Birthplace of bungee has plenty on offer for the bravehearts

Garry Ferris on the unlikely international home of the thrill- seeker in New Zealand
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Queenstown, New Zealand's premier tourist destination, has long held a reputation for forward thinking. In 1885, for example, the gold miners John and James Mitchell, fed up with delays forced by the weather, solved the problem of dynamite frozen solid by the harsh winter: thaw it on a shovel blade over a live flame. Father and son are buried in Skippers cemetery, victims of the Phoenix mine disaster.

A century on, the pioneering spirit still drives Queenstown, a town of 10,000 permanent residents set on the shores of Lake Wakitipu and flanked by two mountain ranges. Gold-diggers have been replaced by thrill-seekers, with the South Island resort hosting 400,000 international visitors annually. The area's beauty and natural habitats have kept generations of photo technicians in business, and investors are now incorporating the landscape into adventure tourism ventures. Queenstown is now recognised as the home of commercial bungee-jumping.

The world's longest-running bungee site, founded by AJ Hackett, Chris Allum and Henry van Asch in 1988, stands on the banks of the Kawarau River's white waters, 15 minutes out of town. One day while out rock-climbing, Hackett and Allum, bored with clinging to rocks hundreds of metres above the ground, attached rubber bands to their ropes and peeled off the cliff face. By the end of the week, they were using rubber ropes and diving off bridges. Bungee-jumping, New Zealand-style, was born.

Allum and Hackett set up a small operation in the central North Island, where they were running a ski-hire shop, before they decided Queenstown offered better opportunities. Eight years on, the enterprise has expanded to two sites - the Kawarau Bridge's 43-metre jump superseded by a 71m plummet into the rugged Skippers Canyon. Hackett's name is still atop the sites, but Van Asch controls the New Zealand operations, with Allum concentrating on bungee in the United States and Hackett going global.

True to their aims, Hackett, now residing in France, has bungee operations in Australia, France, the United States and Bali, and is about to open in Mexico and Asia, while Allum is the president of the North American Bungy Association and has his own site on Long Island, New York. The holder of the world record for the highest leap from a fixed structure, 822ft (251m), Allum is looking to break new ground - underground. He plans to leap 1,100ft (335m) from a subterranean site in Mexico. What else would you expect from the man who last year launched the Extreme Games. Boasting prize-money of $350,000 (pounds 222,000), the games consist of nine events: bungee-jumping, street luge racing, sky surfing (aerial sky-diving manoeuvres while attached to a snowboard), mountain biking, BMX racing, dirt-bike jumping (on a half-pipe course), roller-blading (on a half-pipe), barefoot water-skiing and, if the heart is still pumping, knee-board water-skiing.

Queenstown's third, and newest, bungee is also in Skippers Canyon. The Pipeline's 102m is the highest jump in Australasia from a fixed-structure commercial site. For the vertigo-challenged visitors to the resort, the surrounding Shotover, Kawarau and Dart rivers are watery highways for commercial jet-boating and river-rafting, which have undergone a big restructuring after four deaths during 1994 and 1995 - a reminder that the greater the thrill in adventure tourism, the greater the risk can be.

The latest craze about to grip the region is a giant-sized sphere made of Perspex in which a person climbs inside then is rolled down a hillside - being caught at the bottom, so the plan goes, by a huge net. (Failing that, the waters of the Kawarau act as the emergency stop.) For a change of pace, the accidental tourist can always visit nearby Wanaka, where you can take a leisurely scenic flight - in a Soviet-built MiG 15 jet.