Unexpected returns

On the second of my two trysts with New Zealand, one enclave in particular attracted my attention, despite the weather being uncooperative both days of my stay. This year, when I should be galavanting around Europe to take in all I can before I commit myself to the insane asylum of localizing a manufacturing line to Charleston, I admitted defeat to there being too many unvisited places in Europe and booked a flight to New Zealand instead. I landed scrutinizing a rain shower and double rainbows to the north, but Auckland airport — and my luggage — remained, incredibly, dry.

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From Europe, I like to fly eastward toward New Zealand because it saves a bit of time and gives me the option to fly with a certain Singaporean airline I adore, but fares at the beginning of the Kiwi winter were pretty terrible. Somehow, I stumbled across a fare with a layover in San Francisco that was remarkably low, and I had travel vouchers from United I could use that brought my fare to under $250 per flight — which is pretty incredible, considering that the shortest leg of my four-pack itinerary was over eleven hours. (The trip also satisfied my desire to fly both ways around the world to New Zealand.) Because all my flights were on United, I was able to upgrade into Polaris Business mostly through miles, which from a travel perspective was the best decision I’ve ever made. I pretty much ate, drank, or slept for fourteen hours from San Francisco to Auckland. This was a taste of luxury I probably shouldn’t have tantalized myself with.

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I had seat 9A on one of UA’s upgraded 777-200s. SFO-AKL is one of the routes that UA ensures will have the upgraded interior, which means the 1-2-1 Polaris seat up front and the 2-4-2 Premier Plus seats as a true economy plus. I watched a sunrise as we approached Auckland, the big GE90 outside my window distorting as I tried to get some foreground into my photo. My seat was right next to the window, meaning I didn’t have to strain too much to get my camera close enough to avoid glare and reflections; United’s even-numbered Polaris seats are about a foot away from the window. Another win on a last-minute whim of a trip!

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When I first clicked book, I actually only had four days on the ground in New Zealand. With my whirlwind adventures, it would have been enough, but I nevertheless cancelled and rebooked when I realized the flights bookending a six-day trip were exactly the same cost. As the sun began to rise higher over the South Pacific, I couldn’t contain a growing excitement — I had really lucked out with the weather; rain was only predicted for one day, only in the morning at that, and the temperatures weren’t bone-chilling yet. The only question was how much snow had fallen in the week prior to my arrival.

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This winter, we had late snows that left most of the Alps still impassable in early June, and with winter just beginning in New Zealand, I could only cross my fingers that there wouldn’t be a similar situation when I arrived on the South Island after a short nap between Auckland and Queenstown. I so enjoyed the nature and aura of Wanaka last year that I figured the gamble would be worth it one way or another, until I glanced out the window as we were just south of Mt. Cook National Park, wondering as I saw a field of white if maybe I should have napped a little longer.

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A small mountain lake revealed itself as it flashed between clouds. The tops of the Remarkables glistened in a fresh coat of white, and the air was decidedly crisp; my favorite. Realizing I could make it to the DOC Visitor Center before it closed, I grabbed my Mazda 3 (which really is a terrific companion on NZ’s winding roads) and made good time on a snow- and ice-free Crown Range Road to Wanaka. Once there, the ranger pointed at a very-white Roys Peak, which I planned to summit the next day. I had hiked just once this season, and I hoped I was ready for the 1200 m ascent as my first true day hike of the year. I ate a quick dinner, unpacked from travel and repacked for the hike, and headed to bed early as a late-minute rain shower unveiled yet another rainbow.

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A couple walked into the DOC visitor center as I was getting information for my own hikes, inquiring about sunrise on Roys Peak the following morning. Despite my praise for Polaris Business, I wasn’t crazy enough to put my body through a sunrise hike after over forty hours of travel, so I got up at a normal time and arrived at the trail head just before the sun started to rise. There wasn’t a whole lot of color, but as the sky began to light the magic of this part of the world really began to come to life.

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Roys Peak is a peak I was explicitly not eager to tramp. There is a view on one of its ridges that attracted first one Instagram photo and then a hundred and a thousand, until in high-season there is regularly a line to take that iconic photo. In some senses, it’s a microcosm of that photo from Mount Everest; everywhere there is nature, there are people waiting to take pictures of themselves in it. And Roys Peak is perhaps the most spectacular of places where such a jaw-dropping view is — and this is crucial — accessible. The parking lot is literally right on the side of the road; there is no technical skill required to reach its summit. It epitomizes what is so jealousy-inspiring about pictures of high places: an indescribable sense of tranquility, portraying the average Joe as conqueror of the world’s natural beauty at its most epic. I reached this ridge around 90 minutes after I began, where a group of graduated Singaporeans were taking turns posing on the ridge. I wanted to grab a shot, too, but I was on my own; I had no one to tell me how to pose or where to stand. And fundamentally, I resented that a place so pristine could be so formulaic: I wanted to be here for the experience, not to have a badge I could share for no one in particular on social media to like. I decided I’d see how the crowds were on my way down and continued toward the summit, stopping once in a while to admire the landscape. I came across the two hikers who wanted to watch the sunrise, but otherwise I was entirely on my own.

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The winds picked up as I approached the last few hundred meters to the summit, bringing with them brief flits of cloud. The scenery here wasn’t anything to shrug at, but certainly the impression of the entire Southern Alps and the glacially-carved lakes between them dissipated slightly as I ascended.

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I was the only one at the summit until a French family joined me. I was going to do lunch there, but it wasn’t even 11 AM and the wind was trying to blow a hole through me, so I snapped some shots at the top and began my way back down. Across Lake Wanaka, it appeared to be raining or snowing; I was relieved that Roys Peak more or less was still basking in sunshine.

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I had brought my microspikes with me, and they proved to be a huge help descending from the summit. Uphill was hardly a struggle, but having the sense of security of never losing traction goes a long way in avoiding the stomach-in-throat moments that sometimes arise when tiptoeing downhill gingerly on ice. I reached the photo ridge again, this time watching the beginnings of a line forming: there was a couple from Asia, a father and his daughters from Australia, and a trail-runner from Invercargill who had just biked a century the day before and now was jogging up the 1200 m gain to summit Roys Peak. In trail runners, of course, and without microspikes. The feeling of accomplishment I had in being prepared for the conditions was just washed out by some high-schooler who clearly didn’t dwell on such silly thoughts of safety. Really not wanting to wait in line, I debated whether I’d feel guilty about not getting a picture of me on that ridge for a while before deciding to head down toward the car as the droves began to head uphill, counting maybe fifty people on their way up as I was on mine down.

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By this point, I was starting to get hungry, but without a good place to throw away trash I figured I’d just go all the way back down to the car and have a late lunch. It was turning out to be a stunning winter day: it was slightly cloudy, sure, but temperatures were approaching 50 °F at lower elevations. This trip was beginning beautifully.

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Since I was already starting my journey west alongside Lake Wanaka, I figured I might as well take advantage of the good weather and venture toward Mount Aspiring National Park. Where National Parks in the USA are sometimes (or even often) commercialized, with rangers and even visitor centers offering amenities commonplace, the few New Zealand national parks are “little more” than gravel parking lots at a trailhead. The trails are, however, typically pristine, especially if there is a specific trail that is popular. The Hooker Valley Track, for instance, is paved or broad the whole way, and the Rob Roy Glacier Track similarly so. I lost count of stream crossings on my way into the park, but eventually ended up at Raspberry Creek car park, the end of the road that, if it continued, would plunge headfirst into Mount Aspiring National Park. I took my time on the gravel road out here; the parking lot is less than a 40 mile drive from Wanaka, but it can easily take an hour given the abundance of roadside wonders along the way. The waterfalls here can’t rival those of Milford Sound in a good rain or meltoff, but there are a lot of them nonetheless as the road hugs the Matukituki River. Having figured out that the Mazda could handle the stream crossings, I breathed in some deep breaths of pristine winter air and returned to Wanaka, getting up the next morning and repeating the drive as frost still clung to the grass.

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I figured I’d be able to reach the trailhead by 8:00 AM, but I didn’t anticipate the joy of watching sunrise. With no clouds, there was almost no color and the grandeur of a sunrise is indeed a bit subdued from a valley, but I still stopped a few times to watch the sun begin to paint the peaks in a warm glow. How ironic that we humans are able to appreciate the sunrise: many other mammals see it almost every day and probably have no concept of the beauty that unfolds before them.

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My hike for the second day was a lot less elevation gain and an order of magnitude less crowded, even if it’s probably the second-most-popular walk of the region. The first part of the track crosses the Matukituki River over a swing bridge, conjuring memories of the Hooker Valley Track less than seven months ago. This time, I was alone over the bridge, staring down as the water raged underneath. The other walk is a little more trafficked.

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The two sides of the river couldn’t be more disparate. On one, beech grows with wild abundance. The other side is land that’s brilliant for grazing. I spent a good half hour shooting along the river before I even got underway. The whole time I was crouching and shooting, moving and crouching and shooting, I didn’t see another hiker.

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The Rob Roy Valley Track meanders along its namesake stream and gradually toward the Rob Roy Glacier, stopping at two viewpoints that look up to the glacier. The first viewpoint was grand and delivered doses of natural satisfaction in abundance, but appetite now tickled, I kept going toward the next one.

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Where the first viewpoint still feels very much part of the forest, the treeline ends rather abruptly and the trail emerges suddenly in a completely different environment. The air is colder, the views grandiose. The once-muddy path, now ice, crackled under my footsteps. The glacier materializes, looming overhead. In winter, the trickles running off the glacier are frozen, and from here it’s even difficult to discern the sound of the thundering stream a couple hundred feet below.

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Despite the magnificence of the spot, it’s still in a valley, and lighting is a bit poor. Thankfully, despite my plodding pace resulting from photo stops along the way, I wasn’t  yet shooting under harsh midday light. I mostly shot along the valley or up toward the glaciers, greeting Australian and English groups as they came up to take in the stillness.

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In certain places, for me New Zealand chief of all, the rhythm of time seems to melt into the background, provided survival aspects like remaining daylight or incoming tides aren’t in question. After taking in the quiet tumultuousness of the Roy Roy Glacier, I returned to my car around noon, not quite sure how to reconcile the duality of this place. New Zealand isn’t about glitz or trend, and yet its innate beauty and peacefulness attracts those seeking both. Barely two days in, I began to scratch my head on this topic, unsure more than ever whether the incredible vastness that is New Zealand’s backcountry will be able to sustain the renewed surge in interest in natural things.

 

My third day in New Zealand was supposed to be the only one with questionable weather, and I decided to take the day to head out to the West Coast. As I was packing up, it looked like the sunrise might be kind of interesting, so I headed up Mt. Iron, a mountain on the outskirts of Wanaka that overlooks the lake and the lowlands. The view at the top is obscured by brush in places, and not wanting to delay my road trip too much, I didn’t linger beyond watching the sky get lighter and the clouds move in.

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Then I hit the road. It’s only supposed to be a two hour drive one-way to the coast, so as long as the weather cooperated I decided to make the most of sights along the way, something I wasn’t able to take advantage of on the Milford Road last year. My first pullover was at the Blue Pools, a short hike toward the Makarora River that parallels the highway. Though it had rained earlier that morning, the sun had begun to come out, leaving the forest in an almost imperceivable fog until sunlight pierced the shadows.

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I think the waters of Lake Pukaki are more startling than the blue of the pools here, but there’s little denying that it’s in another league compared to the murkiness of Lowcountry brackish. The river’s chorus was eventually interrupted by a group of arriving tourists, and ready to keep moving anyhow, I continued my drive.

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It didn’t take me long to stop again, pulling over just a few miles down the road for a lunch of tuna wrap and mixed nuts and dried fruit. I was basking in abundant sunshine, wondering if I really needed to be on the road or if a hike back in Wanaka would have been just as feasible given the agreeable weather. I stopped again to take in the overlook above Cameron Flat, for a good twenty minutes to shoot Fantail Falls, and again to hike up to the Haast Pass lookout. I didn’t come across anyone else on the first and third walks, and at Fantail Falls I only saw a couple and a backpacker who I surmised was on his way to Brewster Hut. Atop the Haast Pass lookout, I heard nothing; the road below, muted by the tree canopy, emanated no noise from passing cars.

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For a day that was largely spent in my rental car, I was thrilled to have gotten in some elevation gain in what was winter, and even the forest was a lush green. Summer was just starting back in the Allgäu, and this couldn’t have been a better complement.

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A little while later, I stopped at Roaring Billy Waterfall as the harsh afternoon light began to soften. It’s a loud one, all right, even from across the river. I snagged some shots before restarting my journey for what seemed like a tenth time; by now, I could have driven to and from Haast, and I hadn’t even made it there yet.

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An hour or so and a few more stops later, I finally pulled into the Haast DOC visitor’s center, considering a coffee but figured making it to Jackson Bay before the sun set was more important. I pulled off along the road for a final walk at the Hapuka estuary. By this point, I stopped muttering about how nice the weather turned out to be and started wondering instead whether the sunset would be nice.

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I finally arrived at Cape Jackson around 5 PM, something like seven hours after I started my journey westward. I didn’t actually think I had stopped that often or for that long, and having driven around New Zealand’s mountain roads before, my driving pace was anything but dull. This was the proverbial end of the road; had it been high season, I could have filled up on food at the Cray Pot, but they had shut down already for the winter. I didn’t get to see any Fiordland crested penguins, either. June doesn’t seem to be the right season for activity. I walked out to the West Coast coastline, deciding not to wait until sunset: I wanted to get back to Wanaka fairly early, and not having had a full meal that day I was also starting to acknowledge my hunger. I returned to Haast, grabbing dinner and a pint at a hotel restaurant, and booked it back to Wanaka, this time not stopping for hikes or gawking and making the trip in the expected two hours.

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I had a late start the next morning, checking out of one airbnb and into another. I didn’t really have much of a plan for what specifically to do but ended up deciding to try sunset on Isthmus Peak. Last year, I had zero visibility there; I was hoping for better conditions this time. I arrived at the trailhead around 2 PM and decided to veer south instead of toward the Isthmus summit itself as I was still early for sunset. The clouds looked really promising, and I was stoked — alone on the mountain on another pleasant winter’s evening, this was exactly what I was looking for and needed from the trip.

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Growing tired of standing around, I decided I’d wander out to Isthmus and see which view was better. I actually liked the view from this unnamed hill more. There was a trail that ran southward toward Mount Burke, and some rocks at the crest of the hill provided a decent foreground. I waited for the sun to go down, frowning as I saw the clouds from earlier evaporate as the light waned. It was starting to get chilly: hiking uphill is warming, but the chill of standing around at 1600 m (even with thermals) in 2 °C air starts to sink in after around 30-40 minutes. After the sun dropped below the mountains, I packed up and headed down, running into a French videographer who had also set out for the sunset.

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As I descended, the eastern sky glowed ever more pink and purple, but I was hungry and cold and too lazy to put up the tripod for any official shots. I cranked up the ISO and dropped my shutter speed, hoping the combination would be enough to retain the colors of the Southern Alps evening sky.

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The French guy and I chatted for most of the trek down, him describing his business and how he found #vanlife to truly be after living it for a year and me trying to explain why exactly a six-day voyage to the opposite corner of the world made any sense. We arrived back at the parking lot after the light had completely extinguished, and there I realized my mistake: I had set out too early that evening, so spent the “boring” part of the afternoon on the summit, missing the light show that I was too cold to wait for, and  realizing after I had descended as the Milky Way roared into the sky that a shot from up high could have been absolutely epic. I shot a few frames from the parking lot, wished Wen and his girlfriend an empathetic best of luck with living in the van in winter, and returned to Wanaka for a warm dinner. (I thought I got Wen’s Instagram account, but something got lost in communication. If he happens to see this, feel free to reach out with the correct handle!)

 

While there, I thought to myself how unlikely it would be that my last two nights would stay this clear, and decided to return to the car park. I knew I wanted to shoot the Milky Way, so bright was it, and that I wasn’t going to do it after hiking Isthmus again. I wished I had my faster lens, but this would do; New Zealand’s atmosphere makes for absolutely unbelievable conditions for astrophotography. I was excited in 2017 when I saw how clear the Milky Way was. This night, even with a moon shining somewhere overhead, I could not believe my eyes; the clarity and intensity of the Milky Way was simply indescribable. I couldn’t process the foreground to be as bright as I would have liked, but the Galactic Center was radiant and clear, the cloudiness of the rest of the Milky Way sharper than I had ever remembered it. For over an hour of shooting, I was absolutely dumbfounded. If only I had stayed on that mountain for longer…

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I planned one lazy day of the trip, and Thursday — my fifth — was to be it. I wandered around the Wanaka shops a little bit and scanned the movie showings at Cinema Paradiso, but nothing really caught my eye or worked well with my schedule. I always try to leave an “what-if clause” in case the sunset turns out to be colorful, and movies that day either ran through sunset or too late, making sunrise the following morning a wholly unappetizing proposition. I ended up deciding to drive out to the Cardrona Distillery, at the foot of the road leading up to the ski-field bearing the same name. Although Wanaka is much more low-key and less pretentious than Queenstown, I was a little amused and quite content to raise a pinky in trying a dram produced here. I was even more tickled when the tour guide mentioned the stills and distillation process were developed closely with Glenfarclas, one of a small handful of Scottish distilleries that is still family-owned.

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Unsurprisingly, the distillery also produces gin, in this case infusing rose hip as one of the botanicals. It’s a lively and delightfully simple gin, whose orange and rose hip lend an almost sweet taste against the normally-bitter pangs of juniper. The purity of the water and how the distillery came to be were all brought up during the lively tour, and the tour guide was quick to point out that this may well be the southernmost distillery in the world. The other participants on the tour were Australian or Kiwi; one of the Kiwis was a whisky collector and had been to the distillery as it first opened a few years ago. I ended up with a small bottle of their gin and whisky (they also produce vodka and other liqueurs). I returned to Wanaka with a wary eye on the sunset, had dinner with my airbnb hosts, and went to bed, convinced leaving New Zealand for the third time would be a mistake.

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One of the best parts of winter is the late sunrise and the corresponding ease in taking its picture, and even though I didn’t deliberately get up in time to catch the sunrise on my last morning, I ended up seeing that the sky looked promising again. I didn’t have time to go up Mt. Iron and didn’t want to spend it down by Lake Wanaka with a thousand other photographers with the same idea, so I headed to a quiet cove toward the north end of town. I was at the waters by myself and again completely engulfed by a stillness interrupted only by the gentle lapping of water near my feet. The colors never popped, and I couldn’t have cared less.

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I was actually looking forward to a really relaxing day and didn’t have a hike in mind, but after that sunrise decided I needed to go somewhere. I recalled a suggestion for “Mt. Grand,” or more accurately, Grandview Mountain, and headed that way, thinking I’d turn around either around midday or whenever I got to a nice viewpoint. I wanted to make a case of visiting Queenstown’s Bennett’s Bluff, but it seemed like a rather big waste of time to drive the three hours round-trip, only to drive toward Queenstown the following morning for my flight. The Grandview Mountain trail had stream crossings that kept making me second-guess my decision; I wanted to see more mountains without really exhausting myself, but I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to drive to Queenstown. Eventually, I decided I’d just have a go at the summit, finding my pace and heading uphill with literally not a single soul around. Compared to Roys Peak and even Isthmus, which has gotten somewhat of a following after Roys Peak’s fame explosion, Grandview was empty. I watched the sky darken somewhat and the views gradually expand; in the distance, I could spot Wanaka and Hawea, as well as their lakes.

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Two hours of hiking in, I began to wonder why I hadn’t reached the summit yet, and after some pacing and more indecision about whether to keep going, I set a turn-around time and kept ascending. I was surprised that I was slower than the published one-way time estimate, but I wasn’t about peak-bagging and needed to get back to Wanaka to pack. When my turn-around alarm went off I dropped a marker on my phone and headed back down, this time coming across one elderly woman. I could have (and probably should have) chatted with her; she seemed genuinely curious to have met another human on the trail, and I figured I could have asked how much further the summit would have been. My New Zealand countdown clock ticking, however, I continued back to my car, leaving the gorgeousness of the Southern Alps behind me one last time.

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And, like that, my south-of-the-Equator experience came to an abrupt close. After my trip last year, I didn’t at all fathom that I’d somehow be back within seven months, but that’s how strongly I’m attracted to those two small islands. I contemplated the day over lunch, parking where I took the picture of the Milky Way less than 48 hours prior, urging a bus of tourists stopping en route to Wanaka to walk a little ways uphill for an even better view of Lake Hawea. As the afternoon shadows lengthened, it dawned on me that I might catch one last break with a decent sunset, and I delayed my dinner reservation to give me time to shoot some frames before taking in one last meal and the long return to reality the following days.

 

At first, I couldn’t decide where to take the picture. I thought about Mt. Iron, but I wasn’t sure where the color would be, and didn’t want to risk not having an interesting foreground. I thought about Roy’s Peak, but I didn’t have the time to make it up there — and really wouldn’t have time to get back to dinner. It is fitting but unmistakably ironic, then, that as I started the trip with an Instagrammed classic, so I should end it with another. I ended up at #thatwanakatree, the second of Wanaka’s two #instaworthy locations, and perhaps the first one that put Wanaka on the map. And it was quite the sunset. I rarely get lucky with colors — after all, I’ve been to the Riffelsee somewhere around a dozen times without a single good one — but as the evening went on I got more excited, and finally when the colors broke I went speechless. The tree isn’t particularly photogenic in the winter evening; no sunlight hits it at sunset, and there’s no leaves to lighten its outlook. But maybe its darkness was a sign, a sign that the environment here is frail if seemingly hardy and the masses that descend on it will eventually wear it down if they’re not careful. I met a photographer from the North Island who was on a two-month tour of the South Island and had to break off his Queenstown stay early due to the rampant tourism, and this in a lull between the summer high season and the beginning of the ski season. A photographer from Indonesia who had also lived in New Zealand for several years was similarly in awe of the beauty of the place, but for him, too, the crowds were starting to get a little wearisome.

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I left for Queenstown early the next morning, leaving myself plenty of time in case an impending freeze would turn the unsalted roads to ice. For the entire 75 minute drive, no other car was going my direction; I filled up with gasoline, waited in the car for the gentle shower to abate, and still made it to the airport doors before they unlocked. The check-in counters needed another fifteen minutes, so all told I could easily have slept for another half-hour in the dreamy world that now lay on the other side of a mountain range. After having the lounge to myself for a good while, I boarded and shut my eyes on the plane en route to Auckland, awakening abruptly and glancing nervously out my window: but I hadn’t missed it, that most extraordinary sunrise.

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When I rubbed the tiredness (or was it sorrow?) from my eyes and the world came into focus, I realized we were directly overhead from Lake Pukaki. All the disdain I have for Instagram locations and the infuriating sense of facsimile they engender evaporated as I internalized that only a select few places can spawn peace, and this for me was chief of them all. As much as I struggle with the hypocrisy of flying halfway around the world to hike when the Alps are at my doorstep, somehow philosophically this trip migrated from a journey of splendor to one of spirituality.

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Auckland was again aglow as we began our approach, and again somehow my luggage stayed dry. I stared out the window, wide awake as I felt a lump rising in my chest. No tears came, but I recognized the pangs: this, my only big trip of 2019, didn’t mark the beginning of my trip home. Instead, I was beginning to say goodbye to home.

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Unexpected returns

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