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Warm summer’s days tempered by fresh, cool waters of the Lake. Drifting on a lazy Waikato River current. Winter bike rides to school, rugged up against the morning chill, breath hanging in the air, dreaming of the weekend and the possibility of snow on the hills and fresh powder on the Mountain. Funny, isn’t it, how it’s only when you leave a place that you experience the depth of its power and pull? When, at 18, I left to start work in Auckland, I realised more fully that a childhood in Taupo-nui-a-Tia imprints itself onto your heart and mind. Mine has shaped my personality, my passions, and has become the taonga that I take with me into the world.
It’s impossible to grow up in Taupo and not love the winters. Waking up to see the township white with frost and an eerie fog blanketing the lake always made me excited for the day. To locals, these are the familiar signs of the perfectly clear and fresh winter’s day to come. And, always with those days, comes a spectacular, front seat view of our Maunga, Tongariro. Again, it wasn’t until I left that I realised the part it plays in every aspect of life in Taupo. Always there, in almost every view, the destination for family road trips and noisy school trips, not just a backdrop but a presence. It’s been 8 years since I moved away, but the mountains draw me back several times every year, and every time it feels both familiar and like I’m seeing it all for the first time.
So many early mornings saw me and friends embarking on journeys into the park. We would go from having only the meagre light from our head torches barely illuminating the track, to the darkness gradually falling away and the entire sky changing colour as the sun rose. Just as much now as then, there is something so powerful about witnessing that spectacle. As the highest part of the North Island, Mount Ruapehu catches some of the strongest red, orange and pink hues I have photographed in the natural world. Now, I try to capture those moments in images - the secluded beauty of the park, the feelings of awe as you watch the colours change, the warmth of freshly brewed coffee sipped in crisp mountain air. Yet, no day is the same here, making it such a unique place to photograph and bringing me back again and again.
Tongariro may be my most-loved place in the region to explore, but I love that just a few hours after trekking the mountain, I can be stepping into the Wairakei Terraces to help recover tired muscles or relishing a breakfast at my favourite spot, the Storehouse. When I reluctantly venture back up SH1 to Auckland, I find comfort knowing these are all part of the memories I’ve made, and will continue to make in my home, Taupo.
Taupo born photographer Joel McDowell specialises in capturing the hidden beauty of New Zealand through his lens. Described as a visual storyteller, Joel spends hours meticulously studying maps to find hidden locations to create unique, breathtaking shots that bring you into the moment. View Joel's portfolio.
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