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Tripping the light fantastic

Image of the November 2023 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
November 2023 Issue

A night in the wilderness is a chance to be put back in touch with the natural rhythms of light and dark.

Our planet is a wondrous thing. Year after year it spins around the sun, as it has for aeons. We are intimately attuned to the waxing and waning of light, to how it energises us in the morning and puts us to sleep at night.

At least, that is how it is supposed to be. But these days many of us are removed from nature’s rhythm. Artificial light has upended the careful balance. 

When I first started tramping in New Zealand, I was badly stressed. Almost all my waking hours were spent in front of screens in brightly lit rooms. I slept poorly and awoke unrested, day after day. 

Not now. Spending nights in my tent on a mountain puts me back in touch with the natural rhythms of light and dark. On a winter tramp, I might be in my tent for 12 hours before it is time to be active again. Summer mornings, however, beckon much sooner. It’s delightful to remind myself of a rhythm untouched by an alarm clock.

Then there is the sheer beauty of light: a feast for the senses. Watching the light fade is like watching the planet exhale. The harsh skies of a summer’s day shift along the visible electromagnetic spectrum, through yellows, oranges and reds. Was there a small green strip of sky between the blues and yellows? Deep blue gives way to a deeper purple, peppered with the light of Venus and the brightest constellations, and ends in blackness.

The variety is breathtaking. Have you ever stood on a mountain at the end of an unusually clear day, when the sky glows in the most intense red that you have ever witnessed? The alpenglow lingers longer than it seems possible, casting light on your tramping companions’ exhausted yet smiling faces.

The dry skies of Canterbury carry precious little moisture to refract the light. There, the change from harsh daylight to a beautiful sunset happens in the blink of an eye, its shadows deeper and with edges like blades. 

Cross to the West Coast and the air is bathed in moisture. Picture the water molecules as a cloud of floating mirrors that bounce the light around, softening the mood. This light is gentler, its shadows lifted. When you imagine a beautiful tropical sunset, the magic ingredient is warm, humid air.

Maybe you’ve summited Taranaki Maunga and witnessed its perfectly triangular shadow racing towards infinity. Don’t forget that you are also standing atop a rock floating through space. 

Watching light wash across the landscape is an exercise in deceleration. My camera grounds me in these moments. I can feel my body relaxing into the rhythm. Soon, it will be time to sleep.