As we corkscrew our way through the rugged terrain, "The Grand South" of New Caledonia defies attempts to pigeon hole it, let alone define it.
No words are spoken but freelance photo journalist Ocean Patrice Belcher, of Auckland, and I need no reminding that we have hopped on the treadmill of an unspoilt playground so we perish any thoughts of alighting from this cardio belt until it has run its programme.
"I'll show you the cagou [flightless native bird also spelt as kagu] first, then we'll have lunch and then go see the Grand Kauri," says Axelle Battie in her seductive French accent as the owner of Toutazimut, a guided tour operator in the capital city of Noumea. We whiz past in a rough-hewn Land-Rover she had traded for her modern bullbar-moustachioed, branded 4WD at the historic Perignon bridge, linking adventure seekers to the Blue River National Park.
As luck has it on day two of the four-day trip to southwest New Caledonia, we strike gold with a cagou almost immediately after venturing barely 20m into the beaten rainforest track. This orange long-legged, bluish-grey babe knows how to seduce cameras on nature's catwalk.
Battie tries to explain how moving one's foot in an angry bull-like fashion on the leaf litter will entice the cagou closer but Belcher and I are all eyes and ears for the crested one only. Mate, it's another solid-gold hit.
The feathered one, blissfully aware of its status as a decades-long protected species and a living reminder to humans of its monogamy in the bird kingdom, shows off on one leg for what seems like endless seconds. It's a dream pose for the two-legged professional shutter bugs and even cellphone-toting species like me before the carnivorous cagou preys at will on the creepy crawlies of the fertile forest floor.
It was a pleasant interlude from the earlier stop to digest the enormity of embracing reforestation on the red ochre soil deflecting intense heat from remnants of metal still glistening in the sun after years of voracious mining operations.
From bird watching, we change gears to a mountain-hugging drive for about 25 minutes to an enchanting river reserved, I'm told, for a privileged few. To the sound of gastric juices gurgling in our tummies and a flowing river, we wolf down a ham baguette sandwich but I resist the temptation to wash it down with fizzy drinks or beer.
I allocate space in my stomach for the crystal-clear flow from the waterfall on the opposite side of the river. It starts raining and the women change their minds about a dip but I dive into the refreshing water to accomplish mission. The majestic Madeleine waterfall — part of a nine-hour, 250km journey — is simply a bridge too far this time.
On the way to the "drowned forest" for kayaking, we stop to marvel at the signposted, kauri pine touted to be almost 1000 years old. Its girth at chest height is 2.7m and it stands 40m tall, 20 of which is the trunk alone. Belcher and I acknowledge dieback disease is holding the kauri at ransom in the upper North Island of New Zealand.
It's one more stop for the day to take in the spooky sight of the countless bleached logs of long-dead kauri trees at the bottom of the artificial Yate Lake created in 1958, the side effect of building a dam, which resulted in the demarcation of white and blue rivers in the valley.
But it's where life still maintains a rapport with death — birds with huge wingspans eerily persist on building nests among the naked branches.
Belcher had a kayak to herself while I took front seat as "Captain Battie" took charge on her double vessel. Yes, again, I was a rookie in a kayak as we bobbed and weaved our way around the trees for more than 1km before I started to cramp up in the inner thighs.
"You need more vitamin K," said a grinning Belcher, relishing every click of her camera to capture an ageing man's affliction.
"Oh to be thirtysomething again," I thought, wondering if it was such a good idea for me to run 5km at 5.30 that morning at the Chateau Royal resort along the picturesque Noumea waterfront.
Belcher was in her zone, paddling back before us to the shore to play with her drone, masterfully manoeuvring it between the dead tree trunks but maintaining enough altitude to avert potential loss of an expensive toy.
On day one, after I played golf and Belcher had defaulted to a Deva Domain 4WD drive, after a surfing trip was aborted due to poor swells, we went on a 30-minute ultralight plane flight to soak up the turquoise coral lagoon teeming with marine life.
My pilot, Gilbert Staes, helped soothe my jangled nerves on another first time but his English was pretty much limited to: "No problems."
Cap ULM Poe manager Fabien Perotto, a former fighter pilot, opened the cockpit hatch for Belcher to snap shots. I thought I had spotted a dolphin, lost in translation, but it turned out to be a dugong (sea cow).
We talked via radio telephone to the other pair in the aircraft and even juxtaposed planes to wave and take photos of each other before taking another shuttle van to Chateau Royal in Noumea.
It was back into tour guide Emeric Amice's 4WD for a ATV ride to his family property perched on a hill with breathtaking 180-degree panoramic views of the coast. Amice started Gecko Evasion in 2016 after graduating from university in France.
The third-generation descendant of French settlers assures us he's adept at driving the quad bike up and down the narrow, lumpy track but on a good day he takes his 4WD up to the vantage point where groups can enjoy a steak and French sausage BBQ lunch or elect to stay the night. Amice pitches the tent and affords them total privacy.
The food's fantastic, his effervescent personality infectious and I get to play with the drone.
On the way back to the 4WD, I spot a humming hornet's nest before zeroing in on two ripe guavas a few metres away. Amice dutifully plucks them off the branches as I assure Belcher the bird-pecked one is nature's stamp of approval but she finds the taste foreign.
My highlight is a jetski trip on the final day from Nouville Plaisance where Locajet guide Jeremy, after a brief lesson on the dos and don'ts of ocean hooning, takes us to the Largenere Islet for snorkelling and a pre-packed picnic lunch.
I loved jetskiing for the first time although I had a panic attack of sorts when I found my tight, saturated wetsuit didn't offer me enough leverage for a freestyle stroke in the middle of the ocean where we had parked to swim.
Jeremy and Belcher, who had hopped into the back of his machine after her jetski had also deserted her, came to my rescue.
Belcher felt the jetski ride had put her body through the spin-dry cycle too much in the open currents of the estuary compared with the sedate snorkelling but I thoroughly enjoyed cutting into the waves in the open channels after whipping off the top half of the wetsuit from under the life jacket.
It was back to the hotel before a 40-minute drive to Mt Koghis where Battie took us on a private land trek of a waterfall. I was watered out from the Aquatonic pool session at the hotel so I reluctantly gave the waterfall a miss.
In another blow to the fragile male ego, I had slipped on a slippery tree root to land unceremoniously on my backside on the way down.
Hey, we're off nature's treadmill for now, dripping with sweat, deliriously spent but still smiling.
Someone, please hand us the towels of satisfaction.
GETTING THERE: Aircalin flies direct from Auckland to Noumea.