My two goals for 2021 was to travel more and get better at photography. I love to do both, but neither were things I made a conscious effort to prioritise. One day I was scrolling through Instagram when I came across a picture of Mount Cook/Aoraki from one of my favourite New Zealand Photographers.
“Winter Wonderland Photography Tour” – the post read.
It involved five days of travelling around the South Island and learning to take photos in some of the most beautiful parts of the country. It felt like a sign. The perfect way to combine the two goals had fallen right into my IG feed.
Day 1 – Arriving in Mount Cook/Aoraki
On the first day, we met at the crack of dawn in Christchurch before making our way to the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. If you’re making this drive yourself, then you have to stop off at the Fairlie Bakehouse. They’re famous for their pies, and after trying one, I can see why.
As we got closer to Aoraki, mountains started to surround us. In some parts, the mist tried to swallow the mountains up and in others, the sunshine lit them up in all their glory. As I watched the stunning landscape tumble past, I knew going on this trip was the right call.
We arrived at the Hermitage, which would be our home for the next few days. After and introductions and a photography 101 session, we were off on our first adventure.
There are many beautiful walks in the Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park. Some of them are nice and short; others (like the Muller Hut) are more intense. We opted for one of the more accessible trails for our first photographic opportunity—a hike to Kea Point.
We started at the White Horse Hill Campground at the end of Hooker Valley Road. The track is well maintained and leads up to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. It takes about 30minutes to get to the viewpoint at the end of the trail, where you’ll get to enjoy views of Mount Sefton, Hooker valley, Mueller Glacier Lake and of course, Aoraki/Mount Cook.
We made it just before sunset, and it was a great place to watch the last light hitting the mountain. As it got darker, the mist started to roll into the valley, and we could even hear avalanches rumbling in the distance.
Once we’d taken our photos, we put on our headlamps made our way back down the dark track.
Day 2 – Best Mount Cook/Aoraki Walks
Our second day started nice and early. I am traditionally not a morning person, but sunrise and sunset are some of the best times for landscape photography, so getting up before the sun does is part of the territory.
Our sunrise spot was Tasman Lake which is a short drive from Mt Cook/ Aoraki village. The walk takes about 30 mins each way (depending on your pace) and if you’re heading there in the dark, definitely take a head torch to help guide you.
The walk is relatively easy but does get a bit steep leading down to the lake, so be careful and take your time.
It was my first time visiting the glacial lake, and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful start to the day. The sky slowly started to turn pink until all we could see was a swirl of vibrant colours outlining the mountains and reflecting in the lake.
As the colour started to fade, the mist started rolling in. After a while, it did engulf the views but added a nice icy ambience to the winter scene.
If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous while you’re in the area, they try the Glacier Explorer experience. A 2.5-hour tour across the glacial lake where you’ll get the chance to learn more about the fantastic location.
Mt Cook/Aoraki Village
After we returned from our morning excursion, we headed back to the Hermitage for some breakfast. Dining options are limited due to COVID, but what is available will be delicious. These remote areas have been hit hard by the lack of overseas tourism, so they need local support, and it’s a great chance to experience the area without the crowds.
After breakfast, we hopped in the van to explore the village and take some classic road shots with the mountains as our backdrop.
If you want to replicate these shots, please, whatever you do. Do not try them by yourself. Most roads have a 100km/h speed limit, so watching out for cars and keeping yourself safe should be your number one priority.
For our final excursion of the day, we headed to Hooker Lake for sunset. The track takes about 1.5-hours each way. It’s a relatively easy way, and the track is well maintained. In my opinion, it’s probably one of the best short walks in New Zealand when you consider the epicness of the views with the amount of effort.
Along the way, we stopped to take photos of the Hooker River with Aoraki looming in the background. There are plenty of other great photo spots along the way, including swing bridges, the boardwalk and a few lookouts.
Once we arrived at the lake, the view blew my mind. We had perfect conditions. The icebergs were floating in the smooth lake, which perfectly reflected the mountains; the only thing missing was the colour from the sunset.
After exploring the area a little and picking my photo spot, it was time to wait. Once again, we got incredibly lucky with the sky turning pink and purple.
Day 3 – Flying Over Mount Cook/Aoraki
Attempted sunrise flight
We got a lot of good luck on day two, and on day three, we learned that things don’t always go according to plan. We got up very, very earlier to drive to Lake Tekapo Airport in the hopes of making a sunrise flight. Unfortunately, the clouds had other ideas, which meant we could not head up.
Instead we went to Tekapo for breakfast, hoping that the clouds would clear and we’d be able to head off after we’d eaten. Tekapo is a small town with some great cafés and is home to the famous Church of the Good Shepherd.
After breakfast, the clouds were still hanging around, so we drove around the Mackenzie Basin looking for ways to use the fog to our advantage by taking moody autumn shots.
Successful flight over Mount Cook/Aoraki
After lunch in Twizel, the skies finally cleared, and we got the call from Air Safaris that the flight could go ahead. We boarded the 14 person plane and then headed off into the skies. The flight path goes across the Southern Alps to the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. It provides spectacular views of the mountains and the braided river systems of the Mackenzie Basin. It’s a must try experience.
If your plan on taking photo’s while on the flight, my advice would be to take as many pictures as possible. Window glare and a moving plane mean, not every shot will be a winner, so volume is your friend.
Sunset and Stars
After the flight, we headed to Lake Alexandrina for sunset. It’s one of the less well-known lakes in the area but is absolutely stunning.
Once the sun started to disappear, we headed to Twizel for dinner and, on the way home, kept an eye on the clouds to see if there was a chance of astrophotography. Thankful the luck we had lost in the morning came back, and we were able to get some clear shots of the Milky Way behind the mountains.
Day 4 – The Wider Area
Omarama clay cliffs
It was another foggy start to the day, so once again, it was time to try use it to our advantage. Our tour guides decided to take us to the Omarama Clay Cliffs, which were not on the original itinerary but were on my 2021 travel bucket list, so I was pretty excited.
These incredible rock formations tower over the ground, and the fog added to the otherworldly feel of the place. The cliffs are on private land, and there is a $5 admission fee which is well worth it to explore this fantastic place.
The next stop on our making the clouds work for us adventure was a trip up Mt John. This peak is home to the Mt John Observatory, which offers a range of activities (which I would love to go back and try), but we were there for the cloud inversion.
Seeing the Mackenzie basin covered with a layer of cloud, mountains rising from beneath, and clear blue skies was such a visual treat. It 100% made up for all the inconvenience the clouds had caused.
Tasman Lake again
To finish the day, we headed back to Tasman Lake. This time, we went up to the lookout rather than the edge of the lake. Unfortunately, the sky didn’t burst into an array of colours, but the view was still spectacular.
We then headed back to the hotel for dinner at the Hermitage’s Alpine Restaurant. The food was incredible and the perfect way to finish off the day.
Day 5 – Saying Goodbye to Mount Cook/Aoraki
On the last day, we met one last time to learn how to edit our photo’s in Lightroom. I have used Lightroom before, but my approach was always “make it up as I go”. I learned a lot, and it was great to understand how to make my photo’s look the way I wanted.
Rach Stewart, Daniel Murray and Lee Cook were all fantastic tutors. While I could have just gone to all the places by myself, I’m so glad I went on this trip. It was awesome getting to learn from some pros and meet some wonderful people who have the same love of nature and photography as I do.
Pure Photo Adventures tours are happening again in 2022, and I highly recommend going. Who knows, I might see you there.