“Life has seasons in it as well”
Yeah, I never heard of them either! But today, I will find out!
I had a few hours before meeting a friend at Lake Tekapo, I thought I could explore the greater Tekapo area a little more, and so I headed out to Lake Alexandrina close to Lake Tekapo itself. The place looked so idyllic surrounded by trees on the shoreline. I was told in autumn the trees are a beautiful orange-yellow colour. Yet another location to add to my bucket list for a particular time of the year. You get to realise how timing plays such a crucial role in capturing landscapes - timing, light, colour. Life has seasons in it as well.
But today, it was the middle of summer, and a hot blazing day, but this was the perfect escape. There was no cellphone coverage - perfect! It’s hard for a city slicker like me to find no coverage zones in daily life, I like going to the forests sometimes just to “disconnect”. And right here, right now, here by the lake; for the first time in a long long time I felt totally disconnected from everything. The path around the lake was rough, rocky and filled with lupins - yeah that weed that is just so striking in everyones photos! The lake was totally calm, the water was so clear - I can see through to the bottom almost. There are people out on the lake, paddle boarding, kayaking, and a few ducks - this is the only ripple created in the lake.
I do a short out and back walk, realising I’m not going to have enough time to round the full lake. This is probably the calmest I've felt in about 2 years, my mind is totally blank and all I want to do is stare at the water. I hope I can go back to this “place”. By this “place” I mean - this sense of calmness, and peacefulness. Sam Harris talks about - when was the last you went for a walk just to go for a walk, and nothing else. The power of mindfulness, being in the moment, and not being lost in thought. Your mind is the most rambling insane person you will ever meet, and how can we stop it. This felt like the time I was able to do it.
I returned to the car park. There is now a bit of a crowd - people with cameras, department of conservation rangers and locals. They are all looking at these birds nesting in the shallow water in the inlet. I get to talk to a local. He tells me they are the Southern Crested Grebe - I don’t even know what to respond, as I have no idea what they are. He tells me - these birds have recently started nesting here and the numbers are growing, and they have not been seen here before.
I try to get a spot to have a look, and indeed - they are fascinating - the young chick is riding on the adult’s back. It is very cute, then the other adult comes and feeds the young chick. I got my long lens out and decided to get a few shots. I read up about them later:
They are very rare, don’t nest in big numbers like this and are threatened with only less than 1000 birds. Whatever the case - I guess they have had to adapt and survive. I’m sure there is a metaphor in there about change being the only constant, we must adapt or die, life finds a way by adapting, we see this in nature all the time.
Anyways I knew I had to get back soon to meet up with a friend in Tekapo. I pack my gear and head back into some form of reality. My mind is no longer blank, and too many thoughts are flying around - and so that sense of calmness I had for a second ends.
“Follow those dreams, don’t leave them on the pillow”
I did a final round of Mt Cook village, it was a little cloudy and I had decided to sleep in. There was this final shot I had in mind and not been replicated by others before. It was my last morning at Mt Cook and I was due to meet up with a friend, Katie, who was finishing her own epic adventures.
That final shot I had in mind would be off the main highway into the village, I wasn’t sure exactly where, but I remember seeing a line of pine trees with Mt Cook in the background - I thought this would make for a great composition and something a little different.
And it was time to leave, the thoughts that would go through my mind were like previous visits: every time I visit, I find out about more photo shoot ideas, wanting to come in different conditions, different times of the year, contrasting times of the day.
And so, I was on my way - I stopped a couple of times, I don’t know if I got the shot that I was after, but it was a good excuse just to stop and take in the scenery for one last time, one last shot - The Last Shot.
I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Rajeev from Photo Country. Check out the podcast below. And be sure to check all the other guests he's had on Photo Country:
“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
When I looked behind me - the most vivid colours were lighting up the sky. It is only than I realise why I was here. And the reason I was here begin earlier in the day: I was talking to one of the locals as trying to sort out my accommodation for the night. He asked me what I had done so far in Mt Cook. I replied I went to Red Tarns for sunrise earlier that morning and asked him for recommendations for sunset. He said with no doubt in his mind - to go to Tasman Glacier.
And so there I was looking at this amazing retreating Glacier, the sign boards mentioned how the glacier was much larger few years back, and it would come up to where I was standing. The blue lakes would truly be blue:
“Today, the Tasman Glacier has shrunk in length and height, and water no longer flows from the glacier into the Blue Lakes. The warmer rainwater that now feeds the lake supports green algae, making the Blue Lakes green.”
As I approached the glacier lookout - the sky didn’t look so promising. That was until I looked behind me. Just as the sun went down, the sky was just painted in these amazing colours. It was a quick re-position of camera and snap the moment. Sitting on the rocks and appreciating where you are right now. And a gentle reminder and life lesson - things might look gloomy for 99% of time, but that 1% for the 2 minutes would certainly be worth.
"You're never going to arrive, make it fun while you're in the moment "
The night before I had decided I wanted to do this for sunrise, the last time I was here - I had missed out totally on sunrise because I had slept in, so this time I was sure to wake up early, or would I?? The sky was already starting to burn orange.
I was yet again in danger of missing the gold lit view from the red tarns. Three quarters of the way up, on these incredible rock stairs leading up to the tarns - the light and colour was already starting to go off. I decide to stop and setup there to capture it, and I was glad I did - this was the best of the light. When I was almost at the top - the subject focus changed totally as I heard the loud screeching noises - the Kea. I had seen them before on previous trips very briefly, though this would prove to be a much unique experience. I ended up firing so many frames because I thought they wouldn’t stick around long. I approached them and discovered more of them, at one stage I counted eight and they were surrounding me. It felt unnerving at one stage.
They were noisy, curious, fighting amongst each other. They are the only mountain parrot in the world. I've read that they are the most intelligent birds in the world. They are big, robust birds, their beaks are sharp as one tries to pick the boardwalk steel mesh. At this stage I totally forgot the incredible landscape I was in - in the backdrop Mt Cook, the valley below with the village just about to wake up. I didn't know how long the Kea would stick around - so I just started firing off lots of frames. They would stick around for a long time! Too long for me to get bored! Of course, we know the birds for their beautiful green colour, but they also have brilliant fiery orange colour under their wings - I wanted to see if I could capture this.
After completing a loop of the tarns, which didn't feel as impressive this time. I made my way down - bumping into a family who were making their way up - the kids were speeding up the stairs without even puffing - how do they do it! I completed the nature loop at the bottom. It was a fantastic way to start the day, clear the mind - the fresh alpine air, the scenery, the Kea, the whole experience.
“I'd rather be part of your playlist, than ever be part of your A-list”
I remember seeing the Southern Alps from the flight down, the conditions were favourable, I was on the right side of the plane - the peaks soared up, snow covering the tops. This has always fascinated me - it looks like a different world, scenes out of a movie. At the end of the "line" is the greatest of the them - Mt Cook - can easily be distinguished - sitting there with Lake Pukaki as it's "front yard".
Getting into Mt Cook late was almost ideal - in time for the golden hour, one of things that is intriguing is the super late sunsets in the lower latitudes - it's fantastic for photographer types, long drawn out golden hours. And minimal sleep as you would be up the next day for sunrise! Sleep is optional right?!
Catching that last light - the alpine glow on tip of the mountain. The beauty is in the simplicity, and that would do me. Of course I had forgotten my tripod in my rush to catch this moment - questions grew of how would I get a pano, what if I needed to use filters, what would I do in the dark? The questions didn't really matter, what did was just being there
"The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity."
Reflecting on the year that was. Twenty twenty-one, 2021. So, here’s my account:
Starting the year, here in New Zealand - things seemed to be fairly “normal” - whatever that means. There was no virus, that shall not be named - no cases in the community, and we were living our lives in relative “freedom”. I begin the year with a trip to the South Island, a solo campervan trip - combining a holiday with the chance to attend The Revenant. It was a magical trip where I had perfect conditions at Mt Cook. The Revenant opened my eyes to an epic crazy navigation endurance race/adventure, a story of survival, a brutal event in the most scenic places. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I experienced was fascinating.
In February - I had decided to do a last-minute trip to Rotorua for the weekend of the Tarawera ultra marathons - it is the premier ultra-marathon of the country. I knew a few friends who were doing it and I wanted to go and support and surprise them. I ended up following and photographing Katie Wright - the winner of the 100 miler and her ding-dong battle with Fiona Hayvice who finished second. I didn’t get much sleep across the 30 odd hours I was there but it was the most amazing emotional moment I have been able to be part of and to capture it all - priceless! The weekend was bit of a blur, but also, I have the most vivid memories of the whole thing, I still get very emotional looking at these photos - something so special. I returned home at the end of the weekend, just in time before Auckland went into a quick lockdown. Sometimes you make decisions which don’t make sense at the time, but they turn out to be the best things you did. This was one of them.
Whiles all this is going on, I had been deep into looking for a new job and had a second interview lined up that very week returning from the weekend in Tarawera. With the city in lockdown, the interview was done remotely via video - something we all know we would have to get very used to as we find out later in the year! Even though I was incredibly nervous, the interview went well. The job offer came soon after, and I made the decision to go for it. I decided this would be a good opportunity to take a few days off in between jobs - as this could be the last break for a while - AND looking back I’m so glad I did.
To the South Island I went again - this time with no grand plans, I flew in on the last day of Northburn 100 miler. Another epic endurance run down south - known as the toughest ultra-marathon in the country. I would see my friend Tanya finish the Southern Season Miler Challenge - it was fantastic, and I was so happy to be there. One of the memories I have is ALL but one finisher saying how horrible this event was, I think just what Terry Davis - the race director, would want to hear, as the website states: "where suffering is the prize and everyone's a winner". That one finisher who didn’t say that - Andrew McDowall a familiar face from up home and his big beaming smile - he had come in second place - I have so much respect for this man, such a deserving result - I love his work ethic and his epic sunrise photos. I bump into Adam Keen there - he says to me why don’t I come along for a “easy” adventure with him. I say why not, I had no plans!
Two evenings later I’m waiting for Adam at a service station, who turns up with Brooke Thomas - ever heard of her! - yes the record holder on the Te Araroa trail! At this point I’m panicking and wondered what I had gotten myself into. Thirty minutes later we were driving to the top of the Remarkables ski area - I was getting increasingly uncomfortable and nervous. Adam assured it was an “easy” adventure, under 10km. What he forgets to mention was the vertical and terrain, and hour or so later - I almost died several times. But Adam promised me an epic adventure, I certainly got that - a beautiful sunset, the moon was up and a huge smile on my face. Ben (and Tanya) who I had stayed with - also took me to Rob Roy Glacier - we crossed rivers, drank from glacier waterfalls, explored incredible Beech Forest. By the end of the trip my energy was totally zapped but my heart was full. It’s just what I needed, and at the time I didn’t how much I needed it.
I had to switch myself into work mode now, back into corporate world. I had been away from the big corporate companies/firms for a few years now. It was back to the central business district (CBD), back to dress shirts, pants, shoes I hadn’t worn in 5 years, and on the ferry for my daily commute! It took me a while to get back into things, and again I started to question my decisions. As part of the role, I would be on a project which involved travel to Wellington and Christchurch. We had several trips - looking back I treasure these trips so much, even though we had 7am starts, flying in and out the night before, full day workshops etc etc. It was tough but rewarding. As all this was happening, I was on a running streak, which would last 110 days starting some time in February. During these trips I would still need to squeeze a run in. In Christchurch one of my teammates joined me on exceedingly early morning run. It was crazy, but we had this sense of great achievement at the same time.
On another Christchurch trip I decided to take extra days leave to extend onto the weekend and stay a night at Mt Cook. It was minus 5 degrees Celsius, but conditions were good otherwise. And onto the next day in Wanaka, luckily an injured Katie meant I would have a relaxing day there and Matariki fireworks in the evening by the lake.
And on the (last) Christchurch trip in early August, a cold snap was just hitting the country. The conditions were freezing. Onto another early morning flight, this time a day trip - as we flew above the Southern Alps - the snow! And like a dusting of icing on the Canterbury plains. For an Aucklander who’s not into winter sports - this was magical! As we started our meeting in the office, this white fluffy stuff started floating outside the window. One of the teammates looked at me and said what’s wrong! “Snow!” I had only seen falling snow, perhaps, two times max - for me this was a novelty. We stopped the meeting for a few minutes to watch the snow, it seems crazy at the time, but looking back I’m so glad I did.
Locked down - Auckland would enter lockdown for more than three months, only a week after that last Christchurch trip. Working from home and video meetings would become the norm. I attempted another running streak, but 30 days in I stopped counting and somewhere around the 60 days - it become the worst thing I did this year, it was horrible. Life in lockdown became more about your own well-being and not what other people were doing. Nothing was consistent and nothing was “right”, I hadn’t picked up the camera for a while and losing touch with my passions. But I know most people were struggling as well, and some days were better than others. Learn to be easy on yourself.
As we enter the end of the year, it’s a vastly different world from 12 months ago, but we adapt and change along the way. This year has been about changes, challenges and keeping composure through it all. And I don’t really know why I made the decisions I did make, but I made them and here I am. Sometimes there is pull towards something; they say you should go with your gut, trust your instinct, and do what feels right, even though it may be completely wrong. There is no right or wrong. Just to go forward, onto twenty twenty-two!
Photo Story by Kunal Kumar
A last minute decision to head down to Tarawera Ultra Marathon this year to support my friends for the biggest race on NZ trail running calendar.
I started the day early on Saturday (race day) to head down to Rotorua, with a stop over for sunrise just outside of Hampton Downs, the fog and hazy sun was the first signs of a golden day to come. I had not planned a specific spot or time, and that was the theme of this trip (and maybe a theme I want to follow more).
I had missed my goal of making it time for the Buried Village aid station at 31km, so I decided to go straight through Rerewhakaaitu (The dragonfly) aid station. First in was Sian, who was looking strong, remembering they had already now covered 55km - this is already a impressive achievement in my books! Eugene, Emma, Julz and Greg followed. And so that would be the pattern to follow for the day. Through to Okahu, the next aid station where we see them for the last time for a long time as long stretch of 60km on their own with no spectator or crew support. So this was a good opportunity to check out the new finish line setup down by lake reserve, and to see the elite 102km finishers come in (and a wedding!)
The highlight was seeing Manuela Soccol emotional finish across the line. From there a catch up with another friend who did the 50km. Into the evening it was time to head to Lake Okataina for the milers, but first a stopover at Lake Rotoiti for sunset - again unplanned - just where I was. Now through the night in probably the most technical part of the course, they will arrive at the Lake Okataina already clocking 120+km! Incredible - and a chance to pick up their pacers for the last 40+km - yes they still have a marathon to run through the night, and the next morning! From Lake Okataina , is the next aid station we see them is at Blue Lake, at about 4am a few spectators were at the aid station including me greeting Sian with her pacer Geoff - there was only a few words exchanged, a high five, and they are off again. It was a weird feeling, you could the light from the runners head lamps in the distance - how are they doing this at this time of the morning, in the forest, mostly alone! I decide I will see Sian at Redwoods and then the finish, which would I would miss the others at Blue Lake, but I would do the back and forth from the finish line to Redwoods for the others. Shortly after the second sunrise Sian crosses the finish line. And over the next few hours, Eugene, Emma, Julz and Greg all come in - something incredibly special.
After it was all over. I saw Manuela Soccol with her winners trophy, catching her in a moment she could talk, I congratulate her, say how amazing her achievement is, she was still overwhelmed with emotions with a sparkling smile. She asked me how my race was; this is the one thing I love about our sport - the humbleness of the top elites and how easy you can just approach them, remembering also the group run we had Sage Canaday a few days earlier - these are the best endurance athletes on the planet and also the most approachable, I'm consistently just pinching myself. Anyways I told Manuela - I didn't run this year, so she insisted that I must run next year. Maybe a run and maybe to capture those special emotions and moments.
Photo Story by Kunal Kumar
Nothing really is forever, but it takes you forever to realise this. One of the cool things having fantastic creative friends is that they know some of the best locations to check out. One of these is Diamond Lake just outside of Wanaka. Diamond Lake was definitely one of these amazing locations - a beautiful tiny lake, and awesome lookouts.
Things appear not to be crystal clear
Reflections is where you find yourself
Find yourself a frame
Somewhere to look out far
But also somewhere to look close
And to watch the clouds do their dance
"If you have a passion for something - you're lucky because - what would it be like going through life not having a passion for anything" Ann Trason
I get to the registration tent the next day - I had misread the compulsory equipment and not realised that we were required to have thermal pants, thermal long sleeve top, as well as seam sealed jacket, and an emergency blanket. It's back to the motel to pick these extra things up - was it totally overkill - perhaps, perhaps not - I had now to shove all of this into my pack. One thing that it did affect - was how much fluids I was able to carry with me, plan was to carry the 1.5L bladder and 2 small handhelds, one with some electrolytes. This was because there was no aid stations on the course, or was there?! In my view this was a big mistake by the organisers especially what was told to us at the start - this did affect how much water I was putting in my system along the course - I will touch on this later.
Anyway, all registered and on the bus to the start line near Cardrona - the start would be on a farm, and transition stage for the multi-sports athletes to go from the bike to this mind blowing crazy run that they had to do. A 30km, point to point traverse up Mt Alpha and Mt Roy to Wanaka, some 1,900m elevation climbing - the Skyline Traverse, a race through the sky. The majority of the climbing coming in the first 14km. If this all sounds crazy - it is crazy!! For me, the average Kunal, I really underestimated what the climbing would be like at that time of the day, in the heat of the day 31 degrees Celsius. I was about to find out.
We start off flattish, just crossing the farmland, over a few deer fences to join a 4WD track - which would go up the mountain - Mt Alpha. The surface was hard and rocky, but the mood was cheerful, there was talk amongst people passing, or being passed. There were the multi-sports teams who had already had a day and half of the torture what absolute legends. My mind went to Jake and his Dad who were doing the event - where they were - how they were doing - would I see them - I will touch on this later.
Sometimes you just know when you've taken a photo to remember for a long long time - this was that.
Once we are on the 4WD track - there is no flat or downhill bits. Climbing. climbing, climbing! I estimate a mind-blowing 1600m of climbing in about 13km. The body was in shock, and I wasn't taking in as much water - thinking I still need fluids for the last 15km of the race - I want to finish this thing - so I was just sipping water. About 10km I was feeling exhaustion from the heat and not know how much water to take, I had gels to keep me going. I felt I was still going ok, and making the short course cut off with one hour still remaining. I was really heavy breathing and asking the marshall how much climbing left - he said 300m more to climb! So I calculated we were at an elevation of 1300m. 300m more is higher than Mt Eden, Rangitoto, any urban mountains in Auckland - this almost broke my heart. The marshall cheered my mood by saying he'll take a photo of me - with a smile I posed, the view behind me - unbelievable!
I cheered up a bit, but I felt there was effects of dehydration and/or elevation - something was not right and some signs of dizziness - I think dehydration - how much water do I take - I don't know! I carry on and the last 300m are crazy tough - single ridge track with a good gradient, by good I mean crazy.
I make it to the top. The marshall at the top, who appears to be a foreign student asks me whether it had been all uphill to that point - I said yes we've had nothing but climbing. I confirm with him that we are at the top, a sign which says the highest point of the course confirms this and I ask whether it's downhill from here, he says yes BUT there is the small climb to Mt. Roy. This ridgeline section is like nothing I've done before - it is a single trail (goodness) maybe reminding of that trail I know at Anawhata - but that one is beautifully green. This one is rocky, bare, scree, rocks, exposed to the sun. In the mid-afternoon heat. I slow down a lot on this ridge track - lots of people are passing me. On this one bit of the track has given way to a slide on a steep angle, loose scree, rocks. I tell the guy passing me - "at least I'll have a cool photo of you" which I did. I proceed very slowly. At this stage, I'm losing confidence and suffering a lot from the heat. And there an urge to stop and sit, which is exactly what I do right in the middle of the trail in between Mt Alpha and Mt Roy. At that stage, I hear "Kunal!" Yes - it is Jake and dad competing in the multi-sport event - what legends. I ask to take their photo - this would be a very memorial photo of them standing on track with the narrow ridgeline up to Mt Roy in the backdrop. Sometimes you just know when you've taken a photo to remember for a long long time - this was that. I have gifted a full resolution of this to Jake.
With that, I get a boost to carry on along this ridge - taking steps forward is the way to go - slow and steady. The last bit is a very very steep gradient up to the trig of Mt Roy - there are support crews hanging at the trig for those teams competing in the multi-sport event - they are encouraging us to get up this final climb then it's the down hill. It seems like an age but I get to the trig, pretty much collapsing there. I sat down thinking "this is the famous Roy's Peak" and actually thinking - well, this is not where all those Instagrammers take that cliche Roy's Peak shot - I later find it - it's further down the mountain. But here I was at the top - 2nd summit on this damn run - sitting down trying to take it in but also really buggered from this climb. The view is incredible - firstly there a view of the ridge line going back to Mt Alpha where we had come from.
And panning around views of Wanaka, Lake Wanaka all around - it's beautiful, but to get here has been nothing but brutal. I get up and head my way down there. I find it's very hard to jog - I think it's just cramping on my left leg. This is so disappointing, this is the portion of the trail that is runnable, I can't run! It seems I have destroyed my legs and probably where I obtained my knee injury. There's nothing to do but just one foot in front of the other - I walk down as hoards of tourists are making their way up.
I catch up with a team which is also walking down. They have a support crew who are coming down with them - encouraging them on the way down. They mention that there are water and aid station at bottom of Roy's Peak at the carpark. I'm relieved to hear this and then the very next moment - frustrated and annoyed - why were we told there would be no water on the course, no aid stations. Whatever. I've now started taking big gulps of my water. We walk down to the carpark - the people at the aid station are very helpful - with water, ice and of course Red Bull on hand. Now it is time to head back to Wanaka, about 6km to the finish line.
We walk along the lakeside - we are actually fast enough to almost catch up to the next team ahead, we are doing really well, chatting with the support crew - listening in on these guys from Palmerston North - they do these crazy multi-sport events with their support crew - it's pretty cool I reckon. We decided to jog the last 300m to the finish line - yes!! It's a great feeling. I see Jake, we have a quick chat.
I'm well enough to walk back to the car, back to the motel, grab food and pass out. The next day I'm not feeling too bad and able to move around ok - I even send a message to Jake saying the legs are not too bad (did I just curse myself) I check the usual tourist spot #thatWanakatree - I'm sorry it's a pretty sad tree in a lake - the tourists who were there at the time also agreed with me. Maybe I was jaded, maybe I've seen some magnificent trees in beautiful forests myself. Whatever the case - I decide to go to Diamond Lake, recommended to me by my friend Lian. I wanted to continue onto some photography - it's a short hike, with a slight hill up to Lake Wanaka lookout. It's nice - I'm hurting a bit but nothing sharp or bad I feel.
“Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone.~Ken Chloub