Splashes of color

If my first post about New Zealand gave the impression that the entire two weeks was colorless, I have some contrasting news: they were not. When I flew toward my layover airport of Singapore en route to Auckland, we floated among azure skies. Even if grey marshmallows occasionally interrupted my view once on the ground, the peacefulness of streaking above the clouds didn’t end with the bump of landing in New Zealand.

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I never would have imagined I’d fly with Singapore Airlines more than once in a year, but from Germany the tiny island country is a perfect stopover to New Zealand. For the second time this year, I boarded SQ327 and settled in for a long sleep. After deplaning, I walked toward the next gate, forgetting how big Changi is. I only had about forty minutes before boarding began for the flight to the other side of the Equator. On board the B777-300ER en route to Auckland, I simply slept. I had one night there before boarding my flight to Christchurch the following morning, where for a little under two hours we soared above the clouds in a deep blue expanse.

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Summer had temptingly arrived in Christchurch, where temperatures were in the upper 80s when we landed. As I drove toward Lake Tekapo, my first stop of the trip, New Zealand’s fickle weather commenced its tirade; it rained and rainbowed alike before the sun came out again, albeit brandishing lower temperatures. I had dinner at a massively crowded Japanese restaurant and headed to bed early, waking the next morning in plentiful sunshine and content to hike up the local mountain for endless views. With each footfall, though, those chances dissipated.

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I reached the observatory atop Mt. John just as first snowflakes began to fall. The view down to the lake darkened and shrouded, so I hung out at the observatory cafe to warm up and dry out, laughing to myself as twice in two days I got the chance to get accustomed to how quickly the temperatures plunged and the sun was swallowed. As I began to walk back toward town, the clouds began to part, and by the time I pulled on my car handle, the entire area was full of sunshine again. I had a simple lunch and decided to go on an afternoon walk toward Camp Stream Hut, knowing I wouldn’t reach it before needing to turn around to make it back to town in time for sunset. Even in the few short hours I was on the trail, I was mesmerized at how empty and peaceful the area was. Amid the tussock there was no clear path, with only meter-high poles as guides on the Te Araroa trail. During the two hours spent meandering toward Mt. Sibbald I was completely alone, a far cry from six hours prior, where I was joined by groups of hikers and drivers alike at Mt. John.

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Given the previous year’s hordes experience with the Tongariro Circuit, I was impressed and quietly relieved at the emptiness along the Te Araroa. The Alps are seemingly endless, but on a weekend the trailhead parking lot fills by 8:30 AM. Here, on the bottom of the Earth, it felt like emptiness incarnate. I munched on a protein bar before I prepared to return to my car, contemplating how the sunset might look as I strained to make out the sounds of Lake Tekapo’s headwaters against the gentle rustle of tussock.

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I pushed my rental Mazda 3 on the gravel roads, bathing the car in billows of dust as I returned to my Airbnb to pick up my tripod and filters for sunset. Dinner was at a Chinese restaurant; it seems Asian tourists were more common here than I had observed on the long hike last year. I hoped for a glow under a fiery sky on the slopes of distant, snowy peaks. My fortune only permitted one or the other, but I was content to shoot long after the sun had set and watch in deferential silence as the sky blushed purple and pink. Despite having camped out meters away from Tekapo’s main road and being visited by curious gnats, I felt at relative ease. It’s hard not to appreciate nature after a day of sun, snow, summits, and a gorgeous sunset. It was my only full day in Tekapo, and I was more than content with the conditions I had.

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Hoping for a repeat of the conditions that night, I set my alarm for the following sunrise, thinking I’d find myself alone at the local church as the day lit. I was wrong — instead of reverent calm, I was greeted by absolute chaos. Tourists swarmed fenced-off gardens, setting up tripods on flowerbeds and generally ignoring the sanctity of the church grounds. The sunrise didn’t prove to be colorful to the east, though the west was aglow for five or ten minutes. I couldn’t focus with all the commotion around me and people stepping into frame just as the shutter clicked, so I packed up and tried to take time lapses at the lake, all magic of a quiet sunrise bombarded away. Lake Tekapo is an incredible destination for the South Island uninitiated, but seeing the rampant ignorance for discipline was almost too much for me. My initial reaction was frustration, as photography at this hour is spiritual and extremely personal to me, but as the tourists showed no growing sign of respect for where they were or the stillness of morning, my cynicism kicked in, making me wonder for a fourth time this year whether tourism is really such a sustainable industry. Without an answer to what I could do about it or whether it is, I returned for breakfast at the Airbnb and set off for my second destination, gasping and pulling a few U-turns when I saw what foreground I could have had for sunrise instead of the madhouse in Tekapo.

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About a half-hour’s drive from Lake Tekapo is a second finger lake, Lake Pukaki, the larger of the two lakes. I had heard of the lake before my trip and had even wanted to book a hotel along its shores, thinking with good weather I would be able to wake up to sunrise in my room with exactly this view. The rates far exceeded my budget, however, and given that I only had one day en route to Mount Cook National Park, I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable with such a splurge if the weather didn’t play nicely. I relegated the hotel to a honeymoon some day, but as I came around the corner the lodge sits on that morning, it occurred to me the one day I would have stayed there on this trip would have offered a fantastic sunrise (and not just because I could have enjoyed it from the privacy of a hotel room): the western sky, and the peaks to the west of Tekapo, did glow when I was busy trying to keep calm earlier that morning, meaning I missed what might have been a delightful sunrise. That honeymoon is now going to have to come with a side of good weather, too, I suppose! Even under harsher midmorning light, the landscape here is magical. Puttering around the lake in a car, happy there were no stray sheep in the road, I fully understood why people find the Mackenzie Basin so attractive: the views are unending. To taunt me even more, the route to the national park runs along the western length of the lake, giving endlessly gorgeous views to its pristine turquoise waters. On a calm day, the lake is tantalizingly still, reflecting the Southern Alps on its glacier-fed mirror.

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I ended up having lunch at a salmon stand expertly placed on a rest stop en route to Mount Cook National Park, munching on some of the freshest salmon I’ve ever had. (By my palette, only at etika in the Faroe Islands have I come this close to salmon perfection. Further contenders accepted.)  I arrived at the national park a full two hours later than GPS directions would have suggested, throwing my luggage in my hotel room and scouring maps to see what hour-long hikes I could try in the remaining spring daylight. I decided to give Sealy Tarns a shot, figuring if I really needed the four hours round trip the park hiking descriptions claimed I might as well just stay for sunset. The statistics for the hike aren’t especially impressive — it’s something like a 600 m gain — but nearly all of it comes in the form of stairs, not slopes, so although brutal in terms of steepness the path doesn’t cover a long distance. My ascent took just over an hour.

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Warm temperatures across the island had melted out nearly all the snow near the tarns, and a gentle breeze was welcome in cooling off the labors of the journey. And the views…

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My, the views. I had a quick snack, met some Americans just as slack-jawed as I was at the views to Mount Cook and Hooker Lake, and headed back down to research where else in this wonderful enclave I could take pictures.

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I didn’t really study photography options before coming here, focusing less on Insta-worthy shots and rather trusting that there would be endless opportunities and pleasant surprises. Even in the short two days I had been roaming the South Island, I had confirmed my decision to stumble across places to photograph rather to plan every location. This isn’t to say that guidebooks aren’t helpful, however; there is literally a book about photography locations in the national park, and this helped me find easy locations for sunset after an early dinner. I ignored the harbingers of upcoming nastier weather the lenticular clouds communicated even earlier in the day, throwing on a jacket as I shot the sunset as evening temperatures began to fall.

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To the north, the sky faded quickly to blue. Without too much excitement in that direction, I set up some long exposure shots of cars along the road, still very much in a trance from the grandeur I had seen on my first day in the park. These weren’t the epic shots I had in mind, but I was very much delighted with the uniqueness of an arguably exquisite landscape and also that rampant tourism hadn’t cursed this haven with its devastating touch.

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For sunrise, I wanted to go to Tasman Lake, but I didn’t bother to find the specific name of where I wanted to go. “There are only a few paths from the parking lot,” I reasoned. My first four attempts, of course, weren’t successful. My final attempt — the only path I hadn’t yet taken — turned out to be the right one, and given the overwhelming ease of access of this location, I was inwardly thrilled at being the only photographer when I arrived. The lake had thawed from its winter freeze, transporting icebergs silently toward their eventual demise in the Tasman River or Lake Pukaki beyond. Indeed, Lake Pukaki’s unforgettable water color is the result of mineral deposits from the Tasman Glacier, and at 5:30 AM aside the shores of the meltoff lake bearing the same name, I experienced — at long last — the sound of serenity.

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I returned to my hotel room quietly, had breakfast (aside, as a reminder for my future self in case my honeymoon is in New Zealand: my favorite breakfast cereal is now a New Zealand brand), packed by bag for a day hike, and headed out in warm temperatures and abundant sunshine, girding myself for the masses that flood the Hooker Valley Track, one of New Zealand’s best-known dayhikes. The outstanding weather brought enough visitor traffic that I couldn’t use the trail to any advantage in my compositions, so I focused my lens mostly on Mount Cook despite the ample photographic opportunities along and of the three mile path. The winds had picked up throughout the morning, whipping the soil below New Zealand’s tallest peak into dust clouds and mottling the surface of the lake, occasionally bringing chunks of ice to shore.

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I read through the exhibits at the park’s visitor center that afternoon, realizing just how much the landscape here has changed. Also changing was the weather; it looked like the next sunset and sunrise would be the last two before clouds and rain moved in, so I left the park after dinner to try to get another picture of Mount Cook from afar, hoping for even more color on the eve of stormier days ahead. I found a good spot but didn’t have any waterproof footwear, so against a largely cloudless northern sky took my last pictures toward the national park and drove back, hoping the next morning’s forecasted clouds would bring more drama to the morning sky.

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I returned to Tasman Lake, this time choosing the correct path and arriving again as the first participant in that morning’s lightshow. The forecast was surprisingly accurate, with clouds dotting the sky and rolling over Mount Cook. I shot a panorama just as all the peaks got their first caress of morning sunshine but in my excitement clipped the far-right frame, leaving me only with a single-exposure shot as proof of that sunrise. There was more wind the second day, with a long exposure smoothing the water but not into a glasslike mirror.

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I wanted this sunrise to last forever, but even as the sky blossomed, my attention was less and less and on the mountains but rather what began to move toward me. You see, thirty-five years ago, this lake did not exist. Created by a now-retreating glacier, the lake is growing in a frustrating case of circular logic, the waters of the lake licking at the underside of the ice mass that formed it. The lake’s area has nearly doubled in nine years, and its water volume has almost quadrupled in fourteen (1). What I photographed, then, didn’t feel like nature’s splendor but rather its suffering: the second morning at the lake brought small chunks of ice within inches of my tripod, a grim hint of what the eye could not see from afar. Time stood still for the next 90 minutes as I saw but barely registered the color dancing on the mountains around me.

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As I was getting ready to go back to the hotel the previous morning at Tasman Lake, I was joined at the lake by a student from Israel, traveling through New Zealand as he began his summer holidays. This morning, I was so raptured by and focused on the icebergs I probably wouldn’t have noticed if anyone did join me, so powerful was the realization that the gentle, playful waves lapping at my tripod were both glacier murderers and victims of rising temperatures. It’s a startling thought that a body of water that appears so serene is in fact the manifest extinction of a glacier dozens of times older than I and one that in fifty years might not exist if climate trends continue. Man-caused or not, only higher temperatures can initiate this kind of glacier mutilation; if I ever knew a dark beauty, this was seeing it, touching it even, in the most carnal sense.

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I’ve always preferred mountains to beaches, but here, already on the opposite side of the world from loved ones, my own universal insignificance never felt more pronounced. I shot various pieces of ice, some lodging presumably on the lakebed underneath, well after the warm hues dissipated from the sky. Blue yielded to grey as the winds began to blow, and startled out of my captivation with the unexpected unsettling story of hundred-year old water, I hurried back to the hotel in hopes I could get in one more hike before the rains began.

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As I hefted my daypack up to my shoulders, I noticed a smattering of a raindrop on my balcony window and gave up on the hike, wanting to avoid getting soaked while not even being able to see (much less photograph) the mountains. For four hours I pondered whether that was the smart move; the winds outside were howling, and I think that it was an errant raindrop blown from the Hooker Lake area that had traveled to my hotel room rather than a raindrop from above my actual location. It wasn’t until later afternoon that the rain began, and it wasn’t until even later as darkness set that the raindrops really started to make some noise.

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I left Mount Cook National Park in a drizzle, pleased with the shots I had gotten but troubled by what I had seen in my first week in New Zealand. At the rate it was going, it seemed to me tourism was both going to (or has already) put New Zealand on many travel maps and also destroy its down-to-Earth institutions, and I drove to my interim destination of Wanaka even more unsure what the year had taught me about morality and humanity. The rain, meanwhile, didn’t let up the whole drive, which saved me quite a bit of time compared to my arrival in the national park a few days prior.

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The weather in Wanaka didn’t improve the rest of that afternoon either, but on the following day the rain stopped long enough, which combined with the guilt of not having done a final hike in Mount Cook National Park, got me on my feet and trudging up the soggy path to Isthmus Peak. I had hoped to hike Roy’s Peak and was slightly disappointed it was closed for lambing during my visit. With seeing how overrun Tekapo was, however, I was happy that I wouldn’t have to put up with crowds on Isthmus; judging from the parking lot and footsteps preceding mine, only two people were on the trail.

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Rising above Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, the track starts by climbing among farmland. The footsteps I mentioned earlier weren’t evident the whole way up. Around 850 m I saw my first snow of the season, and each footstep brought me closer to the cloud deck, the color scheme seemingly changing instantaneously to greyscale.

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The wind was relentless as well, and I had to put on my sunglasses to keep snowflakes out of my eyes. This was the first time hiking uphill wasn’t itself enough to keep my fingers and toes warm, so I kept hiking, stopping only to chat with the owners of the footprints I saw earlier as I came across them during their descent. Both seemed to have their wits about them, despite one having made the trek in shorts. I walked to the summit, looked into the grey abyss, shuddered, and headed back down: no views here.

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I ate lunch back at the car, thawing slowly as I drove back to Wanaka. The town admittedly surprised me: I expected only to pop in for supplies and a meal or two, but of all the towns, villages, or cities I’ve ever visited, this one was one that still felt entirely genuine, as if it not only had its own place and culture but was comfortable not competing with neighboring Queenstown. More than any other place I’ve been, it felt both naturally and perennially unpretentious. This is admittedly a bit curious, as on the shores of its lake is a tree so well known, its location on Google Maps is a hashtag and not a name: #thatwanakatree is so much a clichéd product of Instagram the single vow I made for my trip was not to share an image of it. I walked around the lake after dinner that evening to take in the pattering of raindrops on the lake surface and to relax in the peacefulness, but during my stroll the sun broke out in a band of light just at snowline on the distant mountains. The calm of the scene with the soothing sounds of water was undeniable, suggesting in its message of tranquility that with perseverance, and not only outright strength, it’s possible to overcome, that everything will be all right. Despite my best intentions to avoid cookie-cutter subjects in touristy places, and despite being unsure of the best way to photograph that sentiment, I went back to the car to grab my tripod to try to capture an idea: that solitude and stillness are just as valuable for spiritual replenishment as incredible scenery itself. It’s no wonder that the rich have been making havens here.

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I departed Wanaka for Te Anau the following morning, this time the entire area awash in sunlight. I took what I think is the scenic route out of Wanaka, heading southwest toward Cardrona and Arrowtown. Approaching Arrowtown from Wanaka was a road I thought I’d only see in Europe — windy, twisty curves I originally thought were the Devil’s Staircase until I researched them later, only to find out they don’t really have a name.

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I ate under a warm sun in Arrowtown and continued onward, trying to make an early arrival so that I could repack and grab supplies before starting the Kepler Track the following morning. The rest of my last week was spent either on the Kepler Track or from Te Anau as a home base, where I cherished the lushness of Fiordland. To avoid having to doubling back to Christchurch, I selected my departure airport to be Queenstown. A few hours after I left Te Anau, I settled into my seat for the next two hours, eager to see if the clouds would stay at bay as we more or less overflew the same route I had driven over the last two weeks. I marveled at the waters of Lake Pukaki and the Southern Alps, my last glimpses of them disappearing almost simultaneously as cloud and viewing angle out of my window blocked my line of sight to the unspoiled beauty below.

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This post would have ended here, but my love story with New Zealand got an added twist when I checked in for my flight back to the northern hemisphere. I was met with a message at the kiosk saying I was not eligible for check-in at the machine and needed to see an agent. I was met with a smile — by now I was accustomed to this from New Zealanders, but this one was extra bright — and was told that Singapore Airlines was running a promotion; around $400 was all it would take to upgrade into business class. I booked my flight from Auckland to Singapore specifically so that I could fly on an A380,  the only remaining Airbus widebody I hadn’t yet flown. If ever there was a worse value proposition than the Lake Pukaki hotel I in hindsight regretted not having booked, this business class promotion was it. As much as I never thought I’d fly Singapore Airlines again after 2013, flying in their business class, which by my dataless observations is one of the nicest J-products out there, was even more of a fantasy. I seized the chance to upgrade in an (hopefully) unfamiliar moment of extravagance, learning afterwards that there had been an equipment swap that resulted in the offer. The A380 that was on the flight was one of Singapore’s remodeled birds, with an upper deck comprising only business class. A resulting smaller economy class section meant upgrades in turn for those in premium economy into the next cabin to avoid leaving economy passengers waiting on standby for the next flight out. The size of the business cabin on this plane is hard to depict — our flight’s was less than one-third full.  I’ve been a kid in a candy store before, most normally when flying a Boeing 777, but capping such an incredible two weeks the experience felt even more surreal.

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It wasn’t a long flight — only ten hours or so aboard — but I settled into the plush, enormous seat, taking pictures of each course as the evening dinner service progressed. Since I had already ordered a meal as part of my original booking, I actually ended up getting two main entrees. I’ve never been so full on a flight, or so pampered. This was my fifth international business class experience, and it was by far the most elegant.

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I slept for a while, waking up a few hours later to explore the A380. It turns out that’s easier done from a premium cabin, as I could enter both the economy and premium economy cabins. First class was still off-limits, so I had a look at where I would have been sitting and admired a spiral staircase at the rear of the plane. Despite a bias and preference for Boeing metal, the A380 is a brilliantly designed plane and the quietest I’ve ever been on. In this sense, getting to fly aboard seemed a fitting conclusion coming off a trip to a country that can serve up almost-deafening silence.

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When I booked my trip for New Zealand, I wanted to get to know the Kiwis more, to try to understand how they could be so respectful and so compassionate. Going to the South Island, where the population density is in the single digits of inhabitants per square kilometer (by comparison, Singapore’s is roughly 1000 times as high), didn’t make it easy to spot locals: most people I met on my trip were also tourists. My airbnb hosts were delightful, and if simply to reconnect with them I hope I can return someday. Along the way, I got to witness some of the most lively colors I’ve ever photographed, and the experience to roam undisturbed wilderness isn’t something I’ll easily forget despite not everything about New Zealand being perfect. Sometimes, the stories the landscape tells are as much calls of alarm as they are melodic. In two weeks, though, I began to fall for the melody, my stress dissipating gradually every day to the point that I didn’t bother checking work emails daily, and when I connected in Singapore before connecting to Germany, my walking pace had slowed — signs of relaxation I genuinely can’t remember ever having happened. My flight out of Auckland was one of an excess I usually protest, but coasting above a salmon sunset, it occurred to me just how thankful I was to have seen such an exquisite land. Timely, this; Thanksgiving was the following week.

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(1) Dykes, R.C., Brook, M.S., & Winkler, S. (2010). The contemporary retreat of Tasman Glacier, Southern Alps, New Zealand, and the evolution of Tasman proglacial Lake since AD 2000. Erkunde, 2010(2), 141-154. doi:10.3112/erkunde.2010.02.03

Splashes of color

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