It's perfectly normal to jump off buildings, planes, canyons and bridges in New Zealand. Take the following conversation:
"Did you Skyjump?"
"No, I did the bungee jump at Nevis Bungee."
"Look, nothing beats the rush of the Canyon Swing."
My table of backpackers were engaged in a similar discussion, but the fact that two middle-aged couples were discussing adrenalin sports proves a point: Kiwis take great pride in their soft adventures, building a polished tourism industry specifically around them. No other country compels visitors - of all ages - to push their limits.
Most activities are focused around the adrenalin capitals of Rotorua on the North Island, and Queenstown on the South Island; consider them the Republic of Waiver Forms. Sign the dotted line, and let's go.
Bungee Jump - fear rating: 8/10
A Kiwi named A.J. Hackett invented the commercial bungee jump in 1988. In the realm of get-rich quick schemes, nobody predicted that tourists would pay good money to fling themselves off a bridge, attached to a heavy elastic band. Kawarau Bridge outside Queenstown is not the highest bungee in the world (I did that in Macao), or even the highest in New Zealand (that's the Nevis), but it is the home of the world's first commercial bungee operation. Here, I could plummet 43 metres into a river, literally dunking my head in the water below, with a margin for error I really didn't want to think about. I've bungee jumped four times on four continents and trust me, you never get used to that feeling of imminent death, rescued at the last moment by the eye-popping recoil. Ajhackett.com/nz; $133
Canyon Swing - fear rating: 9/10
While the bungee folks are trained to get you off the bridge before any second thoughts kick in, the folks at Queenstown's Canyon Swing have turned their leap of faith into a performance. Numbers are purposely kept small, and the crew are expertly trained to ensure that your confidence is utterly shattered, your nerves shot and that you're quadruple-guessing yourself before they facilitate your 60-metre freefall into a 200-metre arc at 150 kilometres an hour. Jumpers can choose from a variety of styles, including upside down, somersaulting, wearing a bucket, or pin dropping off the edge. I chose the Upside Down Gimp, rated 5 out of 5 on their soiled underwear scale. Hanging upside down with a teddy bear between my legs, they started the countdown. 5, 4, 3…the bastards let me drop before the countdown ended. They enjoy having fun with fear, which incidentally, tastes not unlike rust at the back of the mouth. With a huge discount on a second attempt, one good leap deserves another. canyonswing.co.nz; $148, then $28 for each additional jump; $15 for spectators.
Skyjump - fear rating: 7/10
The capital of Auckland was feeling a little left out, so they called A.J. Hackett, who promptly figured out a way for tourists to hurl themselves off the landmark 328-metre Skytower. Skytower's base-jump-by-wire system was designed for Hollywood stunts. Once I managed to persuade my shaking knees to leave the platform, the descent was surprisingly gentle. Unlike a bungee jump, the Skyjump slows down your descent, much like being on the outside of an elevator. Landing on my feet, in my bright yellow and blue overalls, it was the closest I'll ever be to a superhero, swooping in to save the day. skyjump.co.nz; $167
Swoop - fear rating: 8/10
Speaking of swooping, Agrodome Adventures outside Rotorua offers the Swoop, a flying terror machine. It hoisted me up by crane to 40 metres, wrapped in a hang-gliding cocoon. All I had to do was pull a little red piece of plastic, and the cable pops, sending the cocoon swooping at 130 km/h with the G-force of a fighter pilot. It's quite peaceful up at the top. I could see the surrounding green countryside, some cows in a nearby field. Every cell in my body went on strike, protesting against the fact that I'd be the one to pull the rip cord and trigger the rush. I was practically chewing on my aorta. Well, you can't hang off a crane forever. Life stopped for the split second between my pull and the drop. Then it slammed me in the face, leaving my breath, mind and soul somewhere up above. agroventures.co.nz; $36
Bodyflying - fear rating: 6/10