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Even If Chute Doesn’t Open – It’s New Zealand

October 4th, 2010 · Tags:Cities · Sports

Back in the day, I worked for a daily newspaper. I thought my journalism degree was going to be my ticket off the farm and on to see the world. But lo and behold, the first thing my first newspaper boss did was put me on the Farm & Ranch beat.

So, I used to scramble to find the most unusual stories I could — to entertain my interests — while still qualifying as farm/ranch stories. One of the highlights was a trip to a Willie Nelson hippie fest in Austin, because the concert was called Farm Aid. Another story I wrote was about an old high school classmate and his ranching experience. Pretty average stuff for the F&R beat, except for the fact that my buddy, Rob, had just returned from a wonderful adventure, living and ranching in the Australian outback.

As much as I liked and admired Rob, I “hated” him for this cool, cool adventure (j/k). I was forced to enjoy the experience vicariously, as he told me about living on a “station” … grilling goanna lizards or “barnies” and marching for the nearest windmill for a chance at survival, if you ever got lost on a walkabout. I assumed his tales from Down Under were the closest I would ever get to Australia or the Tasman Sea.

However, just a few short days ago, I found myself on a train in nearby New Zealand, with the Southern Alps to my left and that same body of water to my right. What an extraordinaire view. Most days, that would have been all I could ask for. But, in the spirit of adventure, this train ride would take a back seat. My buddies Markus and Steve and I were on the Kipton Train, en route to Kaikoura, with plans to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.

In our defense, in most cases, we are not stupid enough to jump out of a plane … but we were in New Zealand and it just sounded like the thing to do. A once in a lifetime opportunity, to punctuate the trip of a lifetime. We were giddy with excitement and admittedly quaking in our boots. As if the picturesque train ride, through the Shire-like landscapes popularized in the Hobbit flicks, were not enough — we were after a better view. We were told the Kaikoura jump would allow us to see both the North and South Islands of New Zealand at once … if we were man enough to open our eyes.

Alas … we went home without seeing the two-for-one. When we got to Kaikoura, we were told “No go.” The winds high in the atmosphere were strong but more importantly, exactly the wrong direction for the designated jump area. In short, our chutes would have ended up in the sea. Collectively, we cursed aloud and praised the Lord under our breath.

So, we got up at 6 a.m. on our one day off, rode a train for three hours all for zilch. We kicked around the one street in Kaikoura for a bit and could just hang out.  There was no Wi-Fi to speak of, so I wont.  We considered taking a whale watching tour in choppy seas … or we could go tour the Southern Alps in a helicopter. The correct answer?: “C.”

Whale Watch For Another Day

I think I was the only one in our group who had flown in a helicopter before. My previous ride — inside a closed military transport chopper, a Boeing CH-47 Chinook — did little to prepare me for the front-seat ride inside the eye of a dragonfly, so to speak. Wow … when I was riding shotgun in the chopper, my instinct was to reach over and grab something to brace myself. But the only thing beside me was a bubble-like, glass door and I wanted to keep that thing closed.

Me and me mates were wearing headsets and playing pilot/copilot in our microphones at first. How could I resist a good “Apocalypse Now” line, with this helicopter blade beating the air above us? “I just love the smell of napalm in the morning,” I chirped. The headsets went silent. Tough room! … I didn’t even think about using my “Charlie don’t surf,” or “Charlie’s going to be a napalm star” material … I digress …

But anyway, the first time we cleared a high ridge, and saw there was nothing on the other side but a several-thousand-meter drop … all the chatter went quiet again.

Ha … I was wearing a t-shirt with a slogan that I found quite dry and humorous when I had it printed.  On the back, in letters that are faded and obscured, the words state rather obnoxiously that, “I just threw up a little in my mouth.”  I used to call it the PingWi-Fi Puke Shirt.  From now on, I think it will be called the helicopter-T.

Our moxie was touch and go by the time the copter touched down on a summit. We walked around, regained our land legs, enjoyed the scenery and jumped back in. This time Markus was riding shotgun, while Steve and I grasped the hand rail and shot photos with the other hand in the back of the bird.

Then we learned a little about brilliant marketing. Sort of bait and switch at 9,000 feet. While in the air, the home base and sales office called the pilot, and we all got to hear on the headsets that our credit cards had been overcharged. There were three ticket prices — the most expensive being the Alpine flight all the way over the snow peaks. But, the wind wouldn’t permit that. Anyway, we had been charged for the Alpine treatment. At this point, we were wide-eyed, but definitely enjoying the ride and the view. We were given the option of a refund, or just extending our flight. First of all … we had no idea what the length of flight was supposed to be. How would we know if they extended it or not. But, we were loving it and said “Sure.”

Ha … then we did a few more basic passes over the valleys … and then it got hairy. A stationary spin here, a sideways tracking a canyon there, and we all looked pretty pale. So … even though we had paid extra money … at this point, I don’t think we would have complained even if we thought the flight was cut short. We zoomed out of the mountains, followed a river canyon, passed a couple of waterfalls, and I am told spotted some chamois — a mountain goat. (I have cleaned too many truck windows with a chamois skin to worry about leaning out my helicopter window to see one with legs.) Next we zoomed around the bend, crossed over a plateau of patchwork pastures and spotted the coastline.

Oh my! This was by far my favorite part of the ride … steep, high cliffs, overlooking gray stone beaches, with glittering hazel-colored waves and lot of seals sunning on the rocks offshore. We saw some whales too — several short of a pod, I think — but didn’t have to get seasick, like some of the people we saw getting off a boat earlier in the day. And the grass! Every inch of New Zealand we saw on this day was covered with plush, beautiful green grass. This was the Shire … this was sheep country … Ha, the grass was so pretty it made me want to be a sheep … sort of.

I have no doubt we landed long before our American dollars ran out. But after the dizzying tactical maneuvers by our pilot, no worries.

We celebrated the moment and headed for the train station. Perfect timing … and then another beautiful trainride back south to Christchurch at sunset … a noticeably longer ride than the adrenalin-charged morning rail.

We didn’t get to jump. But, we didn’t back down — not a fail.  Am I going to try to jump again?  Yep!  Next time I am in New Zealand.  And I still have that Counting Crows song stuck in my head, “Down in New Zealand …”

Know what I sayin?

(More New Zealand Blogs to come …)