New Zealand is the birthplace of bungee jumping, zorbing, and Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to ever summit Mount Everest. Its two islands have been blessed with picturesque beaches, intricate cave systems, lush rainforest, breathtaking glaciers and a massive mountain range whose snow-capped peaks are visible from almost anywhere in the south. With a landscape like that, it's no wonder why this tiny country (only the size of Colorado) is often called the "world capital of extreme sports."
They ride down sand dunes on boogie boards, jump off just about anything they see, and even create special watercrafts that allow them to zoom through the water and breach like real-life aquatic animals. Needless to say, New Zealanders take their fun seriously. Being adventurous is simply part of the country's culture; it's in their DNA. Tourists flock to the Southern Hemisphere to get a taste of the adrenaline, too, seeing as the country consistently ranks high on the Adventure Travel Trade Association's Adventure Tourism Development Index. Those Kiwis sure do know how to have fun. Here are 20 reasons why New Zealand is a thrill-seeker's paradise.
The major adventure sport that New Zealand is known for and the one that perhaps inspired all other extreme activities is bungee jumping. A testament to their thrill-seeker attitudes, two Kiwis — AJ Hackett and Henry Van Asch — tandem jumped off the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown, where they later opened the first ever commercial bungee jump in 1988, The Telegraph says. In 2017, another Kiwi daredevil jumped off the Auckland Harbour Bridge more than 160 times, earning himself a Guinness World Record for most jumps in a day. Now, 30 years after the first commercial bungee jump, you can take the leap from just about anywhere in the country. Taupo Bungy will even dunk you into the frigid river waters below if that's what you fancy.
While many other countries simply wither away in the winter — the plants die, the people hide away inside — New Zealand comes to life. If you think they're adventurous in the warm weather, you should see these Kiwis when it's cold. In June, while the rest of the world is wishing for sunshine, Kiwis are praying for snow. The Southern Lakes District alone is home to a slew of Olympic-level ski resorts —Cardrona, Treble Cone, and The Remarkables, to name a few — not to mention the unlimited opportunities for backcountry skiing in the Southern Alps.
Considering that New Zealand is about the size of the state of Colorado, the number of skydiving companies is surprisingly high. There are almost 20 listed on the New Zealand Tourism website, offering freefalls over volcanoes in the Bay of Islands, crystal clear waters in Abel Tasman National Park, and miles of snow-capped mountains in Queenstown. The highest (and most popular) skydive in New Zealand is in Franz Joseph, at 19,000 feet, looking out over the region's ancient glaciers and breathtaking mountainscape. Recently, Forbes called Queenstown's NZONE Skydive — ranging from 9,000 to 15,000 feet — one of the most scenic jumps in the world.
A school trip to Mount Ruapehu in 1935 awakened a curiosity in then 16-year-old Edmund Hillary that would later put him in the history books. In 1953, he and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay would be the first people to ever summit the tallest peak in the world: Everest. But before hitting the Himalayas, the late Sir Edmund Hillary trained for the feat in his home country of New Zealand. His first major summit was the 1,933-meter peak of Mount Ollivier in the Canterbury Region when he was just 20 years old. His training also brought him to the slopes of New Zealand's tallest mountain, Mount Cook, at the base of which a Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre has been erected in his honor.
Many would say that this action-packed sport is every bit as scary as it sounds. Thrill seekers flock to the raging rapids of the Kawarau River in Queenstown (the same region that set the background for the first commercial bungee jump) to hop on a bodyboard-like raft and let the current carry them away. The Kiwi pioneers of this extreme water sport have been riding these rapids in this exposed, terrifying way since the '80s. Now, companies like Frogz White Water Sledging and Serious Fun River Surfing are giving tourists the thrill of a lifetime with the hobby they've coined. Lonely Planet has even called it the best water adventure in the world.
In fact, Kiwis have a reputation for making up crazy sports to quench their perpetual thirst for adventure. Take, for example, the Hydro Attack: a rapid-fast submarine-speedboat hybrid shaped like a shark that dives and jumps out of Lake Wakatipu, right in the center of Queenstown. New Zealand native Rob Innes invented this mechanical shark, called the Seabreacher X, which reaches speeds of up to 80 kilometers per hour. Passengers endure an exhilarating ride from the glass cockpit as the watercraft dives below the surface and soars vertically through the air. Just down the lakefront, you can also take a ride on the FlyBoard, a jetpack/hoverboard watercraft that lets you feel like a superhero as you do flips and fly high above the lake.
New Zealand is a land of sweet rigs. There are worlds more four-wheel drives with oversized tires on the roads than there are expensive sportscars. While many would do almost anything to avoid getting their cars dirty on undeveloped roads, it seems that Kiwis can't get theirs dirty enough. The lush jungle surrounding Rotorua offers ample mud bogs and steep cliffsides for a filthy bush safari. The postcard-worthy geography of New Zealand makes for stunning scenery on an ATV, and if you really want to party like a Kiwi, you can take the quad bike out on the snow in Franz Josef Glacier, on New Zealand's rugged West Coast.
New Zealanders take pride in their picturesque surroundings and like to explore it often. Hiking trails run deep into the rainforest, up daunting mountains, through vast landscapes miles away from civilization. Kiwis have made even the most remote countryside more accessible — and comfortable — with a world-class hut system. These huts are scattered throughout the backcountry, used by hikers, skiers, mountaineers, and mountain bikers alike. They range in size, shape, and age. Popular ones along the country's nine Great Walks are full of trekkers nearly every night, while the more faraway shelters haven't seen a soul in years.
Places like Rotorua, Lake Taupo, Wanaka, and Queenstown are playgrounds for mountain bikers. The New Zealand Cycle Trail runs from the tip of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island, offering cycle trails — "Great Rides," the Kiwis call them — ranging between a couple hours to eight days. One of the most popular tracks is the Tasman Great Taste Trail, a 175-kilometer loop dotted with some of the country's best wineries, fine restaurants, and farms. Kiwis have married their love of food and cycling with several other trails, too, including Hawkes Bay Trails, Otago Central Rail Trail, the Queenstown Trail, and the Queen Charlotte Track, Traveller says.
If you've ever dreamed of being behind the wheel of a stunt plane, guiding it in flips and dives in the sky, Wanaka's U-FLY can make your dreams come true. There's perhaps no other tourism company in the world that would let just any man or woman off the streets drive their plane, but Kiwis have found a loophole in the law. U-FLY is only legal because it operates as a pilot instruction business. U Fly Extreme in Motueka was closed in 2015 because the Civil Aviation Authority caught on that it was operating as a tourism business instead of an instructional one, which is perhaps why U-FLY Wanaka now positions these thrilling flights as "aerobatic lessons" suited for adrenaline junkies.
What is "Zorbing," you ask? It's an art conceived by New Zealanders that involves rolling down a hill in a life-sized inflatable ball, of course. ZORB New Zealand calls itself "the world's leading ball rolling brand and the original company that started the ball rolling adventure industry." This company has been putting its customers in human hamster balls and throwing them down hills for 17 years, its website says. For a real "unique rolling experience," you can even gather up two of your most adventurous mates and get in the Zorb together for a ride in the fast lane or take an adrenaline-pumping plunge on the world's only Zorb drop. Only Kiwis can come up with this stuff.
New Zealand's pristine landscape is chockfull of tramping tracks. Kiwis sure do love to hike. Some of them are even keen to walk all day, every day, for four to six months. Just like the United States has its Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail, New Zealand has the Te Araroa. Just recently opened in 2011, the Te Araroa is more than 3,000 kilometers long (just 500 kilometers shorter than the Appalachian Trail), stretching from Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island to Bluff at the very bottom of the South Island. The epic walk guides hikers along the coast, through the rainforest, into the scenic valleys of the Southern Alps, and more. This is a trek for true trampers, seeing as it takes an average of five months to complete.
To Kiwis, a simple walk in the woods is almost old news. These days, heli hiking is (quite literally) taking trekking to new heights. There's perhaps no other way — for non-mountaineers, at least — to see the prehistoric glaciers of the West Coast so closely without being dropped off right on the snow by a helicopter. If walking in crampons doesn't sound fun, you could always take your bike along on the Heli Bike tour in Queenstown, which will drop you and your wheels off at the rocky Remarkables Range, with an altitude of 6,000 feet to ride down. And for the really adventurous, you can bring your skis along to shred in "New Zealand's highest alpine playground," Mount Cook.
If you're not yet convinced of Kiwis' level of insanity, then wait until you hear about the extreme races they participate in for fun. Adventure racing is the trend on these islands, and sometimes they last for days. According to the New Zealand Herald, "it's no longer crazy to race from one side of New Zealand to the other over the Southern Alps. In fact, it's not even that crazy to race for three or four days and snatching a few minutes' sleep in the bush." Well, if that's not crazy to the average Kiwi, then what is?! Maybe trekking, kayaking, mountain biking, and canoeing a 500-kilometer course nonstop for five consecutive days. That's actually a race that Kiwis do — by choice — called GODZone.
With 15,000 kilometers of coastline, it's no surprise that this island, sandwiched between the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean, is a mecca for surfing. You don't have to go far to find a good surf spot, especially on the North Island. Both the East and West Coast of the North Island are world famous for surfing, and the Twin Coast Discovery Highway runs along both coasts, making for a perfect unofficial surf tour, the New Zealand Tourism website says. While the East Coast offers picturesque golden beaches, the West Coast boasts a moodier vibe with black sand and untamed waves.
Rock climbers will find that they can scale seacliffs, boulders, and ice all here on a single island. Canterbury's Castle Hill Basin offers vast fields of limestone boulders spread over grassy rolling hills, while the Cleddau Valley has enormous granite walls amongst the waterfalls, avalanches, and towering peaks of Milford Sound, the New Zealand Alpine Club says. There are ample opportunities for climbers on the South Island, but the North Island has unique offerings of its own, including the seaside climbing of sunny Pohara.
Even a simple swim can be an adventure of a lifetime in New Zealand. The South Island is home to hundreds of glacial lakes which were covered with ice thousands of years ago, and while that might seem like a long time ago, these waters are still icy cold, beckoning only the bold for a polar plunge. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Rotorua on the North Island is known for its steaming (and smelly) natural hot pools. One of these geothermal springs — Kerosene Creek — is even located at the base of a waterfall. In between icy glacial lakes and geothermal hot pools, there are alpine tarns (mountain lakes) and swimming alongside wild dolphins and seals in Kaikoura. No swim in New Zealand is boring.
If surfing waves isn't your thing, you can always stay on land and surf the sand dunes. At least you can in Cape Reinga, where the Giant Te Paki Sand Dunes allow adrenaline junkies to surf and stay dry at the same time. The longest run here is a 350-meter track aptly named "Devil's Hook." These sand peaks were sculpted long ago by the winds brought in by the Tasman Sea, The Star says. You don't need any special kind of gear for this unique sport, either; people slide down these slippery mounds with plain old boogie boards.
Bungee jumping and canyon swinging are similar in many ways: both require you to hurtle off of a cliff or high platform of some sort into the vast openness below, where you'll freefall for a given amount of time before some (hopefully) dependable rope saves you from decking onto the ground. But while bungee jumping launches you back up with its springy cord, a canyon swing will send you soaring smoothly through the valley without the uncomfortable jolts. Canyon swinging eliminates the anxiety of falling the wrong way so you don't get hurt or knocked right out, one blogger writes. So ultimately, it's all the fun of bungee jumping but with less stress, because if there's one thing Kiwis don'tlike, it's stress.
Forget white water rafting, black water rafting is all the rage these days, at least in Kiwi-land. For times when whirling down river rapids on an inflatable in the daylight just isn't thrilling enough, you can always head to the caves of Waitomo and go rafting in the dark. These North Island caves are a major attraction for their mass population of glowworms, which speckle the ceilings of the cave like stars. Hordes of tourists take paddle boat tours through the caves, but an adventurous few opt for a wilder route that requires abseiling, jumping off waterfalls, and navigating the black waters by raft.