That’s the question I get asked when people learn that I plan to spend my birthday in one of the most isolated places on the planet. “Couldn’t you just throw a party?” my brother asks. I’m on the phone with him as I sit in the Air New Zealand terminal, waiting for my flight. The area is filled with backpackers and young couples who look like they’re on spring break. A group of elderly women chat by a kiosk, and a few giggling toddlers rush across the lounge, dads at their heels. No one here looks like me. I feel too old, and honestly, a bit lonely, to be trekking some 7,100 miles from Los Angeles to celebrate my big day. Maybe I should have thrown a bday bash instead.
In a way, I’m proud of myself for braving the journey and facing my fears. I’m a nervous flyer, but the twelve-hour plane ride to Auckland is uneventful, some minor turbulence, no wailing babies, no overly chatty seat companion. I breeze through customs. The agent is a Dr. Phil fan, and when he learns where I work, his dour expression softens, and he gushes about the talk show host.
On the ground in Queenstown, population 10,416, but the fastest-growing town in New Zealand, I fidget at the carousel, waiting to see if my luggage has made the journey. At the Auckland domestic terminal, you don’t check your bags; you simply place your luggage on a conveyor belt marked Bag Drop and hope for the best. But I do, and I sigh when I see my black Samsonite with the purple bow on the handle making its steady trek down the carousel. I grab my bag and head out to the Super Shuttle.
Once on board, I notice a young Indian woman staring at me. I smile at her, and she smiles back saying, “I love your hair.” After nearly 14 hours in the air, feeling funky, wrinkled and exhausted, I don’t have the heart to tell her that the curls she’s admiring aren’t my own. I just hope my tracks aren’t showing. I thank her and busy myself with getting my Facebook app to work.
I’m staying at the Heritage Hotel Queenstown, a fifteen-minute walk from the central business district. My patio opens onto Lake Wakatipu, the longest lake in New Zealand, renowned for its glacial blue waters. The Remarkables looms in the distance. Queenstown lore has it that the mountain range was so named by the early settlers, who, upon beholding its beauty, exclaimed, “That’s remarkable.”
Because I’m only visiting Queenstown for four days before heading 300 miles north to Christchurch, my schedule is packed with many activities. Since it’s my birthday weekend, I decide I’m entitled to splurge a little. Being in the adventure capital of the world, I plan to get my thrill-seeking on. What better place to do so than in the country where commercial bungy jumping originated? But before I take my leap, I head to Onsen Hot Pools some ten minutes away in Arthurs Point, to chill in the outdoor hot tub. The shuttle driver who picks me up is an affable Brit, and I learn that his son and daughter own the sauna. He asks why I’m on holiday in the land of kiwis. I tell him it’s my birthday, and I plan on bungy jumping in a few hours. Without a pause in his pleasant tone, he notes that there have been several deaths from such high-octane activities. Threads of fear gather in my stomach. I know bungy jumping is not as safe an activity as quilt-making, but hurling myself from a cliff with only a rubber harness attached to my waist is in line with my theme for this year of living fearlessly. I assure him that I’ll survive, and we pull into the gravel driveway of the sauna.
Once inside, I relax in the cedar-lined pool, breathing in lavender essential oils from my aromatherapy burner. As the retractable window opens, my anxiety lifts. Below, jet boats zip by on the Shotover River. The air is pure, butterflies float by, and the mountain range seems close enough to touch. This is God’s Own Country. Godzone. How freeing, knowing I am loved just as I am — dysfunction and all — and I don’t have to worry about my weight, or work, or getting older, or my writing career. The biggest stressor I face is a dead beetle floating in the water a few inches from my elbow.
I change out of my wet bathing suit, shower, and head outside to meet the driver. He drops me off at the Station Building, a departure point for tours, and I make the slow climb to the Skyline Gondola, where my bungy jump will commence in a few hours. I remember the Brit’s words, especially after I pass a graveyard on my way up the hill. Why A.J. Hackett would choose a location near Cemetery Road for his bungy jump is beyond me, and my stomach knots up again.
I have never ridden a gondola, a cable car that will lift me some 450 meters to the complex on Bob’s Peak, but as I head up the hill, I turn my camera on in anticipation of the stunning alpine scenery. The moment I look down, I start to tremble. I forget that I suffer from vertigo, but I thought I would conquer that dizziness on my Face Your Fears tour. Not so. My anxiety returns with a vengeance, and I feel the urge to kick open the doors and throw myself down the mountainside. I keep my eyes on my feet. There is nothing to grab onto but a metal rod at the bottom of my seat, but I grip it with everything I have. This terror is familiar. I experienced it in New Orleans a few years ago at the Essence Music Festival during Earth Wind & Fire’s set. I had been enjoying the show, getting my groove on with the other festival goers, but as the deafening whine of the electric guitar flooded the auditorium, I was filled with a sudden impulse to jump out of my seat and over the balcony. I had to hold my friend’s hand to keep me rooted in my seat. That same dread overcomes me on the gondola, and I know as soon as I step out of the aerial lift that I won’t step foot near the bungy.
I walk around the Skyline complex, taking pictures of Lake Wakatipu and the beautiful panoramic view of this jewel of New Zealand’s South Island. I feel safe behind a gate with other tourists milling about. The Skyline Gondola at Bob’s Peak is one of the top-rated destinations in Queenstown, and I pre-booked a buffet and Maori Kiwi Haka cultural show later that evening after the jump. Walking around the patio, I feel like a coward. Even more so as I stand next to an older couple watching a screaming thrill-seeker leaping out into the ethers with a harness attached to her waist.
“I could never do that,” the woman says. We watch the jumper dangling in her harness, waiting to be lifted to safety. The husband concurs. They’re on holiday from Australia. They ask what brings me to New Zealand.
“It’s my birthday,” I reply. “I had planned on bungy jumping, but after riding up on the gondola, I’m not so sure.”
I leave the Aussie spectators as I make my way down to a viewing platform not far from The Ledge, the official name of the bungy jump at Skyline. In the months that I spent planning my trip to New Zealand, I had envisioned myself running down the platform, the wind at my back, and jumping out into the air. After skydiving in Australia, jumping some 14,000 feet from a Cessna, I figured that a mere 450 meter leap would be a piece of cake. I keep checking the time. My jump is scheduled for six o’clock, and it’s a quarter to. I should have been getting weighed, signing the disclaimer about the life-threatening nature of the activity and heading down to The Ledge. Instead, I cower on a bench as screams split the night. When six o’clock comes and ten past the hour, I know I can’t keep sitting around. Finally, I walk up to the counter and tell the smiling young woman that I pre-booked my jump. I step on the scale, and she writes my weight on the back of my hand with a red marker. She assures me that she has jumped several times, and I’ll be fine. “The boys’ll take care of you,” she says as I head down to the bungy platform.
The “boys” are three young men in their early 20s, blasting rock music.
“You here for a jump?” the tall one asks. When I nod, it seems they are eager to suit me up, to attach the harness to my waist. As they check the tightness of the ropes, my mouth gets dry. I feel like I’m going to pee myself. It’s chilly up here. The blue and white cable cars pass by the platform, as if coming to have a look. I wonder if the couple from Oz can see me. As soon as the blond kid tugs on my rope, pulling me closer to the edge, I know I can’t do it. I back up. At first the crew encourages me, telling me I have nothing to fear. But after ten minutes, irritation shows on their faces. They tell me the camera is rolling. They heckle me, telling me I could have jumped three times by now. My mouth is so dry, I can’t even argue with them. I see myself running across the narrow wooden walkway, arms raised to the heavens, but then I back away again. I can’t do it. I feel like the biggest idiot and loser. Finally, one of the kids tells me that I can walk up to the edge, and he’ll give me a little nudge. I’ll either have to step out of the harness or forever walk away. I see that they have already closed up shop in their minds, are already standing in a pub with a cold one in hand. Resigned, I shuffle over to the edge, and I feel a hand at my back.
Is it possible to scream and curse in your mind simultaneously? That’s what I’m doing as I fall 450 meters to the valley below. It doesn’t feel like flying. I don’t experience that lovely stillness I felt while skydiving, that confidence and fearlessness. Dangling there from my harness, waiting for my hecklers to hoist me back up the platform, I feel like a clunky bird ejected from the nest. But the nervous feeling dissipates, even after the guy who pushed me from the ledge starts shaking my ropes to tease me. Strangely enough, I feel like I could do it again, and I ponder that thought — briefly— as I’m lifted to safety. I survived bungy jumping. No broken bones, no torn retinas. I’ll have to find the Brit and tell him the good news.
The guys walk me back to the office where I checked in. They’re still ribbing me, but their taunts aren’t edged with annoyance as they were earlier. They even offer me a beer as we watch the DVD of my jump. We all laugh at how long it took me to leap, but at least I look cute doing it. This feels like a rite of passage for me, one that I am still trying to decipher. I wasn’t the gutsy angel I had hoped to be on my New Zealand bungy jump, but at least, I took flight.