The Travelling Fine Art Photographer

A brush with death in New Zealand

Waging War with the Beautiful Waterfalls in New Zealand

Sometimes when we travel, things don’t always go to plan. At times when we look back, these stories are full of genuine joy and laughter. We didn’t die, we survived the drama, it all seems silly to remember now. 

Other times, things go beyond the plan. To realms of terror, fear, and absolute shock. Something in me changed that day. I can look back in amusement at my stupidity, but since then I can’t prevent the PTSD when I encounter mud, soft sand, and spongey grass. 

Rainbow Falls is one of the most majestic waterfalls on the North Island. Inland from the Bay of Islands in Keri Keri. The blanket fall has a delighting symmetry that could have you stare at it for days. Nature in New Zealand is simply incredible, but it should never be taken for granted. Always take care when exploring out in nature on the incredible islands. 

The Place Behind The Waterfall 

We heard the waterfall before we saw it, then it opened up below us. Tonnes of water cascading over the edge every second. 

The rocks looked a little tricky, at one point there was only one wet marrow ledge between me and the plunge pool below. I wasn’t wearing my swimsuit and wasn’t in the mood for a slip into the depths. So I cautiously hopped onto the moss-covered rock and toed my way across. I made it, easy peasy I thought.

The step was just a test, I wanted to see if I could get my gear across to the back of the waterfall. I’d made it alone, but I wasn’t so keen to lug my backpack and huge tripod across. I left my gear with Andrea and went to scope out the back of the waterfall. 

It was astounding. If it was something from the front, it was nothing to what it was from the back. A deep cave of mossy rocks reaching back into a dense cave. Water weeds danced on the ceiling in the constant movement of the ever-flowing water. I stood on a precipice and looked out, the mist soaking my raincoat and joy filling up my senses. There are places in this world that feel unreal, almost still visceral when we remember them later. I’m lucky to still have those memories. 

Since the rocks were precarious and I wasn’t stoked about bringing my gear over, it seemed a good idea to check out the other side. Footprints showed the path more often taken by thrill-seeking swimmers wanting to jump through the back of the waterfall. I slowly clambered down the rocks to where it turned into the foliage at the edge of the cave. It was muddy at the bottom, I looked around and there were puddles on one side, and more mud on the other, next to a steep looking hill. The mud was full of footprints and I thought that must be the way. As I carefully lowered myself down, gripping onto low hanging branches, I began to sink. I took another step, my boots were sinking deeper into the thick mud with every step. 

My heart began to beat against my chest, stories of quicksand had passed in conversations only days earlier. Two more steps, I tugged at my boot, the mud squelched, but my foot would not come loose. There was a moment where time almost stood still, my breathing heavy and my eyes as wide as a rabbit in the headlights. I heaved all my might and it would not budge. In a tense moment, I pulled my foot out from my boot and took another step, I was almost to the edge, but my other foot was still stuck deep. 

I grabbed onto the nearest tree root and heaved my other foot right out of my boot. I left them behind, it was too late for them! Without even a second glance back, I scrambled forward, my hands and knees in the mud as I grabbed from dry land, leaves, roots, rocks. Anything that wasn’t soft, sinking mud. I was terrified, but I’d made it past the first obstacle. The sun had gone now and the forest was darkening to a formidable mass of black and dark green. I was in the trees. The rocks were piled around with jagged edges and slippery moss and I was now barefoot. 

As carefully as I could, on all fours, I hopped and climbed carefully over the rocks. All the while looking for the slightest hint of a path or a way back to the stream. I seemed to be going higher and higher into the tree line. Then I saw it, 10 feet below me. A narrow bank of flat grass, welcoming me to safety. I jumped down the last few rocks and made my way along the grassy path to the platform near where I had started. I was on the other side of the stream, and it would take a plunge across the water to get back to the platform. But after almost drowning in mud and the thought of death just inches away from my shaking fingertips. I splashed across the last submerged rocks and made it to land. I sat there for a moment panting. My eyes closed in relief. I opened them to witness a group of ducks had surrounded me. Curiously eyeballing me and bobbing close to my knees as I rinsed my legs and tried to rub the mud from every inch of me. As if to say ‘we’re just checking you’re okay, we were quite worried’. I looked like a tiny Big Foot. Covered from head to toe in sticky mud. Soaked from the waist down, and quivering like a mouse trapped in a cage. But I was alive. I was free from the trap, free to go on with my life, free to move on to the next adventure. 

Which turned out to be closer than I would have liked. I walked back to the car barefoot, to find I’d been locked into the car park. 

After a short panic, our wonderful host came to pick us up and drive us back to the Air BnB. She was in her 90s and we felt incredibly humbled and grateful. We were so excited to arrive and thanking her profusely that we didn’t realise we had left the key to our cottage in the car. So we were now locked out. After climbing in through the window, it was time for tea and bed! 

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