Discharging 'in charge' mode allows Elisabeth Easther to see the bigger picture.
The older I get, the more I seek out opportunities for abdicating responsibility, to allow someone else to decide the shape of my day. When you're young you crave autonomy — "you're not the boss of me" — but after a few decades of being in charge, sometimes it's a relief to hand over the reins.
Bearing in mind my "autonomy fatigue", when I read the itinerary for my cycle tour around Milford and the Southern Lakes, I knew I'd found the perfect antidote, if only for five days.
Because I love cycling. I love hiking. I enjoy genial company and nature. And to be able to bite off chunks of cycle ways and tramping tracks between Queenstown and Milford, to get a decent glimpse of the Queenstown Lakes District, Southland and Fiordland — what a treat.
We assemble in Queenstown just past dawn's crack. Our first challenge, a 46km loop starting at the Lower Shotover Bridge headed for Arrowtown.
It was a cooling autumn morning, with some pretty decent climbs — presumably to test the group's mettle — but with the Kawarau River and remarkable countryside to distract, pedalling inevitably becomes meditation.
Rolling past pretty cottages, the trees on the verge of dressing for autumn, we chugged up hills, round a few switchbacks and voila, we were at the Kawarau Suspension Bridge, a giant sausage factory that uses tourists for meat. Briefly, I was mesmerised as a veritable United Nations hurled themselves off the bridge, one after another, like lemmings, most of them wielding selfie sticks as if they were jousting.
Having seen enough, we pressed on along well-tended tracks, beside paddocks pockmarked with rabbit warrens, so very Watership Down. Predator Free 2050 is going to have a field day down here.
Allowing for a quick stroll around historic Arrowtown, we completed our day's loop by making for Lake Hayes. We also spent a short spell lost in Millbrook Resort, all on account of a local bogan who'd upended the cycle signs, causing us to become caught in the golf labyrinth. And there was no point asking any of the stern-faced caddies the way, because they were more intent on piloting golf carts at top speed around a resort that looked like a Central Otago movie set. They weren't stopping for anyone. Eventually we found our way back to Guide Sean, the group stronger for having bonded over figuring out which way to go. Perhaps that was part of the plan?
Having driven the awe-inspiring road from Queenstown to Kingston, this leg was a modest 47km ride to Five Rivers along the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail. The morning was cool and I pulled on my mittens while reading an information panel that claimed Kingston had spent more time beneath ice than tussock. And you could certainly feel the chill in the air that morning. Dressed for the occasion, we rode beneath a ridiculously blue sky. Trundling along easy, wide trails, past plump lambs in their paddocks, through clouds of white butterflies among fields of kale, the naked mountains gazed down as they had for millennia.
On we pressed, through Fairlight and Garston, past trees groaning with fruit, rustic railway relics, decrepit old sidings and gussied-up stations. Through quaint old Athol with its pretty shops, but we wouldn't be shopping today, the only luggage I cared to carry was water, sunscreen and snacks. And best of all, many times I found myself alone with my thoughts, just me and my bike, contemplating the vast landscape and my tiny place in the universe.
Occasionally there'd be a lone chimney pot, the last vestige of a home, colonial archaeology. I'd imagine generations of early settlers huddled round its base to bake, to read, to keep warm as damp laundry dried. And all that's left is a rickety tower of bricks.
Before arriving in Five Rivers, the final stretch was a tunnel of firs, the interior cool, the ground soft, self-contained and magical — like being teleported into C.S. Lewis' wardrobe.
Popping out the other side, there was Sean, as promised, to whisk us off to the next delightful activity. To ice the day's cake, a gentle 10km walk outside Te Anau. Starting at the head of the Kepler track, we walked to Rainbow Reach and it was heavenly. Clean, green and serene, the only noise was the wind in the branches, water on rocks and the chattering of curious birds.
Taking a rest from two wheels, we drove from Te Anau to the start of the Key Summit Track, a fabulous climb to a mountaintop nature loop. Despite the carpark being full, there weren't so many walkers that you couldn't find your own groove. Again I had stretches where it was just nature and me, all alone with my thoughts and those spectacular views.
After a spot of reflection at the peak, I returned to Earth, aware as I descended that I was moving closer to civilisation, my proximity to humanity heralded by herds of tour buses grinding their way up the pass.
Next stop, the unflappable Sean ferried us to Milford because we were spending a night in the Sounds aboard the Milford Wanderer, a vessel designed to resemble a traditional coastal trading scow.
Waking in the peaceful dark, I agreed with Rudyard Kipling's assessment that Milford Sound was the Eighth Wonder of the World. Listening to the gentle hum of the ship waking, I tiptoed with a cuppa to the top deck to find a single star, half a moon and a sky of velvety navy. Rough rock faces were riven with waterfalls, their expressions changing with the light. We motored off to the open sea for a quick windy wake up, before breakfasting and heading back to Milford Wharf.
Reunited with Guide Sean — to see him waiting, waving on the dock, it was like having a lost limb reattached. And so we began our last full day together.
Saddling up outside Homer Tunnel we freewheeled down the highway, coasting through the mountains towards the grand Humboldt Falls. And somehow Sean timed it perfectly so that no traffic interfered with our ride when we were on the actual road. Magic.
And so the days rolled by. With wildlife and wild sights, our cherry picking from the South Island's highlights scratching the surface of the Kepler, Milford and Hollyford tracks. As for the bike routes, cycling past lakes and waterways, through towering beech forests and native bush, when the journey finally ended at Walter Peak (Day Five was 48km of rural riding) we were transported over Lake Wakatipu, back to reality.
It came as something of a surprise to arrive back in Queenstown, because our group had entered a tranquil zone of being shepherded by the kindly Sean and his ever-present, well-stocked snack box. It occurred to me as I ripped open my last bag of scroggin that the South Island's dramatic scenery has been formed under intense pressure, through ice ages and by unimaginable natural forces and they'd all worked together to produce this exceptional landscape. Just like us, with our stresses that make us who we are. Having come to that philosophical conclusion, I felt ready to head home and again take up the metaphorical reins.
Adventure South's Milford Sound Cycle Tour is priced from $2295pp.