When I organised to go on a llama trek, I wasn't sure what to expect.
Was I going to be spat on? Could I ride them? Would they walk too fast for me? Where exactly was I going to be walking?
Earlier this week, I went to Kaikoura Farm Park, which runs Kaikoura Llama Trekking, to meet owners Kevin Cole and Lynn Barrett, who explained they had organised for me to do a taster trek – an hour in the wilderness.
The British couple ran llama trekking in Bournemouth, on the South Coast of England, when they decided to move to New Zealand to set up a similar business here.
In the two years since they have moved countries, they have set up the farm park, which has more than 100 animals, a rental cottage and most recently llama trekking.
They started with two llamas. They now have 10 and plan to increase to 18 within the next two years.
Heading out the back of the farm, I was introduced to three llamas, five-year-olds Jack and Scorch and 18-year-old Bruno.
The traditional pack animals carry your gear while trekking. On half-day and full-day treks, homemade goodies, hot drinks and chairs are packed into the bags.
After a quick lesson in llama etiquette, including not to touch their faces, and how to hold their rope, we headed off.
Jack was my walking partner.
Kevin's two dogs, Jessie and Barney, also came with us.
Walking out of the park, Jack tried to eat everything in sight, including some lovely pink roses.
The key was to let him bend and eat a little, then quickly, but gently pull him away.
After about 10 minutes, Jack and I had reached an understanding.
Side by side we walked through the countryside toward the Kahutara river valley.
Llamas are very slow walkers and no, you can't speed them up.
I was forced to walk at an ambling pace, which was quite a nice break from my usually brisk determined walk.
Every now and then Jack would stop, pin his ears back and become incredibly alert.
Kevin explained they are naturally cautious and whenever we turned into somewhere different, they'd be checking for predators.
When Jack was alert he towered over me, but when he was more relaxed his big brown eyes kept looking at me.
The llamas all had quite distinct personalities. For example, Jack was a natural leader, so when Scorch overtook us, he spat at him.
This gave me such a fright that I literally jumped away, but Kevin assured me I wouldn't be targeted. Thankfully, he was right.
We ran into a group of Australians on another taster trek. At this point, the llamas started humming. Different pitches convey different messages. High pitches can mean there is a problem or surprise, while mid-tone humming means, "I'm OK".
As we made our way back to the park, I was surprised by just how much I had learned about llamas and the Kaikoura countryside.
Kevin says each trek is different, with some people happy to talk among themselves with him as a guide only, while others, like me, want a running commentary.
Just as we entered the gates to the farm park, Jack made a quick stoop for some tasty-looking flowers. I gently tugged on his rope, did the "clicking" noise I'd been shown and obediently he rose back up to his two-metre height before dropping his head to eyeball me and plant a "llama kiss" on my cheek.
Too scared to move in case it would be followed by spit, I froze.
Kevin laughed. He told me at the end of my trek through "llama land" I had found "llama love".
Saying goodbye to Jack, I had a new appreciation for the gentle creature with the intelligent eyes.
By being forced to walk more slowly, I found myself lapping up the beauty of the countryside more than I usually would and feeling oddly relaxed. And no, I didn't meet the Dalai Lama.
Kaikoura Llama Trekking offer several different trekking options from tasters to full day with overnight treks in the pipeline.
* For prices and more information, phone 03 319 5033 or email email@example.com or see llamatrekking.co.nz
- The Marlborough Express