Adventure, Kiwi Style

A photography journey Down Under documenting the masters of sport

As I write this, I’ve relocated and have been living for less than a week in my new home base on the South Island of New Zealand. The coastal town of Dunedin will be base camp for the next six months. From my experience, New Zealand could very well be the mecca for adventure photography. The island’s roads and airports make it a cinch to get around, yet New Zealand offers a rugged landscape on par with some of the wildest places on earth. There’s a reason this location was chosen for filming of the Tolkien trilogy. It’s one part wild rawness and another part benevolent nature—a perfect balance for Tolkien’s Middle Earth, a place between two extremes. What better place to hang your hat for the short term and explore new avenues in photography.

Lovers’ Leap, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

I plan to do just that in these coming months. Traveling with a camera and a DAT sound recorder, I’ll capture impressions of the wilder side of the New Zealand landscape and its more adventurous residents. The people I plan to photograph and interview in New Zealand are adventurers over the age of 60. I couldn’t think of a better introduction to New Zealand adventure than talking to the country’s masters of sport. You can view and hear their stories as they’re posted via the blog link on my website.

Why choose to do a story about master adventurers and why in New Zealand? Visually, New Zealand’s unique landscape of mountains, rivers and coastline makes it pretty evident that you aren’t in Kansas anymore, yet almost no place on the island is too wild or remote to create any formidable access issues. But it’s the people of New Zealand who will make this project special. Adventure photography isn’t just about the wild landscape, but also blending that element with human endeavor.

Before coming to New Zealand, I knew it to be ground zero for adventure practitioners in every imaginable discipline and age. My initial research showed me that New Zealand has a population of about 4 million. Contrary to what many may think, the fact that sheep outnumber humans 20 to 1 in New Zealand doesn’t mean everyone is engaged in the wool business. What’s more, New Zealanders aren’t an idle group; Kiwis are among some of the best-traveled and most active and sports-minded people I’ve encountered. One would expect that to assemble such world-class performances as those of the past Olympics in Beijing, a country would need a larger population than that of New Zealand. The country’s entire land mass equals my home state of Colorado. For me, the math was simple enough: A world-class environment plus world-class athletes will equal amazing opportunities for making photos.

You sense the toughness and spirit of adventure with many New Zealanders you meet. Typical Kiwis aren’t prone to boast of individual accomplishments, but that doesn’t stop them from idolizing Sir Edmund Hillary by putting his image on the Kiwi five-dollar note or by erecting a sign at the town limits of Queenstown proclaiming it the “Adventure Capital of the World.” This attitude isn’t born from hubris, but from the idea that every Kiwi is capable of becoming a champion, so it’s not out of the ordinary to find people from all walks of life giving it their best in the outdoors.

My documentation of New Zealand will be shaped by the faces, stories and pursuits of a handful of the country’s elder gurus. Before my arrival, I already had booked several shoots with New Zealand adventure athletes and had made arrangements for mini-expeditions to explore the island. I don’t doubt that the next six months will move along at light speed. My photography from the island nation Down Under will be atypical compared to the standard tourist fare. And given my subject matter, I feel a bit like the neophyte climbing the mountain to speak to the wise guru on the summit.

In the coming months, I’ll meet Mike Ward of Nelson, 67, who’s the only competitor to have competed in all 26 of the grueling Speight’s Coast to Coast races. This 243-kilometer, multisport race (bike, mountain run and kayak) is the gold standard and one of the oldest multisport races in the world. I’ll meet Paul Caffyn, 63, a sea kayaker who completed a 17,000-kilometer circumnavigation of Australia and, last year, was kayaking the coast of Greenland. I’ll also photograph and interview open-water swimmers, rock climbers, surfers, whitewater kayakers, mountaineers and other athletes over the age of 60 who continue to test their mettle against New Zealand’s rugged and challenging landscape.

The uniqueness of New Zealand’s landscape didn’t disappoint on my first photo outing to scout the sea-cliff climbing possibilities a few miles east of Dunedin at the black basalt cliffs on the Otago Peninsula. The climbing crag is known locally as Lovers’ Leap. The cliff is reached by way of a short walk through stands of windswept evergreens called macrocarpa—the same type of tree that hobbits Samwise and Frodo hid under to escape the Dark Riders. I walked past the ubiquitous sheep grazing on tussock- covered sand dunes, wound through stalks of toitoi and flax to bring me to the spectacular Leap. The cliffs of Lovers’ Leap appear to be about 300 feet in height. The ocean swells sweeping from west to east are in the notorious roaring 40s, indicating the southern latitude where the wind-driven ocean waves are uninterrupted by any continental land mass on their march around the globe. Over the noise of the ocean swells rushing under a 100-foot sea arch (for which the Leap is named), I hear the unearthly high-pitched screams of sea lions.

To reach the base of the cliff, I negotiated a steep ridge line of lichen-covered rock and grass. In wet conditions, I can imagine one misstep would result in a rain-slickened toboggan ride right off the cliff and into freezing water. I’m sure it was the photo I shot of a climber clutching tussock, on her way down to the climbs, that set the image of that last big skate in my mind.

What really captivates me about this place is that I’m only 30 minutes from a bustling city of 120,000 clinging to a cliff face perched above wild water with a view south where over the horizon I know lies Antarctica. Around me are sea lions, penguins and albatross, and I half expect to see a whale breach below me. This location is just a microcosm of what New Zealand has to offer, and I look forward to going on my first adventure with a true master.

Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. Visit his website at

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.