New Zealand's Thrilling Jet Stream

If speed floats your boat, Queenstown, New Zealand, claims to be the jet boat capital of the world. The Shotover Jet careers through the waters of the Shotover River.
If speed floats your boat, Queenstown, New Zealand, claims to be the jet boat capital of the world. The Shotover Jet careers through the waters of the Shotover River. (Shotover Jet)
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By Barbara Bradlyn Morris
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 5, 2008

As Big Red, our jet-powered boat, zoomed over New Zealand's fast-flowing Shotover River, I had one white-knuckle thought: Is this trip necessary?

Face it, at breakneck speed we were whip-threading our way through a deep, narrow, twisty, boulder-strewn canyon, speeding straight toward a massive, treacherous outcrop of rock. I could not shut my eyes; I was transfixed by the image of our impending crackup.

Then, in the blink of an eye, as the rock loomed up to fill my vision, Big Red swerved, keeled steeply, bit hard into the water and skimmed past the boulder, missing it by mere inches.

I began to breathe again.

My husband, Ward, and I were on New Zealand's South Island, in the lakeside resort town of Queenstown, which claims to be the jet boat capital of the world. The town's slogan ought to be "Home of Extreme Sports and Hearty Sun-Bronzed Young People in Denim Cutoffs." Wherever we looked, cheerful young New Zealanders (Kiwis) and their international backpacking buddies were jumping off cliffs on gliders, soaring with rainbow-colored parasails over sparkling Lake Wakatipu, swooshing down mountains in bullet-shaped sleds over serpentine luge courses, shooting whitewater rapids and bungee-jumping from bridges into deep river canyons, trailing shouts of joy.

The adventurous atmosphere was infectious. It dared us to abandon our cafe-sitting ways. So did the Shotover Jet company's bright advertising brochure. "The World's most exciting jet boat ride! Thrill therapy! Feel alive with a healthy dose of adrenaline!" The pictures reminded me of roller coaster shots (screaming people, their hair plastered by the wind, rigidly, happily terrified) except that the Shotover Jet people were clinging to the handrails of a bright red, wedge-shaped boat that was powering through a river canyon, raising wings of water on its sides and a white jet stream in its wake.

Spurred to action, reservations in hand, we hopped aboard the courtesy shuttle for the three-mile ride from Queenstown to the Shotover Jet base, set amid the spectacular scenery of jagged mountains, some barren, others with dense stands of magnificent pines. There, cheerful young Kiwis thrust us into voluminous, rubbery "splash coats" and tied us into bulky orange life vests. I felt the way a penguin looks. Arms akimbo, I waddled. The ungainly outfit was for safety reasons, but I suspect it also prevented people like me from running away when they saw the boats, the river, the rocks and shoals, the shrieking people.

Next thing I knew, we were seated in the fourth, and last, row of the boat. "Hi, guys, I'm Mike," our robust, grinning driver greeted us. He warned us to hang on (I already was, for dear life), have fun and watch for his hand signal. "When I do this" -- he held up his hand and twirled it around -- "be prepared for a 360." Frozen, I nodded stiffly. We had read about 360s, a spin in which the speeding boat, seemingly without slowing down, spins in a tight circle. While on shore, we'd gasped to see jet boats perform the maneuver amid sparkling sprays of water. The boats' unique design makes it possible: Seventeen feet long with a 14-passenger capacity, the boats are powered by twin V-6 Buick engines with an internal propeller. Water, drawn in through an inlet in the bottom, is forcibly driven out at the rear through a nozzle, which turns to change direction.

The first minute of the 25-minute ride was truly terrifying. For me, not for Ward. He glowed with exhilaration; I was rigid, my clawlike fingers clamped to the safety rail.

Then something extraordinary happened. Suddenly I was hit by the natural high described in the Shotover Jet brochure: "a sense of euphoria as your brain takes in a cocktail of oxygen, sugar, adrenaline, cortisol and endorphins." Suddenly I was in full, exultant cry as Mike whipped us through the canyon, whose towering slate-color walls and treacherous outcroppings blurred past us. Mike leaned the boat from side to side; at times he slid it sideways across the water. At one wide, sweeping curve, we zipped along the edges of a pebbly sandbar.

Our first 360 paralyzed me, but after that I reveled in the boat's sudden stop, its prow dug deep, its back end reared up, bucking and spinning on itself as it flung high sheets of sun-sparkled water crystals.

The 25 minutes flew by. We left the river feeling as vigorous as Kiwis. As I watched Mike zoom away again in Big Red, I envied his new passengers. Like a thrill-crazed kid, I wanted to do it again.

Shotover Jet (Shotover Jet Beach, Gorge Road, Arthurs Point, Queenstown, New Zealand, 011-64-3-442-8570, About $74 per person (about $47 for ages 5 to 15). To reserve, e-mail

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