Renting a campervan in New Zealand: Tips and tricks to avoiding utter chaos

The University of Sydney, like any university, gives their students a break mid-semester. My friends and I wanted to do something with that break.

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My friends and I decided that “something” would be to travel. While we were in Sydney, why not hit up Australia’s next-door neighbor? New Zealand is world-famous for its natural beauty. The amazing scenery in all three Lord of the Rings films? All shot in New Zealand.

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Our time was limited, so we decided to travel only New Zealand’s south island. But how would we get around? The majority of New Zealand lives on the North Island. The south island, on the other hand, is sparsely populated. We decided to be extra-adventurous and rent a campervan for our trip.

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It sounded like the perfect 20-something, idyllic college adventure. Don’t get me wrong: it was an adventure. And like any adventure, not everything went as smoothly as we planned. After this trip, I came to realize that not everything about travel is smooth sailing. A little foresight would have gone a long way for those 10 days in the land of Kiwis. So for the reference of future travelers looking for a fun and exciting trip ti NZ– here are some of the things I wish I knew going:

You get what you pay for.

Campervans are popular in New Zealand and get booked out way ahead of time. Do your research early, especially if you’re on a budget.

While doing your research, keep in mind that some vans are cheaper for a reason. Check reviews of the rental company. Check how old the campervan is.

My friends and I got lucky. Though we booked our van pretty late, it wasn’t a total lemon. In fact, we were really excited when we saw our van!

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However, we found a few problems. Our campervan had a working sink and shower, connected to a water tank in the van. But when we tried to fill it up…

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Our van would leak water until the tank reached about half its capacity. This wasn’t too much of a problem for us, though since we usually stayed at campgrounds with bathrooms. However, our second problem was much worse.

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The heat in our campervan didn’t work, not even once. During that time, the weather averaged around 50-60 degrees during the day and got even colder at night.

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We found a small heater fan under the sink that staved off the worst of the shivers, but the Icebox was always a bit chilly. At least this led to great bonding time.

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Figure out how you’re going to navigate.

We rented a GPS with our company and drove off happily, thinking it would solve all our problems. Then, we turned it on.

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Our GPS was old, broken, and incapable of guiding us anywhere. My friend had the foresight of downloading an offline navigation app onto his phone. The only problem was that, though the app could navigate offline, it needed internet to locate our desired destination.

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My advice? Figure out a data plan for your phone, preferably one with a reliable navigation app, before you depart. You don’t want to get knocked with high roaming bills. Nor do you want to get lost.

 

Check the New Zealand travel website.

My friends and I were overly ambitious. Our first day of travel had us drive from Christchurch, on the east coast, all the way over to the west coast.

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The most direct road to get there was through Arthur’s Pass. Google Maps predicted that the trip would take 5 hours. As we drove, though, we found that the route was a winding, meandering mountain road.  We were forced to drive slowly to avoid hurtling off a cliff. As a result, the trip took 8 hours instead of 5.

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Late that night, we finally arrived at our campsite. We made a quick dinner and got ready for bed. My friend and I went to the campsite lodge to wash our dishes.

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The campsite caretaker visited us in the lodge, curious to see who was doing dishes at 11PM. He struck up some small-talk.

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The caretaker elaborated.

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Wait. What? The only road, closed? But we had to get to Queenstown. We had bungee jumps and skydives booked there! We were on a schedule!

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He said what I didn’t want to hear.

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Suddenly, our planned route went from this

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to this: 

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In other words, a 4 hour ride suddenly became an 11-hour one. To make it to Queenstown on time, we were going to have to drive.

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Which brings me to my next point.

 

Don’t over-plan.

We had our whole game plan outlined when we went to New Zealand. In retrospect, this wasn’t the best idea. We sacrificed the liberty to wander where we wanted.

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And, of course, there was the Haas-Pass-landslide fiasco.

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Our overplanning may have caused us to rush around. A lot.

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These long rides led to another problem.

 

Carsickness can happen.

When you’re driving down those winding, twisting mountain roads, bouncing around in the back of a bumpy campervan, you’re bound to be a little uncomfortable.

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My friends and I hoped to read, play cards, or do things while riding around. Mostly, though, we just sat back and slept. There was no other way. We took turns sitting in the front with the driver, just to help with the nausea.

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Remember that you can’t camp just anywhere.

The national law in New Zealand allows freedom camping– aka, pitching your tent wherever you want– in any public space. However, local laws have limited the areas where camping is allowed. Trying to find out where you can and can’t stay can get confusing.

And don’t forget that your campervan needs some tender love and care. You’ll need somewhere to dump your waste, fill up your water tank, and charge the van’s battery every few days. This usually means booking a campsite.

My friends and I played it safe and made sure that we had a sanctioned campsite to stay at… most nights.

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It’s a lot less stressful when you’ve got a set place to go.

You also can’t park your campervan just anywhere.

Basically, don’t do this:

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Seriously, don’t drive your van into any sort of grass until you know it’s solid. There won’t always be a group of friendly tourists willing to push your van out of the mud.

Give yourself time to take it all in.

Our trip to New Zealand was one of the craziest experiences of my life. We got lost. We got sidetracked. We raced around the entire island. We panicked and freaked out.

Our trip to New Zealand was also one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I’ve yet to visit a place that can match NZ’s natural beauty. We often in such a rush that I forgot to look around me– but when I did, it always took me by surprise. Like it did in Queenstown.

After arriving in Queenstown at 4 in the morning, we  finally found a parking lot without a “No Camping” sign. It was too dark to see exactly where we were, but were too tired to care. We parked the car, locked the doors, and went to sleep. A few hours later, I woke up and groggily crawled out of bed.

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By some miracle, we had chosen a parking lot with a public bathroom next door. I grabbed my toothbrush and headed outside.

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It was here that I brushed my teeth and greeted the morning.

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And this was only a taste of the amazing little Queenstown.

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That was just one of the many incredible things we saw. Our first day, driving to the west coast through the insane Arthur’s Pass, we also stopped for a bit. We had to. We needed a moment to appreciate what we were seeing.

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Here’s another place we needed to stop and appreciate:

Lake Ruataniwha-- the name of which I didn't know until I Googled it later.

Lake Ruataniwha, which we hadn’t heard about in any travel guide. I didn’t know its name until I Googled it later.

And another:

Nugget Point, New Zealand.

Nugget Point, New Zealand.

And another.

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Lake Pukaki, New Zealand.

The campervan allowed us to access places we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. For instance, we stayed a night at Purakaunui Bay, located in the Catlins Coast. The campground was basic: hole-in-the-ground toilets, water that needed to be boiled before drinking, and absolutely no lights. We went to sleep with the sunset…

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…and woke up with the sunrise.

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Our trip was organized chaos. Would I do it a little differently if I went back to New Zealand? Sure thing. Do I regret going? Not even a little bit. I still have trouble describing in New Zealand in words. It’s a country of unadulterated, dazzling scenery.

Future travelers, be warned: your dream trip in New Zealand might not be perfect . But hopefully, with these tips, your campervan trip will smoother than mine. Keep a rough plan and book things ahead of time. At the same time, though, give yourself time to enjoy everything to its fullest. Honestly, all the time in the world isn’t enough for New Zealand. And we only saw half of it.

Hiking to Fox Glacier on a rainy day.

Hiking to Fox Glacier on a rainy day.

Along the Hooker Valley Track, New Zealand.

Along the Hooker Valley Track.

Near Akaroa, New Zealand.

Near Akaroa.

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Good luck with your travels!

 

Edit: Hey all, I got a great comment from a New Zealand native on driving in the country. I think it’s great to know, so I’m including it here. She’s also talked about it on her blog

“Kia ora Vy.

Well done for choosing the South Island to go to. All us kiwis ask tourists when we see them – ‘Are you going to the South Island? You HAVE to see the South Island while you’re here, it’s the best of New Zealand scenery!! I’m really sorry you got a lemon camper van – this is a good thing to know, so we can advise others ourselves.

A word to tourists heading our way – there is quite a big fuss being made in New Zealand at the moment about tourist drivers. Several have caused accidents lately that have killed New Zealanders, and we’re not very happy about that. Many kiwis are calling for a special driving test for overseas tourists before they can drive on our roads. Because they ARE very windy and narrow a lot of the time, not what those who come from countries with straight roads and many lanes are used to. There are two things us locals want you to know:

PULL OVER!! If you have 3 or more cars behind you when you’re driving, pull over as soon as you can do so safely. You may be on holiday, but we’re probably trying to get to work. Not pulling over can cause people to get frustrated and do dangerous overtaking manouvres to get where they’re trying to go. Potential accident!

If you’re tired, DON’T DRIVE!! Tiredness can lead to you pulling out into wrong lanes in confusion. Potential accident!

We love having tourists here because we’re very proud of our country and want you to see it. But please don’t come over here and kill us. Thank you, and happy holidaying.

Regards, New Zealand locals. 😀 “

Drive safely, everyone! Take your time and don’t rush, no matter where you’re going. 

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Wind? Fog? Torrential rain? Time to drown our sorrows in free coffee. (Doubtful Sound, New Zealand)

Doubtful Sound, a fjord in the southwest of New Zealand, is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. At least, that’s what our German friend told us when my group was planning our New Zealand trip.

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So we booked a day tour of Doubtful Sound as part of our trip. Doubtful Sound is quite out of the way from… anything, really. To reach it, we first had to cross Lake Manapouri. We boarded the boat in high spirits…

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…but soon, we were hit by typical west coast New Zealand weather.

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By the time we reached the other side of the lake, it was pouring rain. You could sense that the tour group was becoming more and more downcast. Regardless, we had all paid for the tour, so we were going on with it. The tour guides ushered us into buses, where we rode to the Doubtful Sound bay.

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Our tour guide futilely tried to comfort his passengers.

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An hour later, everyone sprinted from the bus to the next tour boat. The rain was getting heavier and heavier.

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My friends and I took shelter inside, where we drowned our sorrows in the complementary tea and coffee.

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Everyone was a little frustrated at this point, including myself. Our one chance to visit the most beautiful place in the world, and it was raining! On a normal day, I’d be out on the deck, snapping photos like a madman.

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This kind of weather was a normal day in western New Zealand, right? What’s a little water? My friend and I ventured outside.

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As it turns out, our tour guide wasn’t lying: the rainy weather, while gloomy, created huge, cascading waterfalls.

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And as the rain continued, more and more waterfalls started to form.

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My friend and I rushed back inside…

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…and then back outside.

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Even in the fog, clouds, and rain, Doubtful Sound was stunning. 

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No wind or rain was going to keep me from enjoying this ride. I spent the rest of the trip running around the boat, snapping photos and getting pummeled by rain.

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Getting cold and soaked seems to be a common theme in New Zealand. Still, by the end, we all agreed: Doubtful Sound is a beautiful place. We left the Sound happy with our experience.

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…or maybe it was just denial. Because, as we started back across Lake Manapouri, the sun started to come out…

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And man, you have never seen any five kids so excited to see sunlight before.

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I guess we really needed our Vitamin D.

In which I belly-flop out of an ancient hunk of ice. (Fox Glacier, New Zealand)

I’m from the Northeastern US. It’s cold there. We get snow and hail and blizzards and mornings where you wake up to find your car encased in ice. People from cold climates, you know what I’m talking about.

Ok, so this is an exaggeration. But you catch my drift.

Ok, so this is an exaggeration. But you catch my drift.

Therefore, when my friends wanted to see a glacier in New Zealand, I wasn’t sure what the hullabaloo was about. Isn’t a glacier just a big hunk of ice?

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I guess I had to see what the big deal was.

So my friends and I booked a tour of Fox Glacier, located on the west coast of New Zealand’s southern island. The glacier is actually inaccessible to casual passerby– it’s too dangerous for untrained folk to venture there alone. Instead, professional guides provide the necessary equipment to tourists and make the trip together.

As we hiked to the glacier, our tour guide liked to remind us of how much danger we’d be in without him.

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What’s with all the landslides? New Zealand is located on the Pacific Rim of Fire, a geographically active fault line. In fact, the mountains of New Zealand are constantly growing, at a rate of (I think) about half a centimeter per year. However, New Zealand’s geology is full of sheared, layered rock. Rainfall is heavy, snowmelt is rapid, and earthquakes are common. As a result, NZ is full of beautiful cliffs and mountains…

This is what we hiked through!

This is what we hiked through!

…that are subject to constant collapse.

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Fear not! After a short hike, we safely reached the glacier with no casualties.

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In order to safely traverse the glacier, our tour guide had us strap crampons to our boots. Ice is slippery, after all!

Like these!

Kind of like these!

In fact, the tour company staff created a path for us to walk on.

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So, we could safely walk on the glacier.

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One of the people in my group was from Egypt! He’s never seen snow before.

It was mind-blowing. We were walking on 100-year-old ice! I seized the opportunity.

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Yeah I brought cups! It was the cleanest, freshest, most refreshing water I’ve ever tasted.

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The highlight of the walk was when the tour guide found a small tunnel that had naturally formed in the ice.

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Photos?! Heck yeah! I handed off my camera to one of my friends and wriggled into the tiny opening…

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…only to find out that the tunnel was filled with freezing rainwater. I pushed myself on my stomach, trying to avoid the frigid puddles as much as possible.

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At the end of the tunnel was a small opening in the top where we could climb out. Problem is, the opening was quite high and I am quite short. I had some trouble getting out…

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But hey, at least I got the picture I wanted.

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So now, I have photographic proof: even the coldest, wettest, and slipperiest journey can be a good time! Fox Glacier sure was. Even if we came back soaking wet.

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I might have been freezing for the rest of the day, sure. But it was still worth it.

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And I’m sure my friends agree!

“If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” Apparently, I would.

Kia ora!

As you might know, I’ve recently returned from New Zealand! Alive! Seriously, I consider this quite an achievement, especially considering some of the things we did. If you’ve seen the video I posted up a little while ago, you’ll understand what I mean.

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That’s right.

I did the bungee. 

Bungee jumping purportedly dates back thousands of years ago on Pentecost Island. A village woman, trying to escape her abusive husband, jumped off a cliff. Her husband, shocked to see his wife fall to her death, jumped after her. What he didn’t know was that the wife had actually tied vines to her ankles to catch her fall. She survived the jump, he did not. It later became customary for men to bungee to prove their manhood.

How much of this is true, I don’t know. Either way, it inspired some members of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club to jump off a bridge in 1979. Though they were arrested, they continued the trend in the US by jumping off hot air balloons, cranes, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Commercialized bungee jumping didn’t begin until 1988, when seasoned adventurer AJ Hackett (who, upon many things, illegally jumped off the Eiffel Tower) opened up a permanent bungee site in Queenstown, New Zealand. Nobody expected his business to last. After all, there’s only so many tourists who’ll want to jump off a cliff before the fad dies down, right?

Wrong. The AJ Hackett bungee company flourished and grew, eventually expanding to Australia, Russia, Singapore, and more. Since the company’s humble beginnings, millions of adreneline-seekers have taken the dive.

And I was about to become one of them.

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Oh god.

What was I thinking when I signed up for this?

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Well, my friends signed up, so I did too. I immediately regretted it.

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And I continued to regret it.

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There was only one thing that kept me going.

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It’s true: AJ Hackett has a no-refund policy, so I might as well get what I paid for. And I paid for a lot. My friends and decided that we should go big or go home and signed up for the Nevis Highwire Bungy, the third highest bungee jump in the world.  Jumpers experience speeds over 80 miles an hour and over 8 seconds of free fall.

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The Nevis Bungy is not available to the public and can only be reached by taking an AJ Hackett shuttle from Queenstown. It’s about a 40-minute drive to get there, where you can get nice and cozy and think about what you’re about to do.

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We climbed higher and higher in the mountains, until we finally reached this. 

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Rather than starting from a cliff or a bridge, we would be jumping out of this fine platform over the Nevis River Valley.

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The platform had glass panels in the floor, where we could observe exactly how much we were going to fall.

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And that’s when the jitters, more than ever before, hit me.

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Though, I don’t know what I was so scared of. There have been horrific injuries due to bungee jumping, but they’re the exception to the rule. AJ Hackett, in particular, has served millions of jumpers with a nearly spotless safety record. I would be strapped in not only by my ankles, but with a body harness as well.

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Staff on the platform rotated the dozen or so jumpers in and out of the harnesses. I watched them, nervously, until my turn came. I sat on a chair where a man proceeded to tie my legs together, talk me through the process, and lead me to the ledge.

By now, as you can imagine, I was freaking out. All rational thoughts had gone out the window. I had no idea how I was going to make myself step off that platform.

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Seriously, any cognitive ability I had was gone.

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And for that totally nonsensical reason, I stepped into the air almost immediately.

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jhg

Because I dislocated my left shoulder in the past, they had me hang onto my belt with my left arm. Hence the awkward one-armed jump!

The sheer force. The wind. The river rushing up to meet me. I couldn’t help but close my eyes. I didn’t open them until the bungee cord caught me and sprung me back up.

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The second fall wasn’t nearly as scary as the first. However, it was at this time that I noticed a slight problem.

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I guess I need to tie my shoelaces tighter, because my sneaker had slipped halfway off my foot. As I hung upside down, there it teetered , threatening to fall into the river below. My beleaguered mind latched onto one thought.

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With what little core strength I have, I reached up and nabbed it off my foot…

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…and concluded my jump, victorious.

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So how was it? 

I have to admit: it was really fun. I was freaking out before, during, and after the jump, but it was pretty awesome. Would I do it again? Maybe after five years of recovery time. Do I regret doing it? Not at all.

How could I regret it when I got a free t-shirt…

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…and this video proving my jump? (Go ahead, laugh at my ridiculous yelp as I jump. So uncool…)

And, of course, the satisfying feeling that you’ve done something that you never, ever expected you’d be able to do.