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In The Media

Swept away by the South island

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Swept away by the South island

PAULINE CARTWRIGHT keeps up with current events on the Dart River.

If you thought a funyak was an enjoyable conversation, think again. It's an inflatable canoe and you can use one to go for the ride of your life down the Dart River in the Mount Aspiring National Park.

I say the ride of your life because I can't think of anywhere where you can ride through scenery as fantastic. Funyakking offers you a total wilderness experience that is richly gratifying.

The Queenstown area is well-known for the adventure possibilities it offers. Funyakking could be termed a soft adventure. The adrenalin buzz is much less dramatic than, say, bungi-jumping. Anyone can take part without special fitness or previous experience.

Ten years ago a Frenchman living in New Zealand bought two funyaks, hoping that there would be an adventurer or two willing to pay for a ride through the country he adored. Now an average of 40 people a day funyak down the Dart, seven days a week, and the business has been sold to Shotover Jet, a Queenstown tourism company.

Eric Billoud, the aforementioned Frenchman, with 20 years of canoe guide and instructor experience, was our guide for the day when we went funyakking.

We drove to Glenorchy from our Queenstown base but you can start the funyak day by catching a company bus from Queenstown. If you think, as you drive along, that the 45-minute ride along the Lake Wakatipu shore is fantastic, breathe deeply.

There is fantastic-plus to come.

At Glenorchy, a small town dwarfed by high mountains and with postcard views at every turn, the funyak guides got our gear organised. As well as supplying a wetsuit, footwear, polar fleeces, shower jackets and lifejackets, they gave us dry bags for cameras. We were even given lengths of string to ensure we didn't lose our sunglasses in the water. All we'd had to bring was a spare set of underwear - alternatively a bathing suit - a hat, sun cream, and insect repellent. We forgot the last and wished we hadn't.

Then it was all aboard the jet boats that ferried us up-river for the next thrilling 75 minutes. As we sped into this world heritage park along the channels of the braided Dart River, the mountains were still wearing snow cloaks, the sky was blue except for feathers of cloud, and, most wondrous of all, there was nothing marring the landscape - no signs, no buildings, no roadways, no rubbish, just pristine wilderness.

In sight of the mountain peaks where some of the filming of Vertical Limit took place, we climbed ashore to make the transfer to the funyaks. Guides, one to every nine canoeists, unrolled the red bundles that had travelled up with us and pumped them up into Canadian-style canoes.

Then they gave us quick but efficient lessons on technique, and a safety briefing.

A funyak is not the most manoeuvrable of water vessels but its width makes it stable. It's rare for anyone to fall out.

There was the odd altercation in our canoe as the bridge (husband) and the crew (me) differed about technique. However, it didn't matter if we nosed into the bank instead of continuing downstream. The current did a lot of the work, and our guide, a patient man when you consider that he was once the whitewater kayak champion of France, was adept at leaping from his boat to redirect ours if we were wildly off course.

With no whitewater and few rocks, it was possible to drift and enjoy the dramatic glaciers and Jurassic-like forests.

An hour later, a leisurely lunch was provided at the mouth of a rain-fed tributary to the Dart.

Everyone had time to paddle into the narrow Rockburn Chasm, a spectacular example of how water, over the ages, can create a canyon where once there was solid rock. Children swam, rodless fisherman boggled at trout weaving through clear blue pools, overseas tourists and New Zealanders exchanged snippets of life stories.

Then it was back aboard the funyaks for the two-hour drift and paddle through more of the glorious wilderness country to the spot known as Paradise.

"Look back," Eric said, a passion for his chosen place showing in his face."No wonder this place was named Paradise."

We drank in the view of mountains and forest, of river and sky, depositing it in the memory bank to draw out on other days less ecstatic.

I've never been on a day's adventure with guides who were so patient, enthusiastic and friendly, where the day offered such thrilling variety, and where surroundings were so unforgettable.

I knew that next day I was going to have a sore muscle or two after some over-enthusiastic paddling.

But if you get the chance, go on a funyak trip down the Dart. You'll love it. Don't forget your insect repellent, because even in Paradise there are sandflies.

CASENOTES

GETTING THERE: The Funyaks bus will pick you up from wherever you are staying. If you are staying at Glenorchy or wish to drive yourself (45 mins from Queenstown), join up with the Funyaks guides at the Dart River Safari building.

TAKE: Swimsuit, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, camera or video.