A Month in New Zealand - Part I

Kia ora! For the month of April, I unplugged from the world by hopping a plane to New Zealand armed with little more than my Sony A7R II and the Zeiss Loxia 50. What unfolded was a journey across some of the most amazing lands I have ever set eyes on, along with the meeting some of the most kind people on the planet. New Zealand is truly a magical place and I can see why Jackson chose it for Lord of the Rings. As there are so many images and stories to share, this is part one of my journey - covering the first week I had in New Zealand alone. Part two will pick up 10 days later, when I picked up Linda from the airport in Queenstown through the adventures ending on the north island.

For the month of travels, I gave myself no access to the internet, other than pictures I was taking with my cellphone to geotag places I visited (a few of those images are used in the post, fyi), and for the most part, didn't watch TV other than a handful of rugby matches. Everyday was a new journey to a new location which usually began before dawn and ended well after sunset as I collapsed into the bed of my next hotel.

With the pedal of my rental pasted firmly to the floorboard at 120 kph to spend as little time in the car as possible, the journey took me back and forth, up and down the south island for the most part, and then a short four-day visit to the north island. I won't recap the whole journey or flood you with too many images, but will highlight some of the adventures I went on; taking you from Christchurch to Arthur's Pass and through a snowstorm in Tekapo and Twizel, down through Wanaka (that tree!) and Te Anau to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound. The journey then turned south to Invercargill to Dunedin, then back up to Queenstown, Wanaka, and up to Fox Glacier and back down through Cromwell Gorge - with a bunch of little towns in between. From there, a street art walk with my wife and daughter back down in Dunedin, a sighting of penguins in their natural habitat, and a climb up a lava flow rock slide. Finally, the trip went to the north island to visit Hobbiton and the geothermal Māori village of Whakarewarewa in Rotorua and ended up in Auckland before the flight back home.

Kura Tawhiti TRACK / Castle Hill 

One of the first stops I made was to hike Kura Tawhiti track in gorgeous Castle Hill. Here, huge limestone formations were created 30 million years ago from an inland sea and slowly eroded by water to what is seen now. It was an easy walk, but could easily spend hours there exploring and climbing the rocks. I explored several of the paths up and around the large rocks and really had a nice morning just sitting up here. There is so much scenery in the distance to take in (see last photo) when you get up there. If you happen upon this place, give yourself a few hours for the stop.

Click thumbnails for full size images.

Lake Pearson

On the way up to Arthur's Pass, I went through the beautiful area surrounding Lake Pearson. This area gave a great first peek of the Autumn colors to come. There wasn't any official pull off here, so I just parked on the edge of the field and walked around a bit. I am not sure what the mountains are surrounding it, but it's a really quiet spot. This was also the road where I got to see some of my first one-way bridges - love the idea behind those.

Oh, and by the way, thank you New Zealand for making work zones so easy to navigate. Rather than having a work person on the side of the road holding a stop/go sign, most work areas I came across (where it went to one lane) had these lights set up. Many of them had countdowns on them, letting you know exactly how much time you'd be sitting here in case you wanted to pop out, take some photos and stretch your legs. Most were just a couple minutes and the queue was never long. 

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I also enjoyed that the national speed limit was 100 kph until you hit the outskirts of a village, where it dropped to 70-80 kph with the heart usually being 50 kph. Work zones were always 30 kph. It was so standard across the country and something I really admired. Something my country could learn from (our speeds are ridiculously slow and inconsistent). But I diverge. 

Note: if like me, metric system was never taught in school, here's the quick "close enough" rules I used:

  • KPH to MPH: 1/2 speed plus 10%. So, 100 KPH is 50 (1/2) + 10 (10%) = roughly 60 MPH.
  • C to F temps: 2*C + 30. So, 18°C is 36 (18*2) + 30 = 66°F give or take.

By the end of my time in New Zealand, I was no longer translating the numbers, I just got used to the metric system and the speed and temps became second nature. (And made more sense).

Arthur's Pass / Devil's Punchbowl

Not far north of Castle Hill is Arthur's Pass National Park with the main attraction of Devil's Punchbowl Falls track. The park is nestled in New Zealand's Southern Alps and makes for a gorgeous drive in, and an even better hike up. The Devil's Punchbowl Falls are 131m high and accessible with a nice 1 hour return walk. There were a few tracks that diverged that provided amazing vistas of the Alps and falls. If you have the time, I suggest exploring them. You can get a good ways up the falls for some pretty great views.

Wouldn't you know it, somewhere on this track my Zeiss lens cap popped off. I went back looking for it, but no dice.

Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki Snow

I only gave myself an overnight in the town of Twizel, just south of lakes Tekapo and Pukaki - some of the bluest water on the planet - which in hindsight was a bad idea. I had planned on doing one of the Mt Cook tracks while here, but a snow storm rolled in overnight and through the morning killing those plans. If I wasn't alone, I am sure I would have went up - but didn't think it was a smart idea on my own. Instead, I explored some tracks along the lakes trying to capture some of the blue water - but under these conditions, I wasn't quite getting it. Below right, you can see a Japanese couple that were getting their wedding photos done in front of the church. The bride looked so cold in her sleeveless gown, with the blowing wind and snow.

Omarama Clay Cliffs

Along my drive to Wanaka from Twizel, I saw a road sign for the Omarama Clay Cliffs and curiosity got the best of me, and my rental. Along the long, windy, washboard gravel access road, two of the wheel covers came flying off my rental. Luckily, I spotted them on the way back out and recovered them (only to be lost in two days on another road). The road seems to go on forever and I was setting myself up to be let down, but then around a corner these amazing cliffs pop into view. The track is short, but there is so much to explore along the way - from the gorgeous cliffs in front of you and the sweeping landscape of some serious mountain ranges behind you.

Lindis Pass Reserve

Continuing on my way to Wanaka I had to crest Lindis Pass. Right about this point, there was a sign on the road indicating that chains were required to go over the pass in the snow. And it was still snowing up there. But hey, it's a rental. They are invincible, so I carried on. The pass itself is a 63 km drive that rises to about 971 m. At 100 kph, would logically take about an hour. But with the narrow winding roads, snow, ice, grit, and frequent photo stops and short hikes, I was on this road about 3 hours. There are a bunch of spots you can pull off for photos, and some officially marked tracks. But the whole thing is like a photographers wonderland. In the below right image, I grabbed a cell phone shot to show that no matter which way you look, absolute beauty (this was just over the pass, which is seen to the left).  

That Wanaka Tree

I spent a few days in Wanaka so I could branch out and do several hikes and road trips. Obviously, the most important thing for a photographer to do in Wanaka is shoot that Wanaka tree. I got up an hour before sunrise to be one of the first one there and to get a good spot for my shot. Well, about 50 photographers had the same idea, with 4 clowns in the water (why didn't I think of that?). Sadly, the sunrise was hidden by some low clouds and there was a bit of a wind, so no one was getting their iconic shot that morning.

What I enjoyed more than anything was shooting the photographers getting the shot, as well as talking with them about gear choice for their "epic moment" with the tree. Some went all out while others were simply camera phones - but all equally excited to be there. The majority took their shot head on, with the snow capped mountains in the background. I decided to flank the tree and hit it from the less photographed side, getting more of the village of Wanaka in frame and a different set of mountains.

The village of Wanaka is quite cute and would be my first choice of towns to move to in New Zealand. It seems like it's the cross roads to everywhere. From here, you can head up the west coast, carve your way north towards Christchurch, go across the midlands and gold fields towards Dunedin on the east coast, or the scenic drive through the Fiordlands towards Invercargill on the south coast. I made my way through Wanaka several times on this trip - once solo and twice with Linda. That second time, there was a fun gypsy fair happening on the green, so we walked through and got some photos (see part 2 when I get that up). Have to say, I got to know the little village pretty well!

Exploring Route 6 Wanaka to Haast Pass

Route 6 is an awesome road that snakes north of Wanaka towards Haast. It spends a good deal of time along the 35 km Lake Hāwea (named after a Māori tribe who preceded the Waitaha people in the area) whose surrounding mountains literally rise up from its depths on all sides with virtually no flat land to be seen. From there, it follows along the cliff edges of the 42 km long Lake Wanaka and dumps you into the very scenic Mount Aspiring National Park.

Fuel isn't abundant up here, so get some while you can if you're running low. It's not far, a 142 km drive from Wanaka to Haast, but with fuel only available in Makarora on the way. I was close to running out during the drive (poor planning).

Oh, and good to know - you pump first, pay later in New Zealand. That is, everywhere except the 24-hour fuel stations with no attendants. Those I loved and wish we had them up here.

Some points of interest along this drive are some very scenic tracks, namely the Blue Pools track (glacial melt waters), Fantail Falls, and the Thunder Creek falls. I spent an entire day just doing these three stops, along with many others along the side of the road. The second time I came through here with Linda, we were lucky enough to get stuck in a sheep traffic jam. They were moving paddocks down the middle of the road and the herding dogs were marching them quickly down the road for about 1 km.  It was great riding behind them, seeing them do their work. 

Pro Tip: If you're in a rental car with wheel covers rather than proper rims, zip-tie them on. This road ate a set of wheel covers from my rental, sending them spinning off the edge of a cliff at 120 kph. They were pre-loosened on that washboard road to the Clay Cliffs, but this zippy road with tight turns did them in.

Cardrona and Crown Range

On the drive to Te Anau from Wanaka, I came across a great little village called Cardrona. It was very small and rustic, but such a great little place to grab a flat white and mince pie!

On the way through here a week later with Linda, we stopped for the afternoon for some lunch and a walk through the historic parts of town. It looked like it would be a very cute place to stay, so next time we're going through there, we plan to stay in this town.

Just outside of town was a long fence covered in bras. Obviously, I had to stop. Turns out, it was a place taking donations for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation. There was an honesty bucket to leave a donation and what seemed like an endless fence to leave your ugh... unmentionables. 

The road continued on and went up another icy pass through the Crown Range. At the summit of the pass is the Pisa Conservation Area track. The Pisa Conservation area is 22,000 hectares of high country that overlooks the Upper Clutha and Wakatipu basin with some wonderful sweeping views of rugged terrain through the fault block mountains.

Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound

First, I apologize for the massive number of images in this section. I tried so hard to cull this down to just a few, but there is so much to see in Fiordland National Park that I just couldn't bear to cut deeper than this (took close to 300 images in the park that first morning). I have it in two batches, as I came here twice. The first round I was alone and ventured out two hours before sunrise, putting my in the heart of the park at a perfect time with no traffic whatsoever. The second batch is images from my return a week later with Linda for a cruise around the fiord out to the Tasman Sea and that will be in part 2 of this post..

Fiordland National Park is a protected World Heritage Site consisting of 1.2 million hectares of the most scenic nature I have ever seen. Taken from their website, "Ata Whenua - Fiordland was well known to the Maori, and many legends recount its formation and naming. Demigod Tuterakiwhanoa is said to have carved the rugged landscape from formless rock. Few Maori were permanent residents of the region but seasonal food-gathering camps were linked by well worn trails. Takiwai, a translucent greenstone, was sought from Anita Bay and elsewhere near the mouth of Milford Sound/Piopiotahi."

The drive out from Te Anau is a breath-taking drive on narrow roads and unspoiled natural beauty. It goes through rain forests and mountain passes, and even burrows deep inside a mountain via the 1.2 km single lane Homer Tunnel. The tunnel began in 1935, but wasn't completed until 1953 due to the hard granite and the limited working season.  The sound (which is not a sound, but a fiord) is noted for being the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand receiving an average of 6,412 mm (252 in) of rainfall per year. It rains 182 days a year on average, so there's a 50-50 shot you'll hit the rain here. Also, they often close the road for snow (my second venture out almost didn't make it, as the road was closed most of the morning).

Along this drive in, I often came across the Kea, a large alpine parrot. As there are no natural predators, they have no fear of humans. At one of the pull offs, they came out en masse looking for a handout (do not feed them). One annoyed that I had nothing, decided to try to eat my car (see photo below).  They are quite striking, especially when they spread their wings. The underside is a vibrant orange color - which sadly I botched the focus and missed the shot.

There were many scenic pull offs along the way, but I skipped most of them to catch Mitre Peak in Milford Sound before it got too crowded. The parking lot was fairly empty when I first arrived and spent several hours on the tracks around the sound. The tracks are really nicely laid out by the way - and that goes for just about any track in the whole country. After a day of hiking, I hit the information center for some lamb pie and, of course, my flat white. By the time I left, the place was a zoo. So many people, all fighting for parking. Advice - get there by sunrise - or by bus - so you don't need to worry about parking. 

According to one guide I talked to, the best way to get to Milford Sound? Walk, from Queenstown. It's a 3-day track over some mighty impressive Alps. Maybe once I get my ass in shape.

The South Coast

After a couple days in Te Anau, it was time to head south to Invercargill. I was only here two nights and honestly didn't take very many photos. I spent one day hiking along the sea and think I took five photos in that time. You can see the first one below, when I first arrived on the south coast - rental missing it's wheel covers and all.

For day 2 down here, I planned to head east to the Catlins to catch Nugget Point at sunrise. But while lying in bed that night, it hit me that I was only two hours from Dunedin, where my baby girl is attending college. We hopped onto a video chat and changed my plans to spend the day with her.

We toured her campus, walked through the village of Dunedin for some breakfast, then ventured over to Baldwin Street - the world's steepest street. Wow, was that ever crazy steep. They had to put steps at the steepest point on the sidewalk, just so people could get up. You can kind of get the idea of just how steep with the photo here.

From there, we did the Tunnel Beach track in some serious wind. It was gusting at 80 kph so we stayed away from the cliff edge. The track down to this area is fairly steep, so save energy for the hike back up. By the time our adventures were done, the sun was setting and I had to make the haul back to Invercargill, for the next morning, Linda was flying into Queenstown to join me for week two of New Zealand. (I will have a ton more with Dunedin and Ashley in part two - where we really explored the city and surrounding hills.)

To be continued

Well, this post only covered my first solo week in New Zealand. So for now, I leave you with a breather as I work to edit the next batch of photos and stories that take Linda and I from Queenstown to Fox Glacier, down to Wanaka and Cromwell and through the gold fields to Dunedin to spend a week with Ashley. From there, we'll head up to the north island to visit Hobbiton, the Māori village of Whakarewarewa, and take in the culture of Auckland. Hei konā rā!