“It’s definitely connected?”, I asked laughing. Half joking, half deadly serious.
“I hope so, man” he replied, tightening the cord, “So when you run, just hold this shiny bit with two hands. Yup, that’s it. So, the ramp is seven metres, run eight and you’ve nailed it, bro.”
It was all on me.
Teetering on the edge of the abyss below, the platform seemed unstable, the cable flimsy. In these situations some people find a sense of calm. I didn’t.
Aware I was near on hyperventilating to prepare myself for the inevitable, I heard,
My body, stupidly, obeyed.
I ran at the edge, kicking out into nothing and screamed. I reached a high pitch I haven’t been able to attain since my choir days. I fell for what seemed like forever. I swore as loud as my lungs would allow, before the zipwire caught me and funneled my passage along the enormous gorge.
It’s experiences like this – jumping off a cliff in New Zealand – that stay with you long after the initial adrenaline rush has worn off, because they make the best stories. So when the folk at Flight Centre asked me to write a guide to New Zealand holidays, I thought I’d share some of my favourite experiences, in the form of a story. I hope you’ll enjoy them and feel inspired to travel to the Land of the Long White Cloud yourself.
New Zealand is challenging
“I honestly don’t know if I can keep going”
The pain was intense, my calves were on fire; each step was agony.
You’d think that after months of running and keeping fit in a gym, it would prepare you for situations just like this, but nothing can prepare you for the gradient. That feeling of lactic acid building in your muscles, screaming for release.
Earlier that morning we were in the tourism information office in Wanaka, a small town near the South Island capital of Queenstown. After asking about the route to Roy’s Peak – one of the prettiest hikes in the country – we discovered that the route was closed for lambing season (1 Oct – 10 Nov) but, the tourism assistant said, smiling, that there was an alternative: Isthmus Peak. While Roy’s Peak is a 11km hike mostly non-stop uphill and around 5-6 hours in total, Isthmus Peak is a 16km hike averaging around 5-7 hours.
The tourism assistant was a sadist, for sure.
“Why don’t you go on without me?” But, despite my pleas, Kasha kept going, and I begrudgingly followed. At this point going down would have been just as arduous.
The trail seemed to go on forever, zigzagging back and forth, but always at an extreme gradient.
After some agonising false peaks that nearly brought me to tears, we summited and suddenly the land opened up before us.
The wind whipped coolly past our faces, soothing skin flushed with exertion. We’d made it. Endless vistas of ice-capped mountains rising from glacier-carved valleys and deep, glassy lakes. A simple wooden pole was the only sign that we’d summited. We sat beside a rough shrub and greedily devoured our still-warm pies from the wrappers, savouring the heat. Taking one last look behind us, Kasha and I descended back down, unable to stop smiling. We slept well that night.
New Zealand is wildlife
A silence prevailed. All eyes were watching, waiting.
The boat gently rocked back and forth.
The only sound was the waves lapping against the portside.
It was almost as though everyone was holding their breath.
All along the water, we watched.
A faint ripple along the surface in the distance and a shout comes up. The engines start and we circle in. It’s time. My heart raced and I held on to a rail as we swung about. One by one we waddled to the edge of the boat in our clumsy flippers, attached our snorkel and fell into the open water.
Despite the thickness of the wetsuit, the moment you hit the freezing water it took your breath away. Instinctively, my legs kicked hard, as I tried to keep my head afloat and catch my breath. All around me people were flapping around. Yellow flippers and snorkels kicking inexpertly on the surface of the water.
Then I saw it, a dorsal fin cut neatly through the water on my right. I took a breath and dove under, the Go Pro on my arm blinking a red dot in front of me.
The water was deep and dark. A murky teal that faded to black. The surface above shone blue and white in comparison. I span around trying to see through the gloom. A silver shape shot past from the corner of my eye. Turning, I saw it. The crescent-like shape of a dusky dolphin appeared directly in front of me – not but a few feet from my face. The smooth, white skin on its flanks was swept with a metal grey. Its dorsal fin was ever so slightly notched. It was a moment that seemed to last forever. The dolphin’s snout was cut through with crooked smile that dipped slightly downward, mischievously. It was the eyes that drew my attention though. A dark grey circle, with an eyelid drooped lazily half-open. With the white of his eyes looking into mine, he regarded me for a fraction of a second. A single, deftly smooth motion with his tail fin and the dolphin glided past me and into the darkness below. A horn blared out above me on the surface. It was time for me to go.
New Zealand is imagination
“The road we’re driving along didn’t used to be here. The New Zealand army actually built it just for the movie.”
We gazed out the windows. Impossibly lush greenery was peppered with newly born lambs, each jumping around excitedly. It almost didn’t look real.
Kasha and I were quiet, our hands unconsciously fingering the controls of our cameras. We’d been dreaming of visiting this place since we were teenagers.
A wooden gate flanked by bluebells led us in. Before us were low wooden fences, a sign that pointed to West and East Farthing and sheep-dotted rolling green hills. Each hill came with its own chimney and round, pastel-coloured wooden door. Some doors were smaller than others, about half the height of an adult. “For perspective,” our guide explained. A vegetable patch, complete with scarecrow, was surrounded by wooden posts so weathered by moss that they looked hundreds of years old – the kind of fence you’d expect to see surrounding an ancient monastery in Wales. We followed the path upward, passing quaint letter boxes, stacks of freshly chopped wood, flower pots, rakes and spades, bird houses, tiny laundry lines drying tiny sets of clothes and wooden rocking chairs.
At the top of the hill, under an old oak tree, in a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit, apparently. Small, stone steps led up to an entrance with a perfectly round, green door with a shiny yellow brass knob. A sign was nailed to the wooden gate outside. It said simply, ‘no admittance, except on party business’.
New Zealand is adventure
“At one point you will have to jump backwards down a waterfall.”
A reassuring thing to hear so early in the morning, I thought.
“Keep your head low and make sure your feet are first.”
We each had an inflated rubber ring, wetsuit, torch and helmet. We entered the cave, clumsily since the surface of the rocks were slippery. After navigating sharp rocks, we heard the sound of running water. This subterranean river was black and cold. The cave smelt of petrichor and nothing else.
We stumbled in, sliding the rubber rings beneath us and grasping a worn rope to pull us along. It was quiet. The only sounds were the dripping of rainwater as it made its way ever downwards and the slow running of the stream.
The seemingly endless cave system in Waitomo is reason enough to visit, but we were looking for something even more special.
We reached an impasse and clambered out the chilly water. Before us was a drop, an underground waterfall. It was only a metre or so, but it was a drop nonetheless. When it was my turn, I clenched the rubber ring and turned around at the edge. My legs wobbled with nerves. I pushed myself over. For a millisecond, the black water enveloped me, submerging me in the noiseless dark. I bobbed to the surface and the sounds of the cave returned.
Soon, our guide asked us to turn off our head torches and lie on our backs single file to float our way down a narrow passage. When the lights turned off I was instantly blind. Soon though, my eyes adjusted. As I lay on my back I started to see sparks. A soft, blue glow. Everywhere I looked I could see more. Glow worms.
This unique larvae species creates bioluminescence to catch prey. Looking out onto the endless twinkling lights, it reminded me so much of gazing up at a night sky, searching for constellations – a way to make sense of what I was seeing. It gave me the same feeling, of being small in comparison to the enormity of the universe. The group floated on, every set of eyes focused on the sparkle of lights before they faded slowly from view.
This post was sponsored by Flight Centre, though the personal experiences I’ve recounted are all my own, as always.