Five kilometres in and we are still going uphill. The gravel slips away under my feet. Hands on hips and panting, I want to cry. Why are they making me do this?
I'm hiking up a trail that looks over Glenorchy, 45km from Queenstown. Sure, it's a beautiful view out to calm lakes, valleys, and the Southern Alps, but for me it's become a psychological challenge where my views are only internal.
I'm not the slowest, there are still people somewhere behind, out of view, but the faster group is far ahead - they are all older than me, one at least 60. They passed me while casually chatting away - I struggled for breath rather than words. I'm an active person in my 20s, I should be one of the fittest here.
I feel like an isolated teenager. Mixed emotions are battling each other to burst out. Why can't I keep up? My ego has kicked in and I'm extremely frustrated.
The hike is part of Delve Deep, the "signature wellness adventure" at newly opened Aro Ha retreat, a $30 million self-sustainable luxury resort in Glenorchy. The seven-day programme entails yoga, vegetarian cuisine, zero caffeine, daily massages, a range of classes - and hiking.
I take a deep breath and slowly continue - one foot in front of the other. The landscape turns rocky, the uneven surface makes it harder to catch up. Finally, as gravel turns to large rocks under my feet, I see the faster group, having a break - I've caught up. While eating an apple and seasoned nuts, I think about the pressure I'm putting on myself to be as good as the others. I resolve to try spending the next seven days challenging myself, but at my own pace.
Back at Aro Ha, lunch awaits. Mostly raw and all organic and vegetarian, meal times thrill the senses.
One of the chefs, Rani Silva, an adorable Brazilian man, describes lunch as parsnip sushi. With the parsnip replacing rice, it's an interesting evolution. The presentation is bright and beautiful and, even though I'm famished, I eat slowly to preserve the art a bit longer. The dining room looks out on to Lake Wakatipu and the Southern Alps, a mind-blowing view seen from most rooms in the Aro Ha complex.
DOWN TO EARTH
There are 12 participants in Aro Ha's first retreat. We are a mix of different backgrounds and cultures. An American who helped bring to life the first desktop publishing application, later sold to Adobe, is here with his wife; one of Aro Ha's co-founders is visiting with his family from the US, and a couple of Aussies and Kiwis add to the mix. It is a group of wealthy and successful people who are also down to earth.
On the first night, we bonded by playing a "game" where we each had to share one of the happiest moments of our lives. I frantically scanned my memory. Birthdays, school productions, award ceremonies, first dates, overseas travels, drinking, parties, parties and drinking - this is going to be embarrassing. I was present at the births of my nephew and niece - that's a goodie. Others share impressive stories of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro and of being reunited with family.
As guests awkwardly share their stories, they get used to being out of their comfort zones and begin to express their emotions. A domino effect hits the men in the group and one after another they begin to cry as they let go of their fear of being judged.
I'm one of those people who cries when others do, so when it's my turn to speak I'm a sobbing mess. I crack a joke about detoxing to make light of the fact that I'm crying in front of a bunch of people I've just met. With births already covered, I talk about my time studying in Italy. It wasn't climbing Mt Kilimanjaro and it wasn't heartfelt like the others but I reminded myself this wasn't a competition.
After our post-hike sushi there is more free time than usual - a one-off chance. We are on a strict schedule and told that while we won't be forced to attend everything, it's beneficial if we do.
My free time is spent exploring. Aro Ha's main buildings are scattered across four blocks of Wyuna Reserve, a privately owned residential estate. I'm staying in an accommodation block that has four single rooms and two bathrooms; one with a shower and one with a bath. With only two of us staying in this block nothing has to be shared, so it's very comfortable. The bath looks out to the hillside, and if you stretch and look out of the very bottom left corner you can see oh-so-blue Lake Wakatipu - just enough to advertise lake views. From my bedroom window, the view is a panorama of calm water and snowy peaks. Metres away, sheep huddle on the hills.
To my right, the wood and stone features of the spa centre help it blend into the surrounds. There, the protocol is to lounge around. I'm easily convinced to have a daily massage.
That evening it's activity time again: a yoga and meditation class, held at precisely 6pm daily. We creak and click our bodies into guided positions. During meditation, we are introduced to the idea of truly feeling gratitude. This includes feeling grateful for situations and people that challenge us.
We explore accepting others with feelings of compassion by breathing in while thinking of someone challenging and observing how that makes us feel. Then we breathe out feelings of love and compassion for all others who have ever felt this way. I struggle to recreate a sense of frustration and feel like I'm not getting anywhere, but my eyes tell a different story. I am surprised and slightly embarrassed that I'm tearful - my emotions must be a step ahead of my thoughts.
Afterwards, we discuss what we felt. A guest who recently split with her partner tells us that before the meditation she felt angry. Now she has moved on to feelings of sadness.
It is 5.30am and a bell rings to wake us up - it's toxic Tuesday, when detoxing kicks in and you might crave sugar, caffeine and even meat. I have a slight headache, but I'm not sure if this is due to a lack of sleep or craving for a chocolate fix. Yoga starts at 6am and we are quickly distracted with exercise.
We head to the kitchen for breakfast - a thick, purple smoothie with what looks like yellow seeds sprinkled on top. I'm delighted to find it tastes like chocolate, thanks to the blend of coconut meat, blueberries, spinach, flaxseed oil and maca powder, a root vegetable with a malty taste. The yellow bits are bee pollen - crunchy and sweet, they make the smoothie. It's extremely filling, which is lucky, as the team leaders join us with details of today's hike - a 15km undulating trek.
Ten kilometres in and I'm surrounded by forest. Moss covers the bases of trees on either side of the path. A few others are in front but I'm close behind. I feel energised and walk faster. On the downhill leg I meet the others and the rest of the hike goes quickly as we chat our way to 15km.
A good soak is needed to wash away tired muscles. I hop in the bath and look out to the last of the sun on the hills. A large blowfly lands on the window - a black blot of imperfection on the view. I push through the water to one end and look out the bottom lefthand corner of the window - my lake view, just how I left it. Even as the fly buzzes loudly around the room, I feel truly grateful.
Getting there: Aro Ha, Station Valley Rd, Glenorchy, is a 40-minute drive from Queenstown. Air New Zealand flies direct to Queenstown from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Aro Ha provides airport transfers.
Staying there: Retreats and prices vary, starting from $4550 per person for a fully inclusive five-day retreat. Being there: Activities include yoga, meditation, massage, hiking and saunas.
More information: See aro-ha.com.
- The writer was a guest of Aro Ha.
- Sunday Star Times