Despite contending with heat exhaustion, dehydration and crowds of pushy pilgrims, Emily Bidois' recent pilgrimage to Mecca was everything she expected and more.
The Rotorua Daily Post last spoke to Ms Bidois days before she took off on the trip of a lifetime to Saudi Arabia to do her hajj - the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. It's one of the five pillars of Islam and a religious duty that must be carried out by every able-bodied Muslim once in their lifetime.
It was to be Ms Bidois' first overseas trip and the culmination of a journey that began six years ago when the Christian-raised Te Arawa descendant "reverted" to Islam.
Back at the Rotorua Youth Centre, where she works, Ms Bidois reflected on her month long "enriching and spiritual" trip.
"Physically it was exhausting but spiritually it was a beautiful trip," she said.
"I did everything I wanted to do ... I don't know where I got the strength."
Ms Bidois, whose Muslim name is Sister Emira, travelled to Saudi Arabia with a group of 50 people, including three Kiwi reverts.
They started off in five-star apartments working their way down to tents before sleeping in the open air, as they undertook the various prayers and rituals that form part of the hajj.
Ms Bidois pulled a knee ligament before a 3km walk, but with the help of painkillers was able to complete the journey.
"I came away and I cried because I had made it - the first time in all my life I had ever walked a straight 3km," she said. "I had to just persevere. I prayed to Allah quite a lot to give me the strength to be able to do it.'
One of the acts of the hajj was to throw seven pebbles at a wall - a jamrah - "the beginning of getting rid of sins in our life".
"I threw 12 stones instead of seven. I just wanted to make sure," she laughed.
At one stage she suffered heat exhaustion and dehydration in the 50C heat and was forced to spend some time in a wheelchair but fortunately recovered.
Ms Bidois said one of the most-used words of the trip was "sabr", meaning patience.
She said many hajjers were on a mission to complete the rituals and would push anyone out of the way to do so. One of the worst times was the crush to touch the sacred Kabaa structure.
"It's scary. I said 'sabr sabr' quite a few times," she said. "People were just barging us but we managed [to touch it]."
Since being back in Rotorua, Ms Bidois has kept busy with the Global Fest and taking part in a professional speaking course. There was no question what the topic for her final speech exams would be.
"It was all about the hajj."