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Jaw-dropping adventure

YEARS ago, in the full flush of youthful stupidity, I rode a rickety, overcrowded old bus through the Khyber Pass, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The dilapidated vehicle had bald tyres, broken windows and was driven by a turbaned young Afghani clearly determined to see how fast he could spin around that ridiculous hair-pin circuit.

Its wheels spun within centimetres of the road's edge, sending stones careening hundreds of metres to the depths below. It was, and remains, the most terrifying - yet exhilarating - experience of my life.

I was reminded last month of this long ago foolhardiness when I joined a dozen other brave souls on a bus trek over Skippers Canyon road to the Shotover River, just outside Queenstown in the south of New Zealand's spectacularly beautiful South Island.

This time the bus was in splendid order and the driver - reassuringly named Pete rather than Iqbal - was a respected veteran of thousands of such trips.

But the road - rated between three and nine in lists of the world's most dangerous roads - was just as terrifying.

Carved out of the cliffs 130 years ago by prospectors seeking a quicker route to the Shotover River, whose waters were richer in alluvial gold than anywhere else on the planet, the road is perched atop dizzying drops to the valleys and streams below.

There are no fences or guard rails, the road is often deep in snow and in some places the bends are so tight it is impossible to squeeze around without scraping the side of the bus on the cliff face.

This is Lord of the Rings country, where Kiwi director Peter Jackson filmed several scenes for his trilogy of famous movies, though how a fully laden film crew could have made its way over this road is a mystery for the ages.

I was there not to seek gold, or check out famous film locations - or even to exorcise the demons of that Khyber Pass adventure a half-century ago - but as part of a 10-day AAT Kings tour of New Zealand that took in Auckland, Rotorua and much of the awesome South Island.

At the end of the 22km Skippers Canyon road we left the bus and boarded a jetboat for a brisk 80kmh dash through the narrow gorges of upstream Shotover River, past an impossibly high suspension bridge which was the site of one of the world's first bungie jumps, every so often doing 360 degree high speed spins that seemed to greatly amuse our driver, Lee.

Nothing he could do, however, could make his jetboat ride seem anything more than a gentle lark after that unforgettable mountain road escapade. And we knew, of course, that there was only one way out. I was later told of an Aussie who, rather than endure the return bus trip, happily forked out $400 for a chartered helicopter to extract him from the gorge.

The Skippers Canyon escapade was, for me, the highlight of three days at Queenstown, surely one of the most sublime cities in the world.

Even in the temperate climes of April, where snow is only a suggestion on the distant peaks, Queenstown offers adventure opportunities that make it unique.

The 32 souls that made up our touring party could never be described as youthful, but that didn't stop some of them signing up to experience the thrills of bungie jumping, parapenting from the top of the Gondola cableway, and rafting the Kawarau River.

Others chose the more sedentary option of a visit to the Gibbston Valley winery for lunch and tasting; a cruise on Queenstown's iconic vintage steamship, the TSS Earnslaw, followed by dinner at the Colonel's Homestead; or a ride on the Gondola cableway where spectacular views await the traveller.

Had there been more time I'd have loved to visit nearby Arrowtown and play 18 holes at the Millbrook Golf Resort or at The Hills, the scene of the recent New Zealand Open - two of the most highly rated golf courses in the country. But that can wait until my next visit.


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