“Come down from the mountain and see where we’ve been…”

When the idea of travel is just an idea, a tickling nagging thought that refuses to go away (which I implore you not to ignore) there will come a time when you might do some research. It might be just Googling a country you have long admired but never been to. It might be to read a travel blog (I know a great one about pancakes) or watch a travel vlog or even just daydream a little more about far off lands.

What I did was delve into the realms of travel photography. I favourited a few websites that showcased the natural world in all its glory and made it look even more beautiful than you could believe it can ever be. It was during this research that I found “Roy’s Peak.” This is a mountain in New Zealand with spectacular views and it just so happened to have the same name as my dad. It was decided then and there, I would climb this incredible mountain.

Fast forward about a year and here I was in New Zealand. We’d driven into Wanaka, gotten some information about the climb and the weather looked perfect for the next day too. Everything seemed set. Apart from my back. My back had (yet again) chosen one of those perfect moments in life to decide it wasn’t happy with my terrible posture and lifelong ambition to clean up after animals until it crumbled into oblivion. What was really frustrating was that I had spent the past month sleeping in the back of a car yet the one day I checked into a hostel with real actual beds I woke up the next morning with a crick in my spine.

Not to be easily outdone by the failings of my body Pete and I awoke at some unearthly hour in the morning to start the climb in near darkness. We hadn’t gone far when I realised I just wouldn’t make it to the top. The climb was a very difficult one and with every other step my back would twinge in complaint. I doggedly tried with a slow determined pace and many stops but it wasn’t going to happen. I was devastated. We walked up as far as I thought I could manage (and had to duck suddenly as a paraglider swooped over us incredibly low) and that was where we had to stop. The sun gently rose, highlighting the surroundings in the golden light of the morning and we could still admire a truly beautiful view but with the added frustration of not having seen it from the top.

The rest of that day was spent racking our brains trying to think of activities we could do which wouldn’t hurt my back too much. A slight problem for a couple of outdoor loving adrenaline junkies. However I was having another one of those tickling nagging ideas that was refusing to go away. I had been considering paragliding quietly for a few weeks but after our encounter on the slopes of Roy’s Peak I had another think. All I had to do was sit down in a seat and when I phoned to ask about landing they said you had an air bag underneath your bum so I wouldn’t jar my back. Sorted!

The one thing we had to consider was Peter’s view of heights. He is in no way a phobic like me with Snakes but does get a little nervous of them so we booked me in to fly and Peter would consider it in the morning.

It was a beautiful day to fly and we drove up to the spot, wondering where it would be that we would actually walk off the mountain from. We watched a few people glide effortlessly over our heads and land with grace and elegance until it was our turn to head up the mountain. Peter came with me up the big hill after we decided that I would go first then he could watch and go along with the next group if he felt confident enough.

As we meandered up the steep track in an ancient van the height became almost inconceivable and the views ever more far reaching. The jump spot (for want of a better term as you don’t actually jump) was at 1100 feet and I was grinning at the thought of hurling myself off it but Peter was still looking wary. He watched as I was strapped to the canvas and my instructor and shown how to be the engine for the flight (basically run as fast as you can taking big steps until told otherwise). It was all becoming very real very quickly and I felt it necessary to explain that by this point I was feeling a little nervous. I clarified with the instructor that he did, in fact, want me to run off the side of this mountain (which he did) and before I knew it there was just no time to think or do anything than just that. We ran forward, I let out an involuntary “waaaa!” And then we flew.

After that huge adrenaline surge everything became so peaceful as we glided through the sky. I sat back in the seat, looked down at my feet, ignored the fact that falling seemed a distinct possibility and enjoyed the ride. We soared over mountain tops, sailed over waterfalls, chased our own shadow far below us and tried to catch some thermals to take us even higher. The sky seemed never ending in every direction.

I was allowed to have a go at steering us and was surprised by how much force is needed to turn. I was expecting each delicate movement to have a massive impact (such as when my friend let me fly her plane back home) but you had to tug at the handles with great force to move in any particular direction. Once my instructor took the controls back he did some acrobatics which was rather intense and eventually we came in to land.

I couldn’t stop grinning and remembering the stunning scenery we had seen as we flew.

Whilst watching me Peter had made the brave decision to definitely do it so I waited at the bottom and watched his flight. Once he was down he was grinning with that big smile of his and i was so glad he’d found the strength to make the jump. We decided the rest of the day should be a more chilled affair and so spent it snorkelling in lake Wanaka and reminiscing about the incredible nature of Paragliding.

We eventually felt the pull and call of Queenstown under the millions of recommendations from friends. In all honesty I couldn’t imagine how it could live up to all this hype. Oh how wrong I was!

We pulled in and managed to find free parking. This was rare and a massive tick in a huge box! The delight of the freedom of roaming the country in a car is somewhat curtailed whenever you pull into somewhere you want to stop and have the problem of what to do with the car. Free parking seems to be a concept that just does not exist in most popular places and it becomes frustrating. Instead of enjoying the exploration of a new place you are clock watching to see if it’s time to move your car again. However in Queenstown we’d managed to find a free space easily and could get on with the business of falling in love with the place.

We had a brief walk around in which I found a market with live music, a beautiful harbour side, interesting shops and a really good vibe. And then, as it often does, Peter’s stomach dictated our next move. I’d read of a place in our guidebook who’s name eluded to lots of delicious and potentially exotic meats prepared in expert and potentially foreign ways. Upon finally locating it however it just seemed like an expensive place where lamb went to be consumed. Not at all as exciting as we had hoped. And so instead we decided to do something we try to avoid.

We joined the masses.

I had heard that “FergBurger” was a touristic attraction rather than a place to eat these days and I couldn’t understand why that would be. After all, Peter and I had eaten the best burgers in the world in Bergen, Norway so how could they be beaten? FergBurger was easy to find simply from the queue. It stretched half way down the street complete with stressed looking staff ushering people back and forth where they needed to be. It defied belief but we shrugged and joined the queue eager to see what all the fuss was about.

I have never, in my life, enjoyed a burger that much. It was a thing of beauty. A taste sensation! A delectable delight on your tongue! I even ate the green stuff it came with because it actually complimented the taste (for once). Beside me, Peter was practically crying at the sheer joy of his burger and we watched in fascination as the staff assembled them at a rate of knots. We now understood the hype and quickly became part of it. We encouraged everyone we saw to go and the next day, to my utter shame and disbelief, Peter insisted that we go again. And we did.

Apart from the food Queenstown also offered us something we had wanted to try out for a while. The Luge. For those who don’t know it’s like a go carting track without accelerators. Gravity and brakes do all the work and it really is tremendous fun. Upon the top of another mountain we sped down the tracks at an alarming speed and they had some great bends, tunnels and dips to navigate along the way. The view as we went down was ridiculously beautiful and I could understand why someone could go to Queenstown and experience a lot of what the whole of New Zealand has to offer. Peter, however failed to notice any of this as he was too busy seeing just how fast he could go round the corners, making zoomy noises and attempting to get air time over the big hills. He’s such a big kid.

Before we headed back to Wanaka there was one more thing we had been considering. Now when I talked earlier of pre-travel research, just days before we were due to leave I stumbled across a travel vlog called “The Way Away” which consists of a wonderfully upbeat American couple travelling Europe for a year. I became hooked and spent three hours in one evening watching their adventures. Throughout our own trip I would continue to watch theirs and got a lot of inspiration from it. One thing they talked about a lot was their love for free walking tours. It was never something I would have considered but they made them look like so much fun on their videos that I thought we should give one a try. We found one in Queenstown.

We diligently rocked up to the meeting place on time, met with a very hairy bearded man and a few other tourists and the tour began. We were literally taken on a whirlwind tour of Maori history, myth, legend, recent history, stories and tales from the gold rush, memories from our guide, recommendations for enjoying Queenstown to the max and even free beer and cookies thrown in for good measure. It was truly excellent. We both learnt a lot, enjoyed ourselves, appreciated Queenstown even more than we already did and had a new appreciation for walking tours in general. They really put everything in context for you.

It was a heavy heart that we left Queenstown as I would loved to have stayed longer. However the cheapest camp sites were a fair distance away and I didn’t know how long Peter’s innards could cope with consistent FergBurgers and artisan ice creams (although we seemed to eat the later wherever we went).

We headed back to Wanaka, now that my back was healing nicely, to do one last thing on our wish list: Canyoneering. We had been considering it since we left our work stay in January but the expense and my nervousness about water had been holding us back. However we were determined to do it and after seeing how brave Peter had been in dealing with heights I wanted to follow his noble example and plunge into a pool in which my feet could not touch the ground. The fact that I would be in an extremely buoyant wet suit certainly helped matters.

The canyon itself was a narrow chasm (don’t you just love that word!) of rushing water, smooth rock and the odd tinge of jungle. The idea was to abseil, slide, swim, walk, zip line, climb and jump your way out of it. This was all very fun, exhilarating, COLD and challenging and involved me swallowing what felt like three quarters of the entire stream by the end of it. However I came out beaming because I had managed something I had never done before and that was to leap into a body of water voluntarily (I had been forced once when I was younger by a terrifying swimming instructor but we won’t talk about that). In fact I did it more than once. After abseiling down most of a waterfall there was an option of just letting go and landing in the waterfall itself. As I dangled a few feet from the bottom I contemplated this knowing that I couldn’t sink in my suit, I wouldn’t have another opportunity and Peter was right there should anything go wrong.

So I let go.

What felt like an eternity later I re-surfaced feeling exhilarated that I’d done something which I would never have thought I’d be able to do. But later on in the stream I had another one of those opportunities. Encouraged by the rest of the group I actually leapt off a 3.5 metre rock into a deep pool. I’d never even felt the sensation of the free fall before (which I loved) and, once again, I surfaced, coughing and spluttering but alive and undefeated! For most people this wouldn’t seem like such a big deal but for someone who took a year just to gain her 10 metre swimming badge and was told by her friend (a few weeks before we set off travelling) that “you just don’t float!” It seemed a massive accomplishment.

I love this about travel. I’ve found it’s not so much about finding yourself but forcing yourself. If you have a limitation you are just not happy with it’s a chance to challenge and change it. Climb to the top of that mountain and contemplate all the ways of getting back down to the bottom again. Or, in my case, accept that some mountains just can’t be climbed and that some goals cannot be achieved. Once that has been accepted it’s wonderfully freeing. Facing the mountains of your internal daemons may be a million times more terrifying but once you make that leap, feel the free fall and splash down into those consequences it’s amazing how much more confident you might be able to feel. How much bravery armour you may now wear. As the great Emily Dickenson says “If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.”

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