From the Editor: In October 2012, professional photographer and NatureScapes.net co-founder E.J. Peiker will lead a twelve day NSN Certified workshop to New Zealand. In this article, E.J. shares with us his diary of his first trip to these beautiful South Pacific islands and relates his experience of photographing the majestic landscapes and amazing wildlife there.
January 30-31, 2010 – Days 1 and 2
For years, I had been wanting to visit New Zealand, even since reading about the Southern Alps on the South Island. Finally, after a year of planning, the day had come to depart for the Land Down Under’s island neighbors.
After flying from Phoeonix to Los Angeles, I boarded an Air New Zealand 747 for the 12½ hour flight to Auckland. I was nervous about getting my 31lb carry-on bag of camera gear on-board, as the published carry-on limits for Air New Zealand allow only 7 kg (16lbs) of luggage per passenger, but fortunately my Gura Gear Kiboko backpack was never questioned.
My gear for the trip included a Nikon D3x for landscapes, a Nikon D300 for birds, a Nikon D700 for night and low light photography, and a Panasonic Lumix GF1 for walking around shots. The lenses I brought were the Nikon 500mm f/4VR, 70-300 f/4-5.6VR, 24-70 f/2.8, and 14-24 f/2.8, plus a Nikon 18-200 in my checked baggage as an emergency backup lens, and the 14-45mm stabilized micro four-thirds lens for my Panasonic. I also packed a Gitzo 3541 tripod, RRS BH-55 ballhead, and Wimberley II head for support, along with some Singh-Ray polarizers, a Singh-Ray variable ND filter, Nikon SB-900 flash, and other accessories.
Due to the 20 hour time difference between Phoenix and New Zealand, I “lost” a whole day in travel, leaving on Saturday night and arriving on Monday morning. Despite the big time gap, I found adjusting to the new time zone to be pretty easy; simply subtract 4 hours and add a day.
February 1, 2010 – Day 3
When we finally arrived in Auckland on the North Island, I was relieved to be able to retrieve my luggage quickly. The hot and humid weather reminded me of Hawaii, and it was raining.
After clearing customs, immigration, and bio security, we made our way via shuttle to the domestic terminal for the final leg of the flying part of the journey, to the South Island and its Southern Alps. Again, I had no trouble with my camera gear or flight delays, despite all sorts of signs warning of the airline’s 7kg limit. Aboard my flight at 34,000 feet, I could see both of the countries coastlines on either side of the plane.
When we landed, I stepped outside to a beautiful 70 degree dry and sunny day. I loaded my rental, a Toyota 4 Runner, with my gear, headed out for groceries, then made my way to Lake Tekapo in the center of the island. Despite my fears, I found driving on the left side of the road to be rather painfree.
The south island is approximately the shape of and slightly smaller than the state of California. After a 3½ hour drive through rural and then mountain foothill country, the spectacularly colored Lake Tekapo appeared. Tekapo is a very large glacial lake that has the light blue milky color that glacial run-off lakes often have due to the suspended sedimentary silt from the glacier. After moving the bags into the room at the Lake Tekapo Scenic resort, I grabbed the little Panasonic GF1 for a bit of an orientation walkabout then headed off to Lake Alexandrina to see what birds might be there. I was very happy to immediately find New Zealand Scaup, one several ducks in this country that I do not yet have in my quest to photograph all the world’s waterfowl. Additionally there were gorgeous but wary Crested Grebes, many Mallards, and a Gray Duck. Several hours of persistence paid off as I ended up getting some nice shots.
February 2 – Day 4
The day started early before sunrise with a drive up the east side of Lake Tekapo in hopes of finding some Alpenglow opportunities on a long dirt road. We stopped at a small turnout and went cross country on foot to higher ground where we were treated to a nice mountain glow just before the sun came up. On the way back, a small side road proved to be fruitful as we spotted some Gray Teal, another bird that I needed to photograph for my waterfowl list. Gray Teal are very wary birds, but I succeeded at getting some nice photos. I also photographed Black-billed Gulls and Chaffinch upon returning to the hotel grounds.
After checking out of the lodge, I headed further west to Aoraki Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand rising to nearly 13,000 feet. The route passed the south end of another very large glacial lake called Lake Pukaki. After several stops along the way for scenic photos of the mountains with the lake in the foreground, I arrived at Mount Cook Alpine Village and the Hermitage Motel. Since it was a bit too early to check in, I headed to Tasman Glacier, where a short but steep hike provided views of several small glacial lakes called the Blue Lakes and eventually to a high viewpoint overlooking Tasman Lake. The lake, formed the by Tasman Glacier, had some small icebergs in it.
After returning to my hotel to check in, I departed for Hooker Valley. The Hooker Valley trail is about a 3.5 mile (one way) trail that leads to Hooker Lake with incredible views of Mount Sefton and Mount Cook. The trail runs alongside a glacial river, which I had to cross twice via long and high suspension bridges. There were many photographic opportunities along the way, and including all of the photography, the 7 mile roundtrip took about 4.5 hours.
The day was long but exhilarating and by its end, every part of me hurt, but it was worth it. Seven glacial lakes, two incredible mountains, three hikes totaling 12 miles, alpenglow at morning and night, and many photographs – who could ask for anything more?
February 3 – Day 5
Day 5 started early in the morning with a pre dawn hike back up the first part of Hooker Valley to photograph Mt. Sefton with morning alpenglow. On the way back, the campground was full of Keas being rambunctious. Keas are the world’s only Alpine Parrot, and they have a reputation for being quite destructive. Watching them trying to dismantle motor homes in the campground cracked me up, and I witnessed one Kea stealing a pair of underwear off of a clothesline and running away with it. I was able to get some nice shots of these pretty green birds.
After a large breakfast, it was time for a little relaxation until the light got better later in the day. We visited the visitor center to learn a bit more about the region and then went on another hike for a different view of Mount Cook via Kea Point. While the view from the point of the mountain was not as good as many others, it did allow photographing down into some very colorful glacial pools. A much better view for last light on the mountain was a few hundred yards short of Kea Point where a V-cut in the foothills allowed a nice framing of the mountain.
February 4 – Day 6
After a 5:30AM wake-up, we departed for Lake Pukaki hoping to find some areas with good views of the lake with Mount Cook in the background, the Glacial lake in the foreground, and nice light on the mountain at sunrise. Despite a bit of atmospheric haze to contend with, we managed to get good shots. After breakfast back at the hotel, we headed to the southeast part of the South Island, making a number of stops along the way to see what we could find. One of these included a 30 mile detour to Lake Oahu which was glass smooth and allowed for some nice foothill reflections in the water despite the sun being very high in the sky.
As we continued eastward, we ran across Lake Waitaki. The lake has the most unreal neon bright turquoise color, a color that one has trouble believing exists in nature. After a few more side trips, we arrived at Moeraki to photograph the Round Boulders on the beach that have been exposed by coastal erosion over the eons. Before reaching the beach, we stopped by a lighthouse, where, much to our surprise, we discovered a Yellow-eyed Penguin colony there. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the rarest penguin in the world and has just barely been brought back from extinction through a massive conservation effort. There are now about 4000 individuals, up from about 40. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the world’s 4th largest penguin and only lives in New Zealand and it’s islands. They are known to be extremely wary of people, but fortunately we found several several individuals and their babies that were not scared of us at all.
After the Penguins, we hurried to the Boulders. The Moeraki Boulders are a really fun subject that really tests one’s compositional skills. By the time we had reached them, it was cloudy, which allowed for long exposure abstracts of the boulders with water flowing around them, and stayed shooting them until after sunset.
February 5 – Day 7
We woke up early with hopes of photographing the boulders with some early morning light on them, but coastal fog and mist had rolled in. I tried some long exposure compositional experiments on the boulders, and got many great shots, despite sometimes, while waiting for a 20 second exposure to complete, a wave would roll under the tripod legs causing the tripod to shift and ruining the exposure!
After breakfast we checked out of the Moeraki Motel and made our way south to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula. There was a sign for Shag Point (a Shag is a Cormorant) so we followed it and found an ocean point with hundreds of Spotted Shags, several Stewart Island Shags, a Little Shag, New Zealand Fur Seals, Red-billed Gulls and Black-backed Gulls. The Spotteds were just starting to fly; it was great watching them and photographing them tepidly take to flight as youngsters.
We finally made it to Dunedin in the early afternoon and after checking into our accommodations in Portobello on the Otago Peninsula, we went out to Tairoa head at the very end of the peninsula. This is home to a breeding colony of Northern Royal Albatross, a bird with a wingspan of over 10 feet giving it one of the largest wingspans of any bird in the world. We spent much of the afternoon photographing them as well as Australasian Gannets and Stewart Island Shags in flight. I burned about 600 frames on the Albatross as they would pass overhead and also below against the brilliant blue and green waters of the South Pacific. Towards early evening we took an 8 wheel drive dirt buggy down the cliff to a Fur Seal Colony with babies, a secluded Yellow-eyed Penguin Beach and a Little Blue Penguin Burrow area. The Yellow-eyed Penguins were a bit far off for good photos and the Little Blues are hard to photograph in their dark burrows (no flash allowed) but it was fun seeing them.
February 6 – Day 8
Most of this day was spent driving day from the east coast to the west coast, but that didn’t stop us from first photographing some birds on the Otago Peninsula at Hooper’s Inlet. Species included Paradise Shelduck, Pied Stilt, White-faced Heron, Pied Oystercatcher, and Little Shag.
After breakfast at a small cafe in Portobello, we took the Southern Scenic Route for part of the way to Te Anau, our overnight stop on the way to Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park. I scouted a for photo opportunities then did a little shopping, picking up a pair of Crocs for my aching feet and grabbing a delicious pizza at Tuscana’s.
February 7 – Day 9
We left Te Anau in early morning to head towards Milford Sound, one of my most anticipated stops. Milford Sound is in Fiordland National Park and is actually a fjord, not a sound, since it was carved glacially. I have seen many beautiful photos from the Sound and Mitre Peak, and I wanted to photograph it myself. Unfortunately it was a cloudy and overcast day, but I hoped for better weather as the day wore on. We stopped at several spots along the way to take photographs, taking a good four hours to drive the scenic 120km, before finally arriving at the Sound.
We checked into our beautiful luxury chalets at the Milford Sound Lodge, each with incredible views, then boarded a boat to cruise the Sound. By then the weather was beautiful and the cruise was easily the best scenic cruise I have ever been on, with incredible views of the magnificent fjord.
February 8 – Day 10
I awoke with itchy bumps covering my hands and arms, the result of being attacked by Sand Flies the evening before. Without the proper insect repellent, the bugs were relentless, and I suffered the consquences, finding their bites to be much itchier than those of mosquitos.
But the morning was beautiful with calm waters and nice reflections of the Sound and Mitre Peak, and I was treated to more excellent photography of one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.
After check-out in mid morning we made our way back to Te Anau for lunch and to get some anti-histamine ointment for the Sand Fly bites, then moved on to touristy Queenstown. After a walk around town, visit to the pharmacist for my bug bites, and an expensive burrito dinner, we drove around Lake Wakatipu, searching for evening color but finding none.
February 9 – Day 11
We got out early in hopes for some good light in the morning on the peaks surrounding Lake Wakatipu. Wakatipu is shaped like a seat and Maori legend has it as the seat of the gods; the Maori have a legend about almost every formation. However, it was cloudy, something to be expected as New Zealand is called Aotearoa or “Land of the Long White Cloud.”
As the morning wore on we made it to Glenorchy at the north end of the large lake and found a local lagoon that had Black Swan, Paradise Shelduck, and Scaup among other things. Light by now was fairly nice and I did some panoramic shots using the Panasonic GF1. After a picnic lunch we drove around the Glenorchy area, walked up the river feeding Lake Wakatipu, and then returned to Queenstown to visit the Kiwi Birdpark. In the Birdpark I was able to photograph Blue Duck and also a duck I never thought I would get—the Campbell Island Teal.
After the bird park, lunch, and laundry, we headed back out to shoot along Lake Wakatipu, this time at Bob’s Cove. Bob’s Cove is a really nice little cove on the central part of the lake where the water is a bit more quiet and nice mountain scenics surround. Even though it was overcast, we were able to get some nice long exposure shots.
February 10 – Day 12
We took our time getting out to the coast for the next leg of the journey that would take us up the western edge of the South Island. Enroute we drove through Mount Aspiring National Park and photographed Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls, and some gorgeous blue water at Blue Pools. Here, glacial water comes down a river and empties into the Haast River, which then dumps into the Tasman Sea in a series of cascades called the Gates of Haast. We finally arrived in Haast in late afternoon in a torrential rain.
After dinner we drove out to Haast Beach where I finally got to photograph a Variable Oystercatcher and even got one with a clam in it’s bill. It was a bit dark out, but it was nice to have a cool ocean breeze which kept the sand flies away. There was also a pair of Spur-winged Plover and a couple of Shetland Ponies.
February 11 – Day 13
We returned, pre-dawn to Haast Beach to photograph the Oystercatchers in better light, but were mauled by huge swarms of sand flies despite our best efforts to repel them with bug spray. After a half an hour, we had had enough, and ended up with a few Oystercatcher photos and some photos of the Ponies.
After breakfast we went to Jackson Bay, about 50km south of Haast for a 2 hour boat tour around the bay in a fishing trawler in hopes of seeing sea life. Along the way we saw Hector’s Dolphin, Southern Fur Seal, two species of Shearwater, and many gulls.
After a lunch back in Haast we drove to Fox Glacier, about 150km north in Westland National Park. We drove to Lake Matheson for reflection shots of the glacier but were thwarted by low clouds over it. However, we were able to photograph Pukeko (Swamphen) and Welcome Swallows. The hike around the lake took about 1.5 hours and was good exercise. When we got back, the skies started to light up at sunset, and I took a number of shots of the unique native trees with some nice pink clouds above.
February 12 – Day 14
What looked like it might be another foggy day turned into a beautiful day for a hike up to Fox Glacier followed by an even more spectacular hike to the Franz Josef Glacier made for some very nice landscape shots. At the Franz Josef Glacier, one can hike up a hill to get a dramatic overlook of the glacier and its environs, and I was glad I had my 14-24mm Nikon lens.
After the Glacier Hikes, we drove up the coast to our next overnight stop in Greymouth and explored the more Northwestern parts of the country. We visited the Punakaike Pancake rocks in Paparoa National Park, strange coastal formations with dramatic thin layering and striations. Scientists have not yet been able to definitively determine how they were formed. We also ran into a Weka, a chicken sized rail, at the picnic ground begging for scraps.
February 13 – Day 15
The rains came hard overnight off the Tasman Sea along with gale force howling winds making it difficult to sleep. Since it was completely socked in, we departed Greymouth a couple of hours early to go inland to Arthur’s Pass National Park. The weather did improve as we went inland and the rains finally eased to a drizzle with an occasional clear spot in the skies overhead. Several Keas were in the street ready to greet us as we entered the village in Arthur’s Pass, where we hiked through some beautiful rainforest to two waterfalls, the disappointing Bridal Veil Falls (due to the overlook being largely overgrown) and the more spectacular Devil’s Punchbowl Falls.
Our hotel for the evening was located a bit outside of Arthur’s Pass in the drier interior region. We knew we were in some serious sand fly territory when the rooms smelled like DEET and it was not permitted to open the windows. Fortunately, it was windy so the Little Black Demons of New Zealand did not bite. The mountains to the west made for some very nice evening landscapes as did the glacial river just below the hotel in Bealey.
February 14 – Day 16
In nice the morning light, we photographed more mountain landscapes and went on a short rainforest photography walk. After breakfast we made our way back to the east coast of the South Island and then North to Kaikoura. Once in Kaikoura, a drive along the waterfront revealed several Shags (Cormorants), Herons, Dotterels and Oystercatchers as well as Fur Seal that were willing posers for cameras. Unfortunately as afternoon turned to evening, the rains began so there was no evening shoot of the Kaikoura Mountains.
February 15 – Day 17
Albatross Day. Ignoring the rains and very rough seas (5 meter swells), we went out into the South Pacific on a small boat to photograph Albatross and other sea birds in their environment. Despite getting tossed around, getting wet, and losing breakfast, we photographed many species of sea birds including the rare Campbell Island (Black-browed) Albatross. The experience was phenomenal with the Albatross coming so close to the boat that I could lean over with a 24 mm lens and get close-up shots. What an experience! We even saw a couple of Dusky Dolphins at play on the way back.
Unfortunately, it rained for the rest of the day but by late afternoon it eased enough to finally get some nice Pied Shag shots as well as pictures of one very wet New Zealand Kingfisher.
On our last day in New Zeland, we took a Dolphin encounter boat and wow were we surprised. The number of Dolphins in the South Pacific near Kaikoura is amazing. We saw and photographed hundreds of Dusky Dolphins playing in the sea and performing all sorts of acrobatics. We also saw Common Dolphin and the very rare Hector’s Dolphin. Fortunately, the seas were were significantly calmer than the day before so many fewer breakfasts were tossed overboard and I felt great the whole time. It was one incredible trip!
After the Dolphin boat, we made our way to Christchurch stopping in a couple of places, finally seeing Australian Shoveler, but unable to photograph them. And before I knew it, evening came, and it was time to go home to the USA.
On the flight from Auckland to Los Angeles, security was very tight, and when I finally arrived home, I realized that despite the long trip it was still the same day. I had just experienced a 44 hour Tuesday!
New Zealand is a fascinating and very photogenic country. I’m looking forward to my next visit this October, in the cooler spring months when there will be more snow in the mountains, a greener countryside, and fewer sand flies.
Consider joining E.J. for his 12 day NSN Certified Workshop to New Zealand this October. For more information and a detailed intinerary, please visit our workshops page.