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
Thanks to Agrodome, you no longer have to wonder what it's like to hover over the prop of a DC-3 (come on, as if you didn't wonder). The Freefall Xtreme seems terrific in concept, but it's not easy to keep balanced over the 180 km/h rush of wind below. Instead of my simulated freefall, I was blown about a 12-metre-wide cushioned platform, my cheeks folding back enough to cover my ears. Two assistants held me in place for a moment, the power of the props blowing me up over a protective net. Practice makes perfect, but perfect would cost a fortune. agroventures.co.nz; $36
Zorb - fear rating: 6/10
Nearby in Rotorua is the home of the Zorb. Before you saw them in commercials, it was yet another enterprising Kiwi invention: a large plastic ball with a hollow core. Suitably protected from the elements, the ball is rolled down a hill (or a zigzag course) with one or more lucky Zorbonauts inside. The Dry Zorb had me strapped into the innards of the ball and after rolling head over tail, ready for a good dry heave. They tell me nobody has puked in the Zorb. Yet. The Wet Zorb, in which I was unhinged and allowed to slosh around, was like getting rinsed in a large washing machine. zorb.com/rotorua; $33, $73 for three rides
Jet Boating - fear rating: 7/10
In the 1950s, a Kiwi farmer needed a quicker way to survey his land from a shallow river. He invented jet boating, a technology that has since evolved to 1,000-horsepower machines faster than Formula One cars. What's more, they can cruise on just inches of water, and turn on a penny. There are jet boat operators around the country, but my favourites are Rotorua's Agrojet (which hits 100 km/h in 4.5 seconds on a one-km course), Queenstown's Shotover Jet (which takes a dozen passengers through the narrow canyon) and Dart River Safari (which passes Lord of the Rings and Narnia film locations). All enjoy ripping a 360-degree Hamilton Turn, a sharp turn named after the makers of the jet-propulsion system, and it tends to soak half the boat. Raincoats are provided. It's one thing trusting yourself to jump off a bridge, but another watching jet boat pilots shave rock faces. dartriver.co.nz, $162; shotoverjet.com, $88; agroventures.co.nz, $36
Paragliding - fear rating: 6/10
The gondola up Bob's Peak offers a magnificent view of Queenstown and it's surrounding mountains. If it looks like Tolkien country, it's because The Lord of the Rings was filmed around these parts. Once over the view, the Skyline Luge is a specialized cart that lets you race down concrete runs, and, believe it or not, is fun for the whole family. I opted to for a tandem flight with G-Force Paragliding, catching warm thermal currents as we safely soared among the birds and snow-capped mountains. If you're looking for kicks, ask your pilot for a corkscrew, a manoeuvre that tied my intestines into knots. Landing gently on a field back in town, paragliding proved to be an overall uplifting experience. nzgforce.com; $147
Sledging - fear rating: 7/10
In the Wairoa River outside Rotorua (got to love those Maori names), you can river-raft over the world's highest commercial drop. Essentially, this means your raft will be airborne, with a good chance of capsizing. But to ensure you really get soaked, consider what the Kiwis call sledging. Using flippers, a heavy kickboard, and a crash helmet, you forgo the raft and enjoy the rapids at eye level. Of course, it also means you have to use your body to navigate rocks, undertows and whirlpools, but that's all part of the fun. The most important rule: Never let go of your board. kaitiaki.co.nz; $80
Skydiving - fear rating: 9/10
If I were to take all the above thrills and pack them tightly between my palms, the ball of nerves would look like a skydiver. Nothing comes close to a freefall, the moment when you gather your wits and experience the sensation of terminal velocity. Skydiving in New Zealand is exceptional because of the stunning scenery, and the professionalism of its operators. NZone runs slick operations in both Rotorua and Queenstown, and count grandparents among their fans. A cameraman can join you to recall your ultimate jump for posterity (he uses his teeth to snap pictures and video). The rolling green fields of the North Island, and the fjords and mountains of the South Island, really show off at more than 3,000 metres. Sixty seconds later, the chute opens, and it's a gentle float down to earth. Not only have you conquered your fear, but you'll feel like you've conquered New Zealand too. nzone.biz; from $199
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is robinesrock.com.