After 18 hours on airplanes, and without so much as a nap, I was already panting up a steep, narrow path, beginning a jog around a small mountain. It wasn’t my idea, but if exercising the body can soothe the soul and settle the mind, it wasn’t a bad one.
This was the beginning of my trip around New Zealand with Kristin, a childhood friend who has never met an outdoor solo sport she doesn’t like. She’s been a downhill ski racer and a competitive mountain biker and has also taken seriously to skate-skiing, windsurfing, running, and whitewater kayaking. Lately, she had been getting into rock climbing.
I’m a reasonably fit person who had done little or none of the above before this trip. I don’t like to fall down, and I look askance on activities, like mountain biking, that have evolved to require full body armor. My goal on this trip was simply to keep up. I wanted physical challenges to divert my attention from the winter’s discontents, which had thus far included a breakup and a move and more what-should-I-do-with-my-life moments than I cared to count. The southern summer and the mountains and beaches of New Zealand were going to be our playground. At best, I might find a new passion. At worst, I would get a lot of exercise. I was secretly hoping for an epiphany, but I would settle for distraction.
We flew straight to Queenstown on the South Island. It’s nestled in the Southern Alps on the crystalline shores of Lake Wakatipu and is the country’s self-styled “adventure capital.” Adventure comes in many forms, and our first, after loading our gear into a tiny rental car, was to visit a couple of the many local wineries while reacquainting ourselves with left-side driving. Our appetites thus whetted, we cruised into the touristy center of town for lunch.
In the winter, Queenstown becomes a ski village, but in the summer it’s ground zero for the marketing of sports-that-aren’t-really-sports. New Zealand companies have brilliantly monetized the indiscriminate quest for experience, in the process pioneering myriad ways to use gravity for fun and profit. Queenstown storefronts thus offer all the latest variations on bungee jumping (tandem, in a cage, etc.); parachuting and ballooning; “canyoning,” in which you put on a helmet and wetsuit and fling yourself down a long, rocky waterfall; “jetboating,” in which you ride whitewater rapids and do spin-outs as a passenger in a motor boat; and “Zorbing,” in which the customer plummets down a hillside in a giant plastic padded sphere.
I had vetoed “adventures” like these. Partly because, as I said, I don’t like to fall down (although I was convinced to bungee jump on my last trip to New Zealand), partly because they’re expensive, and partly because the amount of effort involved—open wallet, jump—strikes me as cheating. I wanted to feel a sense of accomplishment. I wanted to hurt. So, we had crafted a trip that would include hiking, sea-kayaking, on- and off-road cycling, windsurfing, and rock climbing. And, it turned out, jogging, which I normally consider an exercise of last resort. (My taste runs more to salsa dancing and yoga.) I would either feel accomplished in the end or miserably inadequate.
For our first hike, we took a gondola from Queenstown up to the beginning of a trail that leads to the top of Ben Lomond, a 1,746-meter peak. It was not a long hike—we figured we could get to the top in two hours—but much of it was steep. First we overheated in the bright sun, then we were wind-whipped as we walked along an exposed ridge. Kristin wore her magical fluorescent orange top, which is made of a fabric that warms, cools, and never gets wet. It would also, I mused, make her easy to find, from outer space if necessary, should she get lost in the wilderness. Apparently, no one does sports in cotton anymore. Except me.
We scrambled the final rocky stretch to the peak and sat down to enjoy the view, which took in the long, curving lake below and the surrounding peaks of two ranges, the Remarkables and the Eyre Mountains. A couple of hang gliders drifted below us in the distance. I ate my blueberries, suspecting that, just as I never really travel solely for the destination, sheer alpine beauty is not the only reason I like to walk up hills. I think it also has something to do with staying in motion.
A young Japanese woman in lavender eye shadow and bright red gloves had zipped past us on the way up. When we invaded her solo occupation of the peak, she offered to take our picture. I commented on her admirable speed. “If I stop, I can’t start,” she explained, and then she was away again down the mountain.
We had planned a long drive for the afternoon, aiming to get to Okarito, a tiny settlement on a big lagoon, by nightfall. As we moved away from Queenstown, the terrain grew wilder, and we left wineries and manicured orchards behind. It was still sunny when we stopped in Wanaka, another mountain town on a beautiful lake, but raining by the time we passed through Mount Aspiring National Park. We skirted lakes and mountains to get to the South Island’s rugged West Coast, where the peaks drop dramatically to the sea, bug repellent is essential, and, a Kiwi friend had told us, it always rains. The West Coast is home to spectacular glaciers, or so it is alleged. The clouds cleared for almost a full five minutes during our drive, and we caught a glimpse, high above, of either the Franz Josef glacier or an unusually bright, stationary cloud.
When we put our sea kayaks in Okarito lagoon the next morning, the peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman were still lost in the mist. Below their dark lower slopes, a primeval-looking jungle hugged the lagoon, which covers more than 12 square miles. Paddling up some of its narrower fingers, we spotted several kotukus, a kind of white heron that nests in the area along with some 70 other bird species.
Sea kayaking is essentially the maritime version of walking, good for leisurely exploration of natural nooks and crannies. The only challenging moments came when we stalled out on a sand bar and had to rock and roll our vessels into deeper water. (It was shallow enough, but certainly not warm enough, to get out and pull.) As we emerged from one of the fingers into the wider lagoon, I realized that the clouds had crept further down the mountains, obliterating them entirely. Also, it was pouring. The Maori word for New Zealand is Aotearoa, which means “land of the long white cloud,” and we seemed to be in it. We paddled slowly and soggily for shore.