New Zealander Henry van Asch was bumming around the ski slopes of Wanaka in the 1980s when another adventurous Kiwi persuaded him to try a strange new extreme sport. Hurl yourself off a bridge, said his new pal, with just a thick rubber rope around your ankle to stop you from splattering on the ground below. Fun! Van Asch didn’t hesitate. “It was bloody amazing,” he says. Soon the pair was encouraging other brave buddies to take the plunge. “It gave them a big self-esteem boost, and I realized we had something special.” Of course, the sport that Henry and his friend A.J. Hackett had accidentally invented was bungee jumping.
Their first commercial site—the first anywhere in the world—was Kawarau Bridge Bungy (yes, the spelling’s different) on New Zealand’s South Island and consists of a 140-foot drop from a steel-framed bridge over a rushing river. Twenty-eight people dove on opening day, November 12, 1988; now, almost 30 years later, 38,000 take the same trip every year.
Bungee jumping, of course, has exploded around the world, but it’s still synonymous with New Zealand. Tourism is a major economic force in the country—directly or indirectly providing one in eight jobs—and 46 percent of travelers say the scenery and outdoor activities are a major factor in booking a trip, per data from Tourism New Zealand. Nowhere are the options more spectacular than the South Island, where bungee jumping got its start. And since then, in and around the settlement of Queenstown, an entire extreme sports eco-system has emerged.
Take Mark Morrison’s Wildwire Wanaka. It’s been a labor of love for the onetime wildlife guide, who spotted an adrenaline-charged opportunity to import the Alpine tradition of via ferrata Down Under. This involved bolting metal rungs into a steep cliff face, like a permanent ladder, to allow the adventurous to ascend, crampon-free. Morrison’s location is by the Twin Falls waterfalls, 90 minutes’ drive from Queenstown proper, which adds a dramatic backdrop to the 3,000-foot climb. He installed the entire contraption himself, along with two daredevil friends, dividing it into three sections that are calibrated to different fitness levels. (The final segment opened this September.) “Not everyone is keen to do the extreme version, which we call ‘Lord of the Rungs,’” he said. Once you make it to the top, there’s good news: Instead of going back the way you came, a helicopter will whisk you down to earth.
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