Clumsy Wombat

Well, it’s not all rainbows and Tim-Tams. It was a rough day today—a six-person all-day kayaking trip in Abel Tasman National Park. This is what it looked like as we set out:

Starting off.

Starting off.

I know…how could I struggle such a place? And my host at the inn had told me the trip was for beginners. But apparently kayaking in Abel Tasman isn’t like kayaking in Westbrook, CT on my little hometown beach where I know what I’m doing and what to expect.

I was put in a double kayak with a lovely yet relentlessly stoic German woman about my age and, since I was in the back, I had to steer. I’d never used a kayak with a rudder before, and it was more technically demanding than I’d have thought.

Preparing to set out was an involved process of packing the kayaks, putting on spray skirts and life vests, and sealing phones and cameras in waterproof bags. There were fast-paced multi-step directions with specific tips on how to do all of these things, and I somehow missed a step and the guide had to help me. “I can see you’re going to be the special-needs case today,” he joked as he pulled my spray skirt tight around my seat. “No worries, English is only your first language,” he added with some disdain-soaked sarcasm.

It started out fine. We paddled out to an island and saw a ton of New Zealand Fur Seals sunning themselves, all blubbered out on rocks. Plenty of juveniles too, curious and frolicky, their eyes like giant, wet black marbles. As with any wildlife encounter, I was pleasantly distracted from reality; that is, the reality of how exacting the trip was becoming.

Once the fur seal portion of the morning was over, I realized what I was in for. Long stretches of super-choppy water dotted with invisible underwater rocks, giant swells, and the two guides keeping most of their seafaring wisdom to themselves. Several times I told Astrid, my kayak partner (who was annoyingly physically competent), that I was “a little freaked out,” and she kept saying in this very matter-of-fact German way that the guides wouldn’t have taken us out if it wasn’t safe.

These stretches were punctuated by perfect little picnic breaks with perfect caramel shortbread on perfect beaches on which I somehow managed to feel deeply ashamed for not having a perfect time.

Astrid and me on the beach.

Astrid and I on a picnic break in a sheltered cove. Note how I am acting like everything is perfectly fine. I am a master of deception.

So here’s something you may not know about me. When I was younger I actually was a bit of a “special needs case.” My guide today could never have known what a nerve he’d hit, but when I was in second grade it was determined that I should come inside at recess several times a week for “remedial gym class.” Apparently in phys ed I wasn’t up to par with other kids in things like catching or throwing a ball or walking a balance beam. I avoided physical group games. I was scared of the ball.

Today this might be called “gross motor delays,” but then it was just thought of as something like “chubby clumsy kid syndrome.” In those days, all the special needs kids were grouped together, so I was in this special class with kids with a variety of developmental disabilities. I was in this program for about a year, then I guess it was determined that I’d “caught up.” But I always hated phys ed, and I still never do any group sports or even classes at the gym. Not even Frisbee with friends in the park. Exercise is a purely private affair for me.

So today was the adult equivalent of second-grade phys ed. I couldn’t get the kayak to move right, and everyone else could. My kayak partner, a polite adult, just had to put up with me. I panicked when waves washed over the boat, when the others seemed sort of awed and entertained, like Whoa! Whee! The guide was clearly frustrated when I couldn’t make a turn through some rough rocky water that would lead us into some enchanted emerald cove. And because I couldn’t do it, the whole group couldn’t go in the cove.

And so I did what I strive to avoid doing: I took this one negative experience and dipped it again and again in horrid layers of story and suffering. I really took that ball and ran with it. I felt uncoordinated and fat and clumsy, like a big baby. I just wanted to crawl under covers on dry land.

I tried to joke with myself that these inclinations are why I feel a connection with the wombats. But then I remembered: wombats look clumsy and may even be laughed at for it, but they actually get the job done. They’re fast when they need to be and they’re also so stubborn that they just keep at whatever it is they’re doing, ramming their challengers head-on and digging slammin’ burrows.

So that’s what I’m doing right now: getting the job done. I’m chopping and roasting vegetables in the lodge’s communal kitchen, drinking local red wine, and planning on going to bed at about 8:30 pm. Tomorrow I’ll drive for a few hours; I’ve actually become quite competent at driving on the opposite side of the road.

I’ll just do my thing and keep at it. It’s the Wombat Way.

I stopped at this vegetable stand for dinner fixins.

I stopped at this vegetable stand for dinner fixins.

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