Having lived in Colorado, I thought I knew what dark skies looked like. In truth, I had no idea. Until I moved to New Zealand. How dark is it here? Well, in most places, on a partly cloudy night, the clouds show up as slightly grey, a bit lighter than the clear sky. Here in NZ, the clouds are completely black (because there is little/no light reflecting off them) and the night sky is actually a bit light (from starlight). The Milky Way is bright enough to cast shadows on the ground.
Canterbury, New Zealand. It’s often the place visitors pass through to get to somewhere more exciting. But for the last 12 months, it has been our home. And we’ve gotten to explore some of this often overlooked part of New Zealand. There are some gems in the area, some well-known, some not so well-known. Here’s what we saw.
If my recent experience at Moeraki Boulders wasn’t enough, I got another lesson in taking a chance again at New Brighton Pier in Christchurch. My friends Nick, Jorg, and I had agreed on a 5am start from town. When we started off, it was drizzling quite steadily with a completely overcast sky (or as much as we could see under still-dark skies). We kept our expectations low, but still hoped for something, as we drove the hour and 15 minutes through sometimes torrential rain to New Brighton.
So much of photography is down to chance — that was brought home quite forcefully during our last getaway on the South Island. Since we had only a weekend free, it had to be relatively close by. Thankfully, we had something that fit the bill perfectly — Moeraki Boulders outside Oamaru, a short 2-hour drive.
If you asked me for only one single place to visit on the South Island, I would recommend Aoraki/Mount Cook without hesitation. It has everything — flat plains/valleys, soaring mountains, impossibly blue lakes, rivers, glaciers, and forests. If you want a luxury hotel stay and do not want to do any hard hikes, there’s something for you. If you want something more middle-of-the-road and want to do some easy/short walks, there’s something for you. If you’re hardcore and want tough multi-day treks, complete with backcountry skiing or kayaking, there’s something for you too.
After the low-key atmosphere of Fiordland and Te Anau, Queenstown is somewhat of a shock to the system. It’s big, it’s brash, it’s bold. By New Zealand standards, that is. If Wanaka is like Summit County (Colorado), then Queenstown is more a mixture of Aspen and Boulder. Of New Zealand.
I’d heard about Fiordland ever since moving to New Zealand. Words like “spectacular” were usually thrown around in conjunction. So I figured that we should probably check it out during our time here on the South Island. Now, if you ever visit New Zealand and especially if you spend some time on the South Island, you might get mountain fatigue by the time you reach the southwestern corner of the South Island that is Fiordland. The Southern Alps offer stunning vistas for much of the island, and you would be forgiven for wondering if the long drive out to Fiordland would be worth it. But trust me — it is absolutely worth every kilometre and hour spent getting there. Many countries have a defining “highlight”, something that is unique (or nearly so). Fiordland is New Zealand’s defining highlight.
Wanaka, in the one day we were there, reminded us quite a bit of our old home in the US, Summit County, Colorado. There’s a large lake, Lake Wanaka, ringed by mountains on all sides, and the town sitting on the flat areas. The central core of the town caters to tourists, with residents seemingly scattered around the outskirts (again, similar to Summit). We were there for only one night as a stop-over on the way to Te Anau in Fiordland.
Not many people visit Glenorchy, I don’t think. The sleepy little town of 200 is certainly out of the way. Past the tourist mecca of Queenstown, at the end of a winding road, it is practically the last town at the end of the (paved) road. You’d be forgiven for giving Glenorchy a miss. But you would be missing out on a real gem of New Zealand.
Topping out at 3,724 m (12,218 ft), Aoraki/Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand. It served as Sir Edmund Hillary’s training gound for Everest, and is one of the highlights of any trip to the South Island. During the term holiday, we spent four fantastic days there, exploring the trails through the valleys.