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Walk, paddle, fly

Well, I realise it's a long time since I last wrote an update so I have quite a lot to fill you in on; I've now been away over 4 months - half way through my trip! I suppose I'd better start with my excursion to Milford Sound, a fortnight ago now. This is quite possibly the most touristy place on earth but only between the hours of 10 and 3, when the army of tour buses arrive. Kayaking out on to the fjord in the evening after the cruise boats had finished was astonishingly peaceful and definitely a great way to take in the majesty of this gigantic place; when your head is only a meter above the water and either side of you the cliffs at the edge of the sound are literally a mile high and practically vertical, your brain just gives up and thinks everything is actually smaller than it really is. The 162m high Lady Bower Falls, the spray of which was whipping my face I was so close, seemed small and insignificant set against the cliff behind it.

The next stop on the grand tour of New Zealand was Queenstown and in this adventure capital of the south I briefly crossed paths with Oli, Mel and Alex; we had a couple of hours to fill each other in on our experiences and swap tips before they headed south to Dunedin first thing the following morning. I headed for the hills.

The Rees-Dart track is not one of the most well known New Zealand walks but it's only in the next two valleys down from the Routeburn, one of the world's most well worn tracks. It is however astonishingly beautiful, passing through glacial valleys rather reminiscent of Scotland (mud, mud, mud, bog, bog, bog!) with snow capped mountains beautifully framing any photos you may wish to take. It also turned out to be D of E central (that's Duke of Edinburgh award not Department of Economics); there were two groups on the track - a party of girls from Wanaka and a collection of boys from Dunedin, both accompanied by teachers (in the case of the boys there were almost as many teachers as walkers; they all just wanted to come along for the walk). I took an extra day half way through the 4-day-long route to take a stroll along the dart valley and try and climb the Cascade Saddle, a spectacular 1500m high pass with views out towards Mt Aspiring, the highest peak in the park. Unfortunately, the day I set out to do this was one of the two bad weather days I had on the track; It more or less eased off raining but was very overcast when I set out with 3 Americans I had made friends with. We easily walked up the dark, silt coloured Dart valley then started to climb up the saddle, soon rising above the snow line. We got pretty high up, though the way was slippery and steep, and when we stopped for lunch there were spectacular views down in to the valley and across the Dart Glacier that blocks off its end. Unfortunately, it then began to snow and the cloud lowered, so we soon decided to turn back as we didn't want to get caught in a snow storm.

I didn't even have a day off between tracks this time; I got back to Glenorchy from the Rees-Dart, got the washing done, restocked on food and the next day headed straight off for the Routeburn. Due to transport issues I had to do the first two days of this traditionally 3 day walk in one; this actually turned out to be a good thing though as the weather was absolutely awesome, barely a wisp of cloud in the sky. The climb up to the Harris Saddle was through native beech forest, with plenty of small inquisitive birds tweeting at me along the way. The open scrubland on the saddle allowed unfettered views across to the valley and when I took the optional climb up Coronet Peak (which was incidentally bloody steep, especially as being eXtreme(ly stupid) I had my full pack with me) there were amazing 360 degree views of the mountains all around and down the Hollyford valley you could even catch a glimpse of the sea. In all, I walked over 20km that day, gaining 1000m of height then dropping down 500m again to reach the MacKenzie hut; this was by a lake so still the reflection of the mountains in it was a perfect mirror image.

I returned to my starting side of the mountain range via the Caples track, which joins on to the end of the Routeburn. The beginning of this was an absolute killer. After crossing a stagnant pond by walking the tightrope on several partially submerged logs, the path climbed steeply through a forest. I say path as there were some little triangles attached to trees to tell you you were still on it, but following it was another matter entirely, entailing clambering over tree roots and hauling yourself up slippery rock; I think I used my arms almost as much as my legs to haul me along the path. Once I reached the saddle at the top however, it turned into a nice stroll back down the Caples valley, although there was still the odd tree root to trip you up.

I was due to be picked up from the end of the track at 2pm. At ten to three a bus arrived driven by a man (rather oddly I thought) wearing a life jacket. The reason for this soon became apparent when the bus stopped only 5 minutes up the road for us to disembark, don our own life jackets and board a jet boat to take us across Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy!

I hitched back to Queenstown and scoffed the biggest burger you have seen in your life. The next day, not having got the walking bug quite out of my system with 9 days of continuous tramping, I decided to stroll up the 1748m Ben Lomond, a mountain right behind Queenstown. From up there you could see the sprawl that Queenstown is becoming (despite having a very small centre) and I watched a helicopter and a few clouds drift by beneath me.

Queenstowm is known for its crazy activities and in an effort to be as eXtreme as possible (it's what he would have wanted), yesterday I went and jumped off a cliff into a canyon. Twice. Luckily I had a rope attached to me or I would probably only have been able to do it once. The canyon swing involves a 60m freefall before the strain is gradually taken up by a rope attached to your full body harness, swinging you out across the canyon at 150kph. There are a number of different ways you can launch yourself into the abyss. For my first jump (entitled 'Pin Drop') I stood side on to the edge, feet together and arms behind my back, looked down at the river far below then simply hopped to my left and plummeted down. After being winched back up again, I decided to do it in the 'Elvis Cutaway' style: I lay on my back, suspended horizontally in my harness, and wrapped my feet around the main rope. The guy counted down 5, 4... and I didn't really hear the rest as, being playful buggers, at this point they released me and I hurtled down on my back before swinging across the valley upside down, giving me the biggest headrush ever; stars literally before the eyes.

Overall the canyon swing was great fun but it wasn't really scary and so in my search for ever more eXtreme activities, in the afternoon I went and strapped myself face down onto what can only be described as a small plane suspended by a metal cable in a valley, and spent 7 minutes zooming about the skies using something like a bicycle handlebar to accellerate, bank and turn, reaching speeds of almost 140kph (87mph) as I swooped down across the valley. Fly By Wire they call it. Great fun.

Today I'm off surfing down a river then tomorrow I think I'm going to head off to Wanaka for a few days before hitting the glaciers. It's a tough life.