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Novice adventure filmmaker Maddy Whittaker (21) has been immersed in the deep south for one year – and what a year it’s been.

She landed a full time job working one month on, two weeks off in remote Southland for the Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Team, based in Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) and Dusky Sound.

Cuddling kakapo . . . Department of Conservation kakapo recovery ranger Maddy Whittaker works on Whenua Ho Island, near Stewart Island, and in Dusky Sound. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/DOC

She also took up filmmaking, after attending a week-long film school at the 2021 New Zealand Mountain Festival in Wanaka.

Then, in January 2022, she broke her leg in three places after she rolled her leg walking on a flat track – a completely undramatic accident that kept her off her feet for nearly four months.

She recently returned to work and is now walking up to 10km again.

“I don’t think the film would have been made if I hadn’t broken my leg,” she laughed during a recent interview.

Ms Whittaker grew up north of Auckland, and had not tramped nor spent much time in the outdoors until she went to Outward Bound at the end of year 12, at the start of 2018.

“Suddenly I felt like I’d found a part of me that I’d been missing my whole life. I threw myself into it aged 17, joining the Otago University Tramping Club, spending every possible moment in the backcountry,” she said.

Ms Whittaker, now a member of the New Zealand Alpine Team, first went to Fiordland in 2019 on the Blake Young Ambassador Programme.

She spent two weeks on Anchor Island in Dusky Sound as a volunteer with the Kakapo Recovery Team, and it revolutionized her thoughts about work.

“I’d always thought it was something that filled in the gap between weekends when I could go climbing.

“Suddenly I saw an alternative – where the line between work and play could be blurred – conservation work!

“I changed my degree to ecology and have since spent time solo trapping on remote Fiordland islands, volunteering with rock wren, doing a masters on kea and now working full time as a field ranger,” she said.

Communing with kakapo . . . Department of Conservation kakapo recovery ranger Maddy Whittaker works on Whenua Ho Island, near Stewart Island, and in Dusky Sound. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/DOC

She spends her “in-between stints” in the Southern Alps, mostly doing mountaineering and trans-alpine trips.

But she has always had a creative side and as a child would draw for up to six hours a day.

“It was quashed eventually by traditional academic subjects and the time they demand, but that creativity was still in there somewhere.

“I started taking photos and videos as a way to record the immense amount of small magic I saw every time I was out and above – the way light catches on ice, the way the wind whittles shapes in the snow, the way forest sparkles in the rain.

“I would collect these small moments and whenever I had a rough day, I could scroll back through my camera roll and be reminded of how incredible life is in every way,” she said.

Collecting thousands of small moments remains her main creative purpose.

“You stand there and look around and have to think and identify exactly what you’re seeing that makes you feel the way you are – whether it’s the colours or the snow texture or the scale or the wind or a combination of all of it. And then you have to try capture these elements,” she said.

Before making her award-winning film Traversing the Night ( a 40-minute exploration of mental challenges faced by a group of 20-something climbers as they traverse from Arthur’s Pass to Fiordland) the only films she had made were trip compilations.

Ms Whittaker did not want to carry 20kg of camera equipment into the wild, so had considered herself an amateur.

“This film school took the approach of introducing us to everything you could do to make a professional-style adventure film. I then took elements of that to help create a better quality film, while still holding onto ‘unprofessional’ elements, such as using a small handheld camera and filming the entire thing myself.

“The course helped me to find a happy medium where I could make the best quality film possible without losing my own creative element and approach,” she said.

Traversing the Night taught her a lot about mental health and not having to pretend to be strong all the time.

“It was a huge job to sort it all out, and work and rework heart, mind and soul until I had a story to tell . . . I think the hardest part of this film was making a story line that felt authentic.

“When I set out to make the film, I thought it would be a story of sharing stoke and our amazing mountains. But so many more emotions became involved – and figuring out how real to be was the biggest challenge. In the end I went with being vulnerable and real.”

When festival director Mark Sedon called her to tell her she had won, she thought he was going to say the film wasn’t suitable because of its emotional element.
“I’m still in disbelief to be honest – I keep waiting for someone to say it’s a mistake and a ‘real’ film maker has actually won.”

Ms Whittaker intends to use her $2500 prize on an ice-climbing expedition to Canada and to buy filmmaking software.