Best View: Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park and Hooker Valley from Sealy Tarns – the climb up 2200 steps was worth it! And the cheeky, playful kea hanging around were a lot of fun, even though one did managed to put a small hole in my camera bag when I turned my back for too long.
Favourite Town: I’ve always been in love with Wanaka, but I usually visit in mid-winter. Visiting the town in autumn blew my mind. The golden hues of the autumn leaves against a backdrop of a blue sky was phenomenal.
Highlights: There are too many highlights to list, so I’ll share some from a photography experience:
- Best Reflections: Lake Matheson, on a perfectly still and slightly misty morning
- Best Waterfall: Purakaunui Falls, a delicate but multi-tiered waterfall
- Best Sunrise: a magnificent, burning display at Moeraki Boulders
- Best Drive: the drive over Lindis Pass through Central Otago will always be a favourite
- Hidden Gem: Lake Moeraki on the West Coast – a beautiful find for a sunset!
Overall Favourite Moment: Hands down the most amazing thing that happened on our trip was photographing Aurora Australis at Moke Lake in Queenstown. The glow and proton arcs were so strong the aurora was visible to the naked eye and the buzz from other photographers there was electric. Definitely a photography experience I will never forget.
DAY BY DAY
Day 1: Queenstown to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park (distance: 260km)
We arrived in Queenstown and picked up our Deuce 2-bed Mighty Camper from the airport depot with little hassle. After stocking up with some fresh supplies in Frankton, we got straight on the road to Mt Cook. We were barely out of Queenstown before the glorious autumn colours on the Kawerau River stopped us and forced us to get our camera gear out. After that we made the drive over Lindis Pass and on through Omarama. Sunset that night was photographed at Lake Ruataniwha, where soft light and beautiful clouds was a nice backdrop for the red and yellow trees.
|Autumn on Kawerau River|
|Lake Ruataniwha Autumn Colours|
Day 2: Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park (non-driving day)
Alarms were set for 3:30am, and we got up and dressed warmly for a one and a half hour hike up the Hooker Valley. Our goal was to photograph some stars at Hooker Lake, followed by sunrise there. The morning was lovely and still and the lake was reflecting the mountains beautifully. After sunrise we walked back to the van, where I confess we had a short nap before the afternoon activities! In the late afternoon Kris and I split up for sunset – she hiked up to Red Tarns and McNulty’s Tarns and I hiked up to Sealy Tarns. Sealy Tarns is a challenging but doable walk, about one and a half hours and 2,200 steps. The view out over the valley is mind-blowing though.
|Milky Way Over Hooker Valley|
|Hooker Lake Sunrise, Mt Cook|
|Mt Cook Reflecting in an Alpine Tarn|
|View over Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park|
|Sunset over Mt Cook and Sealy Tarns|
Day 3: Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park to Moke Lake in Queenstown (distance: 280km)
We again got up early and had a shorter hike to Tasman Lake for sunrise. Unfortunately a slight breeze and no clouds at sunrise made for challenging photography conditions. After sunrise we had coffee in the warm sunshine in Mt Cook Village, while we let our batteries have some charging time in the café! We then got on the road, headed for Moke Lake in Queenstown. Word on the street was that the aurora forecast was pretty good that night, and we were keen to see what we could catch! A short stop at Lake Ruataniwha to check out the beautiful autumn colours again, and then onwards to Queenstown. We set up our we camper at Moke Lake and had dinner, waiting for it to get dark enough. When we started taking photographs at about 8pm, we could see the glow of the aurora on our screens. The aurora just got stronger and stronger, until it was visible with the naked eye. There were a lot of photographers out catching the display, and the excitement amongst everyone was evident. It’s a night I won’t soon forget.
|Lake Ruataniwha Autumn|
|Serene Sunset at Moke Lake|
|Moke Lake Aurora|
Day 4: Moke Lake Queenstown to Fox Glacier, via Glenorchy (distance: 420km)
After sunrise at Moke Lake, we headed to Glenorchy for some breakfast and battery charging time, and some analysis of the weather forecast. The forecast was starting to look a bit dicey, so despite it being a very long drive, we decided to head over to the West Coast, with the goal of photographing Lake Matheson at sunrise. The drive is stunningly beautiful, but takes longer than Google Maps would let you believe. The day was grey with low hanging mist, which looked lovely driving through Haast Pass. We stopped at Lake Moeraki for sunset before continuing on to Fox Glacier Township. We stayed the night at Fox Glacier Top 10 ($51 for two people and camper). After heading out to take photos of the Milky Way over a tiny West Coast church, running the heater that night was very welcome!
|Sunrise at Moke Lake|
|Sunset at Lake Moeraki, West Coast|
Day 5: Fox Glacier to Wanaka (distance: 265km)
Another very early start, with a short hike to the viewing platform at Lake Matheson. We had some lovely pre-dawn mist before the morning cleared up to a stunning blue sky day. We were stunned to see so many photographers out for sunrise, with about 12 on the small viewing platform! After some time at the Lake we got back on the road, destined for Wanaka. We had several short stops up the West Coast, including some exploring in some secret slot canyons through Haast Pass. We arrived late in Wanaka, and quickly headed to the lake front to catch some stars, but found the evening clouded over. We stayed at Wanaka Lake View Holiday Park ($40 for two people and camper).
|Sunrise at Lake Matheson|
|Early Morning Lake Matheson Views|
|Haast Pass Slot Canyon|
Day 6: Wanaka to Nugget Point (distance: 385km)
Sunrise on the Lake Wanaka waterfront was beautiful. The autumn colours around Wanaka were in full-display, and the contrast of the gold and blues was stunning. After sunrise we got on the road again, and headed for Dunedin/The Catlins. We stopped for a short while to photograph yet another lake and autumn colours in Alexandra, and then sunset was at Tunnel Beach in Dunedin. It’s quite a steep track down to the beach (coming back up it is tough!) but the coastline there is beautiful. Unfortunately we had quite a grey evening, so there was no nice colour at sunset. After sunset we headed further south to Nugget Point Lighthouse. Our hopes for some good astrophotography were again dashed by low cloud.
|Autumn at That Wanaka Tree, Lake Wanaka|
|Golden Light, Lake Wanaka|
|The Track to Tunnel Beach|
|Waves at Tunnel Beach, Dunedin|
Day 7: Nugget Point to Moeraki, via Catlins Coast (distance: 340km)
Sunrise at Nugget Point Lighthouse was incredibly intense and beautiful, though a low sea fog rolling past thwarted our attempts at photographing it. Although it was heartbreaking, sometimes you just have to realise you can’t control the weather and to just enjoy the display anyway. We then headed down to check out some of the waterfalls in the Catlins region before another attempt at sunset at Nugget Point. After sunset we got back on the road and made for Moeraki.
|Nugget Point Sunrise|
|Purakaunui Falls, Catlins|
Day 8: Moeraki to Queenstown (distance: 280km)
We were up early and down to the beach for sunrise at Moeraki Boulders. We had one of the most beautiful sunrises I can remember – a fiery display of orange and yellow clouds. Definitely a sunrise to remember! We were then quickly back on the road, with a short stop in Arrowtown to wander the river and take in the stunning autumn colours there. At this point I dropped my travel companion Kris to Queenstown Airport. She had to return to her real world in Northland, whilst I was staying on for a few more days. That night I took in sunset on the Queenstown lake front and then stayed at Queenstown Lake View Holiday Park ($30 for one person and camper).
|Sunrise at Moeraki Boulders|
|A Broken Moeraki Boulder at Sunrise|
|Old House, Arrowtown Autumn|
Day 9: Queenstown to Tekapo, via Mt Cook (distance: 360km)
Day 9 dawned grey and miserable, so after some analysis of weather forecasts, I decided to head north again. My goal was to photograph the Milky Way at Church of the Good Shepherd in Lake Tekapo. It was a beautiful sunny day driving through the region again. I headed up the road partially to Mt Cook, and photographed a stunning pink sunset, before driving on to Lake Tekapo. Knowing that the best time to photograph the stars was around 2am, I drove out to a picnic area where I could freedom camp, and caught a few hours sleep. Up at 1:30am again and into town to take some photos. The skies were beautifully clear and the photography was worth the frozen toes.
|Fields of Gold, Omarama, MacKenzie Basin|
|Mt Cook Sunset|
|Milky Way Over Church of the Good Shepherd|
Day 10: Tekapo to Queenstown, via Mt Cook & Wanaka (distance: 325km)
I caught sunrise at Peter’s Lookout, and watched soft pink skies light up over Mt Cook. By this stage of the trip I was starting to feel a bit worn out, so it was a slow drive back to Queenstown, via Wanaka. I had coffee on the Wanaka Lake Front again, and was surprised to see that most of the autumn leaves had blown away since our visit just a few days earlier! I took in sunset at Jack’s Point in Queenstown, and then parked up by Lake Hayes for an early night.
|Sunrise at Mt Cook, from Peter's Lookout|
|Autumn Roads and Mountains, Twizel|
|Jack's Point Sunset|
Day 11: Queenstown (non-driving day)
The day dawned with heavy rain, low cloud and wild winds, so I did the best I could think of: I snuggled lower under the blankets and had a good, long sleep in. Around lunchtime I dropped the camper back to the depot (the Express Return Pack made it super simple and fast!) and headed to the airport to return to Wellington.
Overall a pretty exhausting trip, and I am still climbing Mount Edit, but hope you enjoyed this selection of photos.
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