" The hunt for the Milky Way - New Zealand "

The hunt for the Milky Way – in New Zealand

Milky Way Tekapo New Zealand

When we put our itinerary together for this trip, I had my eye on Milky Way photography opportunities (a new, challenging and pretty geeky hobby of mine). However the main (and conflicting) objective was to chase summer around the world – get some sun for a change. You see, us Brits have severe vitamin D deficiency; it’s what makes us all miserable and cynical – I’m sure of it (speaking in generalities of course). So if we were going to give up our livelihoods for 9 months, at the very least we wanted a long dose of sunshine.

Anyway, the inconvenient layout of the planet & its position relative to the sun meant that we would be travelling clockwise to achieve this, and that meant we’d be in New Zealand for January & February. Great for summer; not so great for photographing the Milky Way.

The Milky Way challenge

Milky Way Gallery – Click here

To get good pictures of the Milky Way, you need several stars to align (pardon the hilarious pun). You need good clear weather; low light pollution; a new moon (or the moon to be below the horizon); and for the Milky Way’s galactic core to rise above the horizon at some point during the dark part of the night. In the southern hemisphere, Milky Way season starts in February – although it’s a fairly uncomfortable start, in that it means very late nights or very early mornings (3am). You can always see some parts of the Milky Way in the sky if it’s clear, but the galactic core is the exciting and colourful bit.

Poor old Charlie didn’t really know what she’d gotten herself into for this trip – as our accommodation & transport were one and the same (good old Luci – our faithful Toyota Estima Lucida), it meant that we were joined at the hip and Charlie pretty much had to join me on these adventures.

Attempt 1 – Robin Hood Bay

My first attempt at the Milky Way in NZ was on a beach at the north of the south island. New Zealand, generally speaking is fantastic for light pollution – dark skies everywhere. So this meant that pretty much anywhere in the countryside you’d get a decent night shot if everything else fell into place. This first shot (below) was a bit of a practice run, as it was in January, so the galactic core wasn’t really going to show itself until the moon & then sun started to rise; and it was meant to get cloudy as the night went on. I told you it as difficult!

Milky Way New Zealand - Robin Hood Bay

I also took one with Larry our travel gnome featured. See below. Aww!

A story of partial failure

The next main event was to be in the more central parts of the South Island. We were headed here around about when there was a new moon, and the galactic core would rise at around 3AM. This is a story essentially of partial failure. I think in retrospect I was too ambitious.

We were staying at a place called St Albert, near Wanaka. Great little town, which sits in-between lake Wanaka and lake Hawea. Dividing these lakes are some fantastic mountains. My plan was that we would climb one of them (Isthmus Peak) and watch the sunset, then set up camp while the night progresses; and await the glory of the Milky Way.

So the night came – the weather was looking good, the moon was new – the stars had indeed aligned. It was time. My first proper Milky Way capture in the Southern Hemisphere. Exciting!

The hike & the view – wow what a view

We started the hike early evening, everyone else (naturally) was coming down the mountain and giving us slightly odd looks as we made our way up. It’s a fairly decent ascent to the top of Isthmus Peak – taller than any British Mountain – at around 4500ft; it was a relentless uphill climb over 2 and a half hours to make it for sunset. Sunset was spectacular. I think the best representation I can give you is below. I made this panoramic image with about 8 separate shots stitched together in Lightroom.

We had expected it to be cold & windy at the top of Isthmus, so we did pack a number of layers & windproof jackets, gloves etc. Immediately after taking the above images, and waiting for the wind to dry our sweat-soaked tops – we got dressed. It was going to be a long wait for the galactic core – about 6-7 hours.

We found ourselves a nice little spot where we were slightly sheltered from the wind. I set up the camera and took a few shots as the sun went down and a few afterwards; so that I had some nice foreground shots for the night sky. Foreground landscapes don’t come out too well in the pitch black so it’s sometimes necessary to blend a foreground photo taken earlier in the night with the night shot. An example of a blended image is below; this is me, sat watching the night sky on Isthmus Peak.

Game over

We sat there for about 3-4 hours, until gone midnight – and despite all the layers, all the planning & all the will in the world – we were beaten. It was miserable & freezing; the wind was picking up and the reality of sitting there for a further 2 hours only to then have to hike back down the mountain with numb feet & fingers and the onset of hypothermia was frankly a little off-putting.

Add to this the fact that charlie was fairly convinced we were about to die (she’s a bit dramatic at times) & you’ve got yourself a compelling reason to descend. You see, I’m told that apparently one must look after their wife. I did manage to get some shots of the Milky Way before we left, but not the core. See below. You can actually see the Aurora Australis in this shot too, which is kind of awesome (the green glow in the distance).

So we descended the mountain in the pitch black, freezing cold. It took us about 1.5hrs. A bit scary at times – but hey it’s New Zealand – the worst thing that will happen to you is that a sheep might give you an awkward glance – or a kea might waddle in front of you. Speaking of sheep & scary things though – we did see a mutilated sheep on our walk – it had been torn apart – its head was totally separate to the rest of it. Don’t know what did that – surely not a Kea lol! Tried not to think about it.

Sod’s law

The real kick in the nuts, that I’ve tried not to dwell on; is that on our drive back, I stopped the van and took the camera out again – and basically found a really decent view point that didn’t require a 2.5hr mission up a mountain. OK – not quite as good – but good enough! Of course by then we were knackered, so I took a few shots – still not galactic core, and moved on. The reality though, was that the wind was crazy strong at lake level, and I could barely keep the tripod still. So it wouldn’t have worked out; that’s what I keep telling myself anyway.

The Ultimate

So onto the Mecca; the one and only, awesome, undisputed heavyweight champion (dark sky reserve) of the world…. You guessed it – The Aoraki national dark sky reserve. The only gold class dark sky reserve in the Southern Hemisphere. It was no coincidence that we were headed here for a new moon 🙂

This is where St John’s observatory is based, next to Lake Tekapo. You can’t go up to the observatory at night, but I had my sites on a lake reflection shot anyway. I thought about taking one of the Church of good shepherd, but everyone gets that shot (see google images here) – and that means lots of people traffic, car lights & annoyance. So I found myself a nice spot at the side of Lake Tekapo that would hopefully give me some good results. I had to point towards the town which was a bit upsetting, as there would be light pollution there; but sometimes this can serve you well – and light up the foreground a bit – so fingers crossed!

This time, we woke at 3AM, and Charlie joined me – voluntarily! She could have stayed asleep in the van, but nope. I think she loves it really. We sat at the side of the lake for a couple of hours, and I took dozens of shots, so that I could assemble a panoramic like the one below. This time, we got the galactic core. Look at all that colour – it’s incredible.

Why so colourful?

To the naked eye, it’s a milky grey / white cloud that’s quite subtle in the dark sky; as in low-light conditions it’s only the eye’s rods that function – hence we see in black & white. But the camera’s sensor is able to detect the light & its colour after absorbing it for 20 or so seconds. I find this incredible; that a mere Digital SLR camera can pick up this much detail from space. It’s magical. The weather was perfect – clear sky, no wind so the lake was still & reflective. Yay – my first galactic core photo!

Milky Way New Zealand Tekapo Panoramic

The moon & weather started to get in the way again after this night, and so another few weeks went by before I got another chance. I had a few sessions in the north island – in the Bay of Islands (where I dragged our friends Ali & Raeeka who were on their honeymoon – I think they enjoyed it – sort of, maybe); and finally by Mount Taranaki.

This post has turned out to be very long so I won’t bore you with the details, but some of these shots are illustrated in my ‘Into the Night’ collection if you want to browse 🙂

Going forwards

As for night shots along the rest of the trip – Chile & the Atacama desert offered some amazing opportunities; and the next stop will be Peru. It looks like Canada may be slightly badly timed (short, summer nights & very little glacatic core presence when we are there), but I’ll maybe get 1 or 2 opportunities up there too 🙂

Thanks for reading (those of you that made it to the end!)

Andy 🙂

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