by Emma Spagnuolo WG ’15
When 60 kilometers turns into 95 kilometers at km marker 50: AMBIGUITY. When sand fly bites stare you down, unflinching, as you blast bug spray directly into their face: AMBIGUITY. When the bike path is blocked because 12 inches of rain have fallen in the last hour and the river is overflowing: AMBIGUITY.
But when you reach the top of the summit after a full day’s hike, and you successfully steer the raft through the rapids without flipping, and you touch the water of the Pacific Ocean after a seven day hike from the Tasman Sea: AMAZING, PRICELESS, UNBELIEVABLE, SO-WORTH-IT.
This is just a small glimpse into the rollercoaster adventure that twelve courageous, excited, and potentially naïve Wharton students embarked on over winter break in New Zealand. The first venture of its kind, these students were explicitly told that they were the guinea pigs of the pilot and that they could expect any and all havoc to be wreaked.
What ensued was one of the best experiences of my Wharton career.
The Moana Ki Te Moana New Zealand Leadership Venture excelled far beyond my expectations in all areas. I made 12 new friends and fortified my bonds with two others. I pushed myself beyond every limit, physical, mental and emotional, and kept it together (enough) to make it through the venture. I was rewarded at every step by the beautiful scenery of New Zealand, and every day brought a new challenge as we pushed towards our goal of making it from the lush, wet, scenic West Coast to the sunny, bustling East Coast.
We biked, hiked and rafted across the island, never once using anything but “human power” to get us across. Our guides, who were most aptly described as “those crazy motherf*****s” but were actually named Dave Ritchie and Graham Charles (google them), acted as though our journey was a nice, relaxing vacation as they jumped from rock to rock, pushed us up hills on bikes, and rowed single handedly down a river that we needed seven people to navigate. Their support was unflinching, from both an outdoors education “survive the trek” perspective and a leadership perspective, as they participated in our after action reviews and provided valuable feed back from the privileged (if you call pushing full grown adults up hills while biking yourself privileged) perspective of an observer, rather than a participant. Without giving away too much of the mystery, some key highlights of the trip were swimming in the crystal clear (literally-spotless) waters of the Waimachariri river; reaching the top of the Deception River Valley and walking down it through the mountains; learning first hand about the difficult decisions that can face leaders from mountaineering expert Rodrigo Jordan; reaching and swimming in the Pacific Ocean after seven days of dreaming about it; riding our bikes in a massive peleton that forced opposing traffic to play chicken; playing two truths and a lie (and being good at it); competing in grab the stick (and again, being good at it); eating masterfully created delicacies for dinner thanks to Roberto Blum, Antonio Key, Nick Naito and Alison Jen; and shoving our faces with chocolate at pretty much every turn.
If this feels like it is too cushy to be a true Wharton Leadership Venture, just refer back to the first paragraph, and remember that everything tastes better when you’ve just burned 6500 calories (no seriously, we clocked it), and that cognitive dissonance is a real thing.
Of course, at the risk of sounding too mushy, the true highlights of the trip were every time my teammates gave me a hug, or told me I was a badass, or gave me some other kind of encouragement. And let me tell you, this probably happened at least 20 times a day, whether I was laughing or crying (it happened) or following another teammate off the trail and across a cliff that I had to scale before it was pointed out to us (mid-scaling) that we had wandered off the course.
Thanks to Moana Ki Te Moana, I learned the true value of a supportive team, got to know 13 terrific students, 4 amazing outdoorsmen and 2 very cool outdoorsmen-in-training and most importantly gained incredible insight into my own personal limits (one of which apparently is biking 95 kilometers). I want to say a huge thank you to the Wharton Leadership Office, our Venture Fellow’s Mauricio Cordero and Claudia Gutierrez, and to my kick-ass fellow venturers for making this the trip of my life.