Heart thudding, pulse racing, breath tight in my chest, I watched in disbelief as the stranger pushed my girlfriend out of the plane. The wind thrashed around me as I stumbled to the edge, gaze involuntarily drawn into the dizzying void beneath.
“This is fun,” I instructed myself firmly,
“And there’s probably still time to back out without the need for further recklessness.”
A firm hand reached around me from behind, gripped my forehead and wrenched my head backwards. My time was up. I gulped in a last breath, clenched my buttocks, tumbled out of a tiny plane 15,000 feet above Lake Taupo, and rapidly began to accelerate to over 200km/h.
Let’s pause there for a moment; as a tiny, terrified speck of a man (with an equally tiny, although presumably less terrified stranger strapped snugly to his back), suddenly realises an awful lot of things in more or less the same instant: his piffling insignificance in the grand scheme of things; the fleeting, miraculous sweetness of life; the majestic beauty of nature – particularly the New Zealand landscape that seems to be getting bigger alarmingly quickly; and how deeply wonderful it would feel if his parachute would do him a massive favour and open like it’s supposed to in just over a minute’s time. We’ll leave him frozen in that instant of revelation for just a little while longer while I try to explain a country that could affect someone with a phobia of flying so strongly that jumping out of a plane might suddenly seem a reasonable way to kick start a sunny morning.
The trip we made around New Zealand in our faithful campervan exceeded our wildest expectations. The six weeks we spent there, chugging our way from North Island to South and then back again, were over far too quickly, but also somehow stretched enough to squeeze in more memories, new friends, jaw-dropping landscapes and incredible experiences than we could ever have expected.
I’ll list just a few of them now before getting back to the happy, terrified idiot we just left plummeting to his possible doom…
Kaikoura, South Island
Our whale-spotting boat was sleek, modern and reassuringly expensive-looking, but the enormous ocean swells beneath us were pitching it around like a drunkard staggering down an alley.
We’d already seen a couple of Wandering Albatrosses, which was pretty wonderful in itself, but we had been lurching wildly up and down unpredictable wavefaces for the best part of an hour, and already an impressive amount of sick bags had been enthusiastically filled by some of our fellow passengers.
Although I’d always quite wanted to see an albatross, that’s not what any of us were here for. We didn’t have to wait much longer for the main event though. The captain’s voice rang out of the speakers, directing our attention off the port bow. I had just enough time, amidst the sudden thrill of anticipation, to wish he’d done it properly and hollered “thar she blows!” in a hearty pirate voice like any reasonable person would expect, when a wonderful thing happened: a male sperm whale popped his head above the waves and blasted out a mighty spout of exhaled air and sea spray. I have hazy memories of Herman Melville describing a first encounter with a sperm whale in Moby Dick, and suddenly understood what all the fuss was about as the leviathan gracefully wallowed before my eyes. It was a more powerfully moving experience than I’d anticipated.
After 15 minutes or so of purging his old breath to make space for a fresh one, his gigantic tail rose serenely on the air before slipping under the waves; a sight that thousands of postcard images in the town should have prepared me for, but which still took my breath away. Everyone aboard our still wildly lurching boat shared warm smiles (even the sickbag-fillers managed a grin), and we headed back towards land, only to find ourselves about 20 minutes later in far calmer waters and surrounded by a pod of over 200 dusky dolphins, who then proceeded to frolic and somersault around us like happy, streamlined buffoons before the finest backdrop imaginable: the snow capped mountains of Kaikoura running down to the turquoise sea.
Pakiri Beach, North Island
There was a moment, a fleeting instant as I caught the sadistic twinkle in the grizzled cowboy’s eye, when it dawned on me that the rest of this ride wasn’t going to be gentle.
“You alright with a trot?”, he asked me slyly – despite the fact that we’d trotted several times along the wide, windblown expanse of Pakiri Beach. The riding stables lay at the end of a 10 kilometer stretch of unsealed gravel road that had shaken our van silly, and the entire place had a deserted, lonely, Mad Max sort of feel that probably went a long way towards explaining the mischievous look on our strange, untalkative and slightly grubby-looking guide’s face.
Clearly I was OK with trotting; this seemed to be some sort of test of my Pommy manliness. We’d carefully explained at the start of the ride that although Tasha lives and breathes horses, my most recent experience had involved me bolting into an uncontrolled gallop and ending up flat on my back, miraculously just winded rather than horrifically mangled. I’d been pretty emphatic about my desire not to gallop on this ride at the booking stage, so I had a nasty feeling about this trotting question. I’ve seen Back To The Future enough times to know that if someone calls you a chicken no good will come of rising to the bait, so I did the only sensible thing under the circumstances; I met his eye with a steely gaze and said:
And then all hell broke loose.
He turned his feisty Arab horse up towards the sand dunes, gave it a vicious-looking kick in the sides, and galloped up over the nearest rise. My horse – which had spent the whole ride completely ignoring me – suddenly seemed to snap out of its sleepy trance, and bolted off in close pursuit of the evil cowboy and Tasha.
We galloped up, down and sideways all over the unpredictable, narrow tracks among the dunes; Tasha and the cowboy looking exhilarated but in control, me hanging on grimly, bracing myself for imminent duney death, and sustaining nasty bruises in areas that should never be bruised.
For about half an hour.
When my ordeal was finally over, and our three sweaty steeds had slowed to a walk as we approached the stables, the cowboy swiveled around in his saddle, failed to entirely disguise his humour at my obvious pain and torment, and spoke to me for the second time that day;
“You enjoy that?”
I gave him a long hard look. The unmistakable look of man unaccustomed to taking shit from cowboys (it’s a complicated look, but an unmistakeable one). This was probably another test.
He sat back a little in his saddle – no doubt buckling under the weight of the look I was fixing him with – as I gruffly replied,
Tane Mahuta, Kauri Coast, North Island
Our trusty camper had held up well on the fiendishly winding roads of this part of the coast, as we wound our way slowly down through the forest of ancient Kauri trees on an epic roadtrip from the Bay of Islands down to the Coromandel Peninsula.
The Kauris are enormous, ancient giants of the New Zealand forest, and this national park is one of the few places that older, long-established trees exist in large numbers; most other Kauris have been chopped down for their wood.
We couldn’t stop here for long. The twists and turns of this stretch of road had made the last few miles feel like a few hundred, and we still had a lot of driving ahead of us.
A coachload of tourists arrived just ahead of us and started shuffling sheep-like along the boardwalk towards the main attraction – mighty Tane Mahuta; the tallest kauri in New Zealand, named after the Maori god of the forest.
I gave an exasperated sigh as the tide of slow-walking sightseers clogged up the route in front of us, whilst feeling secretly superior that these people had undoubtedly paid loads of money for a guided tour, while Tasha and I were seeing the same thing on the cheap. ‘Pah!’, I scoffed silently, ‘Who needs tour guides?’.
We jostled through the crowd and beat them into the forest clearing from which Tane rises majestically to tower over everything around him. He was an awesome sight; he did somehow feel like the god of the forest.
As we stood there gaping upwards, the tour group gradually filed into the clearing around us. We were just about to leave them to it and get back on the road, when their Maori tour guide made his way to the front and proceeded to give the best bit of tour guiding I’ve ever witnessed.
After explaining Tane Mahuta’s significance to the Maori people, he burst into a song to show his respect and pleasure at being there.
Now, trying this sort of thing back in England would be one of the most painfully awkward social experiences I could imagine. Standing in front of a group of strangers and, without warning, launching into a heartfelt bit of joyful singing is at best going to leave your audience squirming uncomfortably in repressed British embarrassment. At worst you’d probably get slapped with an ASBO or attacked by a group of chavs. But standing there in that peaceful clearing, in front of a magnificent giant of a tree that has ruled the forest for centuries, and listening to this man’s voice rising in an incredible tribute to Tane, the natural world around us, and his proud Maori heritage, was an incredible experience. He certainly pissed all over Susan Boyle.
When the song was over and the moment had passed, the herd of tourists shuffled back onto their bus after their exuberant tour guide. I looked bitterly at our camper and wished I was going with them. I’ve always thought there’s a lot to be said for tour guides…
So as we return to that tiny (but noisy, and very, very sweary) little man plummeting to earth one sunny morning above Taupo, hopefully I’ve done what I promised at the start, and gone some way towards explaining the effect this incredible country could have on a happy idiot like myself.
There were other special moments of course; hundreds of them. It felt like everywhere we went in New Zealand we saw or experienced something special.
From digging a natural bath on Hot Water Beach, driving the terrifyingly twisty roads of the Coromandel Peninsula, and watching huge waves pound the coast (and the surfers) at laid-back Raglan, to being surrounded by bottlenose dolphins and their babies on a water taxi before walking an Indiana Jones style ropebridge with a couple of newfound but hopefully lifelong friends in the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park. From riding a cable car up the mountain in Queenstown as some idiot jumps off a bungy alongside you, to getting thoroughly sloshed by 11am on free wine tastings in Blenheim – home of world famous Marlborough region Sauvignon Blanc. From kicking back in hot springs, to standing at the foot of a glacier, to meeting an incredible, inspirational Maori lady who gave us both beautiful moko (tattoos) that we will treasure for the rest of our lives; it’s fair to say that Aotearoa, or New Zealand as it’s known to the rest of the world, got under our skin in every sense. It’s not just the post-skydive adrenaline talking I promise.
We may have ended up spending a lot more money than we planned to there (so much that we’ve had to cut the trip shorter than we intended), but it was worth every penny.
Now we just can’t wait to go back.