How Jezza Williams Is Changing Adventure Travel in New Zealand

Jezza Williams’ favorite addiction has always been adventure. “Kids these days go looking for mischief in all the wrong places, while the best mischief is running yourself off a big cliff,” he says with dancing eyes. Williams, 46, has a wicked sense of humor and an innate tendency to push boundaries, even after a life-changing accident.

Williams has worked in the adventure tourism industry since its inception: his first job was at the Fox Peak ski field in Fairlie, in his native New Zealand, driving a grader on the ski field road. He was always enterprising, lying about his age and teaching himself how to drive the grader in the parking lot.

By his mid-twenties, Williams had earned several qualifications in outdoor recreation and leadership. For a decade, Williams lived on rivers and rampaged through jungles and deserts around the world. He did seven-day trips on the Zambezi River in Zambia. He took people rafting through the rainforest of La Mosquitia in Honduras. He would fly to the UK and drive to Morocco, then go on multi-day treks in the Atlas Mountains for weeks. In New Zealand, he organized heli-rafting trips, taking guests in helicopters to Class V rivers – classified as extremely long and violent rapids according to the International Scale of River Difficulty – and rafting them down.

In Switzerland he led canyoning trips where it was second nature to the descent to plunge waterfalls into puddles below as part of the descent. Until one day in August 2010, when he was 34 years old, Williams misjudged his start. Instead of making a graceful swan dive from the top of a waterfall, he slipped. The back of his helmet hit a rock on the way down.

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Participants in a Makingtrax trip, preparing to raft on New Zealand’s Tongariro River

Thanks to Jezza Williams

“I shattered my C5 and C6 vertebrae and then ended up at the bottom of the waterfall and ended up getting a little tangled up there,” Williams says matter-of-factly. (By recovered, he means nearly drowned: In addition to his spinal cord injury, his lungs collapsed from inhaling water and sand.) After a rescue operation in which a paramedic got into canyoning gear and descended the canyon, Williams was airlifted to a hospital where he killed four people. was in a coma for weeks.

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When he woke up, he was breathing from a machine. Over the next 11 months, Williams had to learn to eat, drink and breathe like a C5 tetraplegic. (Williams can raise his arms and bend his elbows.) Returning home to New Zealand in June 2011 was difficult. His friends were still ‘seeing and rolling’ as Williams started life anew, adjusting to dependence on the help of caregivers. He’d come back to the dreary winter months, going to rehab two or three times a week and working on 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 have an injury for the first time. . . . You think Oh, I can’t go traveling, I can’t get out into the great outdoors again, let alone open a business,” he says. For the first time in Williams’ high-octane life, he had to slow down. Until after eight months of rehab, Williams decided it was time to go again. “I called some friends and asked well, What’s wrong with us? And then I started organizing systems to get my body back into my world.”

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And then a realization: Williams was stunned by the lack of infrastructure and opportunities for people of varying abilities in New Zealand’s adventure tourism industry. And so he drew on his industry knowledge, determination, and willingness to use himself as a guinea pig to figure out how to get back into the great outdoors. “I came up with ideas to go rafting, paragliding, skydiving. . . . It started out pretty simple with towels and duct tape,” he says.

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Rider Jody Blatchley on a gravity quad – offered through Makingtrax – at Christchurch Adventure Park

Thanks to Jezza Williams

On October 25, 2012, his birthday, Williams launched Makingtrax, an organization committed to inclusion in adventure travel. His goal was to set an industry standard, teach operators how to be more inclusive, and guide people toward inclusive businesses. Today, Makingtrax is a spearhead of inclusive travel in New Zealand, with the first of its kind inclusive travel guide highlighting the activities that people of all abilities can participate in, from skydiving to whale watching. Williams was constantly pushing the boundaries to show exactly what those activities could be.

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In 2015, he completed the Mongol Rally, a 16,000-mile journey from London to Mongolia, with river guides and skydiving friends. It took two and a half months. After the rally, Williams returned to New Zealand and wanted to become a paragliding pilot, largely because it was a huge challenge. ‘I can go in a sea kayak, I can go on rafts, but I’m not the boss, 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 throw me off a hill. That gives me my own buzz.” He got the permit.

After securing funding from philanthropic financier the Rātā Foundation and the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, Williams purchased four paragliding buggies designed for people with reduced mobility. They operate 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 others pave the way to get their own paragliding licenses, or just going for leisure flights is all part of Williams’ goal. Even if the wider industry has been slow to see what’s possible, Williams’ vision has always been clear.

“Imagine this,” he says. “someone [of any ability] can fly to New Zealand, paraglide and even get their own paragliding license. They can go mountain biking. kayaking. They can tour New Zealand with their family, with their friends, just like any average Joe – because they are average Joes.



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