Trekking in the footsteps of the woman who’s seized every adventure life’s whizzed her way

The phrase "intrepid traveller" could have been tailor made for Sue Gunn.

By her mid-20s she'd seen a good part of the globe, including Europe as a traditional Kiwi "OEr" in a Kombi van and fair slices of Africa and Asia.

Sue's travels have never been of the five-star kind. A lot of Africa was seen from the tray of an ancient army truck.

Adventures have compounded upon adventures: She's climbed Mt Kilimanjaro to see the sunrise ("a personal challenge"), fought off a would-be mugger by hitting him over the head with a baguette in Addis Ababa ("the scariest place I've ever been in"), has "lived like a hippie on a beach", sailed the Nile on a "not very clean" local boat, and been grounded in Bangkok by a military coup.

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Her hair-raising travel log's far from over. A stint at home and she was on the move again, covering much of Asia.

There she hitchhiked into remote hill regions, trekked in Nepal, "savoured the awesome colours" of India and Sri Lanka from trains so crowded "I'd go one way, my backpack the other as I fought my way on board". In Madras (now Chennai) she was roped into a Bollywood movie as an extra and experienced harassment in Karachi "because my travel mate and I were white women".

Add-ons are suffering amoebic dysentery and sciatic nerve problems that hospitalised her in Cape Town and Turkey.

Interspersed with New Zealand breaks she travelled on, camping across Canada and, in a touch of uncharacteristic semi-luxury, has taken a Greyhound bus from Vancouver to Southern California.

All of which is far distant from Rotorua, where she and husband Don Gunn settled in 2004.

Her Rotorua years are what Our People had intended to talk to Sue about, hers is a name that's become an integral part of this town in a clutch of contexts, most recently as Hospice's volunteer services manager.

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But with so many preceding highways and byways to traverse it took quite some time to reach the "here and now" part of the Sue Gunn story and we wouldn't have missed a word of it.

She's one of those personality-plus people for whom life's all about living and giving.

Psychoanalysts could speculate her wanderlust can be sheeted back to her earliest years spent in the South Island's remote Nevis Valley, best reached on skis.

She was 2 when her family moved to an ever-so-slightly more accessible sheep station in the Clutha Valley's upper reaches.

Whatever the reason, Sue grew up wanting to experience the world beyond, following that ingrained Kiwi overseas experience rite of passage.

In London she worked in offices, barmaided and became a swimming instructor. "They just figured because I was a Kiwi I could swim."

She indulged her love of the mountains by working as a chamber maid in the Swiss Alps' Interlaken "skiing whenever I could".

The idea for her protracted Africa trip had its gestation at a "crazy London party, a whole group of us decided we wanted to do it . . . all my travel flowed from there".

Eventually the time came to take a reality check. "With all these adventures you get good at making decisions. Mine was to come home to work and develop, that knight in shining armour riding a white horse hadn't come along."

It wasn't long before he did, his arrival came while both were studying business management at Christchurch Polytech. The knight's name was Don Gunn.

They married in 1984 on her family's Tarras farm. "It was the best party I've ever been to."

The marriage was hastened by Don securing an Auckland-based job with Newman's Tours.

There Sue's career took a new path as promotions manager for the St Luke's shopping centre; over the following 20 years she had various mall management roles in Auckland and Christchurch.

There are a slew of marketing awards acknowledging the innovative promotions she introduced throughout those years.

Don's 2004 appointment as Tourism Rotorua's general manager opened a new Gunn family chapter.

"We'd always discussed our two daughters having an adventure somewhere else - friends in Auckland thought we'd lost the plot.

"We certainly haven't had any regrets making a new life here."

Sue's big-city marketing expertise was snapped up by the Buried Village, "a great introduction to Rotorua".

In 2006 she was appointed marketing and communications manager at the then Waiariki Institute of Technology (Te Ohomai).

"It was a fantastic time to be there. We tripled student numbers, tripled revenue. For me I appreciated the professional development and leadership."

The institute's Charity House building project became, and remains, her baby. It dovetailed perfectly with her community commitment through Sue's Sunrise Rotary club. Students build the house, it's auctioned, Sunrise distributes the proceeds - "$120,000 since 2013". That was the year Sue was inducted as club president.

Another project that has her bursting with pride is the Te Wa Korero a nga Tamariki Oral Language Programme the club introduced to Western Heights Primary School in 2014 and Owhata School this year.

Volunteers teach youngsters oral skills. "Some come to school at 5 with the speech ability of a 2-year-old."

She's a Lakeside trustee and regular volunteer at major events, Crankworx and the 2011 Rugby World Cup included.

When Waiariki merged with the Bay of Plenty Polytech Sue took voluntary redundancy.

Her hospice role started this past February. She came to it with a personal insight into life-threatening illness. Her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2015. "It's spread into his bones, he's got an amazing attitude, he's doing well."

Another tragedy struck the Gunns last Christmas Eve. Sunny Hu, the Chinese student they'd home-hosted for more than a year, was killed in a crash on the Mamakus.

"She was a dear member of our family, we think of her every day."

Hosting people is second nature to the Gunns. They've cared for many students over the years, both national and international. At present they're building a garden cottage destined to be an AirBnB. Both are natural flow-ons from Sue's travelling days.

"People were so hospitable, kind to me then . . . I guess like my parents and grandparents I've always been involved with people, the community; I think as a community we can share ideas, collaborate.

"Life's about seizing the opportunities offered to us."

SUE GUNN
Born: Cromwell, 1953

Education: Tarras Primary School, Columbia College, Otago and Christchurch Polytechs, University of Auckland

Family: Husband: Don Gunn, daughters Roseanna, film maker (Switzerland), Evelyn, beauty therapist (Rotorua). "They're what Don and I are most proud of."

Interests: Family, Rotary (worked on club's Fijian school building project and been awarded Paul Harris Fellowship for service to others). Overseas travel, hosting guests, entertaining, walking in the forest, has walked six half marathons. Pilates, cooking "Italian, Thai are my favourites." Gardening.

On her life: "It's been an amazing adventure."

On Rotorua: " It's the people, the lifestyle, the stunning natural environment that makes it special."

Personal philosophy: "Seizing the moment, if you're passionate about something keep going for it."