Being neither a believer in Christianity nor Capitalism, I’m not a great fan of Christmas. I’d probably be able to handle it if it didn’t go on for so long, but Christmas cards are in the shops by September, and by October resturants are playing ‘Don’t They Know It’s Christmas’ (has anyone who puts that song on seaonal compilations actually listened to the words?). By my birthday, at the end of November, I’m sick to bah-humbuggery of Christmas. So, it was with a certain relish that I informed friends and relations that we weren’t doing Christmas this year. We would neither give nor receive any gifts, cards or greetings.
When I got to New Zealand I was gratified to find that, as I’d hoped, the kiwis have a far more laid back attitude to the festering season. Decorations tend to either be low key – small seasonal banners hung from lamp posts – or ironic, as in the Westland town with a ‘drunk santa’ theme: life size santa models in a variety of unlikely poses, including one throwing up into the river and a couple passed out among discarded bottles at the public picnic tables. (At least I think they were only models…). Having said all that, I still think there is something inherently Wrong about fairy lights in palm trees.
My avoidance of personal responsibility coupled with the relative lack of hard-sell and tat meant I was looking forward to Christmas for once. I decided that there was only one place to spend the Christmas/New Year period, and that was Queenstown, a location combining scenery, nightlife and more mad sports than you can easily imagine.
The original plan was to have a laid back Xmas (I’m sick of typing Christmas with no speel cheeker!), then ramp up the activity level over New Year. After my first visit to Queenstown in 1999 I should have known better: this place makes you crazy. On Christmas Eve, in sunshine so bright we kept having to seek shade in bars, we trolled along Shotover Street collecting flyers for future activites. In one of the (many) shops dedicated to parting tourists from their money in return for Fun and Excitment, I discovered that some activites ran on the day itself. This included paragliding, one of the things I didn’t do last time. So, of course I had to go for it.
Christmas day was disappointingly damp and grey after the sunshine of Christmas Eve, but the weather had given the highest mountains a new dusting of snow – so, even in summer, we got a bit of a white Christmas. I was driven up to Coronet Peak with half a dozen other seasonal thrill-seekers, one of whom had seriously failed to grasp what was involved in paragliding ,as she was wearing flipflops (they did let her go up, but only after taping her shoes to her feet).
Doing a tandem paraglide involves being strapped to someone who knows what they are doing and following their instructions. My man was a lanky and laconic individual of French extraction by the name of Hugo. While the other flyers were getting full briefings, he just said, ‘When I say ‘Run!’ you run down the hill. You do not stop or it will not work.’ Though I wasn’t particualry nervous about the flight, I was concerned at just what ‘it will not work’ might mean in this context, and resolved to run as far and fast as I could on Hugo’s command. He then strapped an ungainly foam seat to my back, attached himself to my harness, and stood behind me, with the further piece of useful advice, ‘You do not touch the carabiners, or they will open and I lose you.’ Right, won’t do that then. Now fully togged up and, er, briefed, he positioned me facing down a very steep slope, where clouds occasionally obscured views of the valley below. I was ready to run, poised in fact, but the wind chose that moment to drop away. So I stood around with half an armchair strapped to my arse, occasionally asking Hugo whether I should run yet. I didn’t get an audible answer – I suspect he was just giving a gallic shrug behind me. Then, finally, he said, ‘OK, we run now.’ And I did, I really did, but Hugo was a lot taller than me, and I was down-slope, so it was more of a downhill flail. I wasn’t so sure it was going to work after all, but then I was running on air, and though we weren’t going up we were flying. Due to the lack of wind the flight was really just a gentle downwards glide hugging the side of the mountain, sometimes so closely that I felt I could reach out and kick the tops of the trees. But this was a pleasure in itself, a chance to silently pass over terrain inaccessible to all except the most adventurous walker. As we approached the landing field (marked by a big smiley face cut into the turf), Hugo said, ‘You want a thrill now?’ Well, yes. So as we came in to land he executed a series of ‘wing-overs’ spilling air from the parachute wing to make us swing wildly. I saw sky-hill-ground…and wing. ‘Er, Hugo, isn’t the wing thing meant to be above us, not below?’ I think I felt him shrug, though I can’t be sure. ‘Ah, mainly it is.’ The landing was very smooth, Hugo did all the work and I just leaned out of my seat to take a couple of steadying steps once we were down. All in all, a very chill dangerous sport, though I did break a nail somewhere along the line.
Beloved’s festive foolishness was a bit more radical. On Boxing Day we took a gondala ride up the hill above Queenstown, site of a resturant, luge track and The Ledge, a bungy jump from a platform bolted onto a cliff. did the Kawarau bungy in 1999, a jump which had the advantage of being over water (so I got a free dip) and, it turned out, was used by Peter Jackson as the site of the Argonath (so I’ve bungied from the Pillars of the Kings). It is, however, a traditional ‘head-down’ bungy, where the cord is attached to your ankles. Having to shuffle up to the edge of a lethal drop with your feet tied together really sets off the body’s WTFAYD (‘WHAT THE F–K ARE YOU DOING?) response. Now, whilst overcoming fear of death is good for the self-esteem, my reason for doing something like a bungy is for the rush – in this case the rush you get when you realise you’ve just survived an experience which should have killed you. As well as the higher than neccessary terror quotient of a head down jump, you also get a lot of waiting round hanging upside down at the end, which I didn’t much like either. At The Ledge you jump in a full body harness, so no upside down (well, about two seconds of it as you free-fall), no being tied up, and no time for the WTFAYD to cut in because you do a running jump. Add to this the fact that you jump against the gorgeous backdrop of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables (an accurately named mountain range), and it looked good. So good that Beloved decided to go for it (I was sorely tempted too, but the budget only allowed for one of us to jump).
From paying to leaving the platform at speed took less than ten minutes – no time to get stressed – and the WTFAYD hit about a metre out from the platform, at which point time slowed down and he found out just how Wiley Coyote feels when he chases the Roadrunner off a cliff. He fell in silence but when the bungy bit and he swung out over the scenery he gave a loud whoop. Knowing from experience how tempting it would be to do it again, I hustled him down off the mountain as soon as he’d been hauled in. You need to chill out, I said, so we should play mini-golf. I admit an ulterior motive, as so far he’s beaten me every time we’ve played. Perhaps in his current state I could finally best him. No chance. He thrashed me.