Words by Jane Finn Photography by Jan Helebrant – As published in the summer issue of Planet Golf Review
It’s 6:45 in the morning, and the rain continues to beat a constant tattoo on the roof of our camper van. We had planned to leave Wellington yesterday, but the seas were running so high that our ferry crossing was cancelled. Instead, we’ve spent the night on the dock, wedged between two transport trucks, somewhat buffeted by the fierce winds ripping through New Zealand’s capital. Patiently waiting in the queue, I cross my fingers and pray that the weather gods will cooperate, and within minutes the horn sounds, signaling it’s time to commence boarding.
Typically, once we’re aboard, I race for the upper deck to get an unobstructed view, but today the skies are gray and gloomy, and I’m beginning to feel a bit dull. Rather than brave the elements, this time, I opt for a seat in the cabin where it’s warm and dry.
Our voyage across the Tasman Sea was uneventful, and as we approached Picton Harbour, I wandered outside. That’s when I realized it had been more than a week since I last saw the sun, and then, suddenly, the clouds parted, and my energy shifted. I look at the crowd waiting to disembark; everyone is beaming as brilliantly as the noon sun that has decided to grace us with her presence. It’s a good omen, and now I’m excited to get ashore and start exploring Te Waipounamu, New Zealand’s South Island.
“Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free with the world before me.” – Walt Whitman
Since I was a teenager, I’ve followed the road less travelled, but since then have also acquired enough wisdom to know that freedom has its price – delays, detours and disappointments. Sometimes you need to modify your itinerary or skip a destination altogether. Still, if you can go with the flow, you may stumble upon a hidden treasure and return with a memory that will last a lifetime.
My first disappointment was learning that we’d lost our spot at Abel Tasman National Park due to our late arrival. Fortunately, our motor home is self-contained, and we discovered that we can roadside at designated Department of Conservation sites, which opens a whole new realm of possibilities. So, with no destination in mind, we headed west in search of a place to stay the night, and what first appeared to be a tragic start to our vacation turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The sun was setting when we arrived at Cape Foulwind, and we quickly set up camp near the cliffs that dominated the shoreline. In Nelson, I had snagged some of the biggest, freshest scallops I’d ever seen, and as they sizzled in the cast iron pan over an open flame, the stress of the past few days melted away. Slowly the night grew darker, and the inky black sky provided the perfect backdrop for the myriad of stars shimmering overhead. With not another soul in sight, it was easy enough to imagine that we were 15th-century explorers as I drifted off to sleep lulled by the sound of waves rolling into shore. It is a gentle reminder that sometimes it can be an unexpected gift when things go awry.
I wake to a faint barking that becomes louder and more insistent as I traverse the rocky headland en route to the lighthouse. Halfway there, the din grows so loud that I drop to the ground and inch my way toward the edge of the cliff to determine the source. Beneath me, I find a massive colony of fur seals. It’s spring, and hundreds of newborn pups are being tutored by their mothers. I’m filled with a sense of renewal and appreciation for this moment I would have missed had circumstances and chance not led me here.
After discovering the sheer joy of road siding, we slow our pace and adjust our schedule accordingly. I’m not prepared for the awe-inspiring scenery I encounter around every bend and understand why my driving speed averages 30 to 50 kilometres per hour. I’m mesmerized by the sapphire seas and ancient outcroppings like Pancake Rocks. We stop so often that it’s no wonder it takes five hours to complete what should have been a two-hour drive.
As we move inland slowly, the topography changes. Soon, I’m overwhelmed by the vastness of Fox Glacier, the shadows cast by Mount Cook and the perfect reflection of the Earl Mountains in the calm, crystalline waters of Mirror Lakes. There is only one road between Te Anau to Milford Sound, including a stretch known as the Avenue of the Disappearing Mountain. Despite its growing popularity, this remains a wild and remote part of the country. So enthralled was I by the naturally occurring optical illusion that caused the majestic mountain before us to grow smaller as we approached until it sank below the horizon that I wanted to double back and do it again, but the niggling voice in my head said, press on. It’s not until we reach Thornton Burn at the tip of Fiordland National Park that I hear my inner voice again and throw my agenda out the window.
I thought I had done my homework and one day at Milford Sound would do it justice, but I was wrong! I’d read about the 53.5-kilometre trek over McKinnon’s Pass that I might have attempted if I was twenty years younger, but, in my heart, I know those days are behind me as I no longer had the stamina or rock-scrambling skills to complete such a journey.
Around the campfire at Thorton Burn, I listened with envy to the tales of those who had made the trek. Still, hope springs eternal, and after sharing my dreams with my fellow travellers, they made me aware that my limiting beliefs were holding me back as they shared several options that would allow us to experience nature’s magic and mystery in this corner of the world, our way. That’s when our planned overnighter turned into a three-day odyssey.
If we weren’t on the move for the next seventy-two hours, we were sleeping or fueling up for another day of adventure. We joined Trips & Tramps and gleefully trekked from Sandfly Point to the Giant’s Gate, then soared over Doubtful Sound in a six-seater plane. On our last day, we boarded Real NZ’s small ship to float by sky-scraping mountains and cruise beneath cascading waterfalls, so close that I felt the misty breath of Lady Bowen Falls as we explored the depths of Milford Sound.
I loved every minute, but my biggest highlight was under the spectre of Mitre Peak when a pod of dolphins appeared on our starboard side and led us to the nurse sharks’ nesting grounds. The children on board squealed with delight as the sharks circled the boat, drawing us into their dance, making us feel alive and present.
For as long as I live, I will remember how calm everyone was as we took our places in the jetboat and how within seconds, our united voices reached a high-pitched crescendo of excitement tinged with fear as we careened towards a limestone cliff. An audible sigh of relief followed when the captain deftly pivoted, executed a perfect 360° turn, then stopped on a dime before propelling us at record speed further along the Shotover River. This pattern would repeat itself several times over the next thirty minutes as we completed the first leg of The Triple Challenge.
Next, with the adrenaline still pumping, we all sprinted up the hill, where two choppers waited to whisk us off the ground. I grabbed the seat next to our pilot, and within seconds, we were racing down Skipper’s Canyon, banking left then right before ascending the sheer walls of the Gorge and heading for the clouds. We began drifting backwards at one point, and I found myself looking out through the top of the helicopter. Mindboggling, but there was no time to ponder physics before we landed on the beach and loaded ourselves into the rafts that would carry us downriver. Yes, you guessed it, whitewater was our final challenge.
The first twenty minutes were calm and serene as we meandered along a wide stretch of the Gorge through unbroken waters, gazing at the cliffs and the clear blue skies. The first set of rapids was a cakewalk as the rafts barely rippled on their way through, and our group began to wonder if this was how we would finish the day, but the best was yet to come. Within seconds, we were battling to maneuver ourselves around a pile of rocks that sprung up from nowhere. Next, it was down the Mother, a series of five successive rapids, including the Toilet Bowl, before circumventing Jaws, slipping down Oxenbridge Tunnel, a 170-meter gold miners’ shute and over the Cascades before landing on the beach—some of the best whitewater rafting I’ve ever done and an undeniable rush.
Queenstown is also the home of the original Bungy Jump, and if ever there was a time for me to do it, the time was now. I found a perch on the bridge, and clutching their brochure claiming, “Live More Fear Less,” I spent the entire afternoon watching one person after another take the 43-meter plunge and touch their fingers to the cool glacial water flowing far below. I closed my eyes and listened to the countdowns…3…2…1. . before cheering their fluid dives. I knew it was safe and saw the exhilaration on the faces of those who had conquered their fear, but much to my chagrin, I couldn’t pluck up the courage to take that leap of faith.
Some consider fear a weakness, but sometimes it serves us well. In certain situations, it alerts us to potential danger, but when we travel, we must ensure that it doesn’t limit our faith in our abilities.
I’m never foolhardy when I travel, but I’ll continue exploring the road less travelled while learning how to tend and befriend fear and uncertainty. And when I return to Queenstown, I’ll take that plunge and revel in the sheer joy of doing something I’ve never done before!
To read the entire Issue 25 of Planet Golf Review click here.
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