New Zealand Adventure: Day 5 (Jet Boats, Funyaks, & Isengard)

New Zealand Day 5 – Jet Boats, Funyaks, Isengard…and tragedy. (A guest post by: Jacob Matthews)

WARNING: This episode contains stories of love and loss, adventure, beauty and heartbreak. Grab your Kleenex.

The morning of December 18th started like many other mornings on this trip… EARLY. The combination of no air conditioning, the morning sunshine penetrating through the thin curtains in our room, being sunburned beyond belief, and the 7:30 am meeting time for the shuttle to the river meant once again little sleep. Barley functioning, we got dressed, packed our bag for the day trip, and made our way down the street to catch the bus to Glenorchy – (a 45 min drive from Queenstown North along Lake Wakatipu). Fun Fact here: Up until the 1990s the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy was a dirt road and took over 2 hours to make the one way trip. Praise God they paved that road.

After a chilly, scenic drive along the lake to Glenorchy we made it and checked in at Dart River Jet Safaris. ( Today the forecast was scheduled to be a little overcast in the morning, and then sunny towards the afternoon. Looking back I was glad we opted to reschedule and take this journey on a better and much more dry day. After checking in we were directed to the courtyard for a briefing on the gear we would be given for the day. Thomas and I got our wet suits, fleece, life jackets and booties and headed to the locker room to get suited up. After getting our gear on we headed to the bus to head down to the boat located at the mouth of the Dart River.

Once we got situated in our jet boat we started making our way across the corner of Lake Wakatipu into and up the Dart River. One of the coolest things about these Jet Boats is they were invented in New Zealand and designed to travel in very shallow water (probably only a few inches deep at times). The other amazing thing about the jet boat is that it is able to do some pretty sweet 360 degree spins. Several times in the lake and the river we were given a hand signal to hold on tight and then the driver would spin the boat sending a spray of FREEZING glacier melt water over us. It was extreme. We made our way up the Dart, weaving and maneuvering through a labyrinth of forks in the river and finally pulled ashore into another smaller river that converged about a kilometer downstream into the Dart. Now this smaller river was unbelievable. The water was crystal clear and an emerald blue color. This would be only a taste of what we’d see and experience later on in the day.

Cruising in our Jet Boat

Here we got out of our Jet Boat and were given a vessel to command of our own. Now just when we thought you couldn’t possibly top a Jet Boat we soon realized we were mistaken… it can get better. We were given an orange inflatable kayak (Funyak). Ecstatic and proud to test our piloting skills, we set out to tackle the river. As we headed down stream we ended up striking up conversation with one of the river guides. He was a pretty cool guy, named Tom, from Ireland who had moved down to New Zealand for a year to work and play on the amazing rivers in the area.

Our trip down the river so far was so beautiful. We were surrounded by towering mountains as we paddled through minor rapids. We ended up pulling into another small stream that was flowing into the river. This area opened up in to a picturesque valley guarded by mountains. As we made our way upstream the water deepened and became calm. We found ourselves in the most amazingly clear, emerald blue water. We paddled our way upstream into a small canyon to investigate the source of this beauty and as we turned the last corner in the canyon the rocks opened up to reveal a small waterfall – the source of the stream that originated as glacial runoff from further up the mountains. Again, the water here was so pure and clean you could drink straight from the river. We filled up our water bottles and made our way back to the downstream to the valley. We made it into this valley called “Paradise Valley” to stop and have lunch. There couldn’t have been a more picturesque, beautiful place to stop, rest, eat and take it all in. We conversed with many others in our group and took more pictures before getting back into our funyaks.

Time for another Fun Fact: The Dart River Valley and surrounding mountains including the Mount Aspiring National Park are considered a “World Heritage Site.” World Heritage Sites are reserved for places around the world with “special cultural or physical significance” like the Pyramids in Egypt, The Great Wall of China, and Stonehenge…no big deal. (Below was our view from where we stopped to eat lunch. The sun had burnt through the clouds at this point.)

Heading back down the river, through Paradise Valley, we made our way through several rapids then ended up in the flat river basin.. the place to take out our kayaks and the end of our day’s adventure. It was at the point that our Ireland friend and guide informed us that we were literally standing in the heart of “Isengard” from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. ( He then pointed out some small rolling hills on the other side of the river basin and said “Those hills over there… that’s the Shire.” (Only in an awesome Irish accent) ( Well.. nerd alert here.. Thomas and I were beyond excited to see and be standing in these epic locations from the films. It immediately made us want to go watch the films again.


As we pulled up onto the bank of the river to disembark our kayak Thomas noticed he was missing something and had a white panicked  look on his face. He very worriedly asked me: “have you seen my iPhone?” Thomas tucked his iPhone inside his tight life-vest during a rapid and soon realized it wasn’t there anymore. Now you’re probably asking yourself… why would you bring your phone out to the middle of nowhere in New Zealand when there’s no phone service anyway? We both brought our phones because we used them as our cameras for this trip. After looking in the boat and realizing it wasn’t in there, another guy in another kayak mentioned that he thought he saw something bounce out into the river just a few minutes before we had pulled in, but wasn’t sure what it was, so he didn’t say anything. Sad, distraught, defeated, sunburnt, and tired Thomas gazed out at the river banks praying that he’d get a glimpse of his phone. There was a small sliver of a chance that we’d find it, because it was wrapped up in a waterproof casing. But to no avail… the phone was gone. The really, really sad thing was Thomas had a TON of pictures and videos that we hadn’t backed up yet from our previous 4 days in New Zealand. Luckily, we had taken mostly the same pictures at the same time when we came across scenery that was too beautiful to pass up, so the damage wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. The hardest hit, was the realization that we had lost our pre-skydiving video interviews (which were absolutely amazing).

Tom stood like this for almost 5 minutes straight...

{{Hey guys, it’s Thomas. Just wanted to take this time to apologize to Jacob, because there were a ton of pictures on my phone of him standing in the most beautiful places on Earth. Sorry Jacob! I owe you big time, man}}

We were sad, but not defeated. We were still on vacation in the most beautiful place either of us had been, and honestly, what cooler place to lose your cell phone! Better than a McDonald’s bathroom, right?! We boarded a four-wheel drive van and drove back through the Shire to Glenorchy. Interestingly enough, we saw a bunch of production trucks and trailers in the Shire as they had just finished filming “The Hobbit” the new Lord of the Rings film a week or so before we arrived.

Part of the Shire

Some production trailers still parked in the Shire

Back at the Dart River Safari lodge we got changed, hopped on the bus and made our way back to Queenstown. Exhausted, overwhelmed by the beauty of New Zealand, and defeated by our loss we returned back to Queenstown in time to take a nap, grab a late dinner, and hit the club below our hostel. We met up with our Brazilian friends again for a while and then hit the hay as we had a 4 1/2 hour drive to Milford Sound the next morning.

Another brilliant Queenstown sunset

To be continued….


New Zealand Adventure: Day 2 (Skydiving)

Queenstown, NZ -Day 2: Now, I’d be lying if I said that we were well rested and ready to go after the first night in our hostel. There was a club on the first level and our room was positioned on the corner right above the street. The night was filled with Euro-dance beats and inebriated youth shouting in all languages right outside our window. We awoke early and grabbed a coffee and a small bite across the street before heading to the Skydiving office for our pickup. Jacob and I arrived, signed our life away and picked out the skydiving package that we thought was the best bang for our buck. We went with a 12,000 ft dive (45 second free fall) with the picture package as an add-on. We loaded onto an NZone bus with maybe 10 other people and headed out of town towards the drop zone. The 15-minute ride was filled with silent anticipation for the most part, and then a few jokes were told to ease the tension, which helped.

This is one you don't read....just sign.

When we arrived at the NZone (Skydiving) complex, as you can probably guess by the pictures above, we were awestruck with the view that surrounded us. Jacob said that he was glad he waited to skydive, so that he was jumping in the most beautiful place on earth instead of a random flat field somewhere in America, and I agree with him completely. Before our jump we did some interviews on my phone (in case we died), and I played a game of ‘giant chess’ with our new Columbian friend Hector as we watched the group that went before us fall from the sky. I also got a chance to meet with a couple of Brazilians who had just jumped almost an hour ago and were waiting for a ride back to town. Our time was up, and our names were called. We went to the hanger and put on our jumpsuits and were given a very brief demonstration of how to contort our bodies like a banana during our free fall. Moments later our plane arrived and our tandem buddies grabbed us and we walked the long walk towards the deafening sound of our tiny fixed-wing airplane.

Let's do this!!

I can’t speak for Jacob (I think he was as nervous as I was), but I was attempting to put my mind somewhere else during the take off and ascension part of this journey. There were maybe 12 of us crammed into this little plane. While we were going up my dive buddy (Ed) was sitting with his legs spread open with me between them, basically sitting on his lap, as he strapped me to him. I was going to ask him if he was sure I was strapped in right, but I figured he’d done this a few thousand times and probably knew what he was doing. It took us a few minutes to reach 12,000 feet, but once we did, I realized that I would be the first to jump (after my photographer). Things got very real once the light turned on and the sliding door was thrust open. My adrenaline skyrocketed as Ed and I scooted towards the door. I put my feet out and strained to keep them together. I tucked them under the plane, put my head back, and leaned forward. Ed gave a few rocks back and forth, and we jumped right after my photographer.

Getting ready to bust through the clouds!

There’s definitely a strange vertigo feeling for the first few moments, and then falling through the clouds is a bizarre experience and kind of tastes like the smell after a heavy rain. Meanwhile, several other people have jumped above me, but Jacob and another person in our group had to go on another pass because the wind speed was picking up, and they needed to drop them back closer to the field where we would be landing. Jacob told me that he thought they were cancelling their jump because it was too windy, but then they opened the door again and got to jump. The whole time we were falling, we were captivated by the amazing sight below and all around us. Both Jacob and I were surprised at how it was somewhat difficult to breathe at times, and if you opened your mouth wrong, wind would gust in and steal your breath.


After the 45 seconds of free fall and absolutely breath-taking scenery, Ed pulled the parachute (without telling me) and everything went silent. For the past several minutes I’d heard a noisy plane and then gusty wind blowing past my ears at a high velocity…but now, nothing. To be honest, I thought I was dying for a second because everything went silent and my photographer kept falling for a few moments. I understood later that he had to get down to the ground before us so he could take a picture of our landing. When we got closer to the ground, Ed told me to pull my knees to my chest and then stick them out straight for the landing. Ed steered the parachute like a champ and we even did a few corkscrew maneuvers before finally landing softly, precisely where we were supposed to. I was alive, and I was smiling. Adrenaline was still coursing through my veins as I gave random people high fives and strutted back to the hanger like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible.

Legs up!!

Love ya, Ed!

Several minutes later I watched as Jacob went careening through the air with his tandem buddy and landed safely in the same field I had. He was smiling ear to ear and was just as happy to be alive as I was. Take a look at Jacob’s free fall experience below…

I love this picture, because it looks like he's in outer space!

Jacob's goggles flying off!

Goggles back, thumbs up!

Parachute pull

The group after us wasn’t able to jump because the wind speed was too high, so we were also grateful to be able to jump that day.

When we got back to town we grabbed lunch with Hector and reminisced about the time we all went skydiving and lived to tell the tale. We sat out at a restaurant that overlooked the harbor of lake Wakatipu, which was carved by a glacier. It is the 2nd largest lake in the Southern Lakes district, and is 400 m (1,225 feet) at its deepest point.

View from the restaurant

Jacob and I explored the town for a while that afternoon and then picked up the pictures of our skydiving exploits and headed to a famous burger joint in town named Fergburger, where the line from the restaurant to the sidewalk outside spoke for itself. The burgers where enormous and loaded with extras, and I honestly took maybe three bites before I got to the actual burger. Since it doesn’t get dark until almost 10:00pm we were having a rough time getting completely synced, but we both caught a quick nap and then checked out the club below our hostel, which was a fun place to people watch and to just meet people from all over the world. Jacob started keeping track of every country of the people we had met and spoke with, and by the end of the trip…it was impressive.

The one..the only.

Fergburger was PACKED!

We had an early morning ahead of us where we were supposed to go on a jet boat tour of Paradise Valley (where a lot of LOTR and The Hobbit was taped) and then take canoes back down the Dart River towards Lake Wakatipu, so we called it a night. We were lulled to sleep once again by Euro beats and overly loud laughter and chanting.

To be continued…

New Zealand Adventure: Day 1

Hey everyone! Because Jacob and I have so many pictures between the two of us (more so Jacob since I dropped my phone in the Dart River in the middle of the week), and there were 8 days of adventures and funny stories in New Zealand, we thought it would be fun to split the days between the two of us. This first day will be a guest post by one of my best friends, Sir Jacob Matthews. This is based on a true story. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Take it away Jacob… -Tom

Sir Jacob of the Matthews clan

So after watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy several years ago and seeing the epic scenery of New Zealand in the film, I vowed to one day have an epic quest of my own. It didn’t necessarily need to involve a ring, or me barely escaping dark forces, but it definitely needed to be filled with adventure. One thing I can say, is that New Zealand is known for adventure. In fact, Queenstown, NZ is called the “adventure capital of the world.”  My quest and dream to explore New Zealand came to fruition a week or so ago now as I met my buddy Thomas, who’s living in Japan for the year, “down under” for 8 days of awesomeness. The following blog posts are an account of our perilous journey across the South island of New Zealand.

Day 1: Getting there

First, to set the stage, let’s get acclimated to the Kiwi culture with some vocab words. We would hear the following words on a daily basis:

1. Kiwi – what New Zealanders call themselves, also the name of their national bird
2. Good on ya – good job/right on
3. Too right – sweet/cool
4. Sweet As – oh that’s cool
5. Mum – mom
6. Heaps – tons/ loads

Good… Now that we’ve all had our vocab lesson our journey was to take place on Dec 12, 2011. I was flying from Los Angeles. Thomas was leaving from Japan and we were to meet in Queenstown on the afternoon of Dec 14. First thing that blew my mind was the time difference. I left at 10:00 pm on the 12th from L.A. and landed 12 hrs later in Auckland the morning of the 14th. The fact that I completely lost a day was insane to me. Ironically the day I happened to miss was the 13th which, shout out to my mum, was her birthday. Oops sorry mum.

My flight was late arriving into Auckland and I knew it was going to be really close trying to catch my connecting flight to Queenstown. So I ran through customs in NZ, grabbed my bags, and started running the 10 min walk between the international and domestic terminals in Auckland. About halfway along my run I thought to myself that something was wrong. Upon looking around I realized that I had left my backpack at customs in the international terminal. Now, this backpack had my life in it…my wallet, my cash, my passport and my phone. Yep. Pretty much my entire identity. I freaked out and ran back to the customs office and knocked on their exit only door to beg for them to let me in and look for my bag. After knocking the officer came to the door and went and looked for my bag for me. About 5 long minutes later he opened the door and handed my bag to me. The only word to describe that moment was elation! Upon getting my bag back I began the 10 min run to the next terminal again…knowing at this point it was hopeless and I’d already missed my Queenstown flight. So I made it to the gate agent and they rebooked me for a later flight into Queenstown. I finally arrived into this small airport nestled in between lake Wakatipu and a mountain range called ‘The Remarkables”. I got my bags and walked around the corner and see Thomas sitting next to the rental car counters, looking as handsome as ever (edited by Thomas). We caught eyes, ran to each other, and had a nice little man hug. Very reminiscent of a scene from a movie…only there was no romantic Harry Connick Jr soundtrack. After our little moment, we got our rental car and proceeded out of the terminal to head to our hostel. The rental car was far more expensive than we had imagined, and we were feeling a little defeated and tired, but were determined to not let it ruin our day.

Driving on the left hand side of the Road:
Once we loaded all of our stuff into the bright red hatchback Toyota corolla we headed to check into our hostel in downtown Queenstown. Stepping into the car I knew this would be a very different experience. The steering wheel was on the left hand side of the vehicle. I drove out of the parking lot to hop on the road to downtown. I have to say I was doing quite well until we came to our first intersection. Which, by the way, isn’t 4-way stop intersections… it’s all roundabouts. Not quite sure who had the right of way I proceeded to go when all of a sudden I hear Thomas start screaming and bracing “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot.” I look over at him and then back and quickly realize there is a massive truck headed at us. I sped up and we escaped death.

Checking in to our hostel:
Breathing a sigh of relief we parked the car and got checked into the hostel. Stepping on the elevator at the hostel the first people we met were these two Korean ladies. They looked at me and Thomas and thinking they are Japanese, Thomas tries out some Japanese on them only to realize they are Korean. She looks at us and says in English “are you togethaaa?” (in Asian accent) Trying not to laugh Thomas and I just look at each other, and Thomas looks back at the ladies and responds “yes, yes we are.” they got off the elevator and we died laughing. After dropping everything off, we headed to a local pub and played some darts for a couple of hours and Thomas slaughtered me. (edited by Thomas)

Finally, we made it back to our room… The adventure had definitely begun and it was beginning to sink in. We were jet-lagged and un-rested, so we rested up for what the next day had in store.

To be continued…

Special thanks to Mr. Summers for letting me be a guest columnist on his blog. Much obliged sir.