How One Tetraplegic Paraglider Is Changing Adventure Travel in New Zealand

Jezza Williams is working to evolve inclusive travel—and often using his own body as a litmus test to prove what’s possible.

Williams flying with his paragliding buggy above Taylors Mistake, Christchurch, New Zealand. Courtesy of Jezza Williams

Jezza Williams’s addiction of choice has always been adventure. “Kids these days go looking for mischief in all the wrong places, when the best mischief is hucking yourself off a big cliff,” he says, eyes dancing. Williams, 46, has a wicked sense of humor and an innate propensity for pushing limits—even in the wake of a life-changing accident.

Williams has worked in the adventure tourism industry from the get-go: His first job was at Fox Peak ski field in Fairlie, in his native New Zealand, driving a grader on the ski field road. Ever enterprising, he lied about his age and taught himself how to drive the grader in the carpark.

By his mid-20s, Williams had clocked up several qualifications in outdoor recreation and leadership. For a decade, Williams lived on rivers, careening through jungles and deserts around the world. He ran seven-day trips on the Zambezi River in Zambia. He took people rafting through La Mosquitia rain forest in Honduras. He would fly into the United Kingdom and drive down to Morocco, then spend weeks running multiday trips in the Atlas Mountains. In New Zealand, he organized heli-rafting trips, taking guests in helicopters up to Class V rivers—classified as having extremely long and violent rapids by the International Scale of River Difficulty—and rafting down.

In Switzerland, he led canyoning trips, where flipping off waterfalls into pools below as part of the descent was second nature. Until one day in August 2010, when he was 34 years old, Williams misjudged his take-off. 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 on a Makingtrax trip, preparing to raft New Zealand’s Tongariro River Courtesy of Jezza Williams

“I shattered my C5 and C6 vertebrae and then landed in the bottom of the waterfall and ended up getting a bit manked up in there,” Williams says matter of factly. (By manked up, he means nearly drowned: As well as his spinal injury, his lungs were collapsing from inhaling water and sand.) After a rescue operation that involved a paramedic getting into canyoning gear and sent down the canyon, Williams was airlifted to a hospital where he spent four weeks in a coma.

When he woke up, he was breathing from a machine. Over the next 11 months, Williams had to learn how to eat, drink, and breathe as 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 out there “rocking and rolling,” while Williams was starting life over again, adapting to being dependent on the help of carers. He had arrived back in the gloomy winter months, which he spent 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 acknowledge that it’s been through extreme trauma. Then there was the mental battle. “You have lots of fears when you first have an injury. . . . You think Oh, I can’t go traveling, I can’t get back into the outdoors, let alone open a business,” he says. For the first time in Williams’s high-octane life, he had to slow down. Until, eight months into rehab, Williams decided it was time to go again. “I called up some mates and asked alright, What have we got going on? And that’s when I started to organize systems to get my body back into my world.”

And then, a realization: Williams was stunned by the lack of infrastructure and opportunity for people of different 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 work out how to get back into the outdoors. “I came up with ideas of how to go rafting, paragliding, skydiving. . . . It started off pretty basic with towels and duct tape,” he says.

Rider Jody Blatchley on a gravity quad—offered through Makingtrax—at Christchurch Adventure Park Courtesy of Jezza Williams

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

In 2015, he completed the Mongol Rally, a 16,000-mile trek from London to Mongolia, with river guiding and skydiving friends. It took two and a half months. After the rally, Williams returned to New Zealand and set out to become a paragliding pilot—in large part because it was a massive challenge. “I can go out in a sea kayak, I can go on rafts, but it’s not me in charge, you know? There are other people assisting me,” he says. “Paragliding is the only sport where I can just jump in a buggy and someone can throw me off a hill. That 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 paragliding buggies that have been designed for people with reduced mobility. They work for both solo and tandem flights. This means anyone with hand and arm function can learn to fly in a matter of weeks, a process that requires completing 40 flights at different locations. Helping pave the way for others to get their own paragliding licenses, or just go for leisure flights, is all part of Williams’s purpose. Even if the wider industry has been slow to see what’s possible, Williams’s vision has always been clear.

“Imagine this,” he says. “Someone [of any ability] could fly to New Zealand, go paragliding, and even get their own paragliding license. They can go mountain biking. Kayaking. They can do a tour around New Zealand with their family, with their friends, just like any average joe—because they are average joes.”

By Petrina Darrah

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