Craig Tansley tests his mettle in Queenstown.
I've grown accustomed to the whirring of the chopper blades but still can't shake the fear that my mountain bike might break free and crush a tourist far, far below me. That should probably be the least of my worries. It's a perfect late-summer morning in Queenstown and I'm about to ride vertically down a mountain range and straight into a pub. The pub part I'm quite confident about, it's the mountain biking I'm not so sure of. We'll be descending treacherous mountain passes accessible only to those courageous enough to get air-lifted by helicopter.
This is the first time I've been to Queenstown in summer and, though I miss the magic that comes when snow blankets the mountains, there's something almost voyeuristic about seeing all the ravines below me; it's as if I'm seeing Queenstown totally nude. I nearly blush.
Our guide asks what biking experience we've had. A young Australian couple beside me say they've had some. I admit I thought mountain bikes were the best way to get to the corner shop to play Space Invaders. A middle-aged Swiss tourist boasts of his prowess. "I race mountain bikes," he says. "I ride a lot, I like to go fast." My mouth dries and the couple look two shades paler under their sunscreen.
We land on a mountain higher than all the rest. One half of the couple leans into me as I take notes: "It's probably sacrilegious to say it as an Aussie, but when I lived in London, people used to ask me all the time what I missed most about Australia." Then he whispers: "I used to always tell them New Zealand. Three hours on a plane, mate."
There's nothing on this peak but rocks and the original tracks made by early settlers when they walked into Otago from the east coast. Our Swiss traveller mounts his trusty steed, fixes us with a steely Swiss gaze and heads down the obstacle course. In a heartbeat he's off, flying like Superman over his handle bars, landing like the Joker head-first onto rocks.
He regains his grace and dignity but we hardly see him for the next two hours, as we take a quite pedestrian downhill jaunt past nosy cows and through a landscape craggier than the Scottish Highlands. When we finish, three hours and 20 or so downhill kilometres later at the sink-into-a-chair-and-never-leave Cardrona Hotel, one of New Zealand's oldest drinking establishments, I don't believe I'll be standing up again for a very long time.
Queenstown can be like that. There's an energy here that can both invigorate and destroy you. In five days I do more than I've done in a year of weekends at home: bungy jumping, canyon swinging, flying by wire, jet boating and whitewater rafting. The town has set itself up as the world's premier adventure destination and visitors quickly adopt its speed. Queenstown is like an exuberant, slightly precocious, good-looking teenager with attention-deficit disorder. It can be unnerving, especially if you're a little below match fitness.
On any mountain around Queenstown you'll encounter a New Zealander huffing, puffing, sweating, kicking a ball, on a bike, on their own two legs or on some creation you've never seen before. Even on isolated bush tracks in nearby Fiordland National Park, you'll have to make way as they sprint past you.
At the Saturday morning markets by Queenstown's lake, backpackers pull out hacky sacks, the hacky sackers get the frisbee freaks going and they're competing for space with the soccer fans and the rugby nutters - there's hardly room for the market stalls. There's a bright-green football field on every block here and they're always full. Those not outdoors expending energy will be indoors in preparation; you'll hear them strumming guitars, banging on drums, catching a few hours sleep in Kombis by the sides of roads. At the town's mountain-bike park, 11-year-olds jump six metres into the air. The parent-to-be in me begs them to take more care.
Even the sky is buzzing. Planes perform acrobatics, the sky littered with tourists falling from 10,000, 11,000, 12 ,000 feet at split-second intervals. And then there are the paragliders, the kite surfers, the hang gliders - oh, and the birds, when there's airspace for them.
It's intoxicating but if people stopped moving for a moment and left their wallets in their pockets for an afternoon, they'd discover that walking anywhere around this town on a late summer day should cost more than the Nevis bungy jump. Even a quick stroll along a suburban street presents you with vistas looking as if they've been cleverly cut and pasted from a glossy travel brochure. There's a magic in this part of New Zealand that, I believe, is found nowhere else.
I was smitten 20 years ago with Queenstown and each year I fall deeper in lust. I think it has, hectare for hectare, the world's most beautiful landscapes. From most hotels you can look up to see the big, black, barren mountain range called the Remarkables; in the evenings it turns a shade of mauve and orange. Old steamers float by on Queenstown's huge, bottomless lake and pine trees seem to stretch all the way to the falling skydivers. I love the wildflowers that bloom on the sides of the roads and the weeping willows that line the streams.
John Travolta once said if God lived anywhere on Earth, he'd live in Queenstown. There's a Disney-like beauty in every season here, as if Bambi might bounce out at you at any turn (though watch it, Bambi - New Zealanders have an appetite for venison).
I like the contrasts here: the high-octane thrills, hectic nightlife, the peace of the surrounding countryside. On a short break, I love nothing better than blending the two. And in winter there's a magic in the air that rivals anything you'll find in the fancy ski resorts of Europe and North America. Each year, from early June until the beginning of October, you can ski at Queenstown's two resorts, Treble Cone and the Remarkables, just a short drive from town. Further afield, there are the ski fields of Cardrona and Snow Park (the latter dedicated to half-pipe riders and attracting the pros).
The region also has more good golf courses than anywhere else in New Zealand - five truly world-class courses within 40 kilometres of each other, with cheaper green fees than you'd fork out at home (and a far more relaxed dress code). On a warm Sunday morning I play Jacks Point, nestled under the Remarkables, and I'm alone. You won't play a more scenic course, with views over Lake Wakatipu and across to the Remarkables and Coronet Peak, its fairways littered with schist rock outcrops, marron grass and bunkers designed to make it look as if sheep did all the mowing. And even though I am on a golf course, I can't entirely escape the adrenalin of Queenstown; on the second tee I'm forced to duck as a low-flying skydiving plane banks in hard for landing. It seems beyond every backswing, someone is parachuting on the horizon.
Fiordland, an hour's drive west, gives me the perfect counterpoint to Queenstown's relentless pace. The Milford Track earns the accolade of "one of the finest walks in the world" yet there are stacks of tracks you can tramp in one of the world's great national parks. I take the Routeburn Track and walk through forests as old as the mountains and across swinging footbridges stretched over emerald rivers, with not a skydiver or bungy jumper in sight.
What amazes me most are the highlights I nearly miss. I'll glance at the last minute through a canopy of green to see a waterfall cascading for kilometres down a mountain, or I'll spy a gap in an escarpment framing views over distant floodplains. The ground is covered in moss and old man's beard hangs from the trees. It feels like a forest from a children's fairytale; I can imagine pixies and hobbits following me out here. Well, maybe not, but tiny bush robbins do, and riflemen - overhead are harrier hawks and kias, the world's only alpine parrot.
The famously cranky travel writer Paul Theroux came here in 1990 and was becalmed: "I was sorry to reach the end of the trail because there is something purifying about walking through a wilderness," he wrote in The Happy Isles Of Oceania. "To see a land in the state in which it has existed since it rose from the waters and let slip its ice . . . is greatly reassuring to the spirit."
I stay a night alone at Kinloch Lodge, overlooking Lake Wakatipu. There's not a sound at night, except the occasional hoot of an owl. In the morning, I see a family fishing on the lake but it feels as far removed from Queenstown, and the world, as anywhere could.
Six years ago, I came to New Zealand to cover the world's toughest endurance event: the Southern Traverse. Each year competitors from across the globe kayak, cycle and run for five days with virtually no sleep in ever wilder parts of New Zealand (we had to follow in helicopters because the landscape was so imposing). It was only the New Zealanders who finished.
I thought of that race again on my last night. These Kiwis are a little crazy, I suspect: they'll jump off anything, then run, climb or ride back and do it again. A trip to Queenstown in summer and autumn will leave you with nothing but respect, perhaps envy, for their untapped energy in a country made for adventure. And, of course, "It's three hours on a plane, mate."
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Destination Queenstown and Air New Zealand.
Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Queenstown from Melbourne ($276) and Sydney ($268) on Tuesdays; via Christchurch on other days. Qantas ($295) flies non-stop from Sydney on Wednesdays only. Non-stop flights operate in summer and winter. You can fly Virgin Blue non-stop to Christchurch ($60 from Melbourne and $35 from Sydney), then take another carrier to Queenstown; fares from $NZ83. (Fares are one-way excluding tax).
Try heli-biking in mountains in the Queenstown region. Fat Tyre Adventures allows you to choose the mountain - there are five locations to suit varying skill levels. Rides from $NZ349; see fat-tyre.co.nz.
Remarkable Golf Tours books accommodation, tee-off times, drives you to and from the course and you can play on seven of the best local courses.There's a deal including a night's accommodation, breakfast and golf with a cart for $NZ299. See remarkablegolftours.co.nz.
Walk the three-day, 32-kilometre Routeburn Trail from near Glenorchy, or take a day walk. See infotrack.co.nz.
Jump off a platform high above a raging river and then swing for 200 metres, reaching speeds of 150kmh, on the Canyon Swing above the Shotover River. Cost $NZ179; see canyonswing.co.nz.
Take a deep breath and try New Zealand's ultimate bungy jump: the 134-metre Nevis Bungy. One jump costs $NZ240; see bungy.co.nz.
See the beautiful Shotover River at ridiculous speeds on a jet boat. A half-hour ride costs $NZ109; see shotoverjet.co.nz.
Paddle down a raging river through pristine Skippers Canyon. Queenstown Rafting has a half-day trip for $169; see queenstownrafting.co.nz.
For more, see queenstown-nz.co.nz.
Stay close to the action of Queenstown's lively town centre and in luxury at the Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel. Rooms from $NZ450, see queenstownpark.co.nz.
Stay just metres from beautiful Lake Wakatipu across the bay from Glenorchy in a century-old homestead at Kinloch Lodge. Rooms from $NZ80; bunks for $NZ30 a night; see kinlochlodge.co.nz.