Ngakuta Bay: Of People and Places

Sometimes people ask me why I got into photography. It wasn’t planned. Actually, I’d say my journey to becoming a photographer began with a series of plans going really wrong.

I was terrified when I quit my job. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I just knew that I wanted to travel and see mountains. I used some of the money I had saved to buy an introductory level DSLR camera that I had absolutely no idea how to use. I set off to spend the summer in New Zealand. Well, actually June is winter in New Zealand.

So winter. I set off to spend the winter in New Zealand.

Living in a van, by myself. What could possibly go wrong?

 It was during this winter (summer?), that I realized I loved capturing stories about people.

At the time, I was enraptured with Henry David Thoreau’s poetic reflections on solitude and nature, and planned to spend most of my trip in New Zealand solo backpacking in the mountains of the South Island. It was, as my friends would call it, “Hippie Liz Phase.” Ok, I was kind of digging the whole hippie vibe. I even had a multi-colored hand-knit beanie and I thought I understood yoga. My head was full of Saltwater Buddha, Siddhartha, and my latest book- Walden. Theme of the year: self-discovery in nature.  I was on the verge of illumination. I could feel it.

“I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still… I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

After a week in Wanaka with old and new friends, I was restless to begin my spiritual journey. My friend Jamie tucked a little slip of paper from her fortune cookie into the dash of my van and hugged me goodbye. I raced towards the hills for my enlightenment like a cheetah chasing a gazelle.

My idyllic visions of soul searching in the mountains were quickly trampled.  A torrential downpour, overflowing rivers, rockfalls, and landslides blocked the passage to natural nirvana. A crippling case of contaminated water was the final blow. Only three days later, I limped my way along the coast towards Picton, crushed and defeated.

I called the parents of a kind kiwi I had met in Wanaka, and asked to spend a night and recover. The directions were simple. Follow a winding road until I saw a beautiful bay filled with sailboats. Turn near the bridge.

I wound through the roads along the Marlborough sounds and found myself tucked away in the heart of Ngakuta bay.

"Welcome!” boomed a deep voice. I was face to face with a man with sharp blue eyes and a mustache that would have made Einstein jealous. He embraced me in a big hug. The rough wool fibers of his sweater were spattered with flecks of fiberglass.

“I’m a bit of a mess, I’ve just been sanding my kayak. Lent it to a boy that’s off to be the first person to walk around the entire coastline of New Zealand. He had to navigate the coastline of the sounds by water. Took a little beating, but what a story, eh!”

His name was Pip. His wife, Anne welcomed me a warm smile, and gently led me to the house. Her hair was soft waves of gingerbread and honey and everything sweet.

“Are you hungry?” Pip was right on her heels.

“Of course you are, you’ve been driving all day. Lets go get some fish for dinner then, eh? Anne, we’ll be back shortly with dinner!”

Within 20 minutes we were rowing out to his fishing boat anchored in the bay.

“Look at us, rolling on the river just like Fogerty and Tina Turner!” he cried. His white hair flittered in his face as he lustily belted out the lyrics.

Left a big job in the city

Big wheel keep on turning

Proud Mary keep on burning

Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river!

Marlborough sounds is a lake within an ocean. It’s an area of sunken valleys, consumed by the sea. An expansive network of peaks of land rises, and welcomes the tumultuous ocean into their calm arms. They rock the swell to sleep in their channels, and by the time the ocean reaches Ngakuta bay, the water lies as still as a milk drunk newborn.

There was no wind to speak of, so Pip started the engine and we slowly putted our way through the sounds. The water rippled softly away from the boat like folds of iridescent silk smoothing under a hot iron.

“Now then, a visit to Ngakuta Bay wouldn’t be complete without a glass of the homemade spirits.” Pip poured a glass from a bottle filled with deep amber.

I eyeballed the glass tentatively.

“It just wraps itself around your tonsils and screams ‘I’m here, ho!’” He assured me, and raised his glass to the sky.

A colorful printed label on the bottle explained the warmth filling my belly:

“RICOCHET” Ngakuta Gold RUM

This finest quality B.B.O.P.* is guaranteed to increase ones libido and general sense of being whilst at the same time titivating the taste buds and liberating the inhibitions.

Aprox 40% alc. (Give or take 10%)

*Bloody beautiful old plonk

While we waited for a nibble, Pip filled me in with the triumphs and struggles of bay life; thrilling summer boat races and fishing with dolphins; polluted waters and damages from increased logging.

Between stories and sips, the sun sank away. e returned to shore at dusk with hands as empty as our bellies.

The table was prepared. The kitchen smelled of gravy and mushrooms and meats and buttered sweet corn. Somehow, Anne just knew.

My stomach was finally calm, and I took a large bite. Heaven.

“This is the same as one of the first meals Anne cooked for me!” beamed Pip. He looked over at Anne proudly. “You know, it’s a miracle I even got her to agree to a second date!”

Anne smiled sideways and shook her head.

“I was the principal of the school, and so I knew most of the parents. When I took her out to dinner for our first date, the waitress said ‘You look familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?’ It’s a small town, you know, so I replied ‘I don’t know, maybe you’re the mother of one of my children.’”

Pip shook with mirth. “I didn’t realize how bad it sounded until I had already said it!”

“Swept me off my feet,” laughed Anne. After dinner we sank into warm brown corduroy armchairs. The black wood stove crackled as Pip strummed on one of his handmade ukuleles.

Anne approached my chair with a book. “This is the book I wrote,” She handed me the book as Pip played in the background. “It’s my autobiography.” She settled into her chair, as I flipped through the pages of Anne's carefully constructed memoirs. Pip had spontaneously switched to a flute, and was now piping along with the singer performing on the TV behind him.

My one night stay melted into four days. Pip introduced me to the best bakery. Anne took me along to school where she taught multiple grades learning together, creatively, and effectively. She introduced me to a small eight grade, 44-student school where tree climbing is still allowed. Back at the house, Pip sang songs and acted out history lessons.

“Do you know Ernest Rutherford went to the school we taught at? The father of nuclear physics, from our little school!” Pip beamed.

“And New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote.” Anne added.

 As I drove towards the ferry in Picton, I realized that my experience in the beautiful South Island would not have been as rich without the people.

Don't worry, I did eventually get some peace and quiet solitude in nature. I also began to realize I wanted to capture stories of people, not just nature. Just as places shape the people who live there, the people shape the places where they live.

My journals and photos became my way of capturing the essence that I felt in the places. And when I ran out of money for traveling, meeting new people with different perspectives became my form of traveling.

By the way, I didn't find a way to make money capturing people's stories until much later, after I learned how to use my camera, lost the rainbow beanie and started taking showers again. Before I left South Island, I propped up Jamie's fortune cookie slip on the dash of my van and left it up for the rest of the trip: