, took in the view from behind and dove in to a large pool of dark, chilly water.
Canyoning would have been the adrenaline high of my weekend in Wanaka had it not been for the previous day. On Saturday I sat in a French-Canadian man’s lap, as close as two men can be while fully clothed. In fact we may have broken the law in several Middle Eastern nations.
Fred pulled my goggles up, allowing the cool air to de-fog one last time. The clips on my chest and thighs were cinched tight once again. A buzzer went off and the light by the door turned from red to green. It was go time. A mini garage door opened up and disappeared into the roof.
Forty-five seconds later I sat on the edge of an open airplane, looking out at the clouds from 12,000 feet, clipped to a virtual stranger. I met Fred about thirty minutes prior, but now my life was in his hands. My nerves were in check all day, but now it was real. This is crazy!
Fred checked in with me — thumbs up! — then out we went, tumbling sideways. My initial reaction was one of sheer terror. I death-gripped my harness while trying to kick Fred in the groin. Don’t feel bad for him; those were his instructions!
Fred tapped me on the arm, indicating I could extend my arms. Besides giving me a false sense of reassurance, clutching the harness did absolutely no good. Still, I wasn’t sure I felt like letting go! But eventually I gave in. And I kinda felt like I was flying… straight into the face of a jet engine, but flying nonetheless.
Forty-five seconds after reaching terminal velocity (120 mph) Fred pulled the cord. I wasn’t expecting it and the yanking upward came as a major shock. I’m not sure my body had any more adrenaline to produce, but if it did my supply was expended right there.
We spent the next four minutes gliding around, spectacular scenery in every direction. The sun shone brightly. Snow capped peaks to the right, Wanaka and the glistening lake to the left, the tiny blip of an airport 5,000 feet straight down; new perspectives.
The view, like my weekend in Wanaka, was epic.
DO IT YOURSELF
Flights to New Zealand are not cheap. It’s always been high on my list, but an insane fare from The Flight Deal made a trip an immediate no-brainer. Insane, as in ‘Discover at 6am then spend 90 minutes figuring out dates and go to work late’. Roundtrip from Los Angeles to Auckland; US$354! I live near Philadelphia, so a US$350 domestic ticket completed my route. Total expenditure — US$704, PHL to AKL. Can’t beat that.
I had a fantastic rental car experience with Apex, a locally owned and operated outfit. Their rates were significantly lower than the usual international players. I paid US$300 for a 12-day Toyota Corolla rental. Airport pickup in Queenstown and drop-off in Christchurch minimized potential backtracking.
I stayed at a fantastic place just outside Wanaka called the Altamont Lodge. Think log cabin feel with cozy beds, spotless communal bathrooms, a well-appointed kitchen and an extremely helpful on site caretaker. Laundry facilities too! Depending on your budget, it may be a bit much for a single backpacker, but two people would do well staying here. Transportation required as it’s about a kilometer outside the commercial part of town.
Plenty of decent dining options along Lake Wanaka, but my favorite place was a bit uphill, away from the lakefront. Red Star Burger Bar hit the spot after a full day out. Veggie friendly too. Going with the healthy vibe, Big Fig has great salads among other interesting options.
Deep Canyon operates a variety of canyoning trips around Wanaka, on New Zealand’s South Island. I signed up for the basic Niger Stream trip, but unless you’re extra concerned or freaked out about anything I described, you can probably handle the Big Nige or Mill Creek trips. The crew is extra helpful and friendly, so bouncing a few questions off them first would ensure you’re not in over your head.
A basic lunch is provided after the canyoning and we dined on a makeshift rock table in the forest. Photo packages are available and my trip mates seemed pleased with their shots.
For my skydive, I went with Skydive Wanaka. Very professional outfit, lots of friendly staff and excellent equipment. Mandatory safety video, any and all questions answered. They didn’t appear to cut any corners. This is an expensive few hours, no doubt. Booking through an agency may save you some dollars.
Skydiving in New Zealand, as anywhere, is not without risks. I’m more concerned with finding a quality company that is willing to disappoint an occasional customer by canceling a flight rather than risk it to keep people happy. As happened on my flight day. A few delays were announced and talk of cancellation made the rounds as we waited outside, but eventually we took off. I was happy they erred on the side of caution.
Besides adventure activities, Wanaka itself has plenty to offer. Just outside town, the Roy’s Peak Track ticks all the boxes for an excellent day hike; accessible, safe, beautiful. Not to be confused, the Rob Roy Track, a bit further afield, is another winner. Diamond Lake is a yet another choice in an endless parade of great hikes. The Otago region is home to numerous wineries as well, many offering a variety of tastings and tours.
Lake Wanaka itself is gorgeous, especially on a sunny day. Some travel guides actually list the tree-in-the-lake as an attraction. I’d call that a stretch, but a long walk around the entire lake is a worthwhile — and cost-effective — way to get outdoors and spend some time.