Visiting the South Island of New Zealand

New Zealand offers photographers an immense number of photographic opportunities to capture nature at its finest. These are just a few destinations which will offer a great experience. I’ve visited the South Island of New Zealand twice – in 2009 for 9 days, and in 2015 for 10. During both trips, I had rented a car, and driven a route that I had planned ahead of time. I would go back in a heartbeat!

Location and how to get there

View The South Island of New Zealand in a larger map

While New Zealand is one of the most remote destinations in the world, it is a well developed country, and is quite easy to get to. Air New Zealand is the national carrier and offers several direct flights from destinations around the world. Qantas, Virgin and JetStar all fly from multiple airports in Australia. Several other major carriers will get you there, either directly, or via their code share partners.

I’ve flown into the South Island at both Christchurch, and Queenstown. In the past, I would have suggested both gateway points offered options. However, following the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, the city has been in a rebuilding phase, and at the time of writing this in 2016, is still not the greatest of destinations for visitors. Furthermore, Queenstown is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful approaches into an airport, and is a must do for every intrepid traveller.

The Google Map is a touring route that I had used during my visit to New Zealand in 2015.


New Zealand is a developed country and is generally safe. Like most developed nations, visitors may need a visa to enter. New Zealand participates in the visa waiver program and has reciprocal arrangements with a large number of countries permitting either visa-free entry, or a visa-on-arrival arrangement.

New Zealand is also an island with no significant barrier from the winds coming off the Southern Ocean. Irrespective of the season, temperatures here can drop very suddenly, without warming. It is usually advisable to pack layer of clothing, and include a warm jacket, hat and gloves. You will also do a fair bit of walking on hiking trails here, so it’s important that you have a comfortable pair of shoes, or preferably, a strong pair of hiking boots, for the days when you are out and about. Some people also recommend the use of hiking poles. (I am one of those people! You can purchase a pair for about $20).

New Zealand also offers generally good mobile coverage, except in the Fiordlands. Once you arrive at the airport, consider getting a SIM card. I’d used one from Vodafone, which offered great service throughout my trip.

Last but not least, carry a torch, some insect repellant, sunscreen, and lots of drinking water with you in your rental car.

Best times to visit

As with all landscape photography destinations, the best times to visit New Zealand are during the southern late summer to mid autumn (March through late April), and the southern late spring to early summer (early September to late November). Winter attracts lots of ski enthusiasts. Summer is the busiest tourist season.

Suggested Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Queenstown

Queenstown is a hub for the Southern Lakes District and home to one of the most beautiful airports in the world. I recommend flying into this city, and using it as a base while exploring the area around.

On the first day, I would recommend allowing your body to adapt to the time difference and jet lag. I would recommend taking a drive up the Crown Range Road which overlooks Queenstown to photograph the valley and the mountain range known as The Remarkables. This is particularly breathtaking on a clear night when the stars come out.

Stay at: The Novotel Lakeside
Recommended length of stay: 1 night – use it as a base of travel.

  • Drive the Crown Range Road.

Days 2 and 3: Wanaka, and the West Coast Glaciers

While you could do this in a single day, I recommend that you split it across two days to fully enjoy it and not wear yourself down. The West Coast Glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef – are a decent drive (around 5 hours) through winding roads from Queenstown. To do it in a single day involves about 14 hours of activity. I would recommend driving up there on one day, and driving back the next.

Wanaka is the first stop. Its main drawcards are the Wanaka Tree, the Mount Aspiring range on Lake Wanaka, and the Mount Aspiring National Park. How long you choose to spend here is entirely up to you. I am of the opinion that the true drawcard of the area is the Wanaka Tree, which is a mere few hundred metres from the main road, and is accessible via a well-marked gravel path.

Allow yourself about an hour to truly take it in. If you are adventurous, you may choose to photograph it on a clear moonless night to capture the Milky Way in the background.

The next point of interest along this route is Lake Hawea. You can’t miss it. There are a range of different spots to photograph it from. One of my favourites is the segment called “The Neck”.

On a calm day, the waters will clearly reflect the mountains in the distance. Allow yourself about 45 minutes to take this area in.

About 45 minutes further on, Fantail falls will present its way tucked on the right hand side of the highway. It is a stop that most drivers on this route make to rest and stretch their legs, and is a small cascade on a crystal clear stream that is surrounded by tomes. You may like to spend a 30 minutes photographing this cascade before moving on to the glaciers.

The Fox Glacier is next on the route. It is the first of two glaciers in very close proximity to each other on the West Coast. The glacier is easy to access on foot, via a trail that passes through some very rocky terrain. Expect to spend about 90 minutes on a return trip from the parking lot to the glacier and back.

The Franz Josef glacier is about 30 minutes north of the Fox Glacier and is the second of the two glaciers. Both glaciers are impressive. You can park in the parking lots and then hike up the trail to the glaciers. The hikes are not particularly challenging but require one to have a reasonable level of fitness. It also requires good, strong hiking boots, and if you care for, a pair of hiking poles.

However, if you want to truly get up close and personal with these rivers of ice, consider taking a guided hiking tour through the ice caverns of the glaciers, or better yet, a helicopter ride to the summits of the glaciers.

I highly recommend the helicopter rides. Depending on your choice, you may require anything from a few hours to a couple of days in the area.

North of Franz Josef, Lake Mapourika lies on the left hand side of the highway. Its location is very understated and is easy to pass by. It is a flat lake with a jetty extending into its waters which, on a calm day, create a natural mirror.

Allow yourself 30 minutes to take in this location and photograph this lake.

Stay at: The Alpine Glacier Motel Franz Josef
Recommended length of stay: 1 – 2 nights

  • Photograph the Wanaka Tree
  • Photograph Lake Hawea and the mountains.
  • Photograph Fantail Falls.
  • Hike across the valley up to the source of the Fox Glacier.
  • Photograph both glaciers.
  • Go glacier hiking.*
  • Take a helicopter ride to the top of the glaciers.*
  • Photograph Lake Mapourika.*
  • Return to Queenstown.

*  skip if doing this in a single day

Days 4 and 5: Fiordlands National Park

The Fiordlands are pure magic. However, they are remote, and take time to get to.

There are two major drawcards here – Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound.

There is no road access to Doubtful Sound. The only way to access it is through a tour. I recommend the one organized by Real Journeys.

You have the option of doing the overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound (which is what I recommend), or the day trip to Doubtful Sound. Real Journeys offers the option to do both trips.

When you book with Real Journeys, they will pick you up from your hotel in Queenstown and put you on a coach that will take you to both Fiords. The serve excellent food on these cruises, and offer you the opportunity to kayak in the fiords, or take a ride on a skiff deeper into the sounds.

There is road access to Milford Sound, and you could stay at the Milford Sound Lodge. Driving will allow you to stop at the many places along the highway that are worth spending a few moments to take in.

Stay onboard the Navigator in Doubtful Sound, and at the Milford Sound Lodge in Milford Sound.
Recommended length of stay: 2 nights.

  • Do the Doubtful Sound Cruise.
  • Do the Milford Sound Cruise.
  • Photograph the Chasm, and Falls Creek.
  • Photograph Mitre Peak at sunset and sunrise.

Other links of interest:

Day 6: Take it easy in and around Queenstown

By this stage, you’ll feel like you need a breather. Queenstown will offer you that. I’d recommend making it a low key day to explore Glenorchy, which is an hour’s drive from the Queenstown city centre.

It’s a nice little town, that will allow you to take a walk by the lake and check out a few heritage structures. 90 minutes at Glenorchy is sufficient to take it in.

If you still have the energy, I recommend turning around and visitng Arrowtown, which is just outside Queenstown.

It offers a quaint little historic town which seems to have slipped back in time, and has a selection of tea rooms to grab a hot beverage.

I’d recommend topping off the day by getting dinner at The Peak observation deck and restaurant in Queenstown. It offers you panoramic views of The Remarkables and the city below.

Stay at: The Novotel Lakeside

Recommended length of stay: 1 night.

  • Visit Glenorchy.
  • Visit Arrowtown.
  • Have dinner at the Peak.

Days 7 and 8: Visit Mount Cook National Park

Mount Cook National Park is the heart of middle earth. There are heaps of drives and trails to walk, and it also offers amazingly dark skies with clear views of the Milky Way that look over the Southern Alps.

The national park lies beyond Lake Pukaki which is fed through braided rivers of the Tasman Glacier. There are lots of landscape photography locations in the park. This was one of the filming locations for Lord of the Rings.

This park offers dark skies, and amazing hiking trails, and is great for both landscape photography, and night time astrophotography.

Stay at: Aoraki Mount Cook Lodge

Recommended length of stay: 2 – 3 nights.

  • Hike the Tasman Valley Trail and the Hooker Valley Trail to the bottom of Mount Cook.
  • Visit the Tasman Glacier.
  • Take a helicopter ride to the top of the Southern Alps and the Glaciers.

Day 9: Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is a location that you must take in. One night is good. Two nights are even better. Ideally, you want to stay here during a clear moonless night. The dark skies in the area make the area great for night time photography.

When the wind is calm, the lake offers an amazing and surreal scene, where the glacial fed waters create a mirror that reflect the peaks of the Southern Alps.

At night, when the stars come out, the Church of the Good Shepherd becomes one of the most beloved subjects to photograph, with the Milky Way being clearly visible, even with the naked eye.

Also in the area is Mount John Observatory. You can book ahead to take part in an astrophotography and sky-gazing tour. I recommend booking ahead of time.

Last but not least, about 14km out of Lake Tekapo, on the highway towards Mount Cook, there is a sheep station called Irishman’s Creek which has a mailbox on the side of the road. It is relatively unknown and offers a far quieter location to photograph than Church of the Good Shepherd.

Stay at: Three Rivers Lodge
Recommended length of stay: 1 – 2 nights.

  • Photograph the lake when the wind is calm, both during the day, and at night.
  • Photograph the Milky Way above the Church of the Good Shepherd.
  • Photograph the lake and the valley from the summit of Mount John Observatory.
  • Visit Mount John Observatory for a star-gazing tour.
  • Photograph the mailbox at Irishman’s Creek.

Other links of interest: Mount John Observatory

Day 10: Moeraki Boulders, Lindis Pass, and a return to Queenstown

Moeraki is a bit out of the way, and has one claim to fame – the Moeraki Boulders. It is about three hours’ drive from Mount Cook National Park. There is only one thing to see here – the boulders which are sometimes referred to as God’s Marbles, or more simply, the Moeraki Boulders. I recommend leaving Lake Tekapo early, arriving here and allowing yourself about two hours to take photographs and get some lunch, and then start driving to Queenstown.

On the way back to Queenstown, the highway will lead you through Lindis Pass. While there isn’t much purpose to stay here, there are a few good hikes. However, the main appeal of this area is a few landscapes. I would stop here for about 30 minutes to take a few photographs and then continue to drive to Queenstown.

If you’re on a leisurely pace, you will drive into Queenstown after dark. There is a lookout on the Crown Range Road that overlooks Queenstown, and if you’re lucky, will give you a glimpse of the off occassion of the Aurora Australis.

Stay at: The Novotel Lakeside
Recommended length of stay: 1 night.

  • Photograph the Moeraki Boulders.
  • Photograph Lindis Pass.
  • Photograph the Milky Way and take in the stars at the top of the Crown Range Road.

Gear Required

Camera Gear

  • Your camera and lenses. I would recommend a wide-angle lens for cityscapes, and a mid-range zoom lens (around 24-75mm) or general street photography. Occasionally, you might see a geisha or maiko. If you’re looking for close-ups, I recommend that you carry a good telephoto lens (something like a 70-200mm);
  • Any ND or polarising filters that you plan to use (day-time shoots only);
  • A micro-fibre wipe/cloth to keep the lens clean;
  • Tripod;
  • Cable release.

Non Camera Gear

  • Comfortable walking shoes.
  • Towel to dry yourself in case you get rained on.
  • Appropriate outer gear. Consider the season at the time that you’re travelling.
  • A hat.
  • A small torch or flash light (for night-time shoots only).
  • Water and some snacks (you will be probably get hungry and thirsty while walking around).
  • Hand sanitiser,
  • Mobile phone.

The accounts in this article are compiled from my own experiences from trips that I paid for myself. This post has not been sponsored – be it by any individual, commercial entity, or any other organisation. The opinions reflected herein are strictly my own.

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