A micro-GT (Archana & myself) in the heart of New Zealand’s most grandiose natural wonders. My first trip/photo trip to New Zealand, a country so remote I hadn’t really thought I could ever make it there…but as luck would have it, it happened and the wheels were set in motion about Feb-March of 2019 when a photo trip idea entered my mind as a tangible possibility.

To address the ‘elephant-in-the room’ right out the gates, I rarely ever went on an exclusively photography related trip with anyone before (usually they are strictly solitary trips or a photo group type trip with other photogs)…the last and probably my only one was with Gyana, sometime back in 2015. But even that was more about meeting (after 20+ years) Gyana after so many years, than about photography… Landscape photography is mostly a solitary hobby (& photogs are a curiously weird breed of humans, difficult to get along with) and anyone who has interacted with me from school times would also know that I was certainly not a social butterfly who interacted with folks in class that much, let alone go on a trip with a girl from our batch, even after all these years! And on the other end, Archana, by her own admission, couldn’t remember an instance of her going on a trip with anyone either, alone, outside of her organization and community of monks, since she left home in 1998. So it was a big first for her as well. We had never interacted with each other in school, though we were in same section in 9-10th classes (Sanskrit). It was only after whatsapp group was formed and everyone started joining that I interacted with her and other girls of our batch.

But there were some things that worked positively to allow this trip to happen. New Zealand was always a dream destination I wanted to go to. And the last few years interacting with Archana over whatsapp (and meeting her in 2017 in Bhubaneswar) had kind of brought a level of familiarity…that I could decide to take her along on the trip. Archana was also supremely enthusiastic about coming along and experiencing the natural bounty of places that are so close to Dunedin, yet not so convenient for a single lady to travel alone all by herself. Only point of contention was the food…being a monk, Archana has strict food restrictions and even the veggie restaurants outside were not going to make the cut, for her (another reason why she doesn’t travel that much inside New Zealand). Her solution was that we should take our pressure cookers and pans and grocery et al., and cook our own food at airbnb’s and hostels with kitchen facilities.

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This was completely novel mode of travelling for me, but I thought to give it a try and see, so I agreed. Anyways, I’m not a big fan of non-vegetarian food. And this arrangement does save on money and gives quite a bit of flexibility while travelling (try finding a restaurant late in the night in some remote location or search for something to eat outside before dawn and you’ll understand what I mean). And with her taking on charge of the food department and giving valuable and cost-saving suggestions/bookings on places we would stay and car rental, it was a win-win for both of us. It was a weeklong trip of travelling between 3 places, two days at each place and one day each on my arrival and departure dates, in Dunedin. The planning started about 3 months prior with me booking my flight ticket to Dunedin and slowly building up a 12 pages detailed list of spots and places to cover, for each day of the week. Meanwhile Archana was working on finding and booking/suggesting places we could stay at, that had kitchen facilities and firming up car rental and other details. It was indeed a monumental task for her, to think and plan out everything, buying groceries, packing utensils and then discussing with me almost every day on hostel/airbnb bookings.

Finally, it all came together, as I landed at the tiny regional airport of Dunedin (the airport is surrounded by mountains) in the afternoon. Was quite a foggy and rainy day. After a short while saw a little orange blob (barely visible :-)) slowly making her way towards me in a fluffy-white car. And there she was finally! Time to load up my baggage and get started on our New Zealand trip…

May is the end of Autumn season in New Zealand, so temperatures were already dropping…to low-mid single digits and it gets dark around 5-5.30pm, so by the time I dropped off my baggage at the Airbnb, went and had my 1st dinner in New Zealand, at Archana’s place and gone back and settled down, it was well past evening. And we had to do some last minute grocery/winter clothes shopping in between, as well. Next day, Sunday, we would do a quick pre-dawn trip to the fascinating Moeraki Boulders area, about 1.5 hrs from Dunedin city on the eastern coast….to witness and photograph the 1st sunrise of the trip (for those interested, click here to read about the photography aspects of the trip in more detail). After a gorgeous sunrise, it started drizzling and we made our way back to Dunedin, to have lunch and then start around noon for Queenstown, our 1st place of stay, about 4-4.5 hours drive from there. Packed up our rental SUV to the brim with all our bags and suitcases and grocery (it was looking like someone was moving out of Dunedin :-) and going away!) and left around 2-2.30pm. It was a good thing Archana had just got her full drivers licence of New Zealand, a few weeks prior and took on the additional task of sharing the drive over the whole week, a luxury I never get (of sitting on the passenger side) on all my lonely trips

The drive, especially the Queenstown road to the town of Queenstown, winds its way up (and then down) by Lake Wakatipu, is an absolute stunner…lake on one side and mountains on the other. Queenstown is the heart and soul of tourism in New Zealand, especially of South Island. It has everything for every kind of traveller looking for every kind of experience…adventure, fun, cultural, nature walks, day hikes, you name it. It was dark by the time we reached the town and checked into our respective dwellings, a short distance apart, with Archana taking the one with an en-suite kitchen.

The plan was for both of us to share the cooking activities, but after serving up a particularly bland tasting alu-gobi one day, my aspirations of being the Master Chef co-cook to Archana quickly vaporised, and I was relegated to being her helper and occasional vegetable cutter :-( One thing I learned, no matter how good you may cook at home, in a new place, new country, different ingredients and condiments and even different stove type, you can totally get lost on sense of proportion and timing and mess up your cooking. One remarkable achievement of the whole trip of 1 week was that we never touched outside food during the trip, everything was either cooked, or we ate snacks that Archana had brought along. My landscape photography itinerary necessarily entails getting up way before dawn to be able to take sunrise shots and then shots of spots after sunrise when the sun is at a low angle. Which is a challenge, given that would mean we both had to get up hours before dawn (3.30-4.30am) every single day, finish morning activities, bathe (in one location the bathrooms/toilets were away from the living units and we had to walk outside in sub-zero temperatures to reach them and come back, shivering along the way), cook n pack lunch/dinner, eat breakfast and then leave before dawn to be at our chosen lookout spot to catch the day’s sunrise. And luckily, we both were upto the challenge…Archana, by force of daily habit in her monastic life and me, because I’m used to that schedule, especially on my photo trips in Canada and the US, where I mostly travelled, in years past. It’s a big advantage when everyone on a nature photo trip is a morning person.

1st full day involved travelling up the spectacular Queenstown-Glenorchy road and sights along the way, starting with Moke Lake, then Jack Point’s Golf Club house with the backdrop of the ‘Remarkables’ mountains, some cascades along Mt Crichton Loop Track, finally ending at the li’l lake side town of Glenorchy and its famous Instagram spot of the Boat Shed.

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After a picnic lunch break at Glenorchy, continued back on Glenorchy-Queenstown road, stopping multiple times by this scenic road, to take shots of Lake Wakatipu, through to sunset times. Chatted up with another photog from New York city, travelling alone in his camper van and then finally made our way back to Queenstown.

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2nd morning after checking out of our places, we headed towards the town centre and Lake Wakatipu. With sunrise shots done, time to head up to Lake Wanaka along the 53 kms of scenic route CR/CV Road (Crown Range/Cardrona Valley). It was a packed day itinerary with stoppages along Lake Hayes, historic gold-digger Arrowtown, Shotover canyon/river, then winding slowly up CR road to summit lookout point, lunch break amongst the mountains, then going down to Cardrona Valley and stopping by for a few shots of iconic Cardrona Hotel, a small hotel active since 1860’s. Wanaka and Wakatipu are two of the biggest lakes in South Island. On reaching Wanaka, we headed straight to the famous ‘Lone Tree’ of Wanaka (instagramers know it by its hashtag “That Wanaka Tree”) for sunset shots. Wanaka is also a touristy town and quite popular among visitors. We had booked at a hostel in nearby town by Lake Hawea, not far from Lake Wanaka. Seemed like it was the biggest and only place to stay at that tiny lake side town. This was my (and probably Archana’s) first time staying at a hostel type accommodation (though we had chosen individual rooms, not the bunk type beds with multiple residents per room) with shared bathrooms.

While the facilities were decent, the kitchen was chaos…with some German kids converting it into their ‘adda’…watching German version of the Game of Thrones on TV, having chicken and beer party and scattering dirty utensils all around…and a general teenagers-party mess. Took us (especially Archana) some time to get used to the pandemonium and manage to get our food cooked. Imagine someone who can’t even tolerate the smell of onion and garlic, having to go through all that!!! But Archana, painfully tolerated all that and continued on. Usually our car was serving as our refrigerator (with outside temperatures as they were) with most of the groceries staying inside the car and we just picked out what we wanted to cook, from there, unto the kitchen, every day.

Next day, our 3rd morning, started with a gorgeous creamy red sunrise by Lake Hawea before pushing further north along the Makarora-Haast Pass Road towards Haast township. Blue Pools was our 1st stop, a teal coloured pool and river, gleaming in spectacular fashion and a bridge over it. Waterfalls are always my favorite sites to photograph and so we made our way to a few on this road, starting with Fantail Falls and then onto Gates of Haast, a series of cascades in the middle of the mountains.

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My google searches before hadn’t warned about the temporary closure of this spot but finding a small opening I slithered through the fence closure and set up my tripod on a big flat boulder jutting out unto the cascades with a long dangerous looking crack going right through it (that looked like it could fall apart any moment). After a few quick shots of the cascades and some anxious shout-outs from Archana, I was back on stable ground and into the safety of the car and the road.

We continued on…two more beautiful waterfalls, Thunder Creek and Roaring Billy and then we stopped for lunch at an empty stop-over point/shed for yummy lunch of khichdi and mashed potato curry. By then it was pouring rain. Quite the experience sitting at a shed, eating Indian home cooked food, in such a remote location, with rain pouring away all around. Reached Haast town (first settled by a German explorer) late afternoon. After a 5 min phone break at the borders of the town, we headed back on same road, to Wanaka.

Throughout the weeklong trip, as we touched different spots across southern part of South Island and often gasped at the unbelievable natural beauty, several of our classmates came up in our chats…as we remembered Prakash and Deb while driving through stunning scenic routes (recalling their incredible Himalayas trip), and remembered the poetry divas (Sasmita, Elina and Seema) with Archana asserting how these trio would burst into creative flow at seeing such sights.

Gyana came up for discussion because of the ‘Death Valley’ trip I did with him on my visit to San Francisco. Vikram was fondly recollected by Archana as the pioneer visitor (among DMS92 gang) to her place in Dunedin. And Asish was remembered during our yummy picnic lunches and dinners in the middle of stunning nature. With Dabu calling in via whatsapp in the evenings on a few days…the trip, overall, felt like a medium sized DMS92 GT.

After checking out of the hostel, our 4th day started with sunrise shots at Lake Wanaka, of the Wanaka tree. From there we headed straight for our only long day-hike of the trip, the Rob Roy Glacier Track. It was about 53 kms from Wanaka but about 20kms into the drive the road becomes unpaved and passes through some gorgeous natural scenery, misty farmlands, roads kissing the mountains (at some points) and multiple little brooks and stream passes on the roadway, that we were told, were unpassable during heavy rain periods. But luckily for us, it was a bit cloudy that day but no sign of rain…perfect for a long hike up the mountain. After fuelling ourselves up with lunch, we started on the 10 kms (2 way) hike with warm winter clothing and hand warmers. By the time we were back after about 4 hrs, we were sweating to the skin.

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The elevation gain was approximately 300 mts to the highest point on the track. The track went through some private farm lands (with cows and sheep) and along a river (River Matukituki), across a swinging bridge and then gained elevation rapidly until it reached the lower lookout point at about 4km into the track. Another 1km up and we reached the higher lookout point from where we could watch, with awe, the spectacular jade coloured Rob Ray glacier, hanging from the Rob Roy mountain peak. The 5km hike-up certainly brought out the stark differences in fitness levels of Archana vs me. The yogi bounded and sprinted off through the track while I ambled along slowly, gasping and panting by the time we reached the 5km point. The return was relatively easier, going down, but still had to be careful along the rough rocky track. The plains area just preceding the track were teeming with cows, and they are massive plumpy cows (compared to Indian ones). As we were returning back, in single file with Archana trailing me…she was caught off-guard for a little while as she suddenly came face to face with a massive cow. As I turned around to see what was happening…saw a pretty hilarious (ok, not funny at that time!) situation.

Archana and the cow caught in a tense standoff (for a minute or two), staring down each other. Not eager for a fight but eager to somehow give the other, the slip and bolt to safety. Finally both sides backed off slowly and went their way, whew! Archana making her way back on track and the cow ambling off nervously to her companion sitting some distance away, to narrate her ‘yet another’ harrowing tale, of an encounter with a scary little human. The day ended at Glendhu Bay by Lake Wanaka with a pastel red sunset scene.

Our next stop, Manapouri, a small town near Te Anau, which would be our last town of stay on this trip (excluding the last day at Dunedin before I left)…for two nights, and base for our trips into the heart of New Zealand’s dreamy fiords country (yes they spell it fiords in New Zealand rather than Fjords as in other European countries). Manapouri was about 3.5-4 hrs drive from Glendhu Bay and we had a deadline of 9pm to check into the lodge at Manapouri. Seemed tight to be able to make it but with hardly any traffic on the road, we drove into the inky darkness at warp speeds and made it just in time (few minutes to 9pm).

The Lodge (cutely named Possum lodge) seemed almost like being built in the middle of a forest. It was more of a camper-van/biker type accommodation place with kitchens, bathrooms and toilets spread all over the big property, away from the camper-van parking sites and the individual rooms where we stayed. We were probably the only ones on the 1st night but joined by a couple of other folks on the 2nd night. One of them an Indian family (Gujju), of son (settled in New Zealand) and his parents visiting him. After that long 10km hike our legs were sore and aching. But Archana, as always, was ready with her home remedy…mustard oil. Instructed me to massage the oil unto my sore legs…and the result was magic, no aches the next morning and we were ready for another day’s adventure.

5th Day was Cruise day on Milford Sound (scheduled for noon). The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound (along with the Lake Wanaka-Haast Pass road) turned out to be my two favorite scenic routes of the trip. The sights along these two roads will get etched into our memories for a very very long time. Anyone who remembers the natural scenes/sets from the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbits” series of movies, can instantly recognize the surroundings…Fanghorn forest, Mount Doom, Rivendell and the starting scenes from the 1st movie of the series (Fellowship of the Ring). So we drove off from Manapouri, as always, at crack of dawn, for Milford Sound, stopping at multiple points along the way for few minutes at a time, to gape at the scenery around us, and of course to take photographs.

After taking a few shots of Mitre Peak (probably the 2nd most photographed peak in New Zealand, after Mt Cook), at the shores of Milford Sound, we boarded the cruise boat. This is one thing every visitor to New Zealand should have on his/her “Must-Do” list. A heart stopping (with awe, not pace) 2.5 hrs of sailing through surreal wonderland…heavy with fog. Multiple gorgeous waterfalls flow down from the mountains, straight into the ocean as dolphins frolic around the boat. Sterling Falls, Three Sisters falls and so many others. Also saw the flightless chicken sized birds called Weka, along the marshy shores of Milford Sound, with Archana managing to get a closeup of one. And that brought an end to a wonderful day as we returned back to base at Manapouri.

6th Day was essentially reserve day, for any spots we missed, around Milford Sound. So we eased up a bit on our morning schedule (as sunrise was a non-starter for the day with light drizzle at dawn) and left on the same Te Anau-Milford Sound road, to catch up with a few waterfalls (Marian Falls & Moraine Creek cascades), my favorite photo subject.

And a glorious 6 days of South Island nature voyage was finally over. We then turned towards Dunedin, about 5-5.5 hrs drive from Milford Sound area. Archana taking the wheel after about 2 hrs of driving by me. Luckily for me, it was almost sunset time as we reached Dunedin city limits, so we decided to head straight to Tunnel Beach, near Dunedin. Famous for its rocky tunnel shaped outcrop, jutting out into the sea. The approach walking-path from the main road to the beach is one of the steepest ones I had ever encountered, for a beach but the view at the end of it was totally worth it. 2,271 kms in 6 days and finally our sightseeing trip of a small portion of New Zealand was over. It was time to call it a day…from two exhausted yet exhilarated souls.

Sunday, 7th day was my last day in New Zealand before I flew off the next morning. Archana decided to give me a grand guided tour of her city’s prominent landmarks. But before that, there was still some landscape photography left for the morning. I accidentally found it on google while searching for something else during the trip and decided to pay a visit. So we headed off to this interesting little place called the “Macrocarpa Trees Tunnel”, not far from Dunedin city centre. It’s basically a stretch of forest path with high density of old gnarly trees on both sides, drooping unto each other, forming a tunnel like sight, almost eerie in nature. Not exactly an out-of-body experience…or was it?

Then we headed unto the city to see its large and beautiful botanical gardens, the architecturally pretty Railway Station (Archana was almost on the verge of boarding a train and running away from the city, but I stopped her in time!), the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum and finally a gothic Church in the middle of the city. That was the end of the day and end of sightseeing for me. 

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Archana had broached the possibility of ‘gup-chup’ evening at her place, earlier in the day. So I made sure, after we were done photographing the church, to remind her again of her promise, in case she forgot. Potatoes were peeled, tamarind water was stirred up, green chillies chopped away and bulbous gup-chups were fried. Almost seemed like something 'Gandalf the Grey' might divvy up in his magical cauldron. And we chatted and ate (I did most of the eating, Archana did the chatting!). Archana had been careful to put less chillies in the water, initially. As we started eating, she said it was not hot enough as our eyes were still not watering. So off she went to pour another handful of chillies…until rivulets of water streamed forth from our eyes non-stop:-)  And only then Archana declared that the gup-chup session was finally on track.

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Next day I was set to fly out of Dunedin very early in the morning. Archana had cooked breakfast (lunch sized) of delicious suji-upma. After this sumptuous breakfast, it was time to say goodbyes, as she dropped me off at the airport. 7 days went by…just like that. Probably one of my best trips ever, from a photography perspective, with a wonderful co-tripper, Archana.

For anyone in our group (DMS92 batch) who has clicked on my link at the start of this blog, to my photoblog and looked at all the photos…just sit down for a moment and let this fact sink in, all these magically beautiful places are within 4-5 hours driving distance from Archana’s place, where she stays in New Zealand. So if you haven’t thought about it yet, then probably now is the time to reflect and perhaps plan out a trip to Archana’s abode :-)

In Archana's words

A Trip to southern part of South Island with a school friend..

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New Zealand is a small island and it is also divided into North island and South island. A dream country where many people want to come to visit. Dunedin is in the south island where we have our centre and where I am staying. Since few years I was hearing from Pratyush that New Zealand is in his bucket list but when will he come that was not certain. One day he said he is going to plan to visit soon. I was very happy when I heard from him that he has booked his flight tickets. Though I have been in New Zealand more than six years now, I have not visited many places here. It was a golden chance for me too to explore beautiful south Island of this tiny country.

18th May 2019, I was watching the time again and again that day, day Pratyush was set to arrive and I had to pick him up from Dunedin airport in the afternoon. I was so excited...That day was Buddha Purnima and was our Gurudevjii’s birthday celebration too. After lunch and celebration, all the guests left. I checked the time and thought, “I have some time now. Let me do some cleaning and then I can go”. After finishing all the work I realised, “oh nooo I am late. He must be waiting.” It was raining that day and it took 30/35 minutes to reach the airport. By the time I reached airport, I saw Pratyush standing alone and was looking towards the road thinking if I still remembered that I had to pick him up :) Finally Pratyush’s dream of coming to NZ was fulfilled. He was in Dunedin with all his dreams coming true and of course I too was very excited to meet him and then for the trip. I love to visit new places and I like to take photos too. So I was very happy thinking about how wonderful our trip will be.

The day before Pratyush arrived, I had just arrived from Bali. Where we had our organisational meetings and programs. I was also tired after a 15/16 hours travelling including transit but all my tiredness was gone with the excitement of coming NZ tour. We had already booked different airbnb and hostels where there was kitchen facilities as it would be hard for me to eat outside for a week. We packed everything we needed for cooking. pressure cookers, pans, pots, groceries ... :-)

Here starts our dream, travelling to the places where I was thinking since many years I must visit but never got a chance...though they are not that far from Dunedin. So our first destination was Queenstown, a very beautiful city of south island which has become a very popular tourist place since last few years. Next day early in the morning in the freezing cold we both were in the spot to take few sunrise snaps. My everyday routine during trip was waking up at 4 am, finish my meditation, then cooking and then getting ready. We decided to cook something which should not be time consuming and easy. So our pressure cooker was our best friend :-). Our cooking was finishing by 6.30. Eating breakfast at 7 am or before that even, was very unusual for me. Never thought I can manage that but surprisingly I was eating breakfast so early in the morning... After breakfast we were packing our food for the day. This was our daily routine for that week during our travelling.

All the places we went were pre-planned by Pratyush. By the grace of Almighty, whatever he planned, wherever he wanted to go he was successful without any obstructions. Also weather was in our favour. Though NZ weather is always unpredictable, but it all worked out. Each single day going early for sunrise shots and then in the evening sunsets, we got it everyday. Our GPS was waiting everyday early in the morning... "where is my destination today...". It was also very excited and happy because it was brand new so got chance in exploring new places.. :-)

Every day for me is memorable but it was on the 4th day when we were going on the unpaved road towards Rob Roy Glacier, that I was totally stunned after viewing the sceneries. I was feeling like I was watching a movie. The views were like I am turning pages of a calendar. Never saw like this before. Extremely beautiful, spectacular views. And then hiking was the best part. I was so curious to see why people take so much effort to climb this mountain and what is there to see. After taking rest in between finally we reached the top of the mountain after almost 3 hours. It was so beautiful and breathtaking... Hiking with camera, tripod, backpack and jackets was really a great experience for both of us. Though I love walking and do walk few kms almost everyday but still hiking a mountain is definitely different and enjoyable.

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From the day I arrived in New Zealand, the word Milford Sound I had heard several times. Then saw few pictures in calendars, magazines, coasters etc. I had a wish “kebe dekhibi e Milford Sound”. Now finally, it was time to see this most beautiful place. It was 5th day of our trip.A  long drive of 140kms from the airbnb place where we were staying. Pratyush had pre-booked for the cruise. It was in the cruise I enjoyed the most. We reached before our cruise time and went to capture some spectacular shots of Mitre peak, one of the most famous peak of New Zealand.

The view of the waterfalls were just gorgeous. No words can describe what the view was. I was speechless. Mother nature is so beautiful. No camera can capture those views. 

No words are there to express. It was just awesome. While Pratyush was busy with his camera, I also got busy with the mobile phone for capturing those beautiful moments..

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I was so delighted to see the waterfalls with the clouds. It was mesmerising. I was somewhere in another world. That time we were remembering our poet friends Elina, Sasmita and Seema. Mu Pratyush ku kahili, “Semane jadi ethi thante nischaya kichi lekhi saranteni”. Mana kahuthila samaya jemiti emiti ethi rahi jau....Those 2 and half hours were the best moments of my life I can never forget...

We were back in Dunedin on Saturday evening. Sunday was the last day for Pratyush to visit few places for this year's trip. We went to few more places in Dunedin. The steepest street in the world. It was fun to climb and walk back again. Then botanical gardens, our historical railway station, museum and a church.

We finished our Nz trip with gol-gappe that we planned from the very first day :-))

It was time now to say good bye to Pratyush who is more a caring brother to me than a school friend. Our New Zealand trip was over. But the memories will be for ever. It was such an exciting trip and unforgettable... 

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I just want to say a big ‘Thank you’ to Pratyush for everything he did for me. My words will fall short to appreciate him. It was my honour to accompany a person like him.

Our this trip is over. But never the less New Zealand is New Zealand. Again I may see the beauty of this beautiful country very soon with some other visitors. Sanga mane mora jaldi jaldi New Zealand asa. I am sure some of my other friends will visit New Zealand after hearing about our great experiences. Waiting...

Elina's spontaneous burst of creative thought on a picture from the trip. Read here

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