I hate snakes. I hate them so much that when I was 38, I learnt to surf, jumped out of a plane (Point Break style) and crossed the Gobi desert with just one can of coke. Ok I might be exaggerating about the can of coke. Despite my feats that year, I couldn’t eat one of those jelly snake lollies. (Although I did eat a squirm – no big jelly head.) So when I land in Queenstown, New Zealand where the scariest thing is a hungry bird called a kea, snakes are nowhere in my thoughts. That is until I meet Adam at Aro-ha.
Arrival into Queenstown
Aro-ha is a warm and fuzzy place. It’s a place which organises a hug by a cute yoga instructor on pick up at Queenstown Airport and then a drive through scenery that leaves even the most cynical person (yes, me) expelling ‘oohs’ and’ aahs’. Think soaring mountains with snow caps, lakes of blue you are more likely to see in a brochure for Tahiti and pristine hobbit style forest. Glenorchy, just south of Queenstown and the home to Aro-ha is the most beautiful place on earth. And I’m a surfer. So mountains aren’t on the top of my wow factor list. I’m also an alpha female or so people say. And perhaps I don’t like to come last ever. Does anyone?
Tibetan bells at dawn
Yet on day one at Aro-ha, (after rising from my comfy bed to the sound of Tibetan bells at dawn – something else I don’t normally relish. But I did it), I trundle off to yoga. The studio is all pine wood with a huge window which looks down onto Lake Wakatipo and across to the Southern Alps. As first light is shed on the world, I stare at this view and the other students, through my legs, in downward dog stance, and marvel at how good everyone else is at yoga. The view is somewhat of a distraction to my feelings of inferiority but these soon disappear when we do the lying on your back position also known as shavasana. I could shavasana all day especially when Phoebe Joel plays her Tibetan bowls.
After yoga it’s off to breakfast. Something I’m good at. Eating. Yum. Breakfast consists of a nutrient dense porridgy thing which is filled with so many flavours but I think, am I really going to survive the hike after just eating that? Spoiler alert – I do. I also survive without tea or coffee because of a magical elixir each morning before yoga. It’s a citrusy taste with cayenne pepper in a shot glass. One of those and there’s no need for a triple espresso to see the day through.
An upside down bladder
Next stop is the hiking room to get poles. Got to look the part, along with finding out how to fill a bladder and put it in my backpack. Mine is upside down so there’s no water for me until the lovely Adam checks it for me half way along our hike. When he says, ‘Your bladder’s upside down, I feel like a first time surfer whose wetsuit is done up at the front. Adam is a man of many talents – yoga instructor, guides and the one handing out snacks. I open mine immediately and sniff. Freshly dehydrated beetroot chips. I’ve never tasted a beetroot chip so good. It’s just so good that as soon as I get home I rush out and buy a dehydrator although I’m sorry to say it’s still sitting in its box.
The hike starts off well for a few minutes before it steeply inclines and quelle horreur I fall to the back where I stay whilst gorgeous fit yoga gurus march effortlessly to the summit, or so I think. Adam stays with me whilst I slowly climb the hill to achieve the wooden spoon. I have to gain some sort of cred so I regale him with my learning to surf/jump out of a plane/hating snakes coming of age story. Rather than impressing him, he seems rather interested in my snake phobia.
I’ve never known why I have this phobia. When I was a child I’d never been scared of snakes. I had a rubber one which I took delight in placing in a position where my mother or grandmother would find it and shriek. Adam thinks that’s significant (does he have me down as a potential psychopath?) yet more significant is when I’m seven and my year two class goes to Mrs O’Connell’s house a block away from the school. She owns a python in a cage in the backyard. Our class crowds around the cage and she brings it out for everyone to touch. Linda Smith, Goal Attack and arch netball rival hogs it and then my teacher, Mrs Richards says, ‘Time to go back to class,’ and so I my chance to hold it is over.
‘Aha,’ says Adam, ‘I see now. You never got to live out your snake desire. I would say the snake is your spirit animal.’ I don’t screw up my nose and say ‘no way’ because I’m too exhausted and Adam has snacks. Weird thing is my Chinese New Year animal is a snake.
I’m walking amongst picture postcard scenery and puffing and thinking about snakes and I think Adam is right. I need to listen to his advice. ‘Breathe through the fear. Accept it,’ he says. ‘When you go home get a picture of a snake and look at it.’ (I can’t even watch snakes on TV let alone look at a magazine picture.) ‘Sit with the fear you feel and breathe.’ Spoken like a true yogi.
Adam isn’t just wise. He’s loads of fun. He tells me about his portable sauna which he plans to take around New Zealand or is it the world? Fuelled by his verve I’m able to finish the hike (although I don’t reach the summit) but I am first down the mountain. We have to head back for the Tibetan bowls yoga so this trek lasts about two hours but the big hiking test for me comes the next day.
The Routeburn Track
The Routeburn Track in the Fjordland national park is even more beautiful than Glenorchy and for over four hours I soak up the forest, the tinkling sounds of water and even almost keep up with the women I secretly name ‘the yoga gurus’. I navigate my first ever swinging bridge which leaves me feeling slightly tipsy after each crossing – there are three bridges which means by lunch I feel like I’ve downed a few schooners which makes for a merry gathering.
The slow group hangs out on a log in the flats and dines on plants and water. Tasty plants of course made into yummy delights. After lunch, Adam asks if we’d all like to do a mindful walk back which means no speaking. Who could say no to the man with the sauna? We begin by giving the person in front of us ten paces before the next person sets off. I go last but to my delight I overtake two of our group although of course it doesn’t matter. I’m being mindful and drinking in the ethereal beauty of this southern land. (Maybe I can overtake one more.)
Back at the resort, in my Scandi style villa with shared bathroom, I shower before my daily massage. It’s hard to say what the pinnacle of each day is. The free hour daily massage is incredible. I have a different therapist each time, all equally skilled. The vegan gluten free food is the tastiest I’ve ever eaten and the views at the retreat have me almost kissing the earth each day in gratitude of being in such mind-blowing beauty.
On the third caffeine and alcohol free day (like who’s counting?), the weather changes and I opt to do a garden tour rather than a wet mountain walk. Aro-ha grows a huge amount of its own food. In the garden I discover oyster leaves which taste funnily just like oysters. I munch my way through a variety of flowers and herbs, happy at the lack of calories.
Tahini ice-cream dipped in vegan chocolate
Whilst the servings at Aro-ha to me are not large, the two particularly skinny ones in the group of ‘the yoga gurus’ declare them massive (oh puhleese skinny ninnies). To my delight there is the opportunity for a few cooking classes. My absolute highlight is making chocolate with just three ingredients and dipping some pre-prepared tahini ice-cream into the chocolate which sets quickly. These were only bite size and we had just one each but what a taste sensation. Who knew tahini could taste so good?
I lie in bed that night remembering the taste of that ice-cream as a large face in the mountain watches over me. My room’s right at the back of the property and although I don’t have lake views like the others I feel cocooned beside the mountain. The face is that of a giant with trees for eyes and a darker patch of dirt for his mouth. The way the moon shines out upon the mountain makes a creative soul like me envisage this protector as my own BFG.
Over six days at Aro-ha, I bond with the eleven others on the retreat, some from Sydney, some from Melbourne, two locals and two from the US. We partake in a few bonding exercises including one where we sit in a circle and offer a topic that we can give advice on. It’s hard to think of something on the spot so the first thing that enters my head is bog snorkelling. I’d come eighteenth in the world some time ago and know all the intricacies of competing in this Welsh sport. Many questions and laughs are thrown my way which doesn’t make me feel so bad about being the last hiker each day.
Farewell to the most beautiful place in the world
The last day is sans hike and includes a morning of acro-yoga, trust games and a farewell. Our wonderful yoga instructor drives us to the airport via Queenstown where everyone pours out for a caffeine hit except moi. The elixir has done its trick and I need no caffeine shot after six days in the most beautiful snake-free bubble in the world. ( I’m building up slowly to taste my first lolly snake soon.)
Retreats start from $5575.00 for six days/five nights and the entire experience in included in the state price so there are no extra hidden charges which is so refreshing.
Located in New Zealand’s ethereal Southern Alps, Aro Ha is designed for the rejuvenation of the human spirit. Adhering to a vision of zen inspired luxury, Aro Ha teams intelligent design with exceptional programming to create an unparalleled wellbeing experience.
The accommodation features a range of single and shared eco suites boasting minimalist luxury design. While guests can retreat to their rooms for moments of solitude, each suite is home to a shared foyer with space to sit and share tea. Every space within Aro Ha embraces its majestic surroundings – from the contrast hydrotherapy spas set into the mountainous earth to the yoga studio with panoramic views of Lake Wakatipu.