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Choke on the water: David Whitley

A New Zealand kayak trip exposes the alarming gulf between a self-assessment of fitness and reality

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Finally, we pull over into a placid bay. I slump forward and drop the paddle across the front of the kayak. Melt me down for glue — I’m done.

I tend to think of lakes as timid things, the watery equivalent of someone called Tim or Ian who works in accounts and enjoys the films of Tom Hanks. A kayaking trip on a lake in the sunshine sounded about as fearsome as a shop full of stuffed toys.

Lake Taupo, however, had other ideas. Smack in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, the lake is roughly the size of Singapore. And when the wind gets up, it turns into a snarling, fanged beast, sending a relentless battery of waves into anyone or anything that dares to cross it.

In a weedy kayak, it turns out, this is quite horrible — a grim, muscle-sapping struggle against an array of evil forces, accompanied by a near-permanent barrage of spray in your face.

New Zealand, it seems, is a country that revels in exposing overly optimistic assessments of one’s own physical fitness. Before going, I considered myself to be in the sturdy carthorse bracket. I’ll not do anything fast or gracefully, but I’ve got the sort of thoroughly unsexy, plodding stamina that will finish the marathon eventually, even if it’s three hours after the man in a suit of armour riding a pantomime horse.

This delusion had earlier been beaten out of me on the Pouakai Crossing, a day walk across the face of Mount Taranaki and up to the scenic lookouts in the Pouakai Ranges, in western New Zealand. It’s a beautiful trek, but there’s one stretch of trudging continuously up steps under a blazing sun that’s calculated to reduce carthorses to knobbled, braying donkeys.

I howled my way up, stopping every few seconds to hunch over, wheezing. When my hands weren’t on my thighs to give extra support for the upward heave, I was shaking my sweating fist at the heavens, as yet another set of steps appeared around the corner. It wasn’t a case of jelly legs — more a case of jelly-that-hasn’t-set-yet legs.

Elsewhere in New Zealand, it’s possible to pedal — then grumpily walk — a bike up monstrous hills. Or chicken out of jumping off bridges that seem much lower from far away. Or scream in panic as a raft plunges into whitewater that would tear an ox limb from limb. In short, it’s a country where bluster and bravado quickly have their pants pulled down from behind.

After the brute of a paddle out to the bay, we were promised a relatively easy coast back. The wind would be behind us, not smashing gallons of lake water into our sodden faces. We strike out, powering the kayaks with the enthusiasm of trail-riding horses that know home is just around the corner. But it’s not as easy as we’d thought. The wind has changed — it’s coming right for us and has picked up speed. Attacking the waves proves fruitless; we’re being pushed one stroke back for every one we take forward.

Before long, the guide makes the call. “We’re going back, and we’re going to try to beg the Cruise Cat for a lift.”

Sure enough, a pleasure boat arrives in the distance. We start frantically waving at the catamaran, which pulls up alongside — perhaps more out of curiosity than anything else.

“Are you serious?” the woman on deck asks after the pathetic cry for help goes up.

The undignified rescue mission commences. We manoeuvre alongside, like the world’s most pathetic pirates. I grab a metal bar and am hauled up by the neck of my life jacket, landing on the deck belly-first, beached-whale style.

Ropes are attached to the kayaks to pull them up, and we greet our saviours with a non-stop stream of pitiful thank-yous. The captain tells us to grab a coffee if we want one, then gruffly continues with his commentary.

But it turns out that getting us onto the boat was the easy part. Getting off again requires a little more ingenuity.

Lowering the kayaks down isn’t the tough bit; lowering kayakers into them is. It’s the maritime equivalent of threading a needle. I park myself on the edge of the boat and half lower myself, half jump down into the hollow where my seat is. I land the wrong way round, and attempt a 180-degree wriggle-round, as the kayak lurches in the swell. I stumble forward, then lose balance completely and plunge into the bitterly cold water. Being hauled up by your life jacket once is unfortunate; twice within half an hour, and a country is trying to tell you something.

Published in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)