That Starry Night
That Starry Night
‘Hey, Hi...’, he said with a friendly smile.
Taken aback by the sudden greeting from a stranger around I looked up to see this lean dude whose gaze was fixed at the address book I was filling in.
‘Hey, Hi,’ I replied, giving a forceful smile back. I wasn’t comfortable exchanging greetings with a stranger who was snooping at my address and my stay details.
Maybe he understood my discomfort and replied, ‘ Looks like for the next few days we will be sharing the same homestay. I checked-in just a while back.’
‘Oh! Cool. Thankfully, I will have company. I thought I would be the only one around tonight. Helga said that there are a couple of more guests arriving tomorrow but I guess she missed mentioning about you. I was feeling spooked out thinking I was going to be alone in this beautiful Villa.’ I replied warmly this time thinking he was also trying to find a company in this isolated and beautiful place located by the Hahei Beach in the North Island, NZ.
‘Yeah, I came in probably a few hours earlier than you but haven’t settled in yet,’ he said while taking his room keys from the lockbox.
His hazel eyes and funny long nose had already attracted me during the course of our minimal interaction. With a quest to know more about him, my eyes searched for the name and address written just above mine.
‘So Alex, what brings you here from Ireland?’
He chuckled finding out that I had used the same strategy to find out a bit about him.
‘Photography!!', he said.
‘I have come here purely to experience the thrill of a solo backpack adventure,’ I said as I walked towards my room with my bags.
‘Oh! That sounds great. Now, if you don’t mind I would be heading out for a while as I have folks waiting at the Cathedral Cove.’
‘See you later,’ I said hoping he could have probably invited me along. It didn’t seem he was alone in NZ.
‘Hmmm…too early for me to expect this from a stranger I had just met minutes back,’ I thought.
His room was just adjacent to mine. By the time I could settle inside my room he had dumped his bags and left. I could hear the main door getting locked when I pepped out of my room just to catch a glimpse of him again.
I was a little disappointed thinking I will be all alone, that’s when the independent traveller brain inside me rebelled, ‘‘Hello!! You have come here for the sake of solo travel and you are looking for a company as soon as you landed. How ironic!.’
‘Duhh…’ I shook my head and closed all these confusing thoughts.
After a nice warm bath, I spent a good amount of time exploring the house, reading the brochures that had enough details for me to plan my exploration around NZ, prepared myself a cup of coffee and browsed through the books in the reading section. The mild rays of the sun were seeping through the curtains even at 5:00 PM. I was expecting a late sunset and those extra light hours in the evening could give me enough time to trek till the Cathedral Cove and be back in time for dinner. Having spent the past couple of days in NZ I had realized that they had an early dinner concept. By 7:00 PM all restaurants were closed for service. The only option for food was a self-prepared one or depending on the Indian restaurants which again were not very close by. I wasn’t aware of this on day one and ended up having toast and eggs for dinner.
The walk to Cathedral Cove took about an hour and a half from the parking lot. It was a scenic and well-planned trail where I could see the blue Pacific from each step as I walked down the hill. I visited Gemstone Bay, Stingray Bay, Champagne bay and the Mares Leg Cove till I reached the cove. Since it was an area maintained by the department of conservation the flora and fauna on the track was very unique and exquisite. There were few wooden seats built in between the trail for the travellers to rest. I was so mesmerized and lost looking just at the bright blue expanse of the Pacific that I forgot to notice a familiar face who had walked past me. I was so lost that I recognized it was Alex only after he waved 3-4 times at me. It took me a few minutes to respond to him with a wave back and a big smile. A smile, of longing. I was cursing myself from within thinking how stupid I could be that I missed his presence all along. He was with a group who also seemed like photographers as they were carrying tripods, bags and camera gear with huge lenses just like him.
I paced my steps a bit fast so that I could have some conversation with him. He introduced me to his friends and we exchanged greetings with a little introduction about each other. With the minimal chit-chat, we all had I found that Alex and his friends who were also like-minded photographers from different countries had come to NZ on a photography trail. They all worked for Paul Ziska, a very famous Canadian nature photographer who was a master in capturing the best of landscapes around the world. He had a great team of photographers spread across the globe who would fix a photography trail for each year. This year they meant to spend some time capturing the beauty of NZ. Alex particularly was very excited about watching and recording the Aurora Australis activity and the milky way.
As we neared the cove Alex stopped short abruptly and said facing his friends, ‘ Hey, guys, I forgot to introduce this lady Ishita who has come on a solo backpacking trip from India.’ I was stunned thinking he had actually got my name right in those flash seconds of his observation. I gave a coy smile and told them a bit about my drive from Auckland. They were coming from Cambridge after visiting the Waitomo glowworm caves. They spent some time capturing the view from the beach while I walked along the coastline.
Alex had to spend some more time there so I bid adieu to them and walked back. I was too hungry and not in a mood to cook for the night alone. I so wished Alex too had trekked back with me. I wanted to talk to him a little further. The way he had described to me about his photographic adventures had caught my attention and I kept thinking about him during the entire two-hour walk from the Cathedral Cove. My mind and my heart were clouded with thoughts about Alex. I loved the tan on his face and mirth in his talk. I couldn’t just get over his image that had formed in my head. For a change, my solo trip wasn’t seeming interesting today. I was surprised at my own self that in such a short span a man, a stranger could capture my attention and thoughts so much. He wasn’t the flirty types as well. Seemed very genuine while talking and his mannerism was so gentle. Overall he had a polished tone with an explorer’s heart and mind. Thoughts of Alex made me reach the parking lot in a much lesser time than I had taken to walk down till the cove.
I went to a nearby restaurant, settled myself with a hand-tossed thin crust pizza and two glasses of sparkling red wine. It had been a tiring and exciting day. I went back to the villa hoping to meet Alex by the kitchenette because he had told me he loved to have a late-night coffee but there was no sign of him till almost midnight. My brain was acting weird. The wine had loosened my spirits and I felt I was expecting too much and acting like a silly love-smitten teenager. Putting those thoughts aside I decided to call it a day and get inside the cosy rug. Helga, our host had come over and placed fruits and snacks for the next day’s breakfast. She had also left a small shovel and rubber slippers by the shoe stand right outside my room’s door with a note - ‘Don’t miss going to the hot water beach tonight. You can expect a low tide there '.
Probably, it was the best antidote I needed to get over that silly infatuation I had developed for Alex. I changed into shorts- covered myself in a water-resistant jacket- wore the rubber slippers- took the shovel and drove till the hot water beach. There were many cars in the parking lot which made me feel at ease thinking I wasn’t going to be alone on the beach tonight. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t spot a soul. Slowly, I walked in the direction of the cliffs on the coastline using my mobile’s torchlight. I could see people in small groups huddled together in one place lazing around, lying down and enjoying the hot water springs. I walked fast so that I could approach them and get to spend some time there but to my dismay, the small group was leaving as I approached. They were all in their beach-wear clothes unlike me. I was the odd one out there. Upon inquiring they told me that the low tide had been there for an hour and the hot water springs had come up but because the tides were getting higher slowly, water was not that hot. I was very disappointed that I had come in late and had to wait for the next day to experience this again. But something pulled me back from returning to the parking lot with them. I stayed put in the same round pit they had dug. The water beneath my feet wasn’t so hot so I tried to shovel out some more sand to allow the water to come up. Little did I know that the magic of that night was yet to unfold. In a few minutes, the temperature of the water increased and my feet were dipped adequately in warm water. Then the seawater suddenly started retreating and hot water started replacing it. My feet were soaked in warm mud when suddenly hot water seeped in. It was so hot that I felt like doing a hop-skip-jump, unable to stay put there for more than a second. Finally, I found the perfect spot to sit and at around 1:00 AM I saw someone walking up towards me with a torchlight. I felt a shiver run down my spine. I was taken aback by the sudden friendly greeting.
‘Hey!!! Ishita, what are you doing here?’
Alex walked closer to me pointing the torchlight right above my face. He was holding a tripod with a camera mounted on it in one hand.
I stayed stunned for a while. I wasn’t able to believe it was really happening. Was it the wine or the hot water beneath my feet? I blinked my eyes twice and could only understand it was real when Alex nudged me by my shoulder and asked me to shift a bit.
‘I found my perfect spot. Sorry, you had to move,’ he said carelessly while looking inside his lens and focusing on something.
I couldn’t read his expression as he was busy setting up the camera. Not knowing what to do I sat down in that pit again and got back to relaxing myself. I didn’t want to talk to him further as he seemed very busy and not so interested in me. Much to my surprise, he joined me soon.
‘I am waiting for the sky to clear up so that I can capture the milky way. I can see stars shining bright,’ Alex said with childlike enthusiasm. He was using a mobile app to see the kind of constellations and trying to figure them out with me. Slowly the darkness around was overpowered by the brightness, with the sky revealing a million stars that were scattered around and shining bright.
‘Never in my life have I seen so many stars,’ I said looking amazed and dazed.
‘The magic is yet to unfold Ishita.’
‘Wait’, he said as he captured the Milky Way, which was radiating its aura near the horizon.
I felt that I had been engulfed by the surrounding so much that everything that was happening wasn’t seeming real. The 360-degree view of the sky was enthralling. The star-studded sky had spread above us like a blanket and all I wanted to do was to just lie down there and keep looking at the sky until my eyes got tired. Alex was jumping with joy after having captured the Milky Way.
‘Yes!!!! Yes!!!! It has just come out perfect. Want to have a look? ’ he said with eyes gleaming at me.
I peered into the preview screen of the camera along with him. He started explaining to me about the camera settings etc...etc… which fell on my deaf ears. I was soaking in the experience and smiling at him continuously.
The next moment was surreal. It felt as if I was living a dream. I don’t know why and how it happened. Was it me or was it him? Who had initiated it first? Was it the wine, the beach or the surroundings?
That starry night I shared a passionate kiss with a stranger that left my brain high on dopamine. We both walked back holding hands in silence after that kiss. Maybe there was scope for more talk and passion but Alex walked me back to my room and retired into his. When I woke up the next morning, there were some other guests who had checked-in. I walked towards the kitchenette again thinking about Alex but there was no sign of him. I poured myself a cup of coffee and looked at the sand-covered slippers and shovel. Last night was real but what my eyes and my heart had witnessed didn’t seem real. That starry night I fell in love with a stranger who came like a whiff of cool air, swept me off my senses and left.