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Artist sketches every hike on accidental year in New Zealand

Thomas Bywater

Thomas Bywater is a writer and digital producer for Herald Travel

200 paintings and over 3,000 km later, a stranded artist has logged his odyssey in a visual diary of a year on New Zealand's trails.

By the beginning of the year London-based artist Tom Napper was about ready to go home.

"I had pretty much done everything I'd planned to do in the year," he said.

But, New Zealand was not done with him.

Arriving in Auckland to fly out of the country, he was caught up in the Covid 19 lockdowns. A one-night stay turned into three-weeks camping in a friend's backgarden.

"I ended up on an emergency travel document because the rain destroyed my passport," he said.

Napper came to New Zealand to sketch and cycle the Aotearoa Tour. Photo / @tomnapper
Napper came to New Zealand to sketch and cycle the Aotearoa Tour. Photo / @tomnapper

The monsoon had wrecked his possessions but somehow the painter saw a silver lining in the situation.

"It was a blessing in disguise," he said. "I realised that I'd never done a Great Walk."

Napper had arrived in February 2020 to cycle the length of the country as part of the Tour Aotearoa.

Despite being his first solo trip abroad, Napper has learned to roll with the punches and see far more of the country than he had ever expected.

"I've sketched and painted every single hike since I landed," he said.

Church of the Good Shepherd, Tekapo. Photo / @tomnapper
Church of the Good Shepherd, Tekapo. Photo / @tomnapper

The trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff is littered with well-known photo opportunities, but the illustrator from London wanted to put his own twist on recording the views from the road.

"I spoke to the organisers and arranged to sketch all of them as an 'art challenge'."

However, as the country went into lockdown, he was stuck behind and took up hiking as a hobby.

30 paintings quickly bloomed into a huge portfolio of work.

Hiking Mt Burns, Fiordland. Photo / @tomnapper
Hiking Mt Burns, Fiordland. Photo / @tomnapper

The best of these sketches end up on a blog and instagram page, which has gained attention from around the world.

His favourite pieces would have to be the mountain huts in the South Island.

"Earnslaw Burn was the first overnight camping that I did by myself and the discovery of the view at the end floored me," he said. Hiking the Kepler to Mt Luxmore was also a treasured image: "I had no idea how good the views would be and we spent 1.5 hours on top of a mountain soaking up Fiordland."

Steampunk HQ, Oamaru. Photo / @tomnapper
Steampunk HQ, Oamaru. Photo / @tomnapper

The second lockdown might have been a setback but it allowed Napper to pursue new experiences, such as taking up a last-minute vacancy on a New Zealand's most popular great walk.

"People said you have to book the Milford Track a Year in advance, 'you'll never get on that'."

But, there it was: a spare space for a solo hiker.

Artist Tom Napper has documented his New Zealand Lockdown odyssey in over 200 pictures. Photo / @tomnapper
Artist Tom Napper has documented his New Zealand Lockdown odyssey in over 200 pictures. Photo / @tomnapper

With no immediate plans or fixed address, he was able to follow his own route and discover how much of the country there was yet to see.

"I was a bit peopled out when I went for that hike," he said.

"I went on the Miflord Track for an escape, but then when you sit there with a sketch pad, before you know it you've met every single person by name."

Napper is evangelistic about his watercolour paintings. He would encourage anyone to take it up on their next walk, particularly if you are going solo.

"Painting is a fantastic ice breaker," he says.

Nugget Point, Catlins. Photo / @tomnapper
Nugget Point, Catlins. Photo / @tomnapper

His advice on walking alone is to get to know other hikers, on route or in the huts.

"If you're on your own people tend to check in," he said. "It was nowhere near as difficult as you thought it would be."

The painter says he doesn't intend to go back to living in a city any time soon and is already eyeing up multi-day hikes through the Lake District and Scottish Highlands, when he gets back to the UK.

Cape Reinga, Northland. Photo / @tomnapper
Cape Reinga, Northland. Photo / @tomnapper

"I was starting to get tired of London but I didn't really know what to do next," he says.

"This whole experience has kicked me out of my comfort zone. I've got rid of my flat and my shared studio."

While he's kept in touch with friends and family back in London and Oxfordshire, he knows his Lockdown experience has been very different.

"I've been really impressed with how strong they've all been," but he doesn't regret the decision to come to New Zealand, back in 2020.

"The choice was made for me to not return to lockdown in a tiny central London flat, and have a bit more time to explore a country I've wanted to visit for 20 years."

Earnslaw Burn, Otago. Photo / @tomnapper
Earnslaw Burn, Otago. Photo / @tomnapper

While he has been able to keep up with some work remotely, his work life balance has been much better on the road.

There are now so many pictures he has thought about publishing a book, but that is still far down the line. For now the painting and hiking are hobbies.

Glenorchy Wharf, Wakatipu. Photo / @tomnapper
Glenorchy Wharf, Wakatipu. Photo / @tomnapper

He says his current visa conditions allow him to continue some freelance work for clients back home.

"It says you can carry on with commitments 'as long as your priority is holiday' - which I absolutely love."

"So, I plan to have to have as best time as possible."