19 Mar 2024

The tall man in a van taking the plunge around Aotearoa

10:26 am on 19 March 2024
Stuart McEwen post a plunge in New Zealand's waterways

Stuart McEwen: "I thought I’d take the plunge, not only literally just in water, but in a different way of living.” Photo: Stuart McEwen

Stuart McEwen has dedicated much of his life to sport, from playing professional basketball in the US to coaching the next generation of players back home. In 2023, the grind caught up with him, and he knew something needed to change.

So he decided to take the plunge, literally, into a new way of life. Over the next two years, the 31-year-old Wellingtonian plans to take a hiatus from work and travel the country, immersing himself in every river, lake and sea along the way.

McEwen says the decision was a long time coming.

"I was feeling burnt out. I knew I needed to change the way I was operating regardless of what I was doing, so I decided to take a break. I had this curiosity which grew and grew over the last five years about just taking different paths in life.

"I've always loved getting outdoors; the landscape, the nature we have in New Zealand is so stunning and healing and beautiful to be in, and I've always wanted to do something cool with my time, so I thought I'd take the plunge, not only literally just in water, but in a different way of living."

Stuart McEwen poses at the start of another cold plunge at Marfells Beach, Marlborough.

Stuart McEwen poses at the start of another cold plunge at Marfells Beach, Marlborough. Photo: Stuart McEwen

McEwen has spent time in many parts of the world, living in Australia for high school and then spending eight years in the US on a university scholarship playing basketball. Upon his return to New Zealand, he established an Auckland-based business Swished On, which coaches and mentors young basketball talent.

In December 2023, McEwen sold the business and spent the month getting his van ready. By February 2024, he was ready to get going.

McEwen took his first official plunge in Ōtaki, exploring the beaches around the area in Waikanae and Paraparaumu, before heading over to the Wairarapa. Then came the south coast of Wellington, Picton and Blenheim.

He's planning to do the whole east coast of the South Island, all the way down to Stewart Island, in a journey he suspects will take around three-and-a-half months. Next comes a two-to-three month trip from Invercargill up to Nelson, through the middle, then down the West Coast for the tail end of the year.

Stuart McEwen's 'Take The Plunge' van.

Stuart McEwen's 'Take The Plunge' van. Photo: Stuart McEwen

If you plot his journey on a map, McEwen says you'll find "a big squiggle mark" across the North and South Island, knocking off 350 locations and bodies of water.

McEwen's adventures so far have allowed him to connect with some interesting people. His favourite encounter to date is with a boatsman he met in Picton - Dave.

"I met Dave on an old wooden ship. His brother Andy runs a roof rack shop in Wellington. I told Andy what I was doing and he said, 'when you get to Picton, give Dave a call. He's got a boat, he'll take you around'.

"I called Dave and I was a bit hesitant to start, this could be anything I'm walking in to. I show up to this sick boat, it's 50-years-old, and Dave is just a legend. He's a cigarette-smoking, Coke-Zero drinking, awesome yarn-spinning Kiwi bloke, and he took me on this tour for eight hours around the sounds.

"It's just some local dude who's keen to give a random guy a ride around on his boat. That stuff is just as important to me as getting in the water."

McEwen says water is a connecting element in New Zealand - whether you like to swim or fish or just hang out at the beach - and there's no shortage of "cool characters" to meet. While plunging is a solo journey at the moment, he is keen to share the experience.

"I would love to meet people that want to join in whatever capacity. For me, honestly, the benefit of walking through the forest to that river could be just as good as you staying in the cold water for two minutes.

"The plunge is just getting into the water for as long as you want to, but it's also about experiencing nature and diving into yourself and getting involved in your communities."

Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes region

Lake Rotoiti, in the Nelson Lakes region, was McEwen's 38th plunge. Photo: Stuart McEwen

McEwen is currently immersing himself in everything Blenheim offers: trying out new restaurants, meeting new people, and supporting local Kiwi brands, having recently picked up an affinity for kawakawa balms and organic soaps. He's dipping into his savings to fund his travels, though is open to the idea of picking up some remote work.

Next year, his route will take him through the West Coast, all the way to Auckland then across the Bay of Plenty, through Gisborne all the way down to the bottom of the east coast, and back up through the middle.

McEwen will be enjoying the warm weather for as long as he can, but says he's not worried about whatever comes next.

"It's gonna be very hard come winter but I've done a lot of cold plunges before so I know my body will get used to it. For safety reasons, I haven't given myself a time limit. I've done quite a few uncomfortable things in my life so I'm not too stressed about it.

"I just try and carry the energy I get from the plunges for as long as I can."

McEwen is documenting his mission to plunge the whole of New Zealand on Instagram: @stu.mcew.