The Most Beautiful Country In The World: A Photography Road Trip Across New Zealand

Written by: Chris Shane

For the intrepid traveler, with today’s cheap airfare and social media eager to show us the world, it feels like almost any destination is attainable. New Zealand however, especially if you live in New England, is still one of those once in a lifetime trips. Airfare is cheaper, but it isn’t faster: from Boston it takes well over 24 hours to travel 9,300 miles, nearly halfway around our planet, to the land we all know and recognize as Middle Earth.

With that in mind, I went on trip of a lifetime. As an adventure photographer, this also meant I would be travelling with a lot of gear. 

For camera gear, I brought:

Bodies: Sony A7RII (with Metabones IV Adapter), Canon 5D MkIII

Lenses: Canon 14mm 2.8, Canon 16–35mm 2.8, Canon 50mm 1.2, and a Canon 100–400mm 4.5–5.6

Tripods: Manfroto BeFree Travel Tripod, Vanguard Alta Pro

I lugged this all from Boston to Los Angeles, an 8 hour layover, and a 14 hour flight to New Zealand. Once in Auckland and my luggage accounted for, I took a hopper flight to Christchurch, met my girlfriend Sarah (who was already there for work), and picked up the rental van. Ah, the Juicy Van!

For the next 10 days the van would be our home as we circumnavigated around the South and North Islands. In New Zealand, campervans are a way of life and quite a regular sight on the road. It’s customary to give a thumbs up or an overly enthusiastic wave as you pass by. And as one might imagine, campervans are usually easy to spot from afar. 

Not long after leaving Christchurch, we found ourselves surrounded by high peaks and pointing out familiar scenes from Lord of the Rings. Desperately eager to break from the almost 48 hour routine of travel, we raced West towards Fox Glacier in hopes of catching the last hour of light in the valley. For the first time since landing, we were unmistakably in New Zealand.

Left: Caste Hill, used for a battle scene in Lord of the Rings. Right: Looking down into Arthur’s Pass

For our first sunrise in New Zealand, we headed for Lake Matheson to get a first glimpse of the mighty Mt. Cook. The lake is a well known tourist and photography spot because of the gorgeous mountainous view and perfect reflections they form on the lake during windless days. I skipped the overcrowded wooden boardwalk that extends out over the water and instead, headed for higher ground for a telephoto shot focusing on Mount Cook. With popular areas, I find myself appreciating a photograph that finds a different perspective than what one might see in a google search on the area. With this approach, I felt like I walked away with a slightly more original photograph that morning. 

The summit of Mount Cook catches the first rays of sun. (f6.7, 1/10s, 100mm)
A late afternoon storm lights up the glacier-fed lake along the road to Wanaka and Roy’s Peak.

Almost everyone, if they’re on Instagram anyways, has seen the view from Roy’s Peak. Chris Burkard and countless other photographers have made it Insta-famous, and for good reason. The scene from just below the true summit looks and feels like the epitome of New Zealand, it’s as if you were standing inside a perfect snow-globe of towering peaks, glacial-fed lakes, lush green fields, and the peaceful town of Wanaka down below. Just as I had looked for a new angle back at Lake Matheson, I no longer cared on the top of Roy’s Peak — the shot felt too obvious, no matter how many times it’s been replicated. 

We spent an hour there in the late-autumn sun while soaking in the magic right before our eyes. I used the Canon 50mm 1.2 lens and shot in columns to stitch into panoramas once back home, before we headed down for a well deserved beer.

The famous view from Roy’s Peak.

Left: Looking into Mount Aspiring National Park. Right: The town of Wanaka.

That Wanaka Tree.

From Wanaka we headed South to Fjordlands National Park, home of Milford Sound. With a rickety engine and well over 100,000 miles on it, our Juicy van felt like a less than ideal vehicle for the impossibly winding roads with casual 1,000 foot drops to the side. I kept my focus on sticking to the left side of the road and evading tour bus after tour bus.

When you arrive in Milford Sound the park road takes you directly to the well known view of Mitre Peak, towering cliffs abound, and the Tasman Sea. It’s also, coincidentally, a dead end.

We pulled in with sunset fast approaching, and I made a b-line towards the ocean with all of my gear. I had heard this location was notoriously buggy, so I covered every inch of skin I could and got to work. I spent two full hours shooting a collection of long exposures, panoramas, and time-lapses on the beach, moving only for the incoming tide. 

Before our flight to the North Island, I spent a night out in the middle of Hooker Valley. With winds ripping through the valley, all from the tail-end of a gigantic storm, I ran time-lapses and long-exposures to stack together for what have become some of my favorite astrophotography images. Even with a gusts well over 50 miles per hour, including one that knocked a tripod and camera over, the skies that night were darkest I’ve ever seen.

I left the South Island on a high note as we flew from Queenstown back to the North Island. We had hopes of relaxing and quite honestly, sleeping more than just a few hours a night, so we chose a small beach area, set the GPS coordinates in, and headed out. 

Just as we thought we had seen it all in New Zealand, we stumbled across the Coromandel. For us, we were almost tired of being completely in awe every single day. We chose the Coromandel thinking it was a quiet place to reflect back on a road trip of a lifetime. Instead, we found yet another little slice of hidden paradise all to ourselves — typical New Zealand.

Along the beach in the Coromandel, day and night.

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