The bus ride to Queenstown from Franz Josef was one of the most scenic drives I've ever experienced. We came across Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, which were overshadowed by a horizon of incredible mountains. The greenest of trees blanketed the mountains' bases, allowing no gaps between the leaves to catch a glimpse of the soil beneath. Snow covered the mountaintops. The water before me was perfectly blue. In many cases, postcard pictures are modified in order to enhance their beauty. The view outside the window of my bus needed no such embellishment. I checked in at the Base Hostel in Queenstown where I would stay in a dorm room with four beds for the next few days. My reason for going to Queenstown was that someone had suggested that I might catch the boxing match between Ricky Hatton and Manny Pacquiao on the satellite TV at the hostel. My roommates were two Irish men and a young man from San Francisco. The Irish guys were taking a gap year following their graduation from university and they seemed to be nice fellows. I had already crossed paths with Brian, the American, while in Franz Josef but we had not introduced ourselves back then. Later on that evening we all went out in town and I learnt more about each of them. The American had earlier crashed his car into a tree, which forced him to use a bus for transportation. He mentioned, however, that he planned to hire another car to travel down to Milford Sound in two days. Considering I really wanted to visit what is one of New Zealand's most popular tourist destinations, I decided to risk sharing a car with this unlucky driver and asked if I could join him. He accepted.
The day after the boxing match Brian and I jumped into our newly rented car and began our journey south. Ricky Hatton, the British boxer, had lost the match and I was feeling a bit down before the spectacular drive cheered me up. We arrived at the Milford Sound Lodge, which was pretty basic, but the sole option for backpackers to reside in. The ferry ride along Milford Sound was peaceful as we watched the rainwater from the mountains cascade into the fjords and seals relax on rocky outposts. The boat's captain boasted that Rudyard Kipling considered Milford Sound to be the eighth wonder of the world. I have no doubt as to why.
The following day Brian and I returned to Queenstown as there were a bunch of activities I had missed out on. I booked a white water rafting trip, a skydive and a jet boat water ride for the following three days that I planned to stay there. Surprisingly, the bus ride that led us to Skippers Canyon turned out to be hair-raising too. Skippers Canyon Road is restricted to people driving hired cars and tour coaches and it is considered one of the scariest roads in New Zealand as the narrow tarmac clings to the side of a cliff. Sometimes, the bus' wheels barely managed to scrape by the edge of the road and it looked as if we all might teeter off the cliff and into the abyss. Like many of the passengers aboard, I could hardly contain my nervous smile. Skydiving was by far the best activity I had booked in Queenstown and, quite possibly, the most exciting thing I've ever experienced in my life. Since it was my first ever skydive I was accompanied by a tandem jumper who attached himself to me in four different places as we started our ascent on the plane. Since the tandem has full control over everything, I felt relatively comfortable and not too frightened. He asked me whether I minded backflipping off the plane in order to catch a view of the aircraft flying away before having the landscape appear beneath me. I accepted without hesitation. This was my first skydive and I wanted it to be perfect. As we dove backwards from the door of the plane I felt as though my heart had jumped up to my throat. Within seconds we hit terminal velocity and I felt like I was floating in the air as I free-fell at approximately 220 kph. The view from 3,658m was the most stunning I have ever experienced as I witnessed the beauty of the Eyre Mountains, Lake Wakatipu, Lake Te Anau and the Fiordland National Park beneath me all at the same time. Then, the parachute opened and we floated slowly down to earth. Next week: Omar travels to the other side of the world