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As We Once Were

RECONNECTING WITH THE WHENUA (LAND) AFTER SIX WEEKS AWAY

There’s nothing like forced separation to crystallize one’s motivations for strapping on a pack, donning heavy boots, and tramping away through frigid rivers and clambering up mossy forest slopes. After six weeks of separation, one of the many silver linings to the COVID “lockdown” begins to take shape as I step against the swift, clear flow of the Eglinton River and reach the other side where the forest beckons like an old friend.

The verdant green under the trees dazzles me as if it is my first time to behold such a lush exuberance of life. Often, I fail to realise how starved I am for the welcoming sights and smells of the forest until I experience them again, drinking them in like a parched wanderer. My regular on-foot trips remind me of how much I value the contiguous whole of the landscapes I traverse, with forest holding its own worth against the most tantalizing of montane drama.

After climbing through the untracked forest for a few hours, I pull myself up onto the spur that my companion and I were aiming for. Not three steps along, I halt and throw my bag to the ground and dig out my camera, working fast to capture the spell-binding scene ahead of me through the trees. We have climbed high enough to reach the spot where the sun is beginning to burn through the cloud of a cold morning clinging to the valley. The sun’s rays are defined by the moisture-laden air as they spill through the wonderfully irregular branches of the silver beech to reach the forest floor.

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What’s more is that this particular sunburst is ringed in a colorful spectrum of light, like a rainbow. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’m halted by its beauty.

I throw myself into the photographic pursuit of capturing this unexpected natural wonder and just like that I slip back into a flow state of creativity that has been absent for so long. As it is otherwise oh so rare for me to do, for a few intense moments I lose track of time and direction and myself.

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I come out of it as if from a deep well of focus. Pulling my eye free from the camera’s viewfinder, I look around in wonder with a huge grin on my face and exclaim that this is what I’ve been missing. To be stopped still in my tracks by the overwhelming marvel of nature is what I seek, always. But of course, I can’t predict when it will happen and the delight is so grand that it must be sprinkled but sparingly from somewhere far above, to keep me always hungry for more. Therefore, gratitude flows from me as like the river, far below beneath the mist.

On we climb up what I have dubbed “Storybook Spur” to reach a campsite of equal shock and awe. In the morning, kākā float along in front of the cliffs we’ll soon walk above, and river-hugging mist again catches the light, this time from the rising sun.

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Soon we reach the long-sought highlands and I’m impressed by the unusual cliff-dominated landscape and sweeping expanse of Lake Te Anau. This is home but from a new vantage point.

Incredibly cold feet notwithstanding, I feel every experience with a renewed sense of buzzing excitement. That which I would have considered ordinary before now feels special.

I am reminded of why I do what I do. Every footstep yields the chance of discovery and takes me further along the simple and unrefined yet clear path of growing closer to a land, its heartbeat of living things embedded in a skeleton of rock and soil.

A modified version of this piece first appeared in The Journal of Lost Time.

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