Everyday explorers recount their best travel memories to Elisabeth Easther
Born and raised in Kaitaia, Leanne Erceg's tour leading life began when her insurance career ended and she led her first cycle tour in France. Today Leanne guides international groups around the high spots of Aotearoa.
I studied French at school, but I didn't go to France until 2004 and my love for the language was reawakened. For the last 16 years, I've been learning French in France and at Auckland University. Although it doesn't roll off my tongue with a beautiful French accent, it's a bit more staccato Kiwi, but my French friends think it's cute.
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When my daughter was 13, we went to France for a term and she went to school. Classes were all in French so it was sink or swim, and she swam beautifully.
We lived in a tiny walled town called Clarensac, near Nimes. We rented a typical ancient old-town apartment. It was on three levels with one room on each level. It was perfect but when mum wanted to visit, I worried about her climbing up and down the stone stairs so I told the owner we had to move. When he heard why, he said he had a big house and we could live there, because he worked in Paris his wife was often on her own and she'd like the company. He invited us over that afternoon to meet her.
We toddled over as instructed, but they were having a dinner party for 20 people. I met the wife, they showed us the house, and we stayed for dinner with all these French people who didn't speak English. We did move in and Claudine is now like a sister.
I'd been going to France for over 10 years when I was pick-pocketed travelling between train stations. Thankfully they only took my second phone that I had for a local SIM card. When I realised it was gone, I used my main phone to lock the stolen one. Two weeks later I was notified that the missing phone was in Hungary - someone had turned it on. Then a Facebook friend request came from Hungary. Perhaps they wanted to sell it back, but I didn't reply and just chalked it up to experience.
While in France, my daughter and I drove to Italy. We had a fabulous time and were driving home along the autoroute when I looked in the rear-vision mirror and saw my bike fly off the bike rack. I just about had a heart attack. Travelling at 130km/h, by the time we stopped, we were quite a way down the road, and my bike was in the middle of the motorway.
I was so lucky nobody was behind us when the bike flew off, that was the first blessing and the second blessing was some people further back saw what happened, stopped and took the bike to the side of road while I'm trying to reverse up the shoulder shaking like a leaf. I'm so glad nobody was hurt - even the bike survived. It had a buckled front wheel and a chunk out of the seat but otherwise it was fine.
These days I lead tours mainly for American citizens, and we hit all the high spots of Aotearoa. In Rotorua we go to a geothermal area called Waimangu Valley where Mt Tarawera erupted and covered the pink and white terraces. It's all native bush, with huge thermal lakes and rich history.
In Milford and Doubtful Sound, the weather determines how they perform and you never get a bad day. If it's rainy, it's misty and magical, with waterfalls galore and if it's sunny it's glorious with majestic mountains. You can't lose. Travelling up the West Coast is also spectacular, wild and remote. Americans are in awe of New Zealand, and I love seeing my country.
I'm always on alert to ensure people get the most out of their trip. Some guests need every last detail in triplicate and others are more laid back. If a passenger is sick, or has a problem, I'm always on call, so there's not a lot of downtime.
It's also a personality business; you can't expect everyone to get on with everybody else. That can be a challenge, but I always try to understand where the tricky ones are coming from.
One of my customers recently said she works to travel and that really resonated with me. In France, because I often travel alone, I have to make an effort to talk to people, and that really pushes boundaries and is a good way to stay vibrant and enlivened although I don't know if I'm getting any better at packing light.