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Special Travel Issue | New Zealand

Middle Earth at Middle Age

Shedding Years and Urban Sissyhood Among 'Lord of the Rings' Scenery on South Island

October 12, 2003|Amanda Jones | Amanda Jones is a freelance writer based in the Bay Area. She last wrote for the magazine on sailing Turkey's Turquoise Coast.

There was, I'll admit, a certain amount of anxiety that surfaced when I turned 40. To combat this, I returned to New Zealand, my homeland, summoned two childhood friends and headed for the backcountry. The point was to prove that I hadn't lost the gumption required to be a Kiwi girl and that the onerous march of time hadn't rendered me a hopeless urban sissy. For real wilderness, we knew we had to go to the sparsely populated lands of the South Island, where the people are frighteningly hardy. I knew they had what it took to propel me over the midlife abyss.

The Lakes District of south-central South Island is notorious for its great beauty and hairy-edge adrenaline sports. Almost half of all tourists to New Zealand visit Queenstown, the mountainous township on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Here they fling themselves off bridges while tied to industrial elastic, thrill to rocky near-misses on the Shotover Jet boat, boogie board the rapids of local rivers or, more sedately, drink wine or take a bus tour. But what most of them don't realize is that if you drive 30 minutes on any country road away from Queenstown, you're deep into the Middle Earth that awed moviegoers in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The bulk of visitors never actually get there.

Jackie, Sally and I had spent many teen holidays down south hiking, riding, rafting, skiing and flirting with the notoriously able Southern Men. Our flirting years over, we decided instead to hire our own Southern Man in the form of a private guide. The advantage of having a guide is he arranges all activities, he knows the remote areas, he tends to raise the fun factor, and he invariably has a "mate" somewhere who can bend the rules when the need arises.

South Islanders have never been good at rule following. In fact, they are supremely accomplished at rule ignoring, which is a large part of their charm. New Zealanders in general have tremendous respect for individualism and don't like to be told how to behave. The closest the authorities have come to this, I noticed, is their anti-drunken driving campaign with billboards declaring, "Drive Drunk. Bloody Idiot."

Being a nucleus for adrenaline junkies, the Queenstown region heaves with Uber-athletes and, in turn, adventure companies that match clients with trained guides. I sifted through Web sites, then phoned Inner Momentum because it looked inspiring and promised all manner of derring-do. Lead guide and company founder Jeremaia Fisk answered my call and sounded amusing and professional despite using words such as "mind-blowing" and "humming." During our conversation, I became overzealous and asked Jeremaia about Inner Momentum's philosophy. Silence.

Twenty years in California and look what's happened to me, I thought. Southern Men don't espouse personal philosophies. I knew better than that. Eventually he recovered, responding, "Right. Um. Well. I guess you could say we're trying to take people away from the complexities of daily reality and put them back into the moment. We surround them with stunning nature and remind them how to push themselves to the point of extreme happiness."

I hired him.

In February, peak summer in New Zealand, we flew from Auckland to Queenstown. Jeremaia met us at the airport for our six-day, five-night trip. He was 26, blond, lean, and had a surfer-grunge goatee, a wry blue gaze and an irreverent sense of humor. We piled into his SUV and, after lunch, headed for our hotel. Our plan was to alternate rough backcountry nights with pampering hotels. A week of bathing in rivers, although compelling, is not my first choice unless there's no alternative.

We were beginning decadently, staying at Eichardt's in Queenstown, the latest in a string of luxurious boutique hotels populating New Zealand. The hotel's five rooms were beyond fabulous, the owners having spared no expense in elegance, service and decor. Although one of the most expensive hotels in the country, the place still has New Zealand flavor, with pioneer antiques in a historic building, and endearingly warm service. My room, or actually my own private sitting room, gazed over the blue waters of Lake Wakatipu with the remarkable Remarkables mountains soaring behind.

Knowing we would be in the wilderness the next night, we had dinner at Saffron, a restaurant in Arrowtown, 20 minutes outside Queenstown. Saffron, according to Conde Nast Traveler, is one of the world's "Top 100 tables." Lofty praise for a restaurant in a town with a permanent population of 1,600. The decor was spotlit cool with bold art and a Euro/Thai menu: fresh seafood, wild game and organically grown greens and fruits. Our dinner was excellent and, with the American dollar being worth almost twice New Zealand's dollar at the time, affordable. Main courses cost about $20.

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