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Stephanie Holmes is better with two wheels than two paddles.
Recognising your own weaknesses is a key part of becoming the best person you can be. It’s not easy — we don’t always want to admit our own failings — but once you’ve done it, it can be a kind of sweet relief.
I discover this halfway down the Dart River when I come to terms with the fact that I’m really not very good at kayaking. Ask my friend Jess, she’ll agree with me.
The two of us are spending this early autumn day in Queenstown’s Mt Aspiring National Park, attempting to navigate our way down the river in a giant, bright red, inflatable kayak, otherwise known as a “funyak”. I have to confess that for the first part of the journey, the “fun” feels more like awfully hard work.
We’re on a tour with Dart River Adventures, which is looking after our large group of international visitors with great care and attention. They’ve picked us up in a comfortable 4WD coach from our hotel in Queenstown, driven us along the edge of Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, and suited us up in wetsuits, waterproofs and life jackets ready for our adventure. We’ve whizzed down the river by jetboat, with the requisite 360-degree, high-speed spins the adrenaline junkies are craving, and satisfyingly chilly splashes of pure, alpine water.
But this is the easy part — after an hour of high-speed chauffeuring upriver, we’re hopping out on to the stoney river bed next to a line of funyaks. More like an inflatable canoe, these contraptions are big enough to comfortably fit three people, but light enough to be carried by two.
Our group is split into smaller sub-groups, which each get a guide to show us the ropes. We’re going to need it — although we’re heading downstream and are carried on the current, there’s still a degree of skill needed to stay on course. Which is where I go horribly wrong.
Jess has put her life in my hands and allowed me to take the back seat while she sits in the front. But in a funyak, the back seat driver’s role is all care, all responsibility — it’s my job to steer us and power us safely down the river.
Even with our guide Amber’s clear, easy instructions on the river bed, I still send us straight into stone banks, have us stuck in eddies whirling around 360 degrees and sometimes — I’m not sure how — going backwards.
After about an hour, we pull off the main river and wade upstream to the Rockburn Chasm, a narrow gorge where the water is so blue and crystal-clear it looks like it’s been Photoshopped. Our group peacefully paddles through in single file — peaceful that is apart from my regular calls of “sorry!”, “oops!”, and “argh, shit” when I bang into the Chasm’s high stone walls or get us wedged in a narrow crevasse.
I’m more than ready for lunch and a cuppa, and our buffet picnic at the Rockburn Hut is well-deserved.
After lunch, Jess and I swap places and I realise I’m better as crew than captain. She makes paddling look easy and we float gently down the river with only a few minor mishaps taking us off course. I get the chance to take in the scenery around me — the majestic mountain ranges of Mt Aspiring National Park and the stoney braided river beds, where you might just find a hunk of pounamu, and the rules are if you can carry it, you can keep it.
I finally manage to get lost in the serenity, and before long we’re hopping out at the aptly-named settlement of Paradise, ready to head back to base.
I fare better on two wheels than with two paddles. Cycling along the Arrow River Trail — part of the wider Queenstown Trail cycle path network — is much better suited to my skill set, not least because there is wine at the end of it.
After a couple of hours mooching around the stores and cafes of Arrowtown, we meet Steve, our guide from Around the Basin, who has lined up our e-bikes ready to go. We hop on and wind our way downstream to follow the path of the Kawarau River. The riding is easy — even with some steep inclines, the e-bikes make light work of them, allowing us plenty of time to relax and take in the stunning scenery. We stop for a while at the Kawarau suspension bridge and watch foolhardy souls throwing themselves off via bungy jump — we’re there for less than 10 minutes and see at least five people jump, with hordes in line ready to take their turn. I prefer looking at the perfect rows of vines across the river in Gibbston Valley, and am starting to work up a thirst. Luckily we’re close to our first stop, Peregrine, where we get to sample a range of moreish wines in the award-winning cellar door, architecturally designed to look like a peregrine falcon’s wings in flight.
Slightly wobblier, we continue on to Mt Rosa, which is a stark contrast to the slick, modern operation at Peregrine. Here, things are definitely more rustic. “We’re trying to take the wank out of wine,” says co-owner Guy Boanas, who is the epitome of a Southern Man. Wearing gumboots, shorts and shirt, he’s in his element roaming between tables at the Mt Rosa cellar door, pouring tastings for the chilled-out punters. His little dog Baz is roaming around too — he’s an adorable wiry little terrier, but if you see his photo in the popular Wine Dogs New Zealand book, you’ll see him listed as a miniature german shepherd. “I had to slip them $20 for that,” Guy says. “But some Americans still go away believing that’s what he is. I reckon I could sell them a couple of acres when the tide’s out.”
We try the full list of 10 wines, with a charcuterie and cheese platter, then toddle off on foot to the Around the Basin bus, which is waiting to shuttle us back to Queenstown. We’ve had far too many wine tastings to cycle, and our driver packs up our bikes on his trailer so we no longer need to worry about them. That’s definitely one of my strengths: knowing when someone else should be in charge of the driving.
Air New Zealand
flies from Auckland to Queenstown, with one-way Seat fares from $83.
The former Aspen Motel has been rebranded to Kamana Lakehouse, with a stylish, modern refurbishment to boot. Situated in Fernhill, rooms have incredible views of Lake Wakatipu, Walter and Cecil Peaks, and the Remarkables, and the on-site Nest Kitchen and Bar is a lovely spot for meals, or sunny afternoon wines.