I went on a European tour with my mother when I was in high school and in two weeks we glimpsed the major tourist attractions of seven European countries through the impenetrable window of a tour bus. “Oh, there’s the Eiffel Tower, can we go around the roundabout again?” my mother asked, not quick enough on the draw with her camera. Too late, the bus driver was already onto the next item on his list, a drive by of the Moulin Rouge.
I vowed to never again follow a ridiculous schedule for a schedule’s sake – especially on vacation.
Every day was another version of ‘we’re driving here, so you’ll be herded around behind someone holding up an umbrella, then we’ll meet in the gift shop before getting back on the bus to the next major attraction to tick that off the list’. So it was same drill, different day, different country. I remember getting a lot of my summer reading done on that bus, but not actually doing anything that made much of an
So although technically I’ve “seen” most of Europe, I decided I’d never willingly participate in another buffet bus tour. And I’m not just talking about the way my food was served up, day after palate-numbing day. I mean a packaged tour that feels like the buffet version of travel, where you spend a lot of time shuffling along single file, force down far too much in too little time in order to get your money’s worth, and then stagger away, stuffed but somehow unsatisfied. There must be a better way.
So after graduation, before my friend and I started our first jobs, we hit the road with a Lonely Planet guidebook tucked into our backpacks, in search of adventure in Central America. I thought, great we’ll do this ourselves, see what we want, when we want, get off the beaten track, eat with the locals, yadda yadda.
But what we discovered was the freedom of travelling independently comes at a price too – mostly a lot of time spent waiting around, especially the further off-the-beaten track you travel. For example, it turns out domestic flights in a non-first-world country can be at the whim/mercy of the flight crew and whether they feel like turning on the engines for a couple of passengers, or not. Same goes for bus drivers. Our precious vacation time was whittled away waiting for some sort – any sort – of transportation out of remote towns where we got stuck for hours and sometimes days. And that’s just the start or perhaps the end. The days went flying by and we were not on the glamorous adventurers, I-don’t-do-group-travel trip I had dreamt about. In fact, we missed out on a lot of activities we had picked in the guidebook because we either didn’t meet minimum numbers or it was booked out months in advance. Don’t get me wrong, batting eyelashes in tandem can achieve a lot, as long as you have the time to wait for the right person on whom to unleash your charm.
So a few years and several D.I.Y. trips later, when a friend, who had just started an adventure travel company in New Zealand, invited me on one of his hiking trips, I was pretty skeptical. Sharing a bus with 14 strangers and hiking up mountains, kayaking a fiord, mountain biking… hmmm, really? And a bit nervous <read: quaking in my brand new hiking boots>. But I agreed, cranked up the dial on the Stairmaster and just hoped I wouldn’t make a complete fool of myself.
Turns out 2 weeks hiking New Zealand with Active New Zealand changed my life, which let’s face it, is a bit more than anyone can reasonably expect from a vacation. Finding myself cast as the heroine of an action blockbuster shot on location and doing all my own stunts – I was suddenly invincible. If I could, with the help of my new but unlikely friends (including a couple from the military, honeymooners from Kansas on their first trip abroad, a leading paediatric specialist and a recent divorcee), conquer my fears and just keep putting one foot in front of the other until it was lunch time, then dinner time, then bed time and wake up early to do it all again – quite happily I might add – what else could I achieve with this newfound confidence I asked myself?
The time passed too quickly as we told stories and laughed until our sides hurt. At any point when I just wanted to sit down and give up, my guide would appear to tell me a joke and keep me going. The next day, when I was feeling stronger, I would be the one giving someone else a pep talk.
Near the end of trip, grinding to the top of Mueller Ridge through low cloud, my legs screaming and convinced someone had filled my day pack with boulders that morning, somehow I dragged myself to the top. Standing at the top of Mueller Ridge, with the mountains poking up above the clouds, grinning like a fool, I could finally see how far I’d come. I didn’t want to go back to the life I realized I had been tolerating for years. This was the first of many adventures ahead, I’d make sure of it.
So I went home, said goodbye to my old life and the old me, and begged my friend Andrew for a job on the other side of the world. A couple of months later, I was in Queenstown, New Zealand, helping to build Active New Zealand. Ten years later, I’m still down here at Active enjoying the outdoors and showing other people that small group trips are actually not too bad 😉
Written by Pam