New Zealand’s adventure sports scene began in the 1970s and sought to provide the general public with opportunities to engage in extreme pursuits. The idea was to give ‘sane people safe access to the adrenalin antics of a mad minority.’1
The trigger was the invention of New Zealander Bill Hamilton’s jet boat in the 1950s. It led to the creation in 1970 of commercial jet boating on the fast-flowing Shotover and Kawarau rivers in the South Island’s Queenstown area. There, groups of thrill-seekers were piloted at high speeds around giant boulders and through swirling rapids. This was followed by white-water rafting in 1974.
Jump ‘til it hurts
A. J. Hackett’s love of extreme sports began in his childhood. In 2010 he recalled, ‘One of the things I used to enjoy most when I was a kid was jumping off bridges and cliffs. There was a limit you could go to. After about 40 to 50 feet …[when] you hit the water it really hurt.’2
In 1988 bungy (sometimes ‘bungee’) jumping provided a new thrill. Inspired by the vine-jumping of Vanuatu’s Pentecost Islanders, the first modern bungy jump was made in 1977, off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, by Oxford University’s Dangerous Sports Club members. New Zealand speed skier Alan John (A. J.) Hackett saw footage of the group and, with the aid of scientists, developed safe latex rubber cords that could be used commercially.
In 1987 Hackett bungy jumped off the Eiffel Tower in Paris, a stunt that drew global attention. The following year he set up a bungy-jumping operation on Kawarau Bridge, near Queenstown. Such was the popularity of the activity that he soon opened others, both locally and overseas. By 2012 some 350,000 people had bungy jumped in Queenstown.
Hackett’s success led to new activities in and around Queenstown. These included tandem skydiving (where beginners jump with a tutor), tandem hang gliding, river surfing, parasailing, canyoning and abseiling. All these pursuits led Queenstown to call itself ‘the world’s adventure capital’.
Similar operations were set up elsewhere in New Zealand, including black-water rafting in Waitomo Caves, hot-air ballooning above the Canterbury Plains and even bungy jumping off Auckland’s Sky Tower.
In the 1980s American Jon Imhof arrived in Queenstown to go snowboarding. He liked the town and decided to stay for the summer. He missed not being able to surf, so he came up with the idea of using his bodyboard to surf the waves of the Kawarau River, inventing the sport of river surfing. In 1989 he started the first commercial river surfing operation on the river.
By the early 2000s New Zealand was internationally renowned for its adventure sports tourism. However, the 2008 drowning of a British tourist in a riverboarding accident, the death of nine people in a skydiving plane crash in 2010 and a hot-air balloon disaster in 2012, which killed 11 people, raised public concern about lax safety practices. Simultaneous reports of widespread drug use within the sector both reinforced its counter-cultural image and increased safety anxieties.
The government responded by more tightly regulating the adventure tourism industry and warning operators that if they did not clean up drug use it would introduce mandatory drug testing.