Size does not matter in New Zealand
No, size did not seem to matter to the lovely New Zealanders we came across in our last visit to this majestic country. Don´t get me wrong, I´m all for getting rid of restrictions of any sort but let´s face it, when we are talking distances (both horizontal and vertical), size (or length or height) does become an important factor and should indeed be taken into account.
But that doesn´t seem to be the case in New Zealand. When you walk into any of the many information centres strategically located in the tourist hot spots and you try asking the very helpful members of staff to give you an indication of the level of difficulty of this or that hike, bike ride, mountain climb, excursion – whatever physical activity you are planning for the day – you´ll most probably be met with a ¨no worries, that´s easy, we did it the other day and it was fine!¨ or ¨nahhh, you don´t need a map, mate, it´s well indicated¨. And so you are on your merry way full of confidence thinking that a mountain that starts its ascend after the second row of houses of a town like Queenstown cannot be too difficult to climb. You are well prepared, fancy mountain boots on, a couple of bottles of water to carry you all the way, sunblock, energy bars, sandwiches, apples and pears. And off you go.
You do notice that you are walking on possibly one of the steepest inclines you have ever walked as soon as you lose sight of the lake (2o metres after leaving the information office) but that doesn´t face you, because you are full of energy and trust in the expert at the counter who just told you that this was a walk in the park. But somehow, 10 minutes in and you can no longer find the extremely well signalled path. Funny, it´s hard to miss those plastic orange triangles placed on a tree every now and then! Ah! You think you are back on track and start climbing on what seems to be a vertical cliff, grabbing on tree roots and thinking that if the whole walk is going to be like this, you best turn back right now and start figuring out some alternative way to make your life difficult. You get yourself out of that muddle, find the track and begin to climb.
Well, that was our first hour. By the time we got to the first and only rest place/water fountain, my husband was internally combusting, some sort of vapour exuding from his clothes. Bizarre. But, it´s all good. We are pumped, we are in New Zealand and Ben Lomond peak will not resist us. The ascend begins again, we continue through a dark, misty (and of course steep , as steep as they come) forest. Still pumped because it is peaceful and extremely beautiful, exactly what we wanted. The fancy mountain boots start to hurt a little but that´s fine too. We finally come to a clearing and continue our journey uphill, always uphill, without being able to see where the heck we are going because of the thick fog. We can´t see where Ben Lomond is, we can´t see the spectacular colours of Lake Wakatipu either. The fog is omnipresent. But that´s fine too.
And so, to cut a long story short. After four hours walk amidst the fog, we get to the saddle. A lovely American traveller shares the fact that it doesn´t get any better from here on. Naahhh, it can´t be that bad, after all, it was meant to be an easy walk! Well, my friends, our American climber was absolutely right. It did get a lot worse, and frustratingly dangerous. We wanted to make it badly. I wanted to make it badly, I´m very competitive with myself. But after nearly five hours climbing non-stop, reality hit me – this is not an easy walk, you are not prepared for this, you just had a tuna sandwich on the thickest loaf of bread you could find, which is making you extremely thirsty and almost have no water left (smart move), but most importantly, you have no clue how much more there is to climb in this rocky, dangerous terrain.
So, we stopped probably about 40 metres from the peak and made the decision to give up. Yes, we gave up, I publicly admit it (I could have not said anything and the whole world will think we made it to the top). While we were in the middle of nowhere trying to come to terms with our situation, a young topless specimen walked (at a very fast pace) past us, greeted us condescendingly and continued his speedy journey. We saw him later running down the mountain. That´s when we realised that it´s all a matter of perspective, really. For the locals, this is indeed, a walk in the park, your average Sunday family excursion.
We went to the same ladies in the information office later during our trip to get details on the Queenstown hill walk and we were told exactly the same, ¨easy as¨! Well, I challenge any of you to do just the first 100 metres of that walk! Or try the supposedly easy bike ride from Queenstown to Arrowtown, 25 kms away, a lovely ride on tortuous gravel paths meandering along rivers and some of the worst hills ever seen, so impossible I couldn´t even push the bike on foot.
But you know what? It´s all worth it, the blisters, the thirst, the sweat and the pain because it truly is one of the most stunning destinations you could wish for. And you know what´s best? Despite the seemingly different perspectives in life, when you cross paths with a New Zealander, he or she will look you in the eyes and will make a conscious effort to ask you : Hello, how are you? And if time permits, there will be more questions, more interest, more conversation, and a hand shake. I do love that about New Zealand.