15 Days in New Zealand Sound Great to you?
It's the middle of winter and most people tend to escape Australia adventure bound to the tropics (if not at least on an alpine get away because that would make sense, right?) but what about touring one of the most beautiful and diverse countries during one of coldest and wettest climates in a camper van?
For the last couple of years I have been heading off to New Zealand during the cooler months to explore this outstanding group of islands with their diverse landscapes. The wonderful landscapes along with dramatic weather patterns combine for some amazing photography and my plan was, at its core, a simple one. Hire a van, drive around, see things, photograph lots, and enjoy my surroundings.
While it was a simple plan, I can't say it was honestly my best one. From the outset I was driving for a good portion of the day, and not really sure where I was going or what there was to see and do on the way. I guess if I had all the time in the world and was properly doing the "Van Life" then it would have made things easier, but I had 10 days to do a circuit and have the van back in Christchurch and the only thing I really knew I wanted to do was Nugget Point on the 12th of the month for some astrophotography.
I spent a good portion of my first day just driving south, so I pulled into a car park near the Port, and began to really think about what I was doing. I was so focused on driving south that I had forgotten two really important things. One: to stop and take a look around; Two: where the hell do I find a campsite? Luckily for me I quickly discovered the best app known to humankind for people touring, van-lifers, or even hikers; "Campermate".
Campermate has so many great resources, from fuel to things to do, walking tracks, public loos, and dump points. You can even leave your own comments on your experience, a little like tripadvisor, so you can quickly get an idea if it's something you might enjoy. It's totally free, and even works offline.
Day two had arrived and after a quick walk and shoot on St. Andrews beach it was time to hit the road again. Today was the 12th and I had my astro plan... although mother nature seemed to have her own plan in mind which would trump mine. After spending most of the day on the road (to travel what might seem like a relatively short distance by Australian mainland standards) I'd arrived at Nugget Point. The drive reminded me very much of an east coast or west coast drive in Tasmania where just a hundred kilometers can take several hours.
Nugget Point which is quite a picturesque place, and quite popular with local and tourists alike for its views and perspectives. It hosts a beautiful outcrop of rocks that are beaten daily by the southern ocean and a lighthouse out the edge of the point. It's certainly a well photographed location and I had pre-planned to be there on this date so that I could attempt a photograph with the Milky Way and the lighthouse all in one. All the planning in the world means nothing to mother nature and she had her heart set on bringing in a large southerly front that was set to bring through some nasty winds, and most likely some snow. This meant I when I arrived I had nothing but dark clouds and high winds, but it was far from a lost opportunity and I found the walk to the lighthouse quite beautiful. As I walked I could hear the noises of some penguins below me which I found to be fascinating. I couldn't really see them all that well so I cracked out my Tamron 150-600mm so I could get a better look. It's a strange feeling seeing an animal for the first time, even better when it's in real life and in it's own natural habitat. it is no wonder Sir David Attenborough love this stuff. Nugget point was proving to be such a beautiful spot it was really blowing me away and not just from the 30 knots of wind either. I had hoped the skies would clear, but after a couple of hours of just absorbing the place I knew it was time to give up on that plan and find a rest spot for the night.
The next few days would have me making my way through just a brief part of the Catlins park sticking mostly to the tourist routes, there many spots I would like to have ventured to but being alone in a 2wd van with poor phone reception with bad weather forecast didn't seem like a wise idea so I stuck for the most part to the tourist routes. The one really nice thing about the abundance of rain and snow is that all the waterfalls in the Otago region were flowing in full force, while it does make for a wonderful sight it can be a real challenge to photograph. Most tourist would spend just a few minutes maybe ten or fifteen grabbing some quick photos on their mobiles phones I would spend nearly 2-2.5 hours at each little spot trying to photograph all this beauty. Time often ran away with me, and in this region of the country at this time of year daylight is a rare commodity.
It was in the Otago region that I found my favourite campsite of the trip, it was a little bit off the main road but it facing the east and sheltered for the most part from the southerly winds that were coming through. I shared the site with just one other soul who was camping out of her Hilux ute (Hard Core). A beautiful cliff wall had my became the focus of my view, and in the foreground were sea lions lazing around on the beach... yup I was sharing this beautiful spot with sea lions. I'm certain during summer this would be a very popular spot, it must be because someone has actually brought a couch along at some point. Don't mind if I do thank you very much. What a view...
In the morning the weather was still overcast, and quite chilly but it was time to make my way through the middle of Southland and head for Wanaka for the night. This was going to be a little bit of a long drive, but what made it even longer was the abundance of beautiful fog littered over all the field and lake areas. I must have driven less than an hour before I started pulling over and shooting away at these amazing scenes. I was worse than an adrenaline junkie chasing the next big rush. I would hop in and out of the van all morning snapping so much that my trigger finger was starting to get RSI. If I kept this up I wouldn't make Wanaka by Christmas let alone night fall. So I gave myself the morning to capture what on the way and the afternoon would be spent just driving an admiring.
I arrived in Wanaka eventually found myself a nice little campsite at the end of town with nice warm showers and power. Finally I could charge my batteries. The biggest issue I had all trip was indeed power, the van itself didn't have a 240 volt conversion system so the power points would only work when I was a caravan site hooked into the mains. The night was starting to prove positive in terms of astro so I headed down to "The Tree".
The last time I was here I swore to myself that I wouldn't shoot it as it is so well photographed it has to be probably the single most photographed tree in all of New Zealand, but tonight was a chance for some astro, and I needed something to shoot... so "The Wanaka Tree" it was. Quite fortunate really as I ended up meeting two very talented photographers by the names of Larryn Rae (an Auckland based photographer) and Chris Darbyshire (a Brisbane based photographer). We had been chatting for a little while when another photographer had arrived who happened to ask us if we have had any luck photographing in New Zealand as they has been struggling to find any great photos. I don't ever really like to judge people, but that is one question I had never expected to hear from anyone while in this country as you could take a photo with the camera out of focus and ona phone and it would still be awesome.
My next few days and night would be spent heading north via the west coast. I was keen to revisit the blue pools again this year as it was still raining so it was certainly going to have way more atmosphere, and this leg of the trip again had loads of interesting waterfalls and viewpoints to stop at and just allow you to soak in the views. I spent an afternoon and night just pulled over by the side of the road so I could enjoy the view of a lake and maybe even see some stars away from the towns. I really was such a nice afternoon I got to spend it just enjoying the scenery with a cuppa tea and biscuits while later on that night I would be star gazing.
I woke up rather peacefully to the tapping of rain on the roof of the van, in a strange way it was rather hypnotic but as wet as it was it was probably one of the nicest starts to any of my days that I had, I had driven all of about twenty minutes and pulled up at the blue pools car park and decided to have nice cuppa tea as I got my gear ready for my walk along the relatively short trail. Some other roadtrippers were doing something similar but they had to get out of their cars/vans put the boot up to get to their stove while I enjoyed the nice warm comforts of my van out of the rain. Ahhhh It's the simple things....
The day of the blue pools had to be the wettest day so far, which was great for waterfalls but hard on my gear. It was nice to be walking in the rain forests the smells reminded me very much of home and growing up in my Cub days walking up Mount Wellington. The suspension bridge over the pools is again one of those well photographed places but it's a challenge all the same. The bridge is small, and it's difficult to set up on the tripod, i can't imagine you'd get away with a long exposure during summer with everyone walking all over it indeed even during winter especially then with all that rain. I kept the shutter speed as long as I could without using any filters and while keeping very still on a suspension bridge, in the rain... yeah this was a test of patience and stillness.
By early afternoon I had stopped off at Fantail falls and Gates of Haast and things were beginning to take their toll on both my gear and on me. The walks were not hard by any means, but the relentless rain had me soaked to the core, and my gear was starting to play up and not respond. At one point I thought I was going to have to dry everything with the old rice trick, but I was ready for a break. I decided Fox Glacier would be my next stop, I knew there was a caravan site there I could charge up at, grab a warm shower and relax for the night. That night I was probably at my lowest point of the trip just exhausted, and somewhat lonely as well as my days were often missing human contact. I cheered myself up with a nice steak and veg, few glasses of red and some chocolate. I sat back it the van and went over some of my photos for the day on my laptop, and drifted off at some point.
A fresh new morning, the sun was kind of out, and the rain has stopped... thank you mother nature!!! Well seeing as I am here at Fox I may as well take a look see. I drove a few miles out of town to the view stop out near the lake. The Caravan park owner had told me that was quite an amazing spot to shoot from, he also told me there was a glow tunnel tour the night before but someone fell asleep half drunk on red wine and loaded up with steak and chocolate. The gentleman had shown me a few of his shots and wow I was in awe and now keen as mustard to get my own shots. Now it's quite the misnomer that wide angle lenses are "landscape" lenses when in places like New Zealand the opposite is almost true. My Tamron 150-600mm and 70-200mm spent as long on the Canon 6D as the 15-30mm so far this trip, no wonder really when what I wanted to see was usually several miles away, and the best way to condense all that in is with a long lens. Take the shots above for example, the first of which was shot with the 70-200 which allowed me to get a little foreground in and bring the mountains closer if I had tried that with the wide angle the mountains and glacier would look so small and in the distance you would hardly notice their overall size.
I was feeling a little refreshed that morning, pleased with the capture for the day I thought to myself I would just enjoy the drive today rather than photo hunt. this allowed me to stop and absorb some beautiful spots along the west coast, but it also showed me I need more time to really explore, one day I'll do it ever several months rather than just a few days.
By days end I would be heading through Arthurs pass which might seem easy enough until of course you're a driver that gets vertigo standing on the 5 metre board at the local swimming pool let alone up a steep mountain pass. This would was certainly be an impressive part of the journey, I could see waterfalls everywhere off the mountain walls with all the snow that was melting down. Trying to focus on the road was a constant struggle because I was constantly being distracted by all this wonderful and natural beauty. Eventually I made it to the top and pulled into a little view spot called "Otira Viaduct Lookout". While Looking back over the valley I got to thinking how tough the transport people must have it in these parts especially when the snow sets in. Places like Fox Glacier would get cut off from road freight regularly during winter.
As I drove though Arthurs Pass I began to see snow more and more often by the roadside, and I decided to get a little cocky and ventured down a little snow ridden track to a campsite, I jumped out of the van and was thrilled to be in amongst the snow... this must be how Canadians feel when the visit they see an Australian beach. It brings a smile to my face every time I see this cold white substance, I feel like a kid in a playground and it always amazes me when I see photographers that camp out in the snow, and shoot at night. I knew that I wasn't experienced enough to try something like that at this stage so I would turn around and head back to the main road as more snow was forecast for overnight and I didn't need to be trapped in a van, albeit the highway was about 500m away, better to be nearer the road I thought. This was about the point where I got stuck... yeah, this is why I do trust myself to snow camp. Eventually I managed to to free the van and was certain roadside was perfect for me.
As the heart and mind had their exercise for the day I thought perhaps it was time for the legs to do some as well and headed up to the Devil Punch Bowl waterfall. The walk in was interesting to say the least as I had quite a bit of gear in my pack and still wasn't used to walking on snow but finally I reached my epic location, but the photographic position was just a struggle so I ended getting off the track a little and headed down the river a little ways to try a few other compositions instead. I have to be honest my creativity this day was probably still in the van, because I wasn't feeling it behind the camera so again I really resigned myself to just enjoying the scene... but as I look back now I am almost glad I had the rest as the next day would prove to be one hell of a day of photography.
You may have heard of Castle Hill before, I'd only seen it once or twice in people's instagram feeds but thought it would be an interesting place to shoot. I was passing through in the early morning and roads were all fogged in. This really should have been a good indication of what was to come. After pulling into Castle hill and parking I set off down the short trail, not really knowing what to expect I started to see the large dark shapes for in the fog... actually quite daunting.
I was so amazed by this location so much I spent almost 90% of my day there and indeed half the the night. Photographically this area proved to be one of the most exiting of the trip. Snow, fog, and astro and what looked to be quite a nice sunset just to add to the list of reasons I just loved this spot. Castle hill did quite touristy by the the middle of the day, and it was rather amusing watching everyone fall over on their butts in the now packed down snow. The skies were actually looking pretty good for the evening so I decided it would be awesome to try for an astro shot while I was there. So I stuck around for sunset which was nice, but then ALL those stars came out... some really really nice dark skies!
After Castle hill it was time for a few logistics back in Christchurch but then I was immediately heading to Queenstown as there was really bad weather forecast for Christchurch, so bad it flooded the very next day. My plan for Queenstown was just to lay up in a caravan park for a few days and just stick mostly to town with a few little excursions around the place and enjoy some nice food an wine as well I wanted to catch up with my old mate from Perth named Alex who was working as a boat driver for one of the local tour companies, and to catch up with local photographer Jordan McInally (Undersoul Photography) who I had been a big fan of for some time.
After a day trip to Glenorchy I spent the afternoon with Jordan climbing up Queenstown hill (900m) which proved to be quite brilliant vantage point for our long lenses once again. The views really were something else and the skies were so good that I thought we might even get some astro in but the local conditions turned quite quickly so that cut that location our very quickly but being the good local he is Jordan showed me to another place called Lake Moke where we set off for a night of astro. I can't tell you how good it felt to be out shooting again with someone else, let alone with this little legend. I do mean legend, we even had another set of photographers approach us who said g'day by saying "Hey aren't you???" Well Jordo, you're famous mate.
Queenstown is certainly a tourist town and especially at that time of the year when the ski slopes are in full swing. I had thought about trying my hand at the slopes but I had no intention of doing that alone, that is one of those things that is way more fun when you have someone with you to point a laugh at one another and Alex who I can always rely on to point and laugh was going to be busy working while I was in Queenstown. I was Ok with just walking around though, it was a nice change from driving all day, and it gave me an opportunity to try out "Furburger" which I am still not sure what the fuss is about. Alex did get me on out on one of his jet boats for a ride down the Kawarau river which was a great deal of fun, and I saw a side of my mate that I hadn't actually seen before... He was actually a wealth of knowledge and entertaining on his tour. We ended the day with a few beers and dinner which was a great round out for my trip to be honest. So it was time to leave New Zealand once again I headed down to the lake and pulled up for a couple of hours and made myself a brew, soaked in the last of the atmosphere, and grabbed a few last minute photos and it would be time to jump on the plane and head home...
I can honestly say I'd do it differently next time, but by the same token I don't think I would have changed any part of trip. It was just 15 days but those few days had changed me. It made me realise a lot of things, helped me let go of a lot of my past and gave me some more direction for the future. But next time I'll have a co-pilot I think.
I do want to say a big thanks to Alex for the Jetboat experience, if you're in town definitely go and see the guys and girls at Thunder Jet, also a big thanks to Laz and Jordo for helping out and keeping me company on my shoots.
If you want to check out the landscape photos in higher resolution they will be available just below.
Until next time!