My 14 hours at Aoraki

I started out march with getting up at 6 AM at the Moeraki boulders, 75 km north of Dunedin on the east coast of the south island of New Zealand. I did not know it yet, but these next 24 hours would be some of the most productive of all my hours in New Zealand. I was driving around with Grant Jiang at the time, exploring and photographing the southern region of New Zealand, and of course the picturesque dragon egg-like boulders were a stop on the way.

The weather did not look great however, but sleeping in a car seat, getting up and walking around for a bit can sometimes be refreshing. I made my way down to the beach, hoping to have a bit of moody morning alone time, but as with most popular photo spots in New Zealand, a few people were around.

 
 

Unfortunately it was high tide, so half of the boulders were inaccessible due to the waves constantly crashing in. Anyway, I got my shot, got back to the car, had a small breakfast and woke up Grant who did not bother getting up for the cloudy morning. We quickly got on the road with the 250 km journey to Mt. Cook in front of us. At first, we were not optimistic about the weather, but as we drove inland the clouds started dispersing, and soon we had to put on the air-condition to keep the sweating at bay. With a lunch stop at Twizel, our first stop was at Peters lookout, 45 km from the Mt. Cook village. Grant and I had actually met up just around here just 12 days before. It was completely cloudy that day, so I was pleased to now being able to see the tallest peak of New Zealand in all its glory.

Grant had already been at Mt. Cook a few weeks back, but as clouds had obstructed his shot of Mt. Cook, he came back to give it a second chance - this time with me on tow. Immediately after parking the car we set out for the Hooker valley track, a 5 km track leading up to the glacial Hooker Lake, located at the base of Mt. Cook. This is basically the closest you can get to the highest peak in New Zealand without having to do any real hiking, as the track is pretty well maintained. Walking the track takes around an hour, crossing three swing bridges and offering a grand view of the surrounding mountains.

 
 

Because of the glacial nature of the Hooker lake, icebergs can be found there. Sadly due to the decline of the hooker glacier, icebergs are a rare sight these days - only a few big icebergs covered in dirt floated around in the cold water. At this point the light was quickly fading, and as the last light slowly crept up the slopes of Mt. Cook, we had to rush our way back to the photo spot Grant had in mind which was located just after the first swing bridge, 2.5 km from the lake. After a bit of running (which is hard with a big photo backpack on), we made it to the location, with around 20 minutes to sunset.

 
 

As I mostly shoot my landscapes with my 15 mm lens, I setup in the middle of the stream on a rock to shoot the fading sun on the mountain with the flowing stream in the foreground. Sadly the 15 mm focal length does not do the size of the mountain any justice, and I did not have time to get a photo with my 50 mm of the last sun of the day, even though I quite like the pastel colors that appeared in the sky after the sun had set.

Even though the day was over, the action had barely started. According to the aurora forecast, the solar wind activity would top at that night between 3 and 5 AM, perfect conditions to view aurora australis, as the phase of the moon meant that it would not appear in the night sky. After a beer at the Mt. Cook alpine lodge, we set alarm for 03:30 AM, and went to sleep in the car.

Deliberately waking up in the middle of the night is not a lot of fun, and we were pretty disappointing to see the aurora forecast dialed down to levels that would not be visible to the naked eye. I was still excited about the phase of the moon however, because this meant that I could go out and do some milky way photography. While Grant kept sleeping in the car, I headed out in the darkness, with no light source but my little headlamp. After a rather unfortunate encounter with a possum (scary creatures!), I found my first spot. I had a particular shot in mind using my 50 mm lens which I usually don't use for astro photography, but because of the narrow focal lenght, I had a hard time finding a spot low enough to have my own figure in the foreground of the frame. After around 30 minutes of wandering around in the darkness, trying not to overthink the weird noises around me (I later found out they were mountain parrots screaming), I found my spot.

 
 

I was pretty pleased with this shot, so I started heading back to the car with the thought that I could catch a few hours of sleep before getting up for sunrise at 7 AM. On the way back I came across a small path leading up to the alpine memorial, a pyramid shaped rock structure commemorating mountaineers that perished in the area. It also serves as a good lookout, so I got my 15 mm lens out and tried to get a shot of the milky way core. When I looked at the exposure, I noticed this purple glow down in the right hand corner, right above the mountains, and through my head went 'no fucking way'. I turned my tripod 45°, and had to wait 50 seconds for my camera to take another exposure (25 seconds exposure + 25 seconds noise reduction). But what showed up on the back of my camera screen made the wait worth it, as I had never thought to witness during my time in New Zealand. Blue, purple and magenta beams of light seemed to hover over the Mt. Cook Village in the distance, and even though I could not see it with my eyes, I was awestruck.

 
 

After being caught up in the moment for around 10 minutes, I realized Grant was still sleeping in the car, unbeknownst to what was going on above his head. I started chiming down his cellphone to yell at him to get his ass over to where I was, but phone was turned off, 30 minutes later I got a text message with a series of swear words, and 10 minutes after that I could see the light from his torch slowly walking up the path to my position.

At this point the clock showed almost 6 AM, so there were really no reason to go back to sleep. Instead we went up the Hooker Valley track again to that very same spot we had been just 10 hours before. It was freezing out, and because of our position in relation to Mt. Cook, we did not really get any of that sweet morning light on the mountain. We didn't care much though.

The walk back to the car was exhausting though, but in the car park 3 keas were flying around, finding whatever food scraps they could. These were the mountain parrots I had head just a few hours before, and seeing them fool around on the parking lot made me feel a bit stupid about being scared of them in the dark. Such a nice way ending off this amazing night seeing the only alpine parrot species in the world.

The 14 hours I spent at Mt. Cook was some of my most productive ever when it comes to photography. Even though I did not see the aurora with my naked eye, seeing that first picture pop up on my camera screen is something I will never forget.

This experience is also a perfect example of why I love night time photography. Usually the eye is immensely better at capturing reality than our cameras are: When you want to take a picture of the beautiful full moon, and it shows up on your camera as a dot is a good example. In most cases, the eye is simply better than the camera, but in these situations the camera actually sees something that we cannot, whether it is the milky way core, or the aurora australis dancing above the mountains.