New Zealand

[ enjoy my eclectic highlight video, comprised of some dslr shots and a lot of silly, shaky GoPro footage)

For years, New Zealand as been at the top of my travel bucket list. Something about the unadulterated beauty and wild landscapes beckoned me to come and see. One of my best friends from university, Emma, moved to New Zealand for a year right after we both graduated. I tried to go over for a visit while she was living there, but logistics and timing didn't work out. Ever since then, Emma and I continued to hope that we would one day have the opportunity to travel back to NZ together - and this past January, it finally happened! 

My adventure actually started off in Los Angeles - after a missed flight due to some weather, my travel itinerary completed changed, and I ended up with a 24 hour layover in L.A. and a long layover in Sydney. Although I arrived in NZ a whole day and half later than I was supposed to, it was actually a sweet gift to have a couple of little side adventures. Especially the layover in Sydney - I wasn't expecting a free trip to Australia to come from all the travel complications! 

While I was in LA, I was close to Venice Beach, so I headed to the beach to catch the sunset. It did not disappoint. 

I only had a few hours in Sydney, but I was able to explore a little, and see the famous opera house. It was super hot, which was a welcome change coming from the wintery northern hemisphere - but I left rather sweaty. 

When I finally arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, Emma met me at the airport and, after a joyful reunion, we caught a ride up to the city of Kaikoura on the northeastern coast. This is where Emma spent her year working, so she had quite a few friends that we spent time with. Kaikoura was recently impacted by a severe earthquake, and I witnessed both the struggle and the resilience of the people who call it home. Those first few days in Kaikoura was a very restful time - catching up on sleep, walking along the shore, and enjoying the warm weather. 

For me, this trip was vacation. There was nothing work-related about it - other than I was taking pictures of my adventures, of course! Even then, I was careful not to pressure myself to take a certain number of pictures. Some days, I didn't even get my camera out. I wanted to be fully present in the moment, and truly savor the experience without a camera in front of my face. I needed a break. The past year was crazy. Crazy good, but crazy busy. And hard. I was burnt out - creatively and emotionally, and even spiritually. I needed a change of pace, and space to breathe. I'm learning that boundaries are SO important - especially when running a freelance business. There's nobody to protect my time and emotional well-being except me. I'm not very good at saying no to clients, and often end up burning the candle at both ends in order to get all the things done that I promised I would get done. So my brain was fried by the time January rolled around, and taking the whole month off to travel around New Zealand with one of my closest friends seemed like the most wonderful thing I could ever do (and it was).

This trip was like a breath of fresh air for my weary soul. Sure, travel carries its own unique set of stressors, but I was happy to embrace days full of walking long distances and carrying heavy packs and wondering where to get food and how to find the way to the next destination without using the internet. No emails, computers, clients, or sitting in traffic. Just lots of mountains and sheep and fresh air. I didn't have to know what time it was, or even what day of the week it was... and forget makeup and taking showers. (Okay, I did take showers, but only like once every three days or something. So liberating). 

After spending a few days in Kaikoura, and tracking down my missing luggage (yes, another travel fiasco - long story for another time), we finally headed south on our tour of the South Island. We did a bit of hitchhiking to get to our first few destinations. Hitchhiking is much more normal in NZ, and doesn't carry the same stigma that it does in the States. However, it can still be a bit stressful, not knowing who will stop next or how long you will have to wait on the side of the road. Thankfully, our experience was quite wonderful - we never had to wait very long for a ride, and we met some of the nicest Kiwis (as the New Zealanders call themselves). 

We stopped for lunch at Lake Tekapo, at the Church of the Good Shepherd, and I snuck in a few pictures of my rather camera-shy companion. We also passed by the stunning Lake Pukaki on our way into Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. We ended our day at a campsite at the base of the majestic Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in NZ, and endured gale-force winds blowing against our tent all night long. 

After enduring rain and strong winds the night before, it was such a pleasant surprise to wake up to golden sunlight streaming into the valley. We hurried out to the Hooker Valley Track, a stunning 8-mile hike through the valley leading up to a glacial lake at the base of Mount Cook. The gale-force winds hadn't let up much, but at least we had sunshine! There was a vibrant rainbow that hovered over our campsite for quite some time at the beginning of the hike. I loved the suspension bridges that spanned the churning glacial river that cut through the valley. This hike was definitely one of my favorite moments of the trip, especially from a photography perspective. I took some of my favorite pictures during our windblown walk through the valley. 

I've traveled a lot of different ways - in big groups on tour buses, with a few friends in a car... this was the first time I was traveling with one companion. We had no car, and we pretty much winged everything. We had a tentative plan ahead of time, but our main goal was to be flexible and see what the adventure brought our way. We did not want to feel pushed or stressed by our set itinerary, so we just didn't really have one. We booked buses and hostels and campsites a few nights in advance (or usually the same day), so that there was plenty of room for improvisation. I loved the easy-going, flexible pace of this trip. There was plenty of margin for rest, which was so important for me. Some days we just decided to hang out in cafes and snuggle up by the fire at our  lodge because we needed a rest day. This trip wasn't just about climbing mountains and chasing sunsets to get "the shot." It was about rest, and renewal, and quality time spent with a close friend. 

After hitchhiking our way to Queenstown for a night, we caught a bus down south to Te Anua, a lovely little town on the edge of Lake Te Anua. We caught a short boat ride across the lake to access the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand's famous Great Walks. The entire track takes several days to complete, but we only did a small portion for the day. We pitched our tent in one of the campsites along the track, in the middle of a magical, mossy rainforest. I literally gasped when we ducked into the trees on the edge of the lake, and found ourselves in the presence of such stunning, lush growth. 

Unfortunately, our time around Te Anua and the southern tip of the island was characterized by a bit of bad weather. Our trek on the Kepler was quite wet - we got completely soaked through, even with rain gear. It was beautiful nonetheless! The following day wasn't quite so rainy, so we headed into Fiordland National Park: "land of a thousand waterfalls." Due to all the rain, we could certainly see why it was called that - the steep rock-face cliffs were covered in silver streams of mountain water, cascading down into the deep valleys. The beauty was something else, and I loved the moodiness added by the dark clouds and fog. 

We had booked a bus to get into the park, and it somehow ended up being a tour bus - which was nice, because we got to stop a few times along the way to see different aspects of the park - like lush rainforest walks and a roaring river. The abrupt diversity of NZ, and Fiordlands especially, is quite unlike anything I'd ever seen. 

And the destination of our journey into Fiordlands? Ah, the majestic Milford Sound. The pictures I had seen of this unearthly place had built up so much excitement and anticipation leading up to the trip. Milford Sound has been called "the eighth wonder of the world," and for good reason. The collision of river and sea, surrounded by towering peaks, instills a sense of wonder and awe in the eye of the beholder. The scene is both majestic and slightly unnerving. An aura of mystery fills the atmosphere (and the dense fog that blanketed the view during our visit certainly helped). I felt at peace. We just walked around for a bit, gazing at the view, absorbing the weightiness of the moment. Another favorite memory, tucked into my mind forever. 

Before I knew it, it was already time to begin making our way up to the North Island. Emma's friend Haley generously allowed us to ride with her to Wellington, and we had some fun adventures along the way during our two-day journey. We stopped by the Moeraki Boulders, a strange wonder of nature. Like giant marbles scattered along the shore, these almost perfectly-symmetrical boulders have unknown origin, but somehow seem right at home. Perhaps because New Zealand is a land of wonder. Around every corner, my eyes beheld something astonishing, or unknown. I loved the incredible variety and intensity of the landscape in this beautiful country. 

(Side note: there were actually quite a few more boulders than you can see in these pictures, but I was drawn to the symmetry of this particular group.)

As we neared the northern tip of the South Island, the terrain became more alpine, and the foliage changed. We stopped briefly in Lewis Pass to take in the view, pictured above. 

We hitched a ride on a ferry from the South Island to the North Island - the only way to travel from one island to the other by vehicle. The sun peeked out in time for the sunset, which was a welcome sight after days of rain. It was a little sad to see the coast of the South Island growing smaller and smaller as we pulled away, because I realized that my trip was drawing to a close. We only had a few days left to spend on the North Island. 

Wellington: the capital of NZ. Wellington is known for being a windy city - and it lived up to its reputation. Thankfully, the sun did come out on my last day, and Emma and I enjoyed a lovely walk though the city botanical gardens, which are positioned high on a hilltop overlooking the heart of the city. 

At the very end of our time together, Emma and I spent a couple of days at a modern-day river monastery called Ngatiawa - an offshoot of a NZ ministry called Urban Vision. Emma had visited before, during her year of living in NZ, and she had a hunch I would love it. She was right, of course. The simple, communal life centered around prayer, community and shared meals was such a refreshing and restorative way to end my time in New Zealand. I took the time to reflect on all the things I had seen and experienced in the proceeding days. We spent time in silence in the beautiful prayer chapel, as well as walking around the farm, making friends with the sheep and resident cat (naturally). I loved all of the incredible native foliage in NZ, and finally slowed down enough to photograph some of it while we were exploring Ngatiawa. 

After continuos nights of cloudy skies, the wind finally worked in our favor and blew away the clouds so I could see the miraculously dark New Zealand night sky, and the milky way in all her glory. We walked up to a hillside pasture and laid on our backs in the grass, just staring up at the expanse of stars. I've always been captivated by the night sky, and have longed to be able to see it as clearly as we finally did that night. It was a perfect exclamation point on an already overwhelmingly beautiful experience. 

It all came to an end far too soon - suddenly, my time was up and my plane was waiting to take me home. That's the worst part about traveling - eventually, you have to go back home. But it's also the best part, because home is so much sweeter after being gone for a bit. Thankfully, my journey home went according to plan, and I arrived back in the states feeling physically exhausted, but emotionally and spiritually rejuvenated. Days of fresh air and mountains and wilderness healed something in me. I came home feeling more alive, and free from a lot of stress and baggage I'd been hauling around. I feel that I gained a certain clarity about what really matters in life. 

I can't emphasize enough how significant it was for me to start this year off with an intentional time of rest, a sabbath of sorts. I truly hope it has set a pace for the remainder of the year. A rhythm of both work and rest, connection to creation and with the people around me. As I sat in the airport in Wellington, feeling depressed about leaving and gazing out at the tarmac... a low, vibrant rainbow appeared over the bay. My soul filled with gratitude for all of the wonders I had seen, both great and small, and for the wealth of memories I now treasure in my heart.

"Secularism, materialism, and the intrusive presence of "things" have put out the light in our souls and turned us into a generation of zombies. We cover our deep ignorance with words, but we are ashamed to wonder, we are afraid to whisper 'mystery'". - A.W. Tozer