In Kaikoura, Nick, a fun-loving local fisherman mills a boat through the Pacific. The mountains fade behind us. He parks up in the ocean. The current chops us from side to side and I’m off kilter. I can’t find my sea legs. Some seagulls, albatross and petrel birds sit on the bobbing waves and eye us. They know boat = food. Nick gives us fishing rods and shows us how to cast off. I let the line go loose until it reaches the ocean floor and wait for a bite. It isn’t long. With stumbly excited fingers, I reel the line in. The first fish I ever catch in my life is a small orange perch. I get a picture before Nick unhooks it and slams its head off the side of the boat. He cuts the meat out of it and discards the body into a slimy, fish-bitty, plastic blue bin.
Before returning to land, we pass a school of dolphins and stop by the crayfish pots. Nick separates the captured crayfish – the males go in a different bin, the females get flung back into the ocean. He picks one up, its tentacles clack as it struggles out of the water. Nick pretends it’s a phone and puts it to his ear.
‘Hello? — Oh — It’s for you,’ he says, passing the ‘phone’ to me.
I scream and duck.
Later, we go back to Gerry’s house, another local fisherman, and cook up our catch. Gerry home-brews wine and it’s a night of never-empty glasses.
In Abel Tasman National Park, I go for a walk at dawn. The sky one side, over the ocean, is brightening purple, pale blue, orange with day. The other side, by the mountains, the half-moon and its starry friends shimmer in the ink of night.
In Punakaiki, we stay in a six bed hut in the middle of a rainforest. It’s gorgeous but heavy rain outside leaves us trapped inside. There’s no internet, TV or booze. We warm up by throwing our duvets around our shoulders. Playing cards and music, we become friends.
In Franz Josef Glacier Village, my roommate Harriet and I go for a hike. We see Peter’s Pool which is so clear it reflects the glacier and the morning sky perfectly.
It’s like a painting.
It’s better than a painting.
In Queenstown, the ‘world capital of extreme sports’ and famous party town, Vikki from the bus group has convinced me to do a tandem Nevis canyon swing with her. We’re harnessed. It’s too late to turn back or pull out. Non-refundable ticket. But worse, everyone is waiting- we have to go for them to go after.
I’m about to do the highest swing in the world. The rope is longer than the length of a rugby pitch and we’ll be doing a 300 metre (985 foot) arc.
I’m silent with fear.
The instructor tells us to go to the edge. We’re so high up I can’t look anywhere without my legs feeling all melted.
Sit down. Feet off the ledge. Hold on.
He asks if we want a countdown or surprise. I can’t open my eyes.
‘A countdown,’ I eventually say. My mouth is dry.
‘Surprise,’ he responds and frees our harness.
We plummet into the canyon at 75mph. Vikki squeals. I feel like I’m plunging to my death.
I can’t get comfortable. I can’t get a sense of enjoyment. We swing. I hate it.
My breath is shallow, even when it ends.
Dread has cemented itself in my body.
‘How was that, ladies?’ the guy asks.
‘Awesome,’ Vikki says.
In Mount Cook, the weather is dreadful.
‘The first of the winter storms smashing us,’ our driver says before we check in.
Later, we look out the splashed window of our dorm at the mountain view. People who climb Everest come here to practice, this range is similar though much smaller.
‘Which one is Mount Cook?’ I ask.
Mist and rain and dark grey clouds hang over the mountains.
‘Not sure,’ Harriet says.
We never figure it out.
In Rangitata, the hostel owner leaves a giant chocolate fudge cake for us to heat up and share. There’s a stove going warming the house. Autumn has surrendered to Winter in NZ, the last of the orangey leaves tumble from the trees.
In Auckland, Vikki arranges for me to do a free SkyWalk around the outside of the Sky Tower which is 53 storeys high.
I’m slow and inch on the unguarded platform at first. The people are dots below. The cars look like toys.
My instructor Kate gives me mini-challenges. Let go of the harnass while leaning back over the edge. Walk backwards. Look down.
She shows me places of interest in Auckland. It’s a crisp but clear morning and Kate says how any of the land that is raised mound-like is actually a volcano.
‘Not extinct but not active either.’
She reckons I should do the SkyJump, a fall from 192metres (630 feet) off the Tower. I tell her about my unenjoyable venture into extreme sports in Queenstown.
‘We’re not busy, you could be up and over straight away. Jump’s eleven seconds long.’
I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
So I’m on an edge again, harnessed up, supposed to let go. My heart is pounding. The dread I felt in Q-Town is back, swirling, threatening.
I jump anyway.
The first two seconds are awful. The next two seconds are confusing because they aren’t awful. The last seven seconds are bloody amazing. I land thrilled and pumping with adrenaline.
The worker who has caught me at the bottom of the jump asks, ‘Do you want to do it again?’
I look at New Zealand’s tallest building. ‘Yes,’ I say and head back to the top.
In Waitomo, we tube in an underground cave, get pulled by the current and try to avoid the stalactites. I lay back, mesemerized by the thousands of glowworms on the roof, a constellation of luminous green dots. The coldness of the water under and inside my wetsuit keeps me from falling into a proper trance.
Olga, our guide, warns us that the next waterfall is coming and to prepare.
I stand up in the water, turn around, and on her count, I jump over it backwards. There’s a great splash and water shoots up my nose and into my ears. I get my composure and float on with the current, admiring the glowworm roof and avoiding stalactites.
In my 8 bed dorm, in Auckland CBD, I smile and pack up by bag for my next trip, one that will be going faster, higher and further than the others – Mayo via Sydney and Abu Dhabi.