Enchanted Forests and Illuminated Peaks: New Zealand 2019

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It began with the mountains. 

36,000ft high, a wall of snow covered peaks soaring out of the ocean. After travelling over the formless Tasman Sea, clear skies, a fresh dumping of snow and a window seat made for quite the return to the land of the long white cloud.

In Queenstown I reunited with my father of Craig Green Photography fame. After relocating to Melbourne myself, and Craig remaining on the South Coast of NSW, we aim to meet for photography trips as often as possible. Previously we have travelled to Uluru, Western Australia and, for 2019, we decided to meet in the middle—albeit two thousand kilometres to the south east.

Our itinerary had us driving through the night down to Te Anau, Fiordland, but as we soon found to be a reoccurring theme of the trip, our best made plans were but second fiddle to the whims of the light. Upon leaving Queenstown airport, the clear skies brought on a wall of vivid alpenglow on The Remarkables. We pulled over on a nearby hillside to capture our first (of many) mountain photographs of the trip as the the setting sun struck the mountain face, bathing it in crimson—a striking contrast against the deep blue shadows.

Under a tapestry of stars we drove through the night down to the lakeside town of Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland. With grand aspirations of photographing lush forests and majestic streams, the weather and light had other ideas. Overnight a powerful cold front swept in from the Antarctic, bringing with it dense clouds, relentless rain and snow to the high peaks. With the road to Milford Sound closed, we battled the rain to hike along the Kepler Track and were rewarded with forest scapes straight out of Middle Earth’s Fanghorn forest.

Fortunately, when planning the trip we accounted for a degree of unpredictable conditions and set aside unbooked nights throughout the two week adventure. With weather forecast to worsen (and the light to remain dull and shapeless), we opted to cut our loses in Fiordland—for the time being—and made our way for Lindis Pass in the heartland of the South Island.

With golden rolling hills stretching out to the distant peaks of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, this alpine pass occasionally receives a blanket of snow in the depths of winter. Fortunately, the same front that expelled us from Fiordland brought with it a healthy dumping of snow to the alps and the surrounding hills. After capturing The Remarkables again on our way north—this time frozen in snow—we woke early to experience sunrise over Lindis Pass. A blanket of high clouds caught the morning light to provide a vivid backdrop for the rolling hills stretching out before us.

For our next port of call we set aside two days on the West Coast. But, perhaps more specifically, two days to capture Lake Matheson. 

A now iconic tourist trap, thanks largely to Instagram, the lake offers pristine views of Aoraki (Mt Cook) and Mt Tasman—two of New Zealand’s most striking peaks. That is, on a clear day.

I had visited the lake two years before, yet low cloud latched onto the slopes and wouldn’t clear. This time the cloud forecast looked more promising to catch a glimpse of the view. To differentiate my images from the standard snapshot, I had two specific shots (or rather, lighting conditions) in mind. But before the lake, there was the drive through Haast Pass. And what a drive it is.

Threading the needle between Lakes Hawea and Wanaka, we soon left the farmlands behind to make our way through a canopy of dense lush forest of ferns and beech trees. While there were many marked photogenic sites along the pass (Thunder Creek Falls, Fantail Falls and the Blue Pools), our first photo location of the drive was of an unmarked stream that trickled down the hillside, framed by ancient beech trees blanketed in moss.

We made time for many short walks to wander through and experience the forest—walks that resulted in my first ‘this is portfolio worthy’ moment of trip. With a carpet of ferns fanning up out of the undergrowth, an ancient beech stood firm with its arms outstretched to catch the rising sun. While the sun moved in and out of the clouds, the light danced across the forest floor and so I took my time (thanks for waiting, Dad) to capture many a frame of this enchanting scene.

Spending many an hour exploring the pass, we were greeted to snow falling at sea level as we drove up the coast. After making Fox Glacier our west coast basecamp, we woke two hours before dawn to capture some astrophotography at Lake Matheson. Normally we opt to capture the stars after sunset, but with NZ weather pleased to change without warning, we decided to lock in a pre-dawn shoot while the conditions seemed favourable.

Without a breath of air the lake surface was glasslike and offered pristine reflections of the starry sky overhead. We captured some images of the night sky before the subtle glow of dawn began to wash out the stars about 70 minutes before sunrise.

However, little did we know in the wee hours of the morning that it was on sunrise when the main event was to begin. As the sun rose its morning rays struck the mountains to produce a series of soft clouds around the summits—clouds which before long began to light up like fairy floss. Using our 200mm telephoto lenses, we got close to the action and captured the ever-changing show of light against the snow-capped peaks.

With views this good, we couldn’t not return. We arrived again well before sunset and stayed until after the stars came out. This evening the light was in our favour and clear skies allowed the setting sun to strike the peaks, illuminating them in red. The evening’s astrophotography session was just as productive as the morning and the clouds held off—perfect conditions as we shot across the lake.

My fondness for the mountains began on that flight into Queenstown and only continued to grow throughout my time travelling through this real-life Middle Earth. Honing my landscape photography skills on the relatively flat scapes Australia had to offer, a trip through New Zealand (one who’s sole purpose was for photography) was literally like entering another world. I was simply mesmerised by their ever-changing form. Perhaps that’s a curious sentiment towards these timeless formations, yet with each bend of the road and every passing cloud I found they held as much character and emotion as my more familiar seascapes.

Next stop, the mighty Aoraki (Mt Cook)—New Zealand’s tallest mountain. We were fortunate to have made the most of the clear skies at Lake Matheson as the morning we left thick cloud rolled back in and followed us to Aoraki. There the cloud chose to linger, shading the valleys in dull, flat light and often obscuring the summits. Pleasingly we didn’t have to go far to review the conditions, with sweeping views of the Hooker Valley (and Aoraki) from our hotel room at The Hermitage.

On our second morning we made for the Tasman Valley where an opening through the clouds allowed the rising sun to deliver some short lived, yet vibrant colours in the sky. To compose this shot I opted to leave the tripod in the car and shoot handheld—a technique I’m becoming increasingly more fond of. Despite the greater risk of camera shake in low light dawn/dusk scenes, shooting handheld opens up opportunities for vastly stronger compositions. On this morning going handheld enabled me to lean into the flowing river which emphasised the flowing water to make that element much more prominent (and deliberate) in the frame—and not just an addition that feels removed from the scene.

After filling up our SD cards with hundreds of mountain shots, it was time to try our luck and return down to Fiordland for the second time.

In Te Anau we met up with Will Patino for a full day workshop to experience the best forest scapes Fiordland had to offer—a brilliant landscape photographer that Dad and I have drawn much inspiration from over the years. Hailing from Wollongong, Will had (and has) a way of capturing our corner of the world unlike anyone else. Strong compositions, a solid appreciation (and respect) for light and considered processing all contribute to the caliber of his work. His approach to photography and to experiencing locations has given us much inspiration over the years. A few year’s back Will relocated his family to Fiordland and has been exploring its expanse of untouched wilderness ever since.

Despite clear skies overhead, avalanche hazards meant that the road to Milford Sound remained closed. While the line of cars and tour buses from Queenstown remained queued back for a kilometre waiting for the park gate to open, we ventured down into the Hollyford valley. Here Will’s local knowledge proved invaluable as we explored unmarked streams and ventured deep into the forest. While the recent weather prevented us from venturing into Milford, it did bring with it a dumping of rain which fuelled a number of streams that snaked their way down the valley.

Will shared his approach for shooting handheld (even in the dimly lit forest) and so Dad & I left out tripods in the car as we trekked through the forest. Shooting without the weight of a tripod (both literal and metaphorical) allowed me to work more considered, striking compositions. The freedom sped up my shot taking process, enabling me to capture a greater variety of angles and scenes.

As the sun fell we drove to the Te Anau Airfield where me met Sean, a local pilot from Te Anau. In a snug four seater Cessna, Sean guided us west out towards Doubtful Sound—Milford’s often neglected sibling. With the sun setting, Will guided us over the peaks, taking us higher and lower and often circling back to get a second pass at the best views. After an hour in the air it was time to return to the airfield—with the open window, the outside air was a fresh -8c, and so my bare hands were grateful. The flight was over in a flash, but thankfully I took hundreds of photos to help me relive that moment again and again.

Our final destination of the trip was Wanaka—a common basecamp for many travelling skiers in the region. Yet like how the trip began in Te Anau, nature had different ideas to our planned itinerary. We had intended to hike along the Rob Roy Glacier track, yet recent landslides put an end to that idea. Instead, we opted to retrace our path back towards Haast to explore the forest one last time.

As we approached the pass after dawn, the cloud began to close in around us. First fog, then rain, and then, as we gained in elevation, flakes of snow began to drift down. Before long a total flurry of snow fell around us, coating the slopes of beech in a dusting of white. We made many a stop to capture the winter wonderland forming around us, using a slower shutter speed to create some motion blur in the falling snow.

The day’s theme of winter wonderland continued as we drove through the narrowing Mt Aspiring National Park in the afternoon. The prevailing thick cloud began to lift on sunset to reveal the surrounding summits. We explored up the snow-coated valley, over the unsealed (i.e. slush) road where I took what was another personal favourite shot of the trip as a gap in the clouds illuminated the jagged range of Mt Aspiring National Park.

And like that, the trip was almost at end. Almost. 

But, as was the running theme of the trip, New Zealand had one final special moment in store for us. On the evening before our flight out of Queenstown, we made our way down to the shores of Lake Wakatipu where we lined up a view of The Remarkables. Then, we simply waited for the sun to set. Then a show of light began to play before us on the slopes. The setting sun lit up the peaks, while above patches of lingering clouds caught the fading light. A fitting end to our two weeks roaming amongst the land of the long white cloud. 

It seems that my love affair with New Zealand has only gotten started. Sorry, Ivy.

Flying out of Queenstown, soaring over the jagged peaks, the adventure may have ended with the mountains, but not all of me left on that plane. My heart remains among those snow capped peaks. And to those peaks I will return.