“Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.”
–The Buddha

Quite an upbeat fellow, that Buddha guy. Not that he’s wrong, mind you. As Donica and I are climbing ardently up Te Mata peak on the North Island of New Zealand, death is definitely on my mind—and not just tomorrow. I’m talking about Today! Right now! This is one challenging, precarious hike! Part of it is the high humidity which, on this warm, sultry, summer day, is kicking me solidly in the patootie. Part of it is the incline, which is quite a bit steeper than I expected. And part of it is the trail location itself, situated high atop a wind-exposed ridge. Back home in the States, there would be a railing of some sort for safety, or at least a sign warning you to stay away from the edge. Not here in New Zealand, where you’re pretty much expected to be fit and self-reliant. In short, if you fall off a cliff, it’s your fault, not the park planners’.

All dramatizing aside, Te Mata Peak isn’t the Himalayas. Just south of Hastings and Napier on the North Island’s east coast, the peak is only 400 meters above sea level (~1,300 feet). Its name originates from the Maori “Te Mata-o-Rongokako” or “the face of Rongokako.” When looking at the peak from the north, one can apparently see the silhouette of a person lying down – no doubt this chap Rongokako. Personally, I prefer the peak’s nickname: “The Sleeping Giant.” Although not a terribly tall mountain, elevation wise, it most certainly is steep, with a cliff drop of 500 feet. And as we all know about sleeping giants, if you kick them, they can be dangerous!

What makes Te Mata Peak worth the risk and the effort, in my opinion, is the truly gorgeous scenery you encounter along the way. Our path up the hill winds through grassy fields and even a redwood forest (!) before emerging on the edge of a cliff for the rest of the two-hour hike — with miles of steep, rolling hills spread out generously before us. It’s a classic New Zealand scene – steep, volcanic hills and ridges, thrust dramatically from the earth, softened with a coating of bright, green grass. At the top, you’re rewarded with a world-class view of the Tukituki valley, stretching all the way to Hawkes Bay. Absolutely lovely – and worth the ardently strenuous, death-defying journey.

(In a perfect world, all exercise could be accomplished without heavy breathing. That would be my dream. I really hate being out of breath; it brings me back to my childhood, when I was an overweight kid absolutely certain, from experience, that a painful stitch in my side was on the way. Light breathing, great! Bent over, laboring to catch my breath – yuck! But that’s life, isn’t it? Sometimes you have to not only feel discomfort when in pursuit of a goal, but also dredge up bad memories from childhood. There’s no getting around the fact that the avoidance of both 1) current pain AND 2) old-hot button recollections work to prevent us from moving forward on our objectives. About all you can do is try to be aware of the situation and remind yourself that pain is just pain – it’ll get better – and previous bad experiences do, in fact, ensure a repeat experience. You’re a different person now; things might be different! Tough to do, I know, but that’s how you get to top of your Te Mata Peak.)