Local writer and festival advocate Jo Mills gives us a sweet glimpse into the history of the festival and all the goodness it brings to the region of Wānaka.
Once upon a time there was a small, rural town, a home to long-time locals and a service stop for the high country stations all around. This southern haven became a bolthole for lovers of the outdoors as word spread of the treasure troves of adventuring to be found just a hacky-sack’s kick away and the tight-knit community of like-minded mountaineers, climbers and good-timers who were making Wānaka their home.
Locals from this era talk mistily of the good old days, when Barrows (the local pub) was the town’s hot-spot where shepherds rubbed shoulders with tradies, snow-bunnies swapped stories with dyed-in-the-wool locals and where everyone knew your name, and your etched beer glass awaited your arrival.
The town is now larger and interests more diverse but the inclusive culture and community remains. The next generation of adventurers continues to flock to the region, eager to access the alpine playground on Wānaka’s doorstep.
It’s only fitting that the New Zealand Mountain Film and Book Festival was born in this environment, growing from a small, grass-roots event to NZ’s pre-eminent adventure film festival. Given life by a leading light of the mountaineering world, Mark Sedon, and his go-getter wife, Jo, the event began in 2002 as the Wānaka Slide Festival. When a speaker’s flight was delayed, fellow mountaineer Guy Cotter loaned Mark a DVD to play instead. Call it fate, call it serendipity; either way, this moment would redefine the fledgling event as a film festival, bringing thrilling tales from New Zealand and around the world to the southern alps.
It didn’t take long for word to get out about the festival and international speakers willingly packed their bags to join the New Zealand Mountain Film Festival (as it had become). Climbing legends Alex Honnold and Kitty Calhoun; big mountain skier Chris Davenport and Amazon rafter, Ben Kozel, have all journeyed south for the event. The calibre of speakers is a testament to the reputation that the festival has earned in an incredibly short space of time and to the magnetic pull of Wānaka…
And the films? First ski descents of K2; a near-blind climber in Scotland; year-round adventuring on Baffin Island: over the course of a few days, the world becomes that little bit smaller as festival-goers attend inspiring and often gobsmacking sessions of humans testing themselves in frequently stunning (and terrifying!) locations.
Even more celebrated are the homegrown heroes: NZ’s world class skiers taking on the backcountry; climbers hunting out moa bones in caves in the Southern Alps, canoers journeying down the majestic Whanganui River. There’s always been a truly inspirational and aspirational vibe to the festival, leaving you with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, there’s an adventure awaiting you, just around the corner….
Many of the films have an environmental focus, reinforcing the importance of looking after the planet in the world of adventuring. The festival is a leader in this sphere with zero waste and carbon neutral policies throughout. Festival-goers are encouraged to bring their own cups (which will earn you a free tea or coffee!), there is hot composting for food waste and all travel is both offset through official carbon offsetting schemes and through local native regenerative nursery Te Kākano.
If the story of the outdoors world of Wānaka could be told in festival form, you’d be hard pushed to find one that tells it better than the New Zealand Mountain Film & Book Festival. Like the town itself, it has grown from modest roots to punching well above its weight on an international stage while retaining a truly and distinctively southern vibe.