Our first impression of Fiordland, from the confines of our bus, was a sudden loss of wifi and mobile reception, which I hope ended up being a blessing for most of the people on board. I’m the kind of person who likes to stare aimlessly out of the window, but it seems that even in midst of the most lavishly grand scenery, surrounded by 1000ft waterfalls, glacier-topped mountains and mist-filled valleys, some people are just not that interested. I’m not one of those people who believes we’re all collectively turning into phone-obsessed morons who can’t cope without checking Facebook every five minutes; that’s a sentiment I find arrogant and self-righteous, and people can do what they want whenever they want. I just find it kind of confusing when you’ve paid over the odds to go on a tour of one of the most beautiful corners of the Earth, and you don’t feel like even looking out the window. Even more baffling are those who decide that the moment of entry to the Park was a good time to get some long-awaited sleep. Seriously. Why sleep through that?
All corners of Fiordland – particularly the Darran Mountains – are remarkably intimidating. This is not your typical Alpine landscape with wide rolling valleys and green, sloped foothills; this is difficult, uninvitingly angular terrain where giant granite cliff faces and piles of jagged rocks separate the peaks. We toured for a while, stopping by at various viewpoints including the remarkably bleak Eglinton Valley, but once we had climbed far enough into the park for the weather to have worsened considerably, we took a break at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel.
The Homer Tunnel is the most vivid time-capsule souvenir of the infamous early days of discovery in New Zealand. Once the dramatic vistas of the Milford Sound were discovered in the mid-late 1800s, it was decided that the world needed to be granted access to this naturally enclosed fjord at pretty much any cost. So, in very surprisingly preachy terms, we were told by our driver that the construction of this tunnel – which cuts through the Homer Saddle – took 19 years and cost the lives of numerous workers. As a result, after entering the tunnel and slowly descending into weird, claustrophobic darkness, our driver said something along the lines of ‘As we exit the tunnel, be sure to take in the surroundings. People died for this view’, then timed a piece of post-rock music to suddenly explode into a crescendo over the speakers just as the previously inaccessible mountains appeared. In all honesty it was kind of a cool – if a little overbearing – moment, but I am hesitant to praise the driver too much due to his conduct later on the trip, which I’ll come to later.
We began heading down into the Sound past more insanely steep and seemingly infinitely tall rock faces, until we reached the boat. We set sail in cloudy and blustery conditions, at which point I decided to take advantage of the unlimited free tea on board, and attempted to drink it on the top deck in gale-force winds. As my hood slapped against my face and most of my beverage went flying out of the mug into the deepest depths of the Sound, I realised I had discovered my favourite new sport; Extreme Tea. Attempting to pour, brew and subsequently drink tea in a natural wind tunnel as vicious as Milford Sound felt like a fairly comprehensive test of my Englishness, and I embraced the challenge with gusto, stoically defying wind speeds that would make Neptune seem calm. I quickly switched to beer.
After touring the Sound, which is surprisingly short in length if not height, and being joined by some dolphins for part of the journey (and stopping directly under a waterfall while I was stood on the front deck), we got back on the bus and headed back toward Queenstown. However, the trip had one more little surprise in store; the driver. As we approached a restaurant in Te Anau, a small village near Fiordland, the driver passed around a form that allowed us to pre-order burgers for our arrival. Typical tourbus maneuvre. By the time the form got back to the driver, it had four signatures on it, which he clearly did not bother cross-checking, as by the time we arrived at the restaurant, only three people went in for a burger. The driver got back on the bus and said ‘Right, before we go, I’ve just noticed that we’ve got a joker on board. There’s a signature here for a Ben. But there’s no Ben on board is there?’. To be fair there actually was a guy called Ben on board who I’d met while dolphin swimming the previous day. I almost called him out on it when he said ‘Yeah, Ben Dover? Very funny. You guys think it’s funny to waste people’s resources? There’s a burger in there with nobody to take it. You know what? I was going to put a movie on, but that person has ruined it for everyone. We can just sit here in silence.’ Now it may seem obvious, but two things struck me as odd about this moment.
The first is that he kept repeating the terms and conditions of his punishment. ‘Yeah it’s a shame we can’t watch the film but I guess that’s what happens when one person ruins it for everyone else. I just don’t feel like putting the movie on now. I’ll just take you back to Queenstown and you can entertain yourselves. You can figure out amongst yourselves who ruined it for everyone else‘. Yes, we get it you f*cking lunatic, you’re not putting the goddamn film on. Stop telling us to engage in a witchhunt because you can’t handle the emotional baggage that comes with a wasted burger.
The second is what the hell do you think you’re doing? You are an adult, right? And you know who else is? Everyone else on your bus. It shouldn’t need explaining to you that you are not our father scolding us for making a scene, nor are you a substitute teacher on a school trip that’s getting out of hand. We’re all adults, some of whom are actually older than you, and none of whom know each other. Why on Earth should I take responsibility for some random cretin making a lame joke? And more to the point, we’re all adults who have paid your company a shit-ton of money for you to shut your goddamn mouth, get back up to the front of the bus and do your job, which is to drive us into a national park, and to drive us out again. It is quite definitively not your job to punish your own paying customers for some shit they didn’t do. I will not be spoken to like I am a child. I care about conserving the beauty of Milford Sound. I care about futhering the economy of small towns in the area so that they can continue to prosper. I care about the poor and the sick and the disabled. You know what I don’t give a shit about? A burger. One solitary burger. If it pains you so much, why didn’t you take the hit and pay for it? Why didn’t you chuck $10 of your money down from your moral high ground? What was really agonising though was that once we approached Queenstown, he suddenly went back to jokey, friendly mode over the tannoy. No dice, friend; you’re waaaaaay past the event horizon at this stage. No amount of casual chat is gonna erase you patronising us to within an inch of our sanity. Needless to say, I will be writing to Kiwi Experience about this matter. After all, I am English.
Skip forward a day and I found myself sat around in Queenstown with not much to do. Realising I had another three days here in The Adrenaline Capital of the World, I decided to hike up to the top of a mountain. Then I hiked back down again. I mean that was fun but not exactly thrilling. So I returned to my hotel room, stalled for a bit, and then impulsively booked a bungee jump.
This is not something I had ever envisaged myself doing. Not because of nerves or fear; it’s just not something I had ever had any interest in doing. What was the point of throwing yourself off a bridge attached to a rope? Yet, for some reason, impulse – and constantly being surrounded by bungee jumping adverts – convinced me I should do it. So I went to sleep dreading the next day. I awoke the next day, made some terrible breakfast, and thought – incredibly irrationally, I know – ‘if I’m going out today, I’m going out wearing the claret and blue’, put my 1963 replica West Ham home kit on, and headed out the door. The bus ride was annoyingly short; I felt like I hadn’t had enough time to gather my thoughts before passing a mountain to reveal an enormous ravine with a bridge spanning it. Oh shit.
I attempted to make it all as un-agonising as possible. I rushed in, got weighed, got my ticket, went to the bathroom (obviously), and headed out to the bridge. Sitting on the edge, my unnervingly-loose-feeling harness around my waist, I have never felt my heart pound so incredibly violently. They asked me to move down to the next platform, at which point they tied my feet together and surrounded in with a strange towel for padding. Then they hooked two carabiners to it and… that was it. Holy shit, you’re telling me I’m about to throw myself off a bridge to a river way below us connected only by a knot that you tied with your hands? My hands are actually sweating again as I type this out, and I’m in a coffee shop the following day. They lifted me up and held onto the back of my waist harness (which was attached to the rope too), but didn’t feel all that tight. They told me to shuffle to the very edge, so I did. They told me I needed to go closer. So I did. They were, however, insistent that my toes hung off the edge. Shuffling forward, feet tied together, and staring down off a 150ft drop into a ravine is a moment I will never ever forget. I’m not one of those people who ‘can’t look down’; I decided to embrace the moment, give a ‘what the hell am I doing?’ shrug to the camerawoman, took a deep breath and waited for the countdown.
The nonchalance with which the bungee guys execute the countdown is really quite unpleasant. You’d think it’d make it seem all very routine and ‘well, here we go!’ about it, but you just want there to be a bit more ceremony. A fanfare or a flamethrower or something. Instead the guy just goes ‘right, hands off the railing – 3, 2, 1, bungee!’. And you can’t back out. If you hesitate, first, you’ll look like a total loser, and second, they’ll ask if you need a push. I decided to be a man and that I would just go for it. Prior to jumping he told me that because of my weight and the fact that I wanted to touch the water at the bottom, I’d have to give it a good jump away from the platform, rather than just dropping off like a corpse in a Mafia film.
There was an odd moment of silence after the word ‘bungee!’, as I realised I was about to leave the safe confines of the instructor’s grip on my harness. I looked down for a fraction of a second, with literally every muscle, tendon, nerve and pore in my body doing its best to tell me that I would die violently if I jumped. But you just have to tell yourself that all those millions of years of evolutionary instinct are not naturally ‘aware’ of the existence of harnesses, or of bungee jumping in general. In a way, it’s the experience of dying without the death; it hit me as I was about to jump that it’s a strangely morbid activity. Why do we want to know what it feels like to jump to our deaths? But f*ck it, no time to think about that now – I leaned out over the canyon, started to topple forward, extended my legs, and I felt my feet leave the platform. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the most terrifying moment of my life. I will never ever forget it.
There isn’t really much to do from then on if you’ve never bungee jumped before. To someone who has never experienced the mercy of the elastic hauling you back up away from the river, it’s just falling – not bungee jumping. My original plan was to pose for the camera as I fell, but the focus required to convince yourself to put your faith in a piece of rope is so all-consuming that you just kind of flail around. I for instance, I don’t remember putting my arms in the air as I fell, but according to the photos that is what I did, and it made for a couple of pretty awesome shots. As I fell, I shouted some non-verbal nonsense, until the bottom, when I was suddenly whipped round to find myself about a foot away from the water, just agonisingly beyond my fingertips. Then, part two of the bungee, which I was not expecting to be quite so dramatic; the return journey.
At the apex of the rope’s elasticity, staring down at the river, you could feel every square inch of the veins and arteries in your head and eyes being inflated like a car tyre – it feels like you’re about to have a stroke, aneurysm and brain hemorrhage at the same time. Your body feels like it literally could not take any more pressure, and then ping! You’re sent careening back up towards the bridge at breakneck speed. I was really not expecting to be shot up quite so high, but you almost reach the bridge again, this time flailing around even more as you’re not sure which way is up and which way is down. It’s just a total blur as rock faces and your own feet go flying in and out of your field of vision, like looking through a zoetrope. I found myself almost upright at the top of the bounce, at which point I loudly proclaimed ‘F***********CKING HELLLLLLLLL’ to the platform of – I assume – amused and pitying onlookers. As my profanity echoed across the canyon, I plummeted back down for another quick dose of air pressure in my brain, and then the final part of the bungee begins; the really shit part. The last few bounces are absolutely infuriating, as a couple of guys on a dinghy in the river set sail and hold out what looks like a shower curtain railing for you to grab onto, you just helplessly hang there like a dead pig in a butcher as your vision starts to blur and you feel like you may actually pass out. After not being quite close enough for a couple of swings, I finally got one hand on the pole, and almost ripped it out of the guy’s grasp, so desperate was I to get down. They pulled me closer, my shirt having almost lifted up over my face and veins popping out of my head, at which point I said ‘a dignified entrance I’m sure’.
This is the moment that convinced me not to buy the video. After letting me down and me sprinting back up to the top, I met a couple of people who said ‘holy shit your eyes are so bloodshot’, and headed inside to watch my video. As the guys in the boat are getting you down, they tell you to do a sit up so that you land on your back rather than your head, and this reveals your ‘hanging upside-down face’ to the cameras at the top. It was horrific. I looked like a man who had either just survived a decompression accident on the ISS or someone who was having to spend longer in the bathroom than they would have anticipated. I decided to just get the photos, head back to Queenstown, have a beer, treat myself to a fantastic burger and fries from Devil Burger (which is superior in every way to the greatly-hyped Fergburger), and watch some Seinfeld in my hotel room. I then found that the adrenaline was an extremely slow burner, and hit me just as I tried to sleep. I couldn’t do it. So after a fitful night of half-sleep, I’m here, living to tell the tale of the dumbest, scariest thing I’ve ever done.
I am pretty tired though.