Last month I spent two delightful weeks in New Zealand. One of things I discovered is that tourism there is designed for the adventurous. You’re invited to roar along rivers in jet boats, bicycle up and down mountains, climb mountains, leap off of mountaintops with a parachute, bungee jump, ice-climb on glaciers, and hike on trails where signs warn you that rocks might fall down upon you at any moment.
I’d like to tell you more about one of those adrenaline-boosting choices. Join me in your imagination, and let me take you on an adventure.
First picture a deep, narrow gorge with a cold, fast-moving river at the bottom. Scared to death, you’re standing at one end of a bridge that spans this gorge. You take a deep breath and start walking onto the bridge. You glance down at the water—a big mistake, because you can see just how far down it is. You could change your mind and go back, but your friends are cheering you on and you don’t want them to think you’re a chicken.
At the middle of the bridge you are met by an athletic guy who, in an annoyingly cheerful and encouraging manner, fastens a harness around your ankles. You just hope all the cords and fasteners are as secure as he reassures you they are. You do your best to listen carefully to his instructions, but you’re so nervous you can hardly comprehend them.
Finally, when he seems to think you’re ready and you can’t think of any reason you aren’t, he opens a gate. You step out onto a platform at the edge of the bridge. You gulp. You gasp in one last deep breath and squeeze your eyes shut. Just before the annoying guy has to push you off, you jump.
You plunge headfirst toward the water. You’re falling so fast you can’t breathe, and at the same time everything is in slow motion so it feels as if you fall, and fall, and fall for a long, long time.
At last you hit the end of the bungee cord. It isn’t the whiplash jerk you were expecting, but your head feels thumped, and your stomach tries to push itself into your throat, and there’s an endless spine-stretching moment when the rope starts pulling you up while gravity is still pulling you down.
You bounce back up, then down again, then back up and down, at the same time swinging forward and backward like a human pendulum. You open your eyes, then quickly shut them again because the upside-down view of the world makes you dizzy. Your heart is pounding so hard you can feel it in your ears. Your upended lungs feel so squashed that you can’t get enough air.
What seems like hours later, the swinging slows and stops, leaving you dangling at the end of the line with your arms hanging. The blood rushing toward your head makes your brain feel too big for your skull.
Then something grabs one of your limp arms. The pickup team in their little inflatable boat has reached you. They haul you in and undo your harness. You collapse in the bottom of the boat, shaking all over. You feel a strong urge to curl up into a ball and burst into tears.
From what sounds like a long ways away, you can hear your friends cheering. You’ve done a bungee jump, and you might even live to tell the tale.
That’s our adventure. It’s finished; please take a deep breath. We’re all okay, except that I need to explain something.
I have no idea if this description is accurate, because I made it up. I didn’t—wouldn’t—couldn’t—ever jump off of that bridge. Just watching other people bungee jump was more than enough adrenaline rush for me. I don’t have the kind of physical daring for stuff like that. Or the disregard for my well-being. In fact, I secretly suspect that bungee jumping was invented by a cabal of chiropractors and massage therapists as a way to increase their clientele.
I didn’t try parasailing, either. Mountain climbing? Forget it. Glacier climbing? Not a chance. Jet boats? No, thanks. Though I did hike a couple of trails where signs warned me that rocks might fall down upon me at any moment.
I also stood with one foot on each side of a spot that is adventurous in a way that thrilled the geologists in our group: the Alpine Fault. The Pacific and Australian tectonic plates meet and slide past each other at this fault, which extends through much of New Zealand and where earthquakes can and do happen regularly. None did while we were on the spot. I was grateful.
Otherwise, our group explored spectacular landscapes: Sharp-edged young mountains carved by glaciers. Dry rocky hills pockmarked with old gold mines. Thriving farmlands fenced with trees sharply trimmed into tall hedges. Rain forests so green and lush that it felt as if lingering over a picnic would put you at risk of being covered with moss like everything else in sight.
We also learned a bit about the history and culture of this fascinating land, from the Maori who arrived first to the various Europeans who came later. We discovered why flightless birds probably evolved that way (predators in the sky but not on the ground) and that several of them, including the country’s iconic kiwi, had to be brought back from near extinction after predators like the stoat were introduced. I learned that the New Zealand accent is much easier to appreciate than to imitate.
Along the way, I was reminded that for me, the adventure of travel isn’t a physical one. I don’t need the adrenaline rush of stepping out of my physical comfort zone. It’s more interesting—and quite exciting enough, thank you—to venture out of my emotional comfort zone.
That kind of adventure travel involves having the conversations that help me learn a little bit about other places, other cultures, and other people. It requires me to be both a curious and a courteous visitor. And perhaps most important, it means keeping one thing in mind: I’m among people whose landscapes seem exotic and whose pronunciation seems strange to me. At the same time, they might be seeing me as someone who comes from an odd place and talks funny.