In Pursuit of Paradise | Is New Zealand the Adventure Capital of the World?
10 days on the other side: mountain biking, surfing, bungee jumping and more...
Thunderstorms in Dubai. Not the name of AC/DC’s new album, but the reason my 27 hour journey from Glasgow International to Auckland, New Zealand had been delayed for a full day in the UAE.
Neither the 24 hour delay nor the Dubai-Auckland leg of the journey, the longest flight in the world at the time of writing, was of much concern though. 17 straight hours of cabin fever seemed like an appropriate sacrifice for the seven days of wild adventure that would follow; mountain biking, surfing, white-water rafting, caving, bungee jumping, cliff diving and more mosquitoes than you could appease with a human sacrifice were all waiting on the other side.
A flight announcement paused the highlights reel playing from Crankworx 2015 on the little screen in front of me to announce that we were 15 minutes from arrival. Finally.
Mountain biking overlord Brandon Semenuk stopped on my screen mid-flight, refusing to drop, unlike the jaws of those around me as the north island of New Zealand finally appeared out the window to put an end to the beautiful blues of the South Pacific Ocean.
I had expected to feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway on arrival in the Southern Hemisphere after such a long time in the air; bearded, inexplicably topless and shouting ‘Wilson’ at the top of my voice to a pair of Emirates flight socks.
Instead, the volcanic islands, beautiful black sand beaches and endless forests flying under-wing eliminated all exhaustion and replaced it with all the appropriate fervour of a man who had just touched down on possibly the wildest island in the world.
New Zealand by Land: Mountain Biking
Jet lag exists not in the wild. Not when you’re getting picked up from the airport and heading directly to Skyline Bike Park in Rotorua for the main showcase of the Crankworx Rotorua spectacular – the coveted slopestyle contest.
“Feeling a bit tired?" I was asked on arrival, a reasonable question given that I’d just rammed through 13 time zones. But I was riding high; like a kid in a candy shop, like Kanye West in a room full of mirrors, like Lance Armstrong left alone with the bank during a game of Monopoly.
Crankworx expanded its ever-growing roster to Rotorua in 2013, and the event has been growing in stature ever since. The focus this year was homage; homage to the late Kelly McGarry, the pro shredder, friend to many and Crankworx Rotorua course-designer who tragically passed away earlier this year.
There was a touching tribute, a ‘McGazza’ sign in prime position on the final kicker and the New Zealand native’s signature curly mop was printed on t-shirts and riding jerseys throughout the crowded park. And it was crowded. The people turned out in numbers to watch Brandon Semenuk stick the win.
“They might be the best I’ve ever seen," admitted our local trail guide Karl Young the following day, as it turned our turn to ride Rotorua and explore the world renowned mountain bike trails of the Redwoods; a set up I would soon hail as one of the most encapsulating I’ve ever ridden.
“Never before have we been so happy to be beaten up by an inanimate object we'd paid to rent..."
Karl helped build the Whakawawera Trails back in the 80s and 90s “when there were only four or five of us riding here and you could tell who was out from their tyre tracks". Both his guiding skills and the trails he took us through were as sick as his sense of humour.
What stood out most in the Redwoods was the diversity of the trails and the return for your climbs. 25 minutes of going uphill and you could get hours of down in return; whether that be over flowy berms sculpted through seven foot trees or roots and drops between giant Californian Redwoods.
The riding in the area has boomed since the downhill mountain bike World Championships were held there in 2006, and even more so with the addition of Crankworx seven years later. The riding has always been there of course, it’s just that not much of the world actually knew about it before.
There are trails for everyone, and they all offer an appropriate challenge. The kids loops are casual and fun, the intermediate tracks offer progressive riding, with a mix of technical and flowy features, the more advanced tracks can get pretty scary and you’d need to be damn confident to roll into any of the black diamond runs.
Riding through the Eucalyptus trees and Spruces and Californian Redwoods it feels like you’re riding from country to country, or from season to season at very least, and you’ll glimpse great views of Lake Rotorua while you’re up there.
There’s over 150km of stunning trails in the Redwoods, featuring some of the best soil in the world – perfect for shaping. These trails bring mountain biking back to what it’s meant to be; damn good fun out in open aired wild.
We cap off our riding the following day with a more casual affair; the Timer Trail, a cross-country cycle route that offers outstanding scenic value. The 85km trail is best tackled in two days, with a camping spot in between.
You wouldn’t want to be unfit for the initial 14km climb. We even have to admit to becoming dubious as to whether our uphill would ever be rewarded, but when the moment did come to begin descending.... man, was it worth the wait.
On the back of a 15 minute downpour we were skidding round corners like a drunk driver in a drift race, and the suspension bridge – one of eight on the trail – that greeted us at the end of the path truly was like something out of Lord of the Rings.
Our tip would be to give Hobbiton a miss and stick to the greenery instead. Why read about Bilbo's adventure when you've got everything you need to have one of your own - minus the trolls and musical orcs.
Two days of pure mountain biking paradise could easily have been expanded into two weeks without coming even remotely close to wearing the trails and scenery in. It was an absolute privilege, and one it would be rude not to recommend.
New Zealand by Water: Surfing
There are few places you can go in New Zealand, on the north or the south island where you’ll be more than a few hours away from the coast in some form or other.
It’s a sunny day and a perfect break when we roll up to Muriwai Surf Beach just outside of Auckland to get a schooling from one of the locals. Ever eager to learn, our teacher for the day is an English traveller called Adam. He’s just finished a spell surfing Indonesia and has settled in New Zealand to continue living the dream.
The surf is brilliant, the views breathtaking and the line up isn’t all that packed, either. It’s a dream day on the water, and though we miss more waves than we catch, the sense of freedom neck high in the ocean is like nothing else. Never before have we been so happy to be beaten up for two hours by an inanimate object we'd paid to rent.
Our host for the week Shannon takes us to his hometown of Piha, another coastal town an hour from Auckland, for a longboarding session the following day beneath the astounding Lion Rock.
The giant rock patrols the beach just off the coast to the right, and the scenery is equally as encapsulating to the left. The waves are huge and I'm wiping out all over the place – with a smile on my face, albeit.
I exchange a glance with a local who’s getting smashed about by the big breaks as much as I am. Further afield the more experienced riders are tearing the waves to shreds and looking damn good doing it. We’re a while away from that just yet.
Of course, they say the thing about surfing is that you can get out on the water for two or three hours and only catch one wave, but that one wave you do catch will give you more than enough stoke to see the session through.
I’m having a great time getting beaten up for the second consecutive day, almost standing up several times only to become victim of an involuntary slapstick slip a few seconds later. After all, I live to entertain.
We’ve reached our time limit. One more wave. I predictably wipe out again.
One more one more wave.
This time I catch it. And I stand up. And I ride it the whole way back into the beach, staring down a spot on the horizon while I cruise comfortably in the shadow of some of the most impressive cliffs and greenery I’ve ever seen from the ocean. How the hell did that happen?
The day ends with high fives and beer. As any good adventure should.
Of course, the surf in New Zealand is world renowned, and though I may be in my early days on the board, the place is more than capable of challenging the best in the world as well. The Ultimate Waterman competition has been running throughout the week we’ve been there; challenging some of the best athletes to disciplines from SUP to longboarding, shortboarding, big wave surfing and more.
We have lunch with Laird Hamilton, arguably the greatest waterman of all time, and he hails the diversity of the country, the scenery and the waves on offer. It’s a high compliment given he’s surfed all over the world and isn’t exactly known for holding back his opinions.
The guys out there for The Waterman were getting towed into badass waves on jet skis and helicopters, following on the legacy begun by Laird so long ago. As we leave to head back to Auckland, I'm still grinning about riding that last wave in at Piha Beach.
New Zealand Above: Bungee Jumping
“Level 53 please," I ask the American tourists guarding the elevator options at the bottom of the Sky Tower, the standout feature in the beautiful Auckland skyline.
“Heading up to do the jump?" they ask in return.
“Actually no," I retort. “I just always dress like a colour-blind Flash Gordon."
They don’t understand or appreciate the joke and we ride the rest of the way in silence, the viewing gap in the back of the elevator climbing swiftly above the rest of the skyscrapers in the New Zealand city and showing no signs of stopping in a hurry.
I’m the only one in the elevator by the time we reach the 53rd floor and the only one in the waiting room as the dudes with the responsibility test out the wires on the Sky Jump – the part-bungee jump, part-zip-wire thrill jump that sees you step off the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere and fall 192m to the floor below.
The jump is the newest addition to the AJ Hackett bungee jump empire in New Zealand. Hackett made world news when he opened the first commercial bungee jump the world over in Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island in 1988, and he’s since expanded to open a catalogue of jumps worthy of such an innovation, adding the Sky Jump to the roster just last year.
It feels like you can’t come to New Zealand and not attempt some kind of AJ Hackett instalment. It’s like going to Scotland and not eating haggis or going to London and not almost getting mugged on the Tube. Consider that for a second; that one of the local delicacies of the relatively youthful country of New Zealand is effectively throwing yourself off buildings and bridges attached to a bungee cord. It says a lot about the nation as a whole.
“So what made you want to do this then?" asks the man in charge of making sure I don’t fall 630ft to my death in the next few minutes. As we head out to walk the plank – a five-metre-long metal pathway jutting out from the side of the Sky Tower – it’s clear that the view alone is enough to justify taking on the jump.
I’m left hanging on to two metal bars on the edge of the platform, staring out over Auckland while the AJ Hackett crew joke about photographs and discuss the weather. They’re in no hurry, and for reasons completely unrelated to the jump – okay, maybe they were a little bit related – neither am I.
The day is a clear one, the temperature a perfect 23 degrees and the view stretches out over Auckland Bridge, over volcanic islands and tantalisingly tropical oceans that never seems to end.
If I was gutted to be leaving the forests and hills of Rotorua to be travelling to the highly-populated city before, I was struggling to remember why looking out from above the city. There’s no possible way you can slap Auckland with the “just-another-city" tag after seeing that.
The jump itself was exhilarating if over quickly. A big step into nothingness and the adrenaline-packed plummet was in full flow, flying down to the building tops below and staring out over that beautiful sea view.
Unstrapped at the bottom and bag recollected, it was time to get on with the rest of the day. In at 10am, out by 10.45am having leapt off an 193m building. Adventure waits for no man in New Zealand, and there’s plenty of the stuff to go around.
New Zealand Below: Caving
We’re standing 65m below ground, waist-deep in 12 degree water in the Waitomo Caves with less room than a killer whale at SeaWorld. It’s not the only time we’ve been in the water in New Zealand, but it’s certainly the coldest.
Surfing hadn’t required a wetsuit, canyoning in the stunning Piha Canyon; abseiling down giant waterfalls into perfect blue pools, had required one, but it hadn’t been too chilly. Whitewater rafting on the Kaituna river, taking on the seven metre biggest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, had pretty much been like a journey through a tropical rainforest.
“If they had called them the Waitomo Maggot Caves you wouldn’t have come down here, would you?"
This, standing 213ft below ground level in the Waitomo Caves, was something really quite different.
Stalactites hang down from the alien-like rock formations on the roof of the cave, 10 or 20 metres above. The walls show signs of erosion and wear taken place over millions of years. The sounds of waterfalls can be heard funnelling far through the passageways.
And yet neither us, nor any of the company we’re travelling with, could care less about any of that. We’re all fixated on something far more unique and compelling; the glowworms.
Dangling from nearly every surface in the passageway since we first abseiled the 35m into the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, to give them their full name, have been stunning sparkles of blue illuminating the darkness.
Turning the headlights off on the front of our helmets, the cave walls light up like a set of stars stuck through an Instagram filter.
Turning on the headlights on the front of the helmet makes even more of the things appear, and amazingly, the louder we are, the brighter they get. Our ‘Black Water Rafting’ guides for the day Lofty and Rory explain that the creatures glow to attract prey to the silk lines they dangle below them, and that they think the increase in volume is a sign of approaching prey.
“What you’re actually looking at are maggots," tells Rory. “But if they had called them the Waitomo Maggot Caves you wouldn’t have come down here, would you?"
He’s probably right.
In fact, there isn’t actually a single type of worm on the planet that actually glows. But these things come pretty damn close – though the description of what is really going on in front of your eyes provides quite the juxtaposition given the beauty of the actual event.
In need of food and energy, the maggots hanging from the ceiling actually burn their own faeces to attract flying insects to their silk lines, which are effectively fishing rods. In Lehmann’s terms, the creatures are burning their own poo to attract insects of their own species which they will then eat alive, from the inside out. Doesn’t sound so beautiful now, does it? Still, check out the photos.
Lofty and Rory guide us through the dense caves to hop down waterfalls in the dark, leap off rocks into the cold water below, avoid eels in the passageways and take on flying foxes through total darkness illuminated only by the glowworms (we’re going to go back to calling them that).
A couple of simple rock climbs later next to cornered-in waterfalls – the erosion of the rocks has made them perfect bouldering playgrounds – and we’re making our way back to the surface, past glowworms who light up like the night sky in order to stay alive, despite having never laid sight on the actual night sky themselves.
It’s a startling experience, and one that quite literally shines a whole new light on the adventure options of New Zealand, and the majesty of nature as a whole – it doesn’t end with big waves and sun-soaked waterfalls or berms and bungee in the Southern Hemisphere. Don’t forget to look down.
New Zealand: The Wild Island
The flight home was somewhat more monotonous than the journey out to New Zealand. It turns out jet lag does exist back in Scotland.
Looking back at the trip, it really does seem like the stuff of dreams. Adventure after adventure; challenge after challenge; always out in the wild without ever having to travel excessively to do so. We packed in more than a hoarder moving house – and there’s still so much we left completely untouched.
In the generation of wanderlust, it’s easy to see why New Zealand is such a prominent player, if not the focal point of the entire scene. It’s simply got to be on your bucket list – and don’t underrate the North Island just because you’ve heard the South is the best.
Determined to continue the adventure, I climbed back on my bike and kept the surf game up in the admittedly less-desirable climate of my homeland on my return. After I’d worked out how to kick the jet lag and stop taking naps on my lunch hour, that is.
New Zealand doesn’t only provide everything you need for whatever wild adventure you can dream up, it inspires you to live the life even after you've left the island – to the point where it’s easy to see why some people don’t.