The crunch of snow and gravel under our feet sounds alien in this alien landscape. Goggles cover entire faces. A tribe clad in a uniform of oversized Gore-Tex jackets and heavy plastic boots with ratcheting buckles marches towards the snow-covered playground.
From the carpark, we join the line. March. Crunch. No one can see your face. No one knows about the alien knot forming in your stomach.
To get to the top of the mountain, first get the bus. It picks us up right outside the hotel on Stanley St in Queenstown. The sun is not yet up, but a group of Australian tourists are at peak wattage. I sit down next to an elderly man from Queensland. He is dressed to kill, head-to-toe in a shiny red suit, his face, lined and keen. A few days later, the Trans-Tasman bubble will close. But at this moment, he is amped and in awe of the Remarkables, giving me a forensic report of the conditions. Bluebird, he says. Packed base, a little ice but not too bad. For the duration of the 40-minute ride to the Coronet Peak ski field, he tells me about the places he has skied for more than 40 years. Falls Creek, Victoria. Whistler. Europe. He must be ace, I think and try to ignore the knot.
It had been about 20 years since I'd been skiing. Before that I had torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees - one at Broken River in West Canterbury, the other at Whakapapa, on Ruapehu - and I cracked my coccyx trying to snowboard on Treble Cone. Anyone will tell you TC is no place for a rookie snowboarder but, oh well. Now, two decades later I am taking my stupidly agile teenage twins to the snow for their birthday. "I'm kind of over 15 now, Mum - I'm ready for a new number," one had said the night before. Sweet 16 and never been skiing. How are you feeling? I ask them early that morning as we get ready. "Pumped. Excited." Not a hint of reservation. "Yeah, me too. Totally," I say, lying.
The night before, Charlotte from Snopro visits our hotel room. She kits us out with boots, skis and poles and helmets, which we will keep for the duration of our six-day holiday. Snopro will collect our gear at the end of our stay in Wānaka. Charlotte is French, but has lived in New Zealand for two years. She spent lockdown in Timaru which, in many ways other than geographical, is vastly different to her home. She tells her small, captive audience of three, that in France you can ski to a different resort every day. I think but do not say that I will be fulfilled if I can just get off the chairlift without injury.
After years spent in ski hire shops, faffing about in queues, I cannot emphasise how deeply comforting and luxurious it is to have Charlotte arrive, take care of us, and check that everything fits perfectly. Her final words of advice: make sure we keep our boots inside our room at night, because they will contract overnight if left in the car.
"It's been more than 20 years since I've been skiing," I tell the old guy from Queensland, the next morning on the bus. "Ah," he says, "it's like riding a bike." The driver is playing the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction. We all get off the bus awkwardly like we're dancing the robot because that is how you roll in ski boots in alien terrain.
"When you look up there, at that slope, how does that make you feel - is it daunting or okay?" Cilla is my guide. We are standing at the foot of the beginners' slope. Daisy and Isaac are having a group lesson. I wonder how they are doing and think back to when I learned to ski, in my 20s, and that first miserable day. I had a fight with my best friend after she took me to the top chair. I couldn't turn and there was a whiteout and I actually wanted to stab her with my ski pole.
How does it make me feel, Cilla? It's just after 9am and the light is dazzling. I look up the mountain. Snowboarders and skiers look like chocolate wrappers littering the trails. It looks alien, Cilla, I think, but I say: "It looks fine, Cilla." Second lie for the day.
Cilla is in her early 40s, and she has two small kids. She has been skiing most of her life. She has the sort of breezy confidence and ease honed from decades of teaching in the outdoors. Cilla is the gold standard in empathy. She leads the way, making big wide turns. Like a mother duck she stops and urges me to follow. "That's great - great. But you know why you're not turning properly on the right? You have to use your little toe edge. Like this."
After an hour or so of the mother-duck routine and expert technical hacks, Cilla says it's important to progress to the next level. Gentle but firm. At this point, I would follow Cilla down a crevasse if she said we must. We get to the top of the Coronet Express lift. I view the descent warily. The knot tightens. She looks at me. "Now, I want you to look ahead, make a line - and think of something you really love - something you really enjoy. Trust yourself. Use your core. If your core is on, your legs will follow. If you hear someone behind you, don't worry about them. If you hit an icy spot, just glide, don't worry. Just glide."
Possibly a mantra for life but it also works a dream in the snow. She takes off then stops and watches further down to watch as I hurtle towards her in grand, swirling turns. My boots no longer feel alien. I no longer feel alien. The turning point.
"Did you just come down there Mum," says Isaac, pointing and squinting up at the mountain. He doesn't know it right now, but in two days, he will be off like a rocket. Daisy will properly glide, like a dancer, serious and considered.
We stop in at the Coronet Peak cafe and look out the windows to the mountains, their jagged teeth gnawing at an impossibly blue sky.
For now, at least, the concerns and details of life that erode a greater perspective are sent into retreat.
The squeel of tyres on the snow-covered gravel is alien. It is not long past 7am, and at Cardrona Alpine Resort, there's a surreal planetary standoff. The full moon still sits high in the sky, while the bright orange sun rises. The mountains are an undulating carpet of snow and rock. Hostile and alluring. We gear up and begin the ascent from the car to the bottom chair lift.
At Cardies, as it's known locally, the broad, expansive basins are inviting and forgiving and we all feel more confident and able after two magnificent days getting match fit at Coronet. The sky is clear and there's not a breath of wind. Like the old guy from Queensland said, bluebird. The day before, there were apparently 5000 people at the field, but whatever the numbers are today, the last Saturday of the school holidays, the queues are just fine and there is plenty of space. We get off the first chair and just gape, slack-jawed at the mountains around us. Small children, like baby astronauts, catapult down the mountain without poles, pumped, amped and stoked, probably, and without a care in the world.
"No one cares what you're like," says Daisy, over lunch at the Noodle Bar, where I order a warm sake and pad thai. It's true and it's liberating. The alien knot is gone.
Two 16-year-olds are looking out at this otherworld and I realise they are suddenly looking at scenery with total wonder and it's beautiful. Not because they are asked to. Because they have discovered something truly unfathomably huge and remarkable.
The turning point.
And I want to hold them close, but instead, I watch them as they glide off into the great big alien world that is at once hostile and alluring.
Ziptrek Moa Tour
"Now, turn around, close your eyes, and just let go." Wait, like what? In normal circumstances, any journey that starts with this advice will end badly. We're on the world's steepest zipline trek (height - very; distance - 240m is the longest line; speed - up to 50kph.) So yeah, just close your eyes, like Lucy says, and let go, backwards.
I am harnessed up by an impressive series of carabiners, webbing and lines, I have a helmet, and Lucy is in charge. They check, double-check and holler out a good-to-go on the walkie talkie to Will, the guide at the next station. It's an exercise in trust, Lucy says. We are on the Moa tour and I, too, fear extinction. But I turn, I close my eyes and I let go, opening them again as I fly through the forest spinning. It's exhilarating, as all exercises in trust are.
To get to Ziptrek, is an adventure in itself - the Gondola up to Bob's Peak. Definitely don't head first to the restaurant/bar thinking you have plenty of time, and order a snack of spring rolls and a gin and tonic. Because you might end up being a teeny bit late. Do that part at the end - after the Ziptrek tour and a few hoons on the luge.
But back to the beginning. When we check in at the Ziptrek Treehouse, we are greeted by a small team of experts who will guide us on our two-hour flight through the forest. It is dusk and the light is extraordinary. The views across Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables are breathtaking and after the first trail, you want it just to go on and on and on. This would solve all of Auckland's traffic problems. Seriously. Sustainable - tick. Scenic - tick. Fun - tick.
At each zipline station - there are four - our guides talk about myths, science, the scars from melting glaciers on the mountains, and sustainability. Their passion is infectious, their knowledge solid and their engagement in tikanga Māori admirable.
CHECKLIST:QUEENSTOWN AND WĀNAKA
Air New Zealand and Jetstar fly direct from Auckland to Queenstown.
Stay at the new Ramada Queenstown Central, 24 Frankton Rd. ramadaqueenstowncentral.co.nz