I’m sitting in the Queenstown, New Zealand airport waiting to board the first of four flights that will total 26 hours and land me a mere 2-hour drive from home. While I’m still coherent, I’ll attempt to whip out this week’s (slightly late) blog post, using low hanging fruit from the just-completed New Zealand workshop: The always beautiful Wanaka Willow Tree.
Each year (that we’re not thwarted by a global pandemic) Don Smith and I guide one or two groups of photographers to our favorite locations on New Zealand’s indescribable South Island. In a land brimming with highlights, right near the top of this workshop’s highlights is our visit to the lone willow tree in Lake Wanaka.
The Wanaka Willow is arguably the most photographed tree in the world. Rising in solitary splendor from the glassy surface of Lake Wanaka, further enhanced by a backdrop of snow-capped peaks, the graceful outline of this arboreal icon has pleased visitors for decades. With free public parking just 100 yards away (or a five minute stroll from the workshop hotel), the tree’s effortless access makes it easy for all to enjoy.
I first photographed the tree in 2017, and have returned maybe a dozen times since—sunrise and sunset, day and night. In addition to the wonderful photography, on each visit I’m struck by the pleasure viewing it brings to everyone present. Whether they came to photograph, meditate, or simply gaze, each visitor is soothed by its presence, and seems infused with an infectious, positive spirit.
So, right at the start of the pandemic, to say I was mortified to learn that someone had vandalized this glorious tree would be an understatement. Visitors that morning in March 2020 were shocked to discover that overnight someone had taken a saw to several of the branches, including the graceful bottom branch that dipped toward the water before arcing skyward. I won’t even try to comprehend what would motivate someone to damage this source of so much joy for so many people, but it’s disturbing to know that we share the same planet.
Given all this, I was somewhat apprehensive about my first post-pandemic visit to the Wanaka Willow. Had it been ruined? Will we be forced to strike Wanaka from our New Zealand workshop destinations?
After photographing it twice on this month’s trip, I’m happy to declare that, while the Wanaka Willow may be (metaphorically) down, it’s far from out. Despite its scars, this solitary survivor has maintained its essence, and the joy remains. This year’s experience showed me that the Wanaka Willow’s appeal is so much more than its distinctive outline, and given its sublime setting, the new version has a chance to establish a new distinctive (albeit somewhat less graceful) outline.
Returning to Wanaka a couple of days later, the original plan called for a sunset shoot elsewhere on the lake, followed by a sunrise shoot at the tree. But with a forecast that included a chance of rain the next morning, we decided the tree shoot in particular is too important to risk and offered to split the group so anyone who wanted to go to the other spot could. Fortunately, the vote was unanimous to stay at the tree.
I love it when things work out and I look a lot smarter than I am. That evening’s sunset delivered beautiful pink clouds reflecting on a mirror surface. I captured this image toward the end of the sunset, after most of the clouds had moved on. As I was about to pack up, I spied one remaining cloud fragment reflecting in the lake and ran down to a spot where I could juxtapose it with the tree. While the earlier brilliant pink had softened to muted pastels, I thought the subdued tones enhanced the moment and perfectly reflected the quiet peace I felt.