How Jezza Williams is changing adventure travel in New Zealand

Jezza Williams’ addiction of choice has always been adventure. “Children these days look for mischief in the wrong places, when the best mischief is to rush off a big cliff,” he says, his eyes dancing. Williams, 46, has a sense of humor and an innate propensity to push boundaries, even in the wake of a life-changing accident.

Williams worked in the adventure tourism industry from the start: his first job was at the Fox Peak ski area in Fairlie, in his native New Zealand, driving a grader on the road to the ski area. Always enterprising, he lied about his age and taught himself to drive the grader in the parking lot.

By his mid-twenties, Williams had accumulated several qualifications in outdoor recreation and leadership. For a decade, Williams lived on rivers, traversing jungles and deserts around the world. He organized seven-day trips on the Zambezi River in Zambia. He took people rafting in the La Mosquitia rainforest in Honduras. He would fly to the UK and travel to Morocco, then spend weeks on multi-day trips to the Atlas Mountains. In New Zealand, he has organized heli-rafting trips, taking guests by helicopter to Class V rivers – classified as having extremely long and violent rapids by the International Scale of River Difficulty – and in rafting.

In Switzerland, he led canyoning tours, where tumbling waterfalls into sunken pools as part of the descent was second nature. Until one day in August 2010, when he was 34, Williams misjudged his takeoff. Instead of executing a graceful swan dive from the top of a waterfall, he slipped. The back of his helmet hit a rock on the way down.

Participants of a Makingtrax trip, preparing to go rafting on the Tongariro River in New Zealand

Courtesy of Jezza Williams

“I shattered my C5 and C6 vertebrae, then landed at the bottom of the waterfall and ended up getting a little puffy in there,” Williams says matter-of-factly. (By manked, he means nearly drowned: in addition to his spinal injury, his lungs were collapsing from inhaling water and sand.) a hospital where he spent four weeks in a coma .

When he woke up, he was breathing through a machine. Over the next 11 months, Williams had to learn to eat, drink and breathe as a C5 quadriplegic. (Williams can raise his arms and bend his elbows.) Returning to New Zealand in June 2011 was difficult. His friends were still there “tilting and rolling”, while Williams started life anew, adjusting to reliance on help from caregivers. He had returned during the dark winter months, spending time in rehab two or three times a week and working out his body. He was weak, he says, pointing out that it takes about two years for a body to recognize that it has suffered extreme trauma. Then there was the mental battle. “You have a lot of fears when you get injured for the first time. . . . You think Oh, I can’t travel, I can’t go back outside, let alone open a business.,” he says. For the first time in Williams’ hectic life, he had to slow down. Until, eight months into his rehab, Williams decided it was time to move on. “J called some friends and asked okay, What are we doing? And that’s when I started organizing systems to put my body back into my world.

And then, a realization: Williams was stunned by the lack of infrastructure and opportunities for people of different abilities in New Zealand’s adventure tourism industry. So he relied on his industry knowledge, determination, and willingness to use himself as a guinea pig to figure out how to get back out there. “I found ideas for rafting, paragliding, skydiving. . . . It all started pretty basic with napkins and duct tape,” he says.


Rider Jody Blatchley on a Gravity Quad – provided by Makingtrax – at Christchurch Adventure Park

Courtesy of Jezza Williams

On October 25, 2012, her birthday, Williams launched Makingtrax, an organization dedicated to inclusion in adventure travel. Its goal was to set an industry standard, educate operators on how to be more inclusive, and guide people towards inclusive businesses. Today, Makingtrax is spearheading inclusive travel in New Zealand, with the first inclusive travel directory of its kind highlighting activities people of all abilities can take part in, from skydiving to whale watching. Williams was constantly pushing the boundaries to show exactly what those activities could be.

In 2015 he completed the Mongol Rally, a 16,000 mile trek from London to Mongolia, with river guide and skydiving friends. It took two and a half months. After the rally, Williams returned to New Zealand and set out to become a paraglider pilot, largely because it was a huge challenge. “I can go out in sea kayaks, I can go on rafts, but I don’t manage it, you know? There are other people who help me,” he says. “Paragliding is the only sport where I can just jump in a buggy and someone can throw me off a hill. It gives me my own buzz. He got the license.

After securing funding from philanthropic funder the Rātā Foundation and the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, Williams acquired four paraglider buggies designed for people with reduced mobility. They work for both solo and tandem flights. This means that anyone with hand and arm function can learn to fly in a matter of weeks, a process that requires 40 flights in different locations. Helping to pave the way for others to obtain their own paragliding licenses, or simply for recreational flying, is part of Williams’ goal. Even though the entire industry has been slow to see what’s possible, Williams’ vision has always been clear.

“Imagine that,” he said. “Someone [of any ability] could fly in New Zealand, go paragliding and even get their own paragliding licence. They can go mountain biking. Kayak. They can go around New Zealand with their family, with their friends, like any average joe, because they are average joes.

About Ethel Partin

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