Exploring some of the most dramatic scenery on the planet, the South Island, New Zealand with Anne Carolien Köhler. And special thanks to Canon Australia, Pegasus Car Rentals, Air Milford, Southern Discoveries and Mt Cook Glacier Guiding for helping make this unforgettable, life-changing trip possible.
It began with an idea that sparked a conversation, which saw two like-hearted photographers with tickets to the South Island of New Zealand. One Australian, the other very far from home (The Netherlands), both were united over a shared belief that New Zealand is perhaps their favourite place in the world. Thus began a two week long road trip and non-stop adventure - camping, hiking and seeking new heights (physically and emotionally) to immerse themselves in the vast, diverse and uniquely beautiful land of the long white cloud.
Remember when you were just a kid and you decided you liked someone instantly, without any overactive questioning of why or how. When someone walked into your life at the exact right time and you just got each other. That’s how I feel about my friend Anne. No questioning, it just makes sense.
For someone who might appear to be extroverted I’m actually quite shy and it takes a while for me to truly let people into my life, to break down the walls and allow love to come in. I'm grateful for the special friends and incredible bonds I have formed with my inner circle over the last decade plus, however it’s not very often that someone new walks in and instantly it’s okay. Again, It’s not very often you can hit the open road with someone new and be left feeling awe-inspired and alive. Now, out of the cloud and reeling from a journey that was a somewhat earth-shattering catalyst for change, I can see it all for the significance it holds.
Often I am hyper-aware of how I tend throw the word “favourite” around, but still mean it with all sincerity. E.g - "Nepal is my favourite country in the world." (Truth). However, sentences like "New Zealand is perhaps my favourite place in the world" also ring so clearly true. I remember the first time I went to the South Island and I had tears rolling down my cheeks. Completely unexplained, there was nothing that happened, I wasn’t even out of the car yet, and there was no monumental experience to trigger it. Except this strong and completely overwhelming sensation of home. A love affair from a young age, perhaps connected to my blood and heritage, but undeniable and overwhelmingly uncontrollable nonetheless.
You could say that New Zealand holds the title favourite place, even with its heartbreaking background for me. It's a totally different sentiment to my again unexplainable love affair with the sensory overload and sheer beauty of Nepal, however, it's a title so equally deserved and spilt between the two.
Part of this story began back in late 2014, the last time I was in New Zealand, when my mother messaged me saying she needed to call. I was living in Victoria and was literally on my way home, via Queensland, to see her. At the time I was driving towards Christchurch, passing through Lake Tekapo and I will never forget that phone call. The one that couldn’t wait. It was the beginning of the end of life, as I knew it.
“Melissa, I have terminal lung cancer.” The words escaped my mother’s lips.
I remember trying to brave a straight face and failing miserably. I was searching, grasping for something, for anything. But there was nothing.
Making it to the edge of the lake, I recall watching the sky burn the most beautiful sunset colours I had seen during those days but inside, well, I was screaming. HOW could I be witnessing something so uniquely beautiful, yet my heart was shattering into a million pieces? Those words etched into my mind, forever echoing, burnt so fiercely into my heart. Writing about that moment shoots an indescribable feeling throughout my entire body. A feeling likened to that of hearing the greatest song ever written. How that relates to this circumstance is something I hope you will come to understand.
There was a time in what now feels like a past life, where I 'casually' spoke about running away to these mountains, still close enough to the sea, and building a life with someone I love(d) dearly. And I guess I never knew the weight of it all, nor that I meant every single word. I never understood how that would come full circle to the present moment and become another chapter of the whole story. A chapter which painfully had to end and end within such close proximity to the compounding devastation of the other chapters unfolding around me. It is a piece of the story so seemingly disconnected from the rest, but completely entwined and undeniably necessary for growth.
Although that insight shared above is a raw and extremely vulnerable piece of my heart, it is only a small whisper of a greater narrative. But back to that day, in Tekapo, where I almost threw it all in. Myself and my camera. I seriously considered hurling one of the only material possessions I’ve ever cared about right into that lake and giving up. I felt utterly helpless. I was drowning.
I hurled a big rock into the lake. Alone, the tears rolled silently and seamlessly down my face. I then picked up my camera and captured one single frame. That was all I needed to remember why I do what I do and where the strength I would certainly need for the months/years ahead would come from.
To be back in 2017, in the place that ripped my heart apart only a matter of years earlier and to stand at that very same waters edge among those same mountains, I felt a sense of pride. I was reflecting on those last two years of my life and felt proud of myself - an unnerving and altogether unfamiliar emotion. In those years I had opened myself up completely for the first time in my life. In doing so, I leaned on the support of my friends, my family, in every sense of the word. I don’t even know if I would have been standing back in that spot without their unwavering love and support. In those years that had passed, my world had been turned upside down and I ripped it even further apart in the process. I had travelled extensively, potentially running from dealing with demons of my past, I had finally realised my greatest love and lost that love and begun a necessary but painful journey that arguably led me right to that very moment of pride.
I met a man named Ian on a mountain and with a simple smile he melted my heart. We crossed him on the journey up, sitting in the bush seeking shelter from the heat of the midday sun and blissfully eating an apple. He was alluring. Upon arriving at the saddle, Ian was sitting on the only chair there, admiring the grand view before us. We began to talk. It was a short interaction, maybe half an hour, which left me flawed. Obsessed with wanting to learn about people and absorb their thoughts on the world around us, what I heard from Ian changed something inside me. At 79 years of age he exclaimed “I woke up and wanted to walk up the mountain today - so I did.” What a simple yet beautifully profound statement. Isn’t it a fundamental mindset and great analogy for everyday life? Directly, if I may, relate it to overall happiness. The road is hard, walking up a mountain is hard and life, it is beautifully hard, but we do it every day because we choose to or because despite it all, we want to.
To seek strength from pain, to dive head first into figuring out that burning desire within ourselves and how we need to apply it. To come to this very place and have the ability to reflect on the courage it took to allow oneself to be incredibly vulnerable and sort through the inevitable mess of life. To accept it is okay, to not be okay. To stand here and watch those stories intertwine, collide, explode and become perfectly unravel in that moment.
It's been two years of self-discovery. Not just of places you can physically see, but of the places deep within. After it all, the perpetual state of change and being pushed to the limits while living on the road came crashing down to a defining emotion: pride. Pride for the strength somehow found to constantly adapt, evolve and strive. To seek that all through beauty in the natural world. And to choose it - wake up and choose it every single day, just like Ian. It was a fine balance, at times a dangerous dance, albeit one I survived. After all, isn’t this the human experience? Without those lows, would the heights we seek soar so fluidly through our hearts with such a profound impact?
There, amongst a pre-historic land, dating back to a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth, feeling so moved by the human connection and by that untouched, rugged wild of nature. Exploring those challenging, unexplored peaks and deep valleys. To come here and to find something SO much bigger than ones self.
And so, here is the realisation. Those friends who will jump on a plane last minute with you, the ones who walked into your life and chose to never leave. That constant stream of messages of heartfelt love, support and encouragement. Those reminders to take each day as it comes and quite literally put one foot in front of the other daily. To walk up those mountains, figuratively and literally. To drive the open road, those songs, those lyrics, those moments shared with hearts-alike. Those places you go. Ultimately, all of those things become the very pieces of the puzzle you never knew you were missing. They shape you. They shake you. They SAVE you.
To be back, in that time and in that place for the first time in two years, to begin dreaming again. New Zealand, to say you are a special is an understatement.
This is a brand new start.
Special mentions to sponsors:
Anne using 5D mark IV.
Teva Australia for keeping our feet secure and warm in the Women’s Arrowood Lux.
A special mention to Liz Carlson, for being the all round, feel-good energy bubble of happiness that she is and joining part of the adventure with her infectious presence.
To Scotty Sinton, amazing to randomly bump into you in the Te Anau grocery store and see that wonderful, warm smile of yours.
-- Just two of my favourite Kiwi’s (Liz, can I call you that yet ;) )
*All photos of me by Anne