New Zealand South Island (Now Complete)

Discussion in 'Travelogue' started by Kyle Jones, Mar 23, 2018.

  1. Kyle Jones

    Kyle Jones Moderator

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    Part 1: Basic Info, Gear and Wanaka

    Intro: I recently took a vacation with my wife to New Zealand and Australia, including spending 6 days based in Wanaka (rhymes with "Monica") on New Zealand's south island. I figured I'd share my experience here, where it can hopefully be useful for anyone else planning to travel to that beautiful country. This wasn't a "photo trip", so while I did make sure to place myself in a couple of good locations at sunrise/sunset it wasn't an emphasis. I'm splitting this post into three parts (all in this thread) just to give myself some time to put it together. This first post covers some general thoughts, gear and the area around Wanaka. I'll follow up with the Haast Highway and Lake Matheson and the finish it with Queenstown and Milford Sound. I'll be including more pictures than I'd normally share so not all of them will be up to a high artistic standard.

    Some New Zealand Basics: We flew from San Francisco to Aukland and then took a short flight from Aukland to Queenstown. New Zealand is very protective about its flora and fauna and does a pretty thorough inspection as you enter the country to make sure you aren't bringing anything invasive with you. As an example, we had to unpack our hiking shoes from our luggage to show they were relatively clean. Wearing them on the plan may have simplified this. Any camping or hiking gear is likely to be inspected so you should make sure it is clean before you travel.

    The Queenstown airport is pretty small and it is easy to get in and out of. Driving in New Zealand, while beautiful, can be wearying. Almost all roads are narrow, 2 lanes, and winding around lakes and mountains. There are a lot of one-lane bridges as well that'll keep you on your toes. All not to mention driving on the left side of the road... I found that google's drive time estimates were pretty good, but the driving does wear on you because there are no easy highway miles.

    The country is covered in lakes, mountains and farms so there is lots to see. The hiking trails (referred to as "tracks") are well marked, well maintained and remarkably clean compared to what I'm used to seeing around home.

    Money is the New Zealand dollar but almost everyone accepted US credit cards with no problems. Power is 220V and they use the same angled 3-prong plugs as Australia and China. I'd heard some talk about car break-ins in parking areas so we were careful not to have anything visible inside our car when we parked, but I never felt unsafe and we didn't have any problems at all.

    Gear: Although this wasn't a photo trip, I didn't want to miss the shot of a lifetime because I didn't have the right gear. I used my F-Stop Loka as my primary camera bag with my RRS TVC-24 tripod and BH-40 ball head for this trip. My main camera was my Canon 5DSR with Canon 16-35 f/4L, Canon 24-70 f/2.8LII, Canon 100-400 f.5/6LII and Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4 lenses. I also brought my Canon M6 camera with its EF-M 11-22 and 15-45 lenses for walk-around shots. I leave this clipped to my backpack strap so it is always within reach on the trail or around town.

    Around Wanaka: Our home base was the Ramada Resort in Wanaka. The room was fairly large with a kitchen and the resort has a nice pool and the other kinds of amenities you'd expect. Wanaka itself is fairly small with a cute downtown area with restaurants, cafes and a bakery we liked. Most mornings started with breakfast and coffee at a cafe and then we'd hit the road. We tended to buy a few pastries and/or meat pies to eat on the road if we expected to be away from civilization for a while. The water is clean so refills are easy.

    From the airport in Queenstown to get to Wanaka you can either take the highway (a windy 2-lane road) or the Crown Range Road (a steep, windy, 2-lane road) with better views that takes 30 minutes less than the highway. So we tended to take the Crown Range Road. There are some great viewpoints along the way looking back toward Queenstown:
    0427 Crown Range to Queenstown_850.jpg

    The mountains along the road tended to attract some clouds, even on clear days, so it was a nice place to find some interesting light too (with the ubiquitous sheep):
    0543 Crown Range Sunset_850.jpg

    Lake Wanaka is surrounded by mountains and there are plenty of spots around the shore to follow the light and look for interesting compositions. The most famous icon is within the town and on google maps it is referred to as #thatwanakatree. It is relatively small and relatively close to the shoreline. It also draws a crowd, particularly at sunset. While looking at the tree, the sun rises behind you (front light) and sets in front of you (back light) so keep that in mind as you plan your shots. It takes VERY little wind to stir up the lake enough to obscure the reflections. I had one morning with a 1 mph breeze that was too much. Arriving an hour before sunrise was early enough to pick my spot. I don't think it is possible to have full autonomy at sunset - there are just too many people around.

    Sunset the first night:
    7941 Wanaka Tree Twilight_850.jpg

    Sunrise the next morning (my best reflection, the forecast was "partly cloudy"):
    7979 Wanaka Reflections_850.jpg

    Another sunrise (1 mph breeze):
    8047 Wanaka Sunrise_850.jpg

    We took one good hike near Wanaka, up the Rob Roy Glacier Track. While the guides call this a 6 mile easy hike, my phone measured it as 7.5 miles round trip with 1700 feet of vertical. The end result is a viewpoint of Rob Roy Peak and Glacier and some pretty cool waterfalls. It is about a 50 km drive to the trailhead from Wanaka, including about 30 km on a dirt road with about a dozen river crossings. In good weather you can make it in a passenger car. No problem in a 4WD. You can check with the park visitor center for recommendations (it is in Wanaka). Here are some shots along the way:

    Starting out through some farmland:
    0436 Rob Roy Glacier Track Start_850.jpg

    Following the Matukituki River near the start:
    0437 Matukituki River_850.jpg

    Crossing the swinging bridge across the river to get onto the track uphill:
    0441 Rob Roy Swing Bridge_850.jpg

    The view downriver from the bridge:
    0453 Matukituki River_850.jpg

    Once you cross the bridge you head relentlessly uphill through a beautiful forest along Rob Roy Creek. You could spend all day looking for compositions and we had other plans, so here are some quick ones. The trail through ferns:
    0444 Rob Roy Glacier Track_850.jpg

    Trees along the trail:
    0449 Rob Roy Trail Forest_850.jpg

    And a nice view of the creek:
    0451 Rob Roy Creek_850.jpg

    About a mile from the top you reach the lower viewpoint, giving you a framed view of Bridal Veil Falls and the Rob Roy Glacier:
    7985 Rob Roy Glacier Lower Viewpoint_850.jpg

    As you keep going up, you eventually break free of the trees just before the final viewpoint:
    0448 Rob Roy Upper Viewpoint Trail_850.jpg

    And this is the reward (single image):
    7994 Rob Roy Glacier and Bridal Veil Falls_850.jpg

    And a 5-image panorama:
    8005 Rob Roy Glacier View_850.jpg

    Parts 2 and 3 to follow...
     
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  2. Kyle Jones

    Kyle Jones Moderator

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    Part 2 - Wanaka to the West Via the Haast Highway

    The end goal of this trek was to reach Lake Matheson and its beautiful view of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman on the west coast of New Zealand. The drive from Wanaka is about 3 hours each way through a varied and beautiful landscape. The first thing we passed was Lake Hawea which runs parallel to Lake Wanaka. Lake Hawea has some of the most beautiful water I've seen in a lake. There is a nice overlook near the north end where I stopped to take some pictures. With good light I could see this area as having lots of possibilities photographically. There is a trailhead to Isthmus peak nearby, which appears to have great views looking down on the lake.

    Lake Hawea
    8057 Lake Hawea_850.jpg

    From there we drove through "the Neck" back to the eastern shore of Lake Wanaka and followed the road north to where the lake becomes the Makarora River and the road becomes the Haast HIghway. This is a beutiful stretch of road heading over a pass between Wanaka and the town of Haast (the only place to eat between Wanaka and Fox Glacier). There are lots of hikes of various distances along the highway as well as lots of 1-lane bridges to keep you awake.

    Our first stop was the Blue Pools. This is one of the more popular hikes along the Haast Highway and lots of people go there to jump off the bridges and swim. The hike is short, maybe half a mile each way, and it should be obvious from the pictures why it is called the Blue Pools.

    Blue Pools from the first hiking bridge
    8073 Blue Pools from Bridge_850.jpg

    Blue Pools from the second hiking bridge
    8065 Blue Pools_850.jpg

    Blue Pools from water's edge
    8069 Blue Pools and Tree_850.jpg

    Next up was Fantail Falls. This was an even shorter walk from the parking lot, which leads to a fantail waterfall cascading down the hillside into the Haast River. The light wasn't great here, but I have a feeling it would be tough to take an amazing photo here anyway.

    Fantail Falls
    8079 Fantail Falls_850.jpg

    Thunder Creek Falls was next and this one does thunder down the hillside. I actually took this shot at dusk on a different day. There are some nice foreground options with the river in front of it.

    Thunder Creek Falls
    8025 Thunder Creek Falls_850.jpg

    I liked the viewpoint below near the Pleasant Flat Campsite as it has a nice view of the river and some mountains and glaciers in the background. I could envision some great shots at either sunrise (with the mountain and any clouds lit by the rising sun) or sunset (if there are clouds behind the mountain to catch the light). I'd want to look for a slightly higher vantage point to get more of the curve in the river (maybe from the nearby bridge) if I was shooting this seriously.

    Pleasant Flat
    8083 Pleasant Flat_850.jpg

    And now we can talk about sandflies. Yes they are real, yes they are there (especially along the west coast), and yes they are an annoyance. We were there at the very end of summer and I've heard they are worse earlier in the year. We first noticed them in Haast, seeing little black lines on our ankles and feeling a sharp bite. The bite itself felt a little worse than a mosquito bite, but neither one of us had the same long term reaction (bumps and itching) from the sandflies that we've grown to expect from mosquitos. I got in the habit of covering up when in sandfly country but lots of places sell repellent.

    Upon reaching Haast (there is a cafe in town with some decent food and plenty of beer, but that's about it for this stretch of road) we headed north toward Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson. There are plenty of places to stop along the way, but we only stopped at the Knights Point Lookout which really did have a nice view of the coast.

    Knights Point Lookout
    8084 Nights Point Lookout_850.jpg

    We eventually reached the town of Fox Glacier. There are several cafes and hotels in the area, so you are back in civilization. Lake Matheson is a short drive from Fox Glacier and has a large parking lot and cafe of its own. It serves snacks during the day but turns into a fairly high end restaurant at night. The highlight of the area though is Lake Matheson.

    It is about a 3 mile hike to go all the way around the lake. The best viewpoint photographically is Reflection Island, which is the last viewpoint you reach if you hike in the more common clockwise direction. This allows you to see the whole lake before settling in for your sunset shot (you face east for the reflections of the mountains, so they will be front lit at sunset and back lit at sunrise). Hiking clockwise, Jetty Viewpoint is the first one you'll reach. The scene is partially blocked by trees as shown below.

    Jetty Viewpoint
    0545 Matheson Jetty View_850.jpg

    Next up is the View of Views - reached by hiking up several flights of stairs on a spur trail (phone image):
    View of Views_850.jpg

    Our last stop was Reflection Island, reach via another signed spur trail. There is a wooden platform heading down to the lake shore, so there is a limited amount of space. By the time of sunset it was packed with tripods. If this is your photographic destination, I'd recommend being onsite and claiming your tripod space an hour before sunset. I like setting up low for reflections, since the water closest to shore tends to be the most calm, so it was easy for me to work in under someone else. Other things to keep in mind here: (1) You only get reflections if the lake is calm. It is relatively sheltered but it is a good idea to keep track of the wind forecast. The forecast on the day I was there was about 5 mph and the water was fine. (2) You can only see the mountains if they aren't covered in clouds. Another reason to watch the weather. Our day was clearer than I'd have liked, but we got a nice cloud across the mountains and at least we got to see them. I've seen pictures from friends where they were totally missing. (3) Sunset to me is safest, since even on a bluebird day you can get nice light on the mountains. The sun rises behind them so I'd want some clouds to light up if I was shooting sunrise.

    Lake Matheson Reflection Island
    8154 Lake Matheson Sunset_850.jpg
     
    #2 Kyle Jones, Mar 23, 2018
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2018
  3. Kyle Jones

    Kyle Jones Moderator

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    Part 3: Queenstown, Te Anau and Milford Sound

    Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park is definitely one of the iconic areas on the South Island and is definitely worth a trip. It is also a 4.5+ hour drive (one way) from where we were based in Wanaka. The Milford Sound Lodge is the only place to stay onsite, but they have limited space and tend to fill up early. If you want to stay there, you should definitely book a room before your trip. This, of course, makes it hard to target great photographic weather unless you stay a while. We ended up booking a room in Te Anau, which is a gateway to Fiordland and a 90 minute drive from Milford Sound itself. Although we visited Queenstown on a different day, we had to pass through it on our way south so I'm including it here.

    Queenstown is on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, and along with Wanaka is one of the two main ski towns in New Zealand. Wanaka is definitely a smaller and more relaxed town. We had a little but of culture shock going into Queenstown (which still isn't large by normal standards) and parking can be a challenge. We booked an afternoon boat tour (the "Spirit of Queenstown Scenic Cruise" run by Southern Discoveries). We booked online that morning and it cost us about $35 NZD each for a two hour lake cruise. We thought it was well worth the money. Some pictures below:

    The boat dock in Queenstown looking up the lake (in the direction of the boat tour): 0518 Queenstown Lake and Mountains_850.jpg

    A view of the mountains along the lake:
    0511 Lake Wakatipu Shoreline_850.jpg

    There is a farm at the turn-around point. You can combine the cruise with a farm visit if that's your thing:
    0500 Mount Nicholas Farm_850.jpg

    Queenstown has some nice restaurants near the boat dock and a nice tourist/shopping area on Mall Street:
    Mall Street Flowers_850.jpg

    We also took a walk through the Queenstown Gardens which has some nice water features and bridges, a rose garden, and nice views of the lake and city.

    Queenstown Garden bridge:
    0525 Queenstown Gardens Bridge_850.jpg

    Queenstown Rose Garden:
    0527 Queenstown Rose Garden_850.jpg

    Heading south from Queenstown you drive along the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu and there are some nice views of the countryside there as well:
    8238 Lake Wakatipu Sunshine_850.jpg

    Te Anau is another town on a lake (Lake Te Anau in this case) and bills itself as the gateway to Fiordland. Their most famous tourist site is the Glowworm Caves. There is one tour operator (Real Journeys) and the tour is $93 NZD per adult. This gives you a boat ride down the lake to the cave site, a guided walking tour in the cave, and then a small boat ride inside the grotto in the cave (in pitch darkness) to see the glowworms. There is also in an interesting film in the visitor center describing the glowworm life cycle (it is pretty interesting) and free coffee and tea. The total time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.

    Here's the view from the boat looking past an island in the lake:
    0549 Te Anau Boat Ride_850.jpg

    There's no photography in the cave itself (the worms are sensitive to light and flashes would destroy night vision). So I bought the photo package with our portrait outside the cave along with some other scenes they provided. The grotto was really neat. The glowworms look like blue-green stars in the dark cave. The operators bring you within a foot or two from the worms. I thought this was a great diversion before we went off for some dinner (had some great fish and chips and Bluff Oysters at Mainly Seafood in town) and prepared for the drive to Milford in the morning.
    WormPostcard.jpg

    We left for Milford Sound well before dawn so I could attempt some sunrise pictures before a kayak tour I had booked. I was met with clear skies and wind. This at least allowed us to see the mountains (Milford is one of the rainiest places on earth) but I didn't have great light and getting any sort of a reflection was a challenge. I parked in the main parking lot and there is a trail that parallels the beach. There are signficant tides in the sound, so foreground options can vary significantly depending on when you visit.

    The tide was going out at sunrise, so there was some water near the trail. I found a spot that had some protection from the wind and used it for my sunrise attempts. The sun was rising behind me, but it has to clear a mountain range before direct light will reach the scene. I think having some clouds to the west to catch that light along with calm water for reflections would be the optimal conditions, but as our kayak guide said it rains 280 days a year and it is windy on the other ones, so you get what you get.

    Milford Dawn - wide angle (14mm):
    8191 Milford Sound Wide Sunrise_850.jpg

    Milford Dawn zoomed in:
    8195 Milford Sound Sunrise_850.jpg

    After sunrise we took off for our kayaking trip. This was our attempt at adventure. I've done some ocean kayaking but my wife hasn't. Most people book a boat tour of the sound but I thought this would be a little more special. Unfortunately it was windy enough that it wasn't all that fun and we didn't make it too far. We used Roscos Milford Kayaks and I was happy with their support, guide and equipment. I'm still glad we did this instead of the normal boat ride.

    0558 Sandee Kayak_850.jpg

    After kayaking we grabbed a brunch in the park cafe and then hiked the shoreline trail to see the scene and look for some photo opportunities. The tide had receded, revealing some moss covered rocks that worked great as a foreground. The light wasn't particularly dramatic, but it was still a beautiful scene.

    Mossy rocks at Milford Sound:
    8201 Milford Sound Green Rocks_850.jpg

    More green rocks and moss at low tide:
    8216 Milford Sound Rocks_850.jpg

    We drove back toward Te Anau, this time in the daylight so we were actually able to see some of the sights along the road. There are plenty of places to stop for a short hike. There is also a mile-long tunnel that is only wide enough for one-way traffic. The New Zealand Kea (an alpine parrot) tend to hang out be the tunnel entrances to beg food from the cars waiting to pass through. We saw one (bigger than I expected) but the light turned green just as I got my camera ready so I didn't get any decent shots.

    We did stop for a hike at The Chasm which is a pretty cool gorge you can view from a bridge. An unsigned spur trail heads down to an emerald pool that was full of swimmers when we were there. This area would definitely benefit from some softer light!

    The Chasm:
    8226 The Chasm_850.jpg

    Mirror Lakes was another pretty spot along the road:
    0561 Mirror Lakes_850.jpg

    So that is my New Zealand travelogue. Hopefully you found it interesting, liked some of the photos, and can get some use out of it if you ever make your way to New Zealand.
     
    #3 Kyle Jones, Mar 23, 2018
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2018
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  4. JimFox

    JimFox Moderator
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    Wow Kyle! This is great! I am really enjoying all of the details you are providing.

    Did you take all of your gear on as Carry on in the plane? Was there a weight restriction for Carry on?
     
  5. Kyle Jones

    Kyle Jones Moderator

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    My tripod was in my checked bag but cameras and lenses were in my carry on. Air New Zealand claims a 7kg limit for carry-ons and I've heard they can be aggressive about enforcing it. They never weighed my backpack though. If they did, I would have moved the 100-400 into my "personal item" and I'd have been fine.
     
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  6. Leslie Hunter

    Leslie Hunter Well-Known Member

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    This was an extremely interesting read.
     
  7. Jim Dockery

    Jim Dockery Well-Known Member

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    Thanks for this Kyle. Looks like a great trip and very similar to the one I'm planning in the future, so this is perfect.
     
  8. AlanLichty

    AlanLichty Moderator

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    Lots of travel detail - thanks for sharing. Looking forward to more installments.
     
  9. Ben Egbert

    Ben Egbert Forum Helper

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    Great write up and great images, thi ssounds like a fantastic trip.
     
  10. Kyle Jones

    Kyle Jones Moderator

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    Bumping the thread - added part 2!
     
  11. Ben Egbert

    Ben Egbert Forum Helper

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    Part 2 is another delightful read.
     
  12. JimFox

    JimFox Moderator
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    Really loving the write up Kyle! This part 2 is awesome.

    Question, did you need a visa? Or will just your passport suffice?
     
  13. AlanLichty

    AlanLichty Moderator

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    Add another thumbs up from me - part 2 is a very nice addition. Beautiful place - I can why so many gush over it.

    Also thumbs up for not glossing over the behind the images part - esp. the sandflies and need to get your tripod space established at the icons early for your light event.
     
  14. Kyle Jones

    Kyle Jones Moderator

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    Thanks a lot Ben!

    A US passport is all you need for New Zealand. Australia requires a visa before traveling.

    Thanks Alan - my goal is to write something useful for people planning to make the trip. I'm glad its working!
     
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  15. Jim Dockery

    Jim Dockery Well-Known Member

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    Two thumbs up on part 2 ! (we need a thumbs up emoji). Sweet mountain shots.
     
  16. Darcy Grizzle

    Darcy Grizzle Supporting Member

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    This is a great write up, feel like I was there with you! Can't wait for the continuing vacation :). Beautiful images also.
     
  17. Kyle Jones

    Kyle Jones Moderator

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    Part 3 (Queenstown to Milford Sound) has now been added to complete this post. Hopefully you have enjoyed it.
     
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  18. Ben Egbert

    Ben Egbert Forum Helper

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    3 thumbs up for the 3rd one.
     
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  19. JimFox

    JimFox Moderator
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    Your finale was certainly awesome Kyle! This whole project has been great. I am sure I will be printing this out to take with me when I go later in the year.
     
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  20. AlanLichty

    AlanLichty Moderator

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    Wow - great way to finish off your travelogue. That is a stunning place to visit and thanks for sharing the experience.
     
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