The roar of the wild
Survive this ... views from high above Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown. Photo: Alamy
Ben Groundwater channels his inner Bear Grylls on a challenging survival trek in Queenstown.
Peter raises his hand, bringing us to a halt behind him. We stand there silently, our breath billowing into the still alpine air, as he casts a glance left and right, checking for signs of danger.
We gather in an abandoned hikers' hut ...
"This is your first lesson in survival," he whispers, nodding towards the bitumen in front of him. "Always look left and right before you cross the road."
Trail tips in Queenstown. Photo: Ben Groundwater
With that he grins, drops his hand and leads us across the highway, into the trees, into the mountains, and into the real danger zone.
OK, so the road safety tip wasn't part of the course - we're learning far more primitive skills today. Skills such as building a spring trap to ensnare rabbits. Like catching fish with a plastic bottle; building a stove from a Coke can; starting a fire with a phone battery. But you have to begin somewhere.
Inspired by the rugged manliness of Bear Grylls and his TV show Man vs Wild, we're here in Central Otago to learn the tricks of the trade. If we're ever trapped in the mountains, we want to be able to survive. (Failing that, we want to be able to tell our friends that if we're ever trapped in the mountains, we would be able to survive.)
Peter Hitchman is our guide and survival master. He created "You vs Wild", a new hike for budding adventurers who want to take more away from their trip to Queenstown than a few sore limbs and a hangover. They want knowledge; they want skills.
What would you do if you found yourself lost and alone in the New Zealand Alps? What would be your first move?
"You have to think about the 'rule of threes'," Peter says, stopping his students on a narrow path that winds through the wooded Alps.
"Humans can survive three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. So that should be your priorities: air, then shelter, then water, then food."
Air's not a problem around here, and shelter is only an issue when it gets dark - but what about water? Over there to our right is a stream. Everyone knows you can drink from a moving stream. Problem solved.
"That's a common mistake," Peter says, crushing dreams of natural aptitude. "People take water from fast-moving parts of the river. You don't want to do that, you'll get giardia. Thing is, the giardia bug is heavier than water, so if you take water from a still part of a moving stream, the giardia will have sunk and you won't get any."
Good trick. Peter, like Bear Grylls, is an Englishman. Unlike Grylls, however, who got his start in the SAS, Peter's career began in the world of rock'n'roll. He worked in England as a security guard for Duran Duran - the only things he had to survive in his early days were crazed groupies, and the '80s.
He's since picked up a thing or two about survival. Like these furry leaves by the side of the trail.
Collect them, Peter says, and stuff them inside your shirt. They're natural insulation - they'll keep you warm.
His three students nod, wide-eyed. It's boy scouts for people who weren't boy scouts. And the skill everyone wants to learn is one of the scout classics: starting a fire.
We gather in an abandoned hikers' hut deep in the woods, ready to hear the secrets.
There are three ways. One involves rubbing sticks together (time-consuming, hard). Another requires a plastic straw filled with vasoline-soaked cotton wool (ideal, unlikely). The last is a neat trick, as Peter strikes a mobile phone battery on some steel wool, causing a spark, a flare, and then glorious, life-saving fire.
Outside the hut, the lesson continues. "See this stuff?" Peter asks, holding up a long, thin leaf with a vein running through it. "We call this 'bushman's shoelaces'. You can use this middle bit as a bootlace, or to build a rabbit trap. Or," he adds, rubbing his arms with the leaves and giving us a wink, "you can use it to clean yourself up. It's easier to hitch a lift home if you look clean."
There's far more to learn: little tips and tricks that, if they don't come in handy in the wild, will at least provide fodder for showing off in the pub. It's fascinating stuff.
And as we trek out of the forest, we're given the chance to show off our new knowledge.
We all pause at the road. We look left; then right. Bear Grylls has got nothing on us.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.
Three ways to relax in Queenstown
Had enough of hardcore survival? Here's how to take it easy.
1. Appellation Wine Tour Spend the day sampling Central Otago's best drops, including plenty of its famous pinot noir, with this local tour. There's even a little history lesson in between all the swilling and slurping. appellationcentral.co.nz.
2. Rata Restaurant There are plenty of great casual restaurants in Queenstown — The Cow and Joe's Garage among them — but the new kid on the block for fine dining is Michelin-starred chef Josh Emett's creation, Rata. ratadining.co.nz.
3. The Spa at Millbrook Once you've finished capturing your dinner and rubbing sticks together, head out to Millbrook Resort for the full spa treatment, including massage and facial. millbrook.co.nz.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney to Queenstown daily. 13 24 76, airnewzealand.com.au.
Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel is right in the middle of town and has rooms from $NZ450 ($356) a night. queenstownparkhotel.co.nz.
NZ Walks offers the You vs Wild half-day trek, which costs $NZ140 a person. youvswild.co.nz.