Kiwis are renown for their ingenuity.
But the Shotover Canyon FOX takes that ingenuity and inventiveness to a whole other stratosphere. NASA should be watching. Because what Shotover Canyon Fox has done across a river valley in Central Otago in 2016 is almost the equivalent of putting a man on the moon in 1969.
Already having achieved world famous success with the Shotover Canyon SWING (first of its cliff launch drop/swing kind in the world), the company wanted to go UP another notch. The idea of a flying fox, or a zipline, a fast and furious ride across the canyon, was put on the table.
But they didn’t want just any zipline. They didn’t want just any cruisy, relatively un-daunting flying fox. True to form, what they had in mind was a “not your typical backyard” variety.
So they enlisted the help of three international zipline experts. These highly qualified engineers and geophysicists had created ziplines in various far-flung corners of the world – mountainous areas in China, Amazonian rainforests and US canyons. Each successively stood on the precipice nearly 200m above the Shotover Canyon, swallowed hard and stepped back.
“No, it can’t be done,” they all said, one after the other.
But the creators of The FOX wouldn’t take NO for an answer.
Company director Hamish Emerson – and one of the originators of the Shotover Canyon Swing (50 metres below) – kept scribbling on the back of an envelope. “But what if we try this…” he kept repeating. A mountain climber, an addicted swinger (off a cable) and an expert at scaring the bejeesus out of anyone on a rope, the non qualified and ever grinning Emerson understood that although “science is linear, the trick is to think outside the square, to think laterally.”
Ironically it was a local kiwi engineer, Glyn Lewers, who Emerson finally managed to convince of his madcap ideas.
“I don’t think we fully realised the scope of what the company was trying to do,” Lewers laughs. “Hamish would drip feed you information so he wouldn’t scare you straight off.”
The biggest obstacle – and the reason The FOX is now so terrifying (in a good way of course) – was gravity. Most ziplines around the world have little in the way of altitude loss. The Shotover Canyon Fox has quite a bit. The trick is getting over the canyon without “smashing into the South Island”. What was needed was simply ensuring “a bit of slack”.
Unlike every other zipline in the world which operates on tight cable pulled taut with no slack, The FOX has a magnificent “bow” of cable slung across the valley. Tension was the crucial factor. One sacrificial barrel of water after another was let loose on the cable, until the critical tension – not too fast, not too slow, too much slack, too little slack – was achieved.
But it was the braking and retrieval system that called for more than a little Number Eight Wire. And another few sketches on the back of an envelope.
Lewers – structural engineer all his life – admits he could never have come up with the solution, congratulating Emerson on his ingenuity.
“The braking, winch and retrieval mechanism is pretty impressive. It was a completely new invention, so getting certification for something without precedent, was tricky.”
Emerson describes how he came upon the idea of the winch/retrieval mechanism, otherwise known affectionately as the ‘cannon’. “I was sitting on a plane watching the baggage handling from a conveyor belt. It was like a telescope. And I figured out that was what we needed.”
Lewers was aware, however, that he, as the professional engineer, was the one taking on the risk and putting his reputation on the line.
“I’ve got to live with this for the rest of my life,” he says guardedly, trying to laugh.
But he was in safe hands. The operation might appear good humoured to the point of being casual, but both the Swing and the Fox have exemplary safety standards – during construction and today in operation. The company ensures every component of The FOX is tested to a level far and above what’s required. At one point the cable was slung between two huge earth moving trucks pulling and testing to a force of up to eight tonne. They would have not one, but three safety back ups on the retrieval system. Every building structure and component – every cable, every piece of webbing, carabiner, harness, trolley, wheel and every piece of number eight wire technology – was and is continued to be tested to the max.
Even so, when it came time for Lewers – the engineer largely responsible for the entire project who had witnessed the rigorous testing of every component to the ‘nth’ degree of safety – to ride The Shotover Canyon Fox (as required for final sign off), he froze.
He’d seen the barrels “drop away” in freefall until the line to the harness took up the slack. He’d stood on the other side of the valley and witnessed the massive “wave” action oscillating in three dimensions through the cable. And he’d teetered on the cliff edge a great many times, carefully tethered, looking down at the river gorge 180 metres below.
It was half an hour before he could finally step (or was he pushed?) off the platform.
“Once the drop’s over I could tolerate it,” he says. “I’ve done it three times now and I can finally go over with my eyes open.”
The crux of the operation is that the passenger can determine their level of fear.
Like Lewers, not everyone wants to be completely petrified. With a hydraulic lift on the platform and a range of jump or launch styles, the “drop away” can either be of moderate adrenaline surge (terror), or extreme.
It’s also a journey – two lines for the price of one, there and back again, with a view to die for. Emerson talks up the outlook from the platform on the other side – from where clients have a bird’s eye view of the stunning Shotover Canyon, and can witness the launch and hear the screams from the Canyon Swing, below.
Just as they made history with the Canyon Swing, Lewers, Emerson and the team at Shotover Canyon Fox have built the first and only one of its kind in the world, a phenomenon of a FOX. They have developed technology that had previously not existed, and created an adventure experience unparalleled anywhere on earth.
“I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved,” says both Lewers and Emerson.
And those engineers who said it couldn’t be done? One of them came on site shortly after the Shotover Canyon Fox finally opened and took the plunge.
“Holy Sh*t, you’ve done it,” he said, “this is out of this world.”