A trusted friend told me recently, ‘Until you step out there Keating, you won’t know what’s truly out there’. Pretty reasonable sage; I nodded and ‘mmmm’d’. I’ve even heard myself say it to others when it’s been my turn to offer steadying wisdom.
Different to nod along when staring down the barrel of imminent redundancy, with a mortgage, on the eve of an historic depression, while stepping out the side door from an industry I’ve worked in for more than two decades. This sort of stink luck is normally something that happens to your mum’s friend’s son-in-law.
But only weeks ago, it was me wrangling redundancy, and the terrifying-yet-exhilarating opportunity to take the envelope offered, clear out my locker, and step out there – into the unknown.
I decided, after a recent discovery of fly fishing, to gather a small posse and head south to Central Otago where I could fish, stand in an icy river, sit by a fire, and begin the process of grief and relief – a great untangling from 15 years of building another’s empire, a place I could breathe in the wintry unknown and exhale the endlessness and weight of CEO’ing.
Another friend had recently acquired a hidden gem of a lodge in Makarora, beside the braided rivers that feed Lake Wanaka, which he rebranded as Wonderland, started an Instagram account and, to the delight of my party and me, did f*ck all else.
It was founded in 1959 and built over the years, a collection of two dozen simple A-frame chalets scattered across eight hectares at the very top of Lake Wanaka, snow-covered Mount Brewster and Mount Aspiring National Park towering above either side. It’s serviced by a warmly modest lodge where we were greeted by a roaring fire and smiling staff who issued us keys attached to little wooden fobs and an A4 map that resembled something torn from a Berenstain Bears book.
The driveways to each chalet ramble through puriri and tī kōuka and lead to little stony entranceways and, on the night of our arrival, lights and heaters left on provided a warm welcome from the icy downpour outside.
There’s something very adventurously we-out-here about about a sticky aluminium door opening into a pine-lined A-frame cabin. Oil heaters and floral duvet covers, a single light hanging from the apex and the familiar smell of rain and worn and motel.
Although each cabin is essentially the same in layout and design, they each have their own personality, strewn across the property. Some with brown aluminium, some with white wooden joinery, each one differing slightly depending on the year they were built by the lodge’s owners.
They come from a different time. One power point in each, coloured linoleum bathrooms, formica benches and a quaint and welcomed disconnection from the world by way of no wifi access away from the lodge’s main office. They are as simple as they are clean, and after rising in the dark, a day spent fishing in an icy river and Cam’s slow lamb with red wine, they were perfect to come home to.
Our communal dining cabin, on this occasion shared with no one, had similar school-camp aesthetics. The glow of honey-coloured particle-board floors, tables and benches – perhaps New Zealand’s most practically impractical building material, yet here it was perfect. We borrowed a large pot and wooden spoon from Alonso the Chilean chef down at the restaurant, prepared our meals on one-metre-high stainless-steel benches, and ate from mis-matched Crown Lynn dinnerware; no two wine glasses the same.
There was an abundance of macrocarpa stacked by the fireplace, which we kept stoked all week and the room smelled of a thousand hikes mixed with smoke and Vogel’s. We sat around the fire until late each night, and talked rum-in-hand about how we never wanted to have jobs again – all five of us having recently left the comforts of employment to embark on our own ventures.
Change and the unknown, whether chosen or thrust upon us, can make us feel alive or unanchored and, depending on our wiring and appetite for risk, be very confronting. For me, it’s a combination of all of these things. In stepping out of the organisation I served for 15 years, I was stepping into the wilderness of uncertainty as much as I was wading for the first time into the Makarora River. Feeling its icy grip, her steady and unstoppable current, a mere speck in brown mountain valleys. Nothing makes me feel so alive and peaceful, and appropriately insignificant.
Looking up at night, there were more stars than emails. I drank instant coffee and cream (also with rum), shared freshly smoked trout just moments from the river and, sitting fireside with friends, I could feel the unknown out there all around me.
I was outside. I had stepped out, into cold and big and uncharted, and I loved it. Now I’m out here, I really can begin to discover just what really is out here.