It was the middle of September when my wife and I found ourselves at the base of the Mt Brown Hut trail in New Zealand’s majestic south island. It was our third day in New Zealand and the sun was yet to make an appearance. We had been met in Christchurch by storm clouds rolling in from the south, and the following day heralded the worst snow storm in 15 years.
This made for a slow start, but once the storm began to show the first signs of lifting we eagerly packed our bags and set out.
As is the case for many photographers, New Zealand had been on my bucket list for longer than I can remember, and coming from tropical Cairns the stark contrast was a welcome one. Rainforest clad hills were replaced with towering alpine vistas, and scorching beaches with turquoise glacial lakes. The idea behind the trip was simple. Take the time to properly explore the places that tour buses don’t bother with. Sure, it was a risk. There was always a chance we would find nothing worth the journey. However, if we could leave with just one unique story to tell, just one photo which hadn’t been taken before, it would all have been worth the effort. As we found out, the risk was well worth the reward.
So, with our backpacks filled with food, water, warm clothing and of course, copious amounts of camera equipment, we began the climb. The first hour was one of constant amazement. Moss covered trees dripped with early morning dew lit by dappled light filtered through the canopy above. It felt like a movie set.
Then came the torture. A staggering 300 metre ascent over only 500 metres on the map. The path was little more than a muddy goat-trail, held together by ancient root systems providing little more than an occasional trustworthy handhold. This 500 metres alone took us over 3 hours. Every foothold had to be tested before being trusted and the lightly falling rain made even the most approachable pieces of the track slippery with fresh mud. The mountain seemed to go on forever. Every tree looked like the one before, and behind us all we could see was an unyielding blanket of grey cloud. Painfully slowly, and then all at once, we were out of the tree-line, the uneven ground now covered by thick tundra. By this time the cloud was so thick I could feel it’s moisture in my nose and mouth with every laboured breath. This new terrain continued for what felt like forever, sloping gently upwards into the white mist above.
At long last, as we rounded one final hillock, we were greeted by the first glimpse of our destination. Squat and bright orange, the Mt Brown Hut sat nestled in a cloud filled valley. The hut was a small one, containing only four thin mattresses resting on bunk beds bolted
to the walls, a tiny wood stove and two simple wooden stools. As we entered the orange shelter we both released a sigh of relief. Nothing had ever looked so welcoming.
As the afternoon wore on we were given fleeting glimpses of the towering mountains peaks surrounding our tiny abode. Within minutes, however, they would disappear once more into the ever-changing blanket of cloud. It was as if they were teasing us. I’ll admit, I had all but given up on a beautiful mountain-top sunset, and had settled into the hut’s comfortable warmth, not planning to venture outside again until morning. Already in my mind I was playing over plans to make the most out of the rest of our trip. But then, as if by magic, the blanket of cloud thinned just enough to reveal a faint golden glow on the horizon far below. In a matter of minutes an ever deepening shade of yellow and orange crept across the sky.
By the time I had rushed to grab my camera the whole sky was awash with an ever strengthening orange glow. It was magnificent. Truly magnificent. I’ve photographed more sunsets than I can remember, but this one topped them all. Usually at times like this I am completely unable to contain my excitement, photographing every idea that comes to mind. This was strangely different. I was filled with an unknown peace, and my whole self was completely gripped by the unpredicted display. As if by an inaudible command, the darkening orange sky played its final card, flooding the whole valley below in a brilliant purple display. If I was awestruck before, I was now completely speechless.
Just as the sun was about to dip beneath the horizon, the faint silhouette of Lake Kaniere made its appearance 1000 meters below. This was the starting place of our hike, and for the first time we could see just how far we had come.
As a photographer, there are times where you know you’ve captured something special. This was one of them. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. I fell asleep with the unearthly display still etched on the inside of my eyelids. The following morning was as different to the night before as could be imagined. I had only seen a handful of photos of the area surrounding Mt Brown Hut before our trip, and nothing had prepared me for the staggering view that greeted me. During the night the cloud had continued to lift and only scattered wisps were left hanging far above us. For the second time in 12 hours, I was completely taken aback. Hitherto unseen mountain tops surrounded us on all sides with the last snow of the season clinging onto the highest peaks. Shafts of brilliant morning light cut across the mountains, slowly melting the sparkling frost scattered beneath the peaks. At long last, and with hundreds of photos captured, we descended the mountain, ready to continue our adventure.
Although it is certainly worth the effort, this article is not a call to visit the Mt Brown hut. This article is a reminder of the fact that there are more beautiful places in this world than we can possibly imagine. The ones we’ve seen in photos may be the most remarkable,
but they are by no means the most memorable. The unforeseen, the unexpected and the unique is what leaves us with a story to tell.
To me the Mt Brown Hut represents the risk of the unpredictable, but also its potential reward.