Homecoming

New Zealand

I had the great fortune of returning home for Christmas during one of the most incredible summers New Zealand has put on in years. I rejoiced in my return with a flurry of burgers, home-cooking and drinkable tap water, reflecting that there’s nothing quite like time away to remind you how good the people, places and burgers are in your own backyard.

A lone pohutukawa tree juts out precariously along the coastline of the Orokawa Bay near the beginning of the Waihi beach walk
Pohutukawa in blossom along the coastline of Orokawa Bay near the beginning of the Waihi beach walk Cliffs surround the beach at Waipatiki in Hawke's Bay

On the left and above, Pohutukawa trees bloom along Orokawa Bay near the beginning of the Waihi beach walk. To the right, cliffs surround the beach at Waipatiki in Hawke's Bay.

Sneaking photos in Auckland Art Gallery's incredible light show An exhibit (regrettably I forget the name) on the top floor of the Auckland Art Gallery

No photography allowed, but how can you resist when everything is so stunning? Vic & I break the rules at the Light show in Auckland's Art Gallery.

Goecha La

Goecha La, India

After arriving in Sikkim, I spent the first week of December hiking with a party of six into the Indian Himalayas. Our goal was Goecha La, a mountain pass some 5,000 metres above sea level, which leads to the base of the third highest mountain on the planet, Kanchendzonga. Even though we were aided and abetted by a hard-working crew of guides and porters the experience was incredibly strenuous.

Hiking at altitude is no joke; as the atmosphere began to thin, we found ourselves suffering for even the slightest physical exertion. Above 4,000 metres the effects became very apparent and, even with an approach of slow acclimatization, few of the party were able to avoid its impact. That there are people capable of hiking Everest (8,800 metres) without an oxygen supply to assist them is an achievement that has new meaning.

The Himalayas are a place of absolute magic, often with conditions in weather and landscape changing before your very eyes. This was a dreamland for photographers and explorers alike and I garnered an immense respect both for the enormity of the earth we live on and for those mountaineers brave enough to go out and chart it.

Camping in Tshoka after the first days hike. Tshoka, at 3,400 metres, is one of the last villages we passed through on the way up to the Goecha La pass. The buildings in the background are multifunction; they serve as kitchens, dining halls and quarters for the porters and chefs that accompany the many trekking groups in the region
Camping in Tshoka after the first days hike. Tshoka, at 3,400 metres, is one of the last villages we passed through on the way up to the Goecha La pass. The buildings in the background are multifunction; they serve as kitchens, dining halls and quarters for the porters and chefs that accompany the many trekking groups in the region.
More scenery in Tshoka, the first campsite on the way up The trail up to Goecha La is shared by hikers, yaks and sometimes horses. For a party of six, as many as five or six yaks are employed to cart goods up and down the mountain. While on the road, they provide a valuable source of nutrition in the form of milk each morning. A cup of yaks-milk tea becomes a surprisingly coveted luxury after 7 days hiking
The trail up to Goecha La is shared by hikers, yaks and sometimes horses. For a party of six, as many as five or six yaks are employed to cart goods up and down the mountain and this makes the walk a minefield of manure — some of which you can see in the right photograph above. While on the road, they provide a valuable source of nutrition in the form of milk each morning. A cup of yaks-milk tea becomes a surprisingly coveted luxury after 7 days hiking.
When they aren't inhabited by hikers, the buildings that litter each campsite up to the Himalayan ranges are often left wide open. Here, an opportune pony makes use of the shelter Breakfast is served; The food prepared for us by our support crew was invariably cause for awe. Pancakes, pies and even pizza were unveiled as the days progressed leaving us to wonder how they were capable of producing such delicacies with the meager box of supplies they'd brought up for consumption
Leaving Tshoka: A view of the village from above as we ascended toward Dzongri on the morning of day two
Some of the rather chilly facilities on offer in Tshoka The handsome face of Mount Pandim, a Himalayan peak of 6,691 metres. This photograph was taken from a viewpoint just outside of the Dzongri campsite. As a rule, viewpoints in the region are littered with a generous helping of tibetan flags which can be seen in the foreground
On the right: the handsome face of Mount Pandim, a Himalayan peak of 6,691 metres. This photograph was taken from a viewpoint just outside of the Dzongri campsite. As a rule, viewpoints in the region are littered with a generous helping of tibetan flags seen here in the foreground.
The view from Dzongri after a second day of hiking. The campsite borders on a wide, cloud-filled valley and, as we watched the sun set, it was remarkable to see clouds behave just as waves might against a shore: Lapping gently at the surrounding hills before receding into the jungle below
The view from Dzongri after a second day of hiking. The campsite borders on a wide, cloud-filled valley and, as we watched the sun set, it was remarkable to see clouds behave just as waves might against a shore: Lapping gently at the surrounding hills before receding into the jungle below.
Clouds sweep through Thangsing, the second highest campsite just shy of 4,000 metres above sea level On our way back down from the Goecha La pass we hiked through a series of rolling clouds. From minute to minute it would transition from a hot, sunlit afternoon to this murky affair
Yaks and hikers share quarters at Thangsing campsite. Humble and well-natured animals, the yaks employed by the porters along the Goecha La track are left to roam freely in the evenings Moonrise in Thangsing
On the left: yaks and hikers share quarters at Thangsing campsite. Humble and well-natured animals, the yaks employed by the porters along the Goecha La track are left to roam freely in the evenings.
Clouds sweep through the jungle somewhere between Tshoka and Dzongri The valley of clouds nearby Dzongri campsite
The last gasp of sunlight sets Mount Pandim ablaze on the evening of the third day. Important as a means of acclimatizing to the altitude, afternoon hikes to watch the sunset were also a chance to enjoy the last warmth of the day. Nights in the Himalayas are a bitterly cold experience
The last gasp of sunlight sets Mount Pandim ablaze on the evening of the third day. Important as a means of acclimatizing to the altitude, afternoon hikes to watch the sunset were also a chance to enjoy the last warmth of the day. Nights in the Himalayas are a bitterly cold experience.
Posing infront of Mount Pandim on the morning of the second day Justin, our Sikkimese guide, poses for a photograph at the first viewpoint on the way up to Goecha La pass. His last hike of the year, he looks forward to returning to his family and farm for the winter
The world's highest cricket match: On the fourth night we camped at Lamunay, the highest campsite of the trek at 4,200 metres. At this height, any physical activity becomes incredibly strenuous as the body struggles to oxygenate in the thinner atmosphere. Evidence of a cold night: River water frozen in terraces near Goecha La pass on the morning of the fifth and penultimate day
On the left: The world's highest cricket match: On the fourth night we camped at Lamunay, the highest campsite of the trek at 4,200 metres. At this height, any physical activity becomes incredibly strenuous as the body struggles to oxygenate in the thinner atmosphere.
View from the top: Kanchendzonga, the world's third highest mountain at 8,586 metres. We hiked four hours from Lamunay to get to the final lookout at 5,000 metres, an elevation gain of some 800 metres. While suffering from altitude sickness seemed to be a matter of chance, on the way down most everyone began to feel a hangover from the lack of oxygen
View from the top: Kanchendzonga, the world's third highest mountain at 8,586 metres. We hiked four hours from Lamunay to get to the final lookout at 5,000 metres, an elevation gain of some 800 metres. While suffering from altitude sickness seemed to be a matter of chance, on the way down most everyone began to feel a hangover from the lack of oxygen.
The long road home. After five days making our way up, our goal had been reached and we now faced a lengthy descent
Here's me posing at the top lookout of the Goecha La pass - glad to have completed the last leg Cloud permeates the forest around us as we descend into Yuksum on the final day
We cleared the cloud line on the second day and this afforded us a real understanding of the scale of the himalayas. Despite climbing some 2,000 metres we still faced an endless procession of ever higher mountains. In this photograph I've captured the look back at where we had come from and where we would later return after our goal was reached. As we sat shivering in our tents we reminisced about the warm showers waiting for us in a guest house buried beneath the clouds
We cleared the cloud line on the second day and this afforded us a real understanding of the scale of the himalayas. Despite climbing some 2,000 metres we still faced an endless procession of ever higher mountains. In this photograph I've captured the look back at where we had come from and where we would later return. As we sat shivering in our tents we reminisced about the warm showers waiting for us in a guest house buried beneath the clouds.

After 4 long days of hiking, we finally arrived at our destination: The highest lookout of the Goecha La pass. At 5,000 metres, any physical exertion became a very real struggle. Our efforts were rewarded by an exceptionally clear day and panoramic views of the Himalayan mountain ranges. The biggest reward of all, of course, was in the knowledge that the only direction we had left to travel was downward.

Sikkim

Sikkim, India

It’s difficult to articulate the experience of visiting Sikkim. After 3 months I guess I finally found what I was looking for. A visit inspires great calm — rare where so much of India is burgeoning chaos. Even when the sun is shining, Sikkim is blanketed in ethereal mist that whispers of deep meditation as it passes by. It’s no wonder, then, that there are so many monasteries in its jungle-clad hills. This is Himalayan country and as such the landscape rolls forever upwards until it disappears behind cloud — a testament to the tallness of the earth. I’ve strived hard not to join the crowd of pseudo-spiritual westerners touring India but I couldn’t help catch the energy of the place.

Based in the far north-eastern reaches of India, Sikkim shares borders with an impressive collection of countries: China to the north, Bhutan to the east, Bangladesh to the south and Nepal to the west. Influences from all four cultures are strong and this gives you the feeling that you’ve left India altogether. This isn’t far from the truth, as Sikkim only joined the Indian republic in 1975. By and large they have retained their autonomy (and certainly their cuisine) and one must perform a little dancing to obtain a permit for visitation.

On the road out of Darjeeling, it became very apparent why jeeps are popular in the region. The roads, if you could call them that, are veritable roller coasters of dirt and stone prone to landslide at the merest hint of precipitation. Travelling 10 kilometers can take upwards of an hour yet everyone takes this in their stride. Further to the concept of “Indian time”, the Sikkimese are never in a rush, for how could you be when there is just one jeep out of town each day? If you plan to visit, make sure you do so with plenty of time in your pocket: You will get stuck and that’s all part of the experience.

Valleys peter off into the mist somewhere near Khecheopalri Once the capital of Sikkim, Rabdentse was built and used in the 1600s. Its reign was short-lived, owing to its vulnerable location near the Nepalese border
Lion-spotting in a village just outside of Geyzing Doubling as a ticket office for the Pemayangtse monastery near Pelling, this building contains an enormous prayer wheel. When spun a full rotation, a bell tones and is believed to free the spinner from their sins
A waterfall graces the roadside on the route between Pelling and Khecheopalri Sculpted offerings line a buddhist statue next to Khecheopalri lake
A buddhist chimney billows smoke near Khecheopalri lake
A brightly coloured insect climbs through the underbrush on a trekking path near Khecheopalri

Darjeeling

Darjeeling, India

I’ve had a sweet spot for Darjeeling ever since I saw Wes Anderson’s film “The Darjeeling Limited”. It follows the adventure of three brothers as they catch a fictional train, likely based on the Rajdhani express, to visit their mother somewhere in the North-East of India. While they never made it to the colonial hill station that gave the film its name, I was intent on visiting it all the same.

Darjeeling was discovered by a delegation of the British East India Company in 1828. They were so taken by it that they followed the English tradition of “we’ll have that” and set up shop. After the construction of a sanatorium for British troops, it became a popular holiday destination for ex-pats looking to escape the heat of the plains and a number of tea plantations began to flourish. Today the region continues to produce some of the highest quality tea in the world and, though there are tentacles of industrial pollution even in this remote place, its charm remains intact. A colonial hangover is in full swing: High tea is served daily at the Windamere hotel if you’re into that kind of pomp and a Victorian influence is visible in much of the local architecture.

During my stay I had the chance to go paragliding early one morning. It wasn’t until we arrived at the jump-off point that I realised the gravity of what I’d signed up for. Shackled unceremoniously to the wing, I was told to run for my life down towards a lofty drop off. Casting sanity aside, I followed their orders and as we reached the end of the runway my pilot screamed at me to push off. We began to tip forward, the grass rushing up to meet my face; “oh god, we’ve fucked this right up” I thought moments before the wind caught the glider and sent us soaring into the clouds. Adrenaline ran so high that I didn’t even notice the cold lashing at us as we circled over the town below. My pilot, a guy no older than 19, steered us up among the eagles from one updraft to another before spiralling down at high velocity. It felt like we were on the brink of flipping at each turn but he steadied us masterfully time and time again. I have no doubt there are gliders in the air on most days here but the school children in town still went ballistic waving and cheering up at us. It gave you the sense that you were some kind of touring dignitary.

Paragliding over Darjeeling
A group of local children pose for a photograph in a village of the Happy Valley tea estate Further down the road from the Happy Valley village lie a number of graves looking out over the jungle below
A passenger loiters by a jeep stand in Darjeeling's main bazaar. The roads are often in such radical disrepair that jeeps become a necessity for getting from town to town Thomas the tank-engine lives. The toy train running from Siliguri up to Darjeeling has a number of these beautiful steam engines still in use. Far from slow and lumbering, they move with impressive speed

On the right: Thomas the tank-engine lives. The toy train running from Siliguri up to Darjeeling has a number of these beautiful steam engines still in use.

Darjeeling from the air
Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain at 8,586 metres, viewed through the haze on the road up to Tiger hill near Darjeeling

Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain at 8,586 metres, viewed through the haze on the road up to Tiger hill.

The sun peeks through the trees on the road down from Tiger hill. A welcome respite from the bitter cold of the morning A colourful monastory draped in Tibetan flags. Found along the road to Tiger hill
A road-worker mixes tar at dawn. These crews work tirelessly against the army of potholes littered along the Tiger hill road just outside of Darjeeling St Andrew's Church

On the left: a road-worker mixes tar at dawn. These crews work tirelessly against the army of potholes littering the road to Tiger hill just ouside of Darjeeling.

A rather gloomy looking photograph of Darjeeling's town center

Varanasi

Varanasi, India

Karl Pilkington of “An Idiot Abroad” fame said that in India you’re never far from madness. He came to this conclusion as he surveyed a pile of bodies awaiting the funeral pyre in Agra. I made it as far as Varanasi before I witnessed the same thing and I must admit that, as a westerner, I had a morbid curiosity in the process.

A metropolis stretched along the river Ganges, Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India known for its many riverfront ghats. Ghats are stone steps leading down to the water, the most famous among them serving as platforms for the Hindu ritual of holy cremation. In holy cremation, bodies of the deceased are burned in the open air among stacks of wood. A belief is held that this breaks the cycle of reincarnation and thus ends the suffering of the individual. Proximity of the pyre to the river is an indication of status; Those of higher class are able to afford the spots nearest the water while the poor are left to burn further afield. In practical terms the difference is paltry, often only a matter of several metres. Nonetheless this is often a matter of great pride for the Hindu people.

Perhaps the most striking element of the cremations is how little emotion seems to be present. The whole setting is so incredibly matter-of-fact: Fires are lit and each body is burned while a small crowd looks on; Eventually, one of the staff “breaks up” the body and skull with a long stick of bamboo. The next fire is lit soon after. Onwards this process marches, two to three hundred times a day at each ghat.

As well as the pyres, Varanasi is home to a kite-flying mafia. As the sun begins to set, they make their daily pilgrimage to the rooftops to do battle, hoping to entangle and sever one-another’s lines. Ascending one of the restaurants along the river, we came across a man in his twenties engaged in a furious battle with a rival kite-flyer a few buildings away. Peering down, we spied his opponent: A boy not older than ten. It wasn’t long before our new acquaintance had succumbed to the superiority of his juvenile counterpart and lost his kite. He smiled, reeling his line in. It was then that we noticed the pile of fresh kites resting by his feet.

Looking along the ghats of Varanasi lining the river Ganges
One of several festivals of prayer that occur nightly along the river Ganges As good a place for rest as any in Varanasi
Candles await sale along the Ganges. Once purchased, buyers release them into the river making for quite an ethereal spectacle A packed performance takes place in one of the many ghats lining the Ganges
A throng of onlookers on both land and water attend a nightly festival of prayer A soldier of the skies smiles bashfully as I take his photograph. Moments later his line is cut by an opponent
The ghats are positively teeming with life; This guy is a prime example of the abundance of animals that graze along the riverfront day and night. I never did get a chance to enquire about the colouring of his horns Many of these bright, holy bins lined the waterfront in Varanasi. I wondered whether my spent water bottles were worthy as I made my deposit

Entering the labyrinth: From the street to the balcony of Sunview: A guest house we had the good fortune to discover.