They lived down the road from each other in Christchurch. Twenty years later, Tom Mutch finds himself reunited in a war zone with his childhood buddy.
"I wonder what Miss Wade would think if she could see this," Nick Fisher says as 30 Ukrainian rockets fly over our heads to their targets in the Russian-occupied areas of Kharkiv.
He was talking about our intermediate schoolteacher Jude Wade [now Garrett] who, when I reached out to her later, said: "I always said there were amazing kids in that class who would go far in the world, not sure I was anticipating a war zone."
Ukraine's second-largest city and its surrounding area had been attacked since the start of Russia's invasion on February 24 and me and my old classmate were there to report on it. I hadn't seen Nick in nearly 20 years yet here we were reunited for the first time on one of the world's most terrifying battlefields.
"As soon as I woke up on the morning the war started, I knew I just had to go there and tell the story," Nick tells me. I had been in Kyiv on the same day and I felt a similar compulsion to stay.
We had grown up just down the road from each other in Christchurch and had been friends in our class for two years at Cobham Intermediate but had gone to different high schools and lost touch. Since we had parted ways, we had taken divergent paths to meet where we were, both aged 30, as journalists to cover the story of our lifetimes.
I'm a freelance magazine journalist and he is one of the most well-known travel video bloggers in the world.
I had left New Zealand to do my undergraduate degree at Oxford University in Britain before going to work as a parliamentary researcher in the British Parliament.
Having gotten bored of a desk job interviewing besuited politicians and generals in swanky hotels in central London, I decided to become a freelance conflict journalist. I had covered the Nagorno Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020 and then the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban the year after that.
Hearing reports of the Russian military build up on the border of Ukraine at the start of the year I decided to go and report on how Ukrainian society was dealing with this. I stayed and the rest is history.
A YouTube star
Nick had a different route to Kharkiv. After studying at Christchurch Boys' High school, he studied horticulture before becoming a tour guide in the South Island. But after doing his OE, he soon found his true passion was film-making.
"It started when I was in Nepal during the earthquake," he tells me. "I was supposed to just be travelling and I was about to start teaching English."
The next day the school he was to teach in was flattened. He decided to document his escape from the Nepalese mountains in the chaos and his YouTube channel Indigo Traveler was born.
The tagline: Travelling misunderstood parts of the planet showing the human side of what we read in the headlines.
His first videos are rough and ready, covering well-trodden destinations such as Vietnam, Cambodia and India. The camera is shaky and the editing amateurish. "Really good production values filming a video from across the road whilst trucks drive in front of you," he jokes. He never had any training.
"I was always really into mountain biking and there is a big video culture around that, but I didn't do it professionally," he says.
But from the beginning he had a flair for engaging storytelling and a genuine curiosity that led him to interesting and unexpected encounters that set him apart from the many other travel writers or bloggers. He said it took him about a year-and-a-half to become self-sufficient from his video work.
Nick started exploring the quirkier, more remote and dangerous areas of the world. His first outside-the-box travel was to North Korea which still rates among his best-ranked videos. "INSIDE NORTH KOREA: SURREAL EXPERIENCE" is his most popular with 9.5 million views. Nick started to become a YouTube success. Collectively, his videos have been viewed more than 155 million times, but he says he started to become dissatisfied with pure travel blogging.
"In around 2019 I began to pivot away from your regular travel videos.
"I looked like I was living the dream, being able to get paid to travel around the world. But I felt it was getting a bit empty and I wanted to do something more meaningful."
He started with a trip to Venezuela in 2019. The country, which used to be one of Latin America's most prosperous, has been in the middle of a major economic collapse and is now one of the world's most impoverished and dangerous nations. He decided to use his channel to raise money for a local social project which ended up overwhelming his expectations.
"The response blew me out of the water."
Nick says his family are still most proud of the charitable side of his work. He raised more than $400,000 for a series of soup kitchens in Petare, the biggest slum in Latin America.
"Someone in Unicef saw my videos in Venezuela and really liked them so they invited me to come with them to Afghanistan. So, it just continued from there."
The journeys became wilder and the countries more dangerous and war-torn. Alongside Afghanistan, his recent videos have been a smorgasbord of the world's worst political and humanitarian crises. Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, and Somalia. The cameras became more expensive and his editing much crisper and more professional until the production values approached that of major news networks.
The story he is most proud of is about a floating slum in the Nigerian capital of Lagos: think Slumdog Millionaire crossed with Venice.
As he pivoted to dangerous destinations, he was aware of the risk and that his family sometimes worries but he insists he takes all reasonable precautions. "Of course, I always have common sense. I use a local fixer who has grown up there and speaks the language. I've had some amazing people take care of me. When I was in Venezuela, we would be walking down a dangerous slum and my guy Lenny would always be looking behind us. I've met some of the most amazing people on my travels this way."
He insists there is not a single country on Earth he wouldn't be willing to visit.
For any aspiring filmmakers his advice is simple. "I would say you have to just go. You just must go out there and make all the standard mistakes and take bad video and gradually get better as you go along and learn."
Heading to Ukraine
Nick was in Hungary where he lives with his girlfriend of five years when the war in Ukraine broke out.
"I've been to the country about five or six times. I've always loved Ukraine and its people. They are always so welcoming and chilled out which is not always the case in this part of the world."
We had reconnected the previous year after I'd watched his videos about the crises in Lebanon and Venezuela, which I had reported from in the past. My mum, who used to help supervise our old school camps, connected us after I sent her a link to one of his videos.
He reached out when he was planning to come to Ukraine. When we met for beers at one of the recently reopened bars in Kyiv it was perfectly pleasant and completely surreal. Nearly 20 years had gone by and here we were in the middle of a war zone trading old stories about people we'd known in what felt like a different lifetime on the other side of the world.
Nick's first two videos in Ukraine are trips through the reopening of Kyiv and the suburbs of Irpin and Bucha that were the scene of serious war crimes. It is full of evocative and moving moments. He warns his viewers as he steps into Bucha: "I've been told to watch my step for booby traps that the Russians might have left." Looking around at the destruction he tells us: "It is really quite hard for me to convey how many bullet holes there are here… every building I can see here is destroyed."
But his best skill has always been allowing the residents of places to tell their own stories and putting himself in the story as an observer rather than the protagonist. An elderly woman he interviews who lived under the Russian occupation tells him that "your heart and mine are close", asks if he is married and promises he will have a "lovely bride" one day.
But while the Russians had been pushed out of Kyiv, we decided to see the real war in a place that was still under heavy fire and tell the stories of the civilians sheltering from Russian artillery and the soldiers defending their homelands.
On the train to Kharkiv we scrolled through social media, checking out old friends and classmates now scattered around the world. There was Ann Yoo who had married my best friend from high school and had just given birth to their first child. There was Alex Upjohn Beatson a machine learning engineer living in the US and Michael Vink a pro-cycling champion.
"It would be so cool to do a roll call now to see what everyone is up to," Wade told us later.
And that was how we found ourselves outside a deserted farmhouse in eastern Ukraine on the frontlines. The carcass of a destroyed Russian tank lay in front of it and on the field behind us a Russian helicopter had been shot down. We could hear the crack and boom of the artillery duel that was taking place all around us. Russia had captured these villages in the first days of its offensive when the city of Kharkiv was expected to capitulate. Instead, the Ukrainians repulsed the invaders in a desperate battle at the gates of the city. Since then, the Russian army had planted its artillery and pounded the hell out of Kharkiv.
We met a man in his 80s named Mykola who was born at the outbreak of the Second World War and grew up on his parents' stories of the fighting. "This was worse than World War Two," he tells Nick, describing the awesome power of modern weaponry that thundered around him.
We didn't have time to discuss what our teacher would have really thought before one of the Ukrainian army soldiers accompanying a young lieutenant named Leila came over to us and told us to stay alert.
"Stay here and if anything happens take cover in the bar. The Russians could locate our artillery and fire back on us at any moment."
And in the middle of a short clip of Nick talking to the camera describing the scene, another rocket barrage streamed over our heads in the background. I checked his camera: it had been one of those rare moments of lucky film-making magic. The most liked comment on his new video is, "You've developed from a regular travel YouTuber to a full-out modern-day journalist. Your progress is massive." His latest video on Ukraine is the fastest-watched video he's had on his channel.
Wade still remembers him as the kid she made run so many laps in phys ed that he threw up on the classroom couch.