exactly what i did in south island back in 2011, but he takes better photos
A Visual Adventure Through the South Island of New Zealand
I am not a smart man. I’ve lived in New Zealand – the most beautiful place on Earth – for 16 years without once stepping foot off its North Island. The first time I did was to watch Google launch its balloon-powered internet science experiment in June this year. Those brief few days in the South Island were enough to hook me in.
Ten days. That’s how long I had to explore the South Island – not enough by any measure. I doubt you’ll be able to see everything that this stretch of land has to offer even in a life time, but I tried my best to see as much as I could.
My trip started in Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand, wound through Arthur’s Pass (aka Riders of Rohan Country), before hitting the West Coast past Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier, down to Wanaka, Queenstown, Te Anau, up to Milford Sound – back through Te Anau, Queenstown, then Lake Tekapo before hoofing it back to Christchurch for my flight back to Auckland.
More than 2000 kms, over 4,000 photos and around 30 keepers.
Reach Skyward – Southern Alps
The first settlers of the country, the Maori, call New Zealand “Aotearoa” which means ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’. Most of my way around the South Island I fought storm clouds on the horizon which never seemed to eventuate into actual storms. Such teases.
Powered – Arthur’s Pass
This wasn’t the first photo I stopped to take, but the first that warrants any attention. The same SD card is full of rather generic-looking countryside pictures packed full of cattle and sheep from the Canterbury plains. It’s rather amusing looking back and being visually impressed by flocks of sheep on rolling hills – this would all soon change.
SUV Commercial Location, Perhaps? – Arthur’s Pass
A New Day – Lake Mapourika
The trip through Arthur’s Pass took much longer than I anticipated. All my darn touristing had eaten away at the short Winter daylight and it was getting dark long before I was near Fox Glacier. Getting sleepy and angsty that some forest monster might eat my car, I pulled into the first campground I could find. It was a pitch dark Department of Conservation ground that was unmanned (meaning free). There were several campers pulled up into the parking spots and a lovely British couple showed me how to use my camping stove. In the morning I woke up and realised I parked next to a lake. A lovely kind of accident, really.
Fox Glacier was an amazing adventure. As a computer-bound body it was an absolute shock to my system to hike through glacial ice in the middle of Winter. Unfortunately, I dropped the SD card with my Fox photos on the side of the road and couldn’t find it again. Easy come, easy go.
The Fairy Path / Through the Branches – Lake Matheson
By my skilled obvservations, I have determined the walking track around Lake Matheson was transported through time and space from some magical elsewhere dimension. I will be publishing my research paper to Nature, shortly.
Emotional photographer is emotional – Lake Matheson
My emotions got the better of me at this point. It’s been a turbulent few weeks, full of hard-fought grownup decisions. However, it all felt so small and insignificant compared to the crystal clear reflection of Mt Cook. It’s hard to feel down when you’re surrounding by things striving for up.
The Dudes – Lake Matheson
Even in the middle of the bush, my street photography instincts wouldn’t leave me. I kept awkwardly bumping into these two guys as I made my way around Lake Matheson. Eventually I kicked up a conversation – yay for being social. "How do you two know each other?""I’m from Wellington. We met in California. He’s visiting." (Asian dude to the black dude)"Cool, well I’ll see you around." Two minutes later, bump into them again – "Oh, hello – we’ve got to stop meeting like this…"
Hex – Lake Matheson
Light, Shadow and the Absolute Edge – Mt Cook from Lake Matheson
I’m not a landscape photographer. Before this trip I didn’t even own a wide angle prime. It’s been a lot of trial and error but I think I started getting the hang of things by day three. Then again, it’s hard not to take away a few decent shots in a place like this. The photo above is where I saw my technique improve. I knew the effect I wanted, the look I was going for and the setting needed to achieve it all – and snapped away. I’ve always suffered from Impostor Syndrome– the feeling that you’re not qualified to be doing what you’re doing. I don’t have any formal training in … anything. Everything has been self-taught with the help of faceless internet strangers. After this trip, I don’t feel like as much of an impostor. Baby steps.
New Zealand Scenic Postcard #308 – Between Wanaka and Queenstown
Boardwalk – Queenstown
Queenstown and Wanaka were completely different beasts to the rest of my South Island adventure. I barely saw a soul between Christchurch and Wanaka, then I found out where all the tourists were hiding. It’s the end of ski season (or the beginning, I don’t understand skiing) and the two townships act as bases for the hordes of snow junkies from around the world. They’re a friendly bunch though and easily impressed by pretty pictures of New Zealand landscapes ;) .
Queenstown is where I took what’s possibly my favourite photo, ever. I caught this man while he was setting up the standup piano he’s playing in the photo. At first I asked him if he was a professional piano tuner, fixing up an old public piano like the one in Wynyard Quarter, Auckland. He seemed confused and in a thick French (?) accent said he wasn’t “a professional of any kind”. As I walked away he opened his suitcase, sat down and started playing an incredibly beautiful set which perfectly complimented the scenery we were surrounded by. I didn’t have $20 for an album, but he got all the change in my pocket.
Assorted Treasure – Between Queenstown and Te Anau
I was glad to leave the crowds of people in Queenstown. They were fun, sure, but they totally harshed on my South Island vibe. On one of the many lakesides which look like it was used in The Lord of the Rings, I searched for ponamu – or greenstone. It’s a very beautiful semi-precious stone, which is translucent and used in Maori jewellery. It’s illegal to take ponamu unless you’re a member of the local iwi (Maori tribe), but I’m sure no one would miss a fleck of the stuff. I didn’t find any, but there’s pleasure to be had in the hunt.
According to my very enthusiastic Te Anau local guide Jared (of the excellent Trips & Tramps company), Lake Te Anau is the largest body of drinkable fresh water in the Southern Hemisphere. Jared was a terrific tour guide, telling us local lore and explaining local ecology and geology – however I took the latter stories with a pinch of salt. Jared says he often swims in the lake and if he gets thirsty he just drinks the water he’s swimming in – I believe that’s called drowning.
The road between Te Anau and Milford sound is beautiful, but deceptively dangerous. I lucked out and didn’t need snow chains at all during my South Island trip, but it’s not an uncommon occurrence on these frozen and wet roads. I’m glad I took up the guided option for this leg of the journey – it’s full of sharp narrow turns and rockslide dangers. Also it turns out the road closes at 5pm every day, something I didn’t know and could’ve left me stranded in Milford overnight. It’s not the worst place to be stuck in and the locals often get cut off for weeks at a time, I think I could harden up and stand an overnighter.
I felt like a real life pirate sailing around Milford Sound. Being here in Winter, there aren’t throngs of tourists to compete with for a good spot on deck. I parked myself on the starboard side near the front and didn’t go inside for the whole two hour trip. I was cold, numb and mild hypothermic by the end – but it was worth it.
Dolphins: the showboating, serial killers of the sea. Riding along a pressure wave on the bow of the boat, no doubt conserving their energy to murder us when we’re least suspecting.
Blubber – Milford Sound
Milford Sound was originally discovered by a Welsh sealer who named it after his hometown Milford Haven. I doubt the locals would look too kindly upon sealers nowadays though.
Tekapo Blue – Lake Tekapo
Monk’s View – Church of the Good Shepard, Lake Tekapo
The last few nights of exploration was in Tekapo. There’s so little light pollution here that it’s been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve. You can see the Milky Way with your naked eye out here.