A winter aerial photography expedition with Stephan Romer
As much as the area provides incredible subject matter, getting to these locations is not easy. In many cases, there are no roads in, and even if there were, climbing to two or three thousand metres is not in my skillset. For me, the solution is of course, helicopters.
Many talented helicopter pilots operate in and around the alpine regions of the South Island. Many cut their teeth in the wild days of live deer capture in the 1970s. They can manoeuvre a helicopter in and out of valleys, mountains and wild weather with exceptional skill.
If you have ever wondered what it would be like to spend a day flying above the Southern Alps with one of the country’s best helicopter pilots, I would love to share a recent winter photography expedition.
AERIAL PHOTOGRPAHY SHOOT
From Queenstown to Glenorchy to the Milford Track, flying above Mt Aspiring and Fiordland national parks.
Locations: Dart River, Key Summit, Mt Tutuko, Mt Somnus
The day begins in Queenstown, home of the Romer Gallery, and a trip out to the airport to meet with my pilot, Alfie Speight. Some of you may know the name. Next to Sir Richard ‘ Hannibal ‘ Hayes, Alfie is regarded as one of New Zealand’s most respected and experienced pilots. These men are legendary in their field, but in true Southern Man style, they are unlikely to say much about it.
The mission for today was to capture an image of Mt Tutuko, located in Fiordland National Park. The jagged peak of Mt Tutuko sits at 2,723m high (8,933ft) and is the highest peak in Fiordland. The southeast ridge of Tutuko is considered one of New Zealand’s finest alpine routes.
Travelling by helicopter gives us the opportunity to take in a few other locations along the way.
Dart River, Glenorchy
The first location was Mt Alfred, near Glenorchy. Mt Alfred is an iconic sight on the Glenorchy landscape. Its pyramid-shaped form sits between the Dart and Rees valleys. The Dart and Rees rivers feed Lake Wakatipu, and today I was looking to capture the sunlight reflecting off the braided riverbeds on either side of Mt Alfred. The final image, Dart River, is available as a limited release now.
The drive from Glenorchy to Fiordland would take around five hours. If you were to walk, you could traverse the Routeburn Track, which would take around three days. Today, in the helicopter, the flight takes us around 15 minutes. Not only is it a faster way to get there, it’s an incredible way to appreciate the scale and grandeur of this wilderness area.
From Mt Alfred and Glenorchy, the helicopter travels west towards the mighty expanse of Fiordland.
Fiordland & Milford Sound
The first photography location in Fiordland is Key Summit. The helicopter circles over the summit and I have the opportunity to capture a few angles of one of my favourite landmarks in Fiordland. Key Summit features many times in the collection.
Heading west, we fly over the Milford Track, the famous 4-day hike which finishes at Milford Sound. The Milford Track covers an impressive range of terrain, which is why it is regarded as the finest of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The helicopter flies directly over the 1,154m (3,786ft) high MacKinnon Pass and the highest point of the hike. Anyone who has done the Milford Track knows the Mackinnon Pass is a challenging part of the walk, but well worth it as the view at the top offers views of snow-capped peaks in every direction and the Clinton Valley below.
From here, we pass over the wonderfully named ‘Lady of the Snows’ towards the Llawrenny Peaks. Alfie’s expertise came to the fore as we circle over the location, waiting for the right moment to present itself. I captured the below image of these dramatic rockfaces, the west coast lingers to the right, covered in some low cloud.
Fiordland – Key Summit
Mt Tutuko, Fiordland National Park
Mt Tutuko, Fiordland National Park
It’s now late afternoon, the sun is sinking lower in the sky, and I’m hoping conditions will be suitable for a shot of Mt Tutuko. We depart Llawrenny Peaks flying over Milford Sound and north towards Tutuko.
On the first pass of Mt Tutuko, the shot is looking grey, and lacking enough sunlight. And then, as if it had been ordered, the cloud shifted and sunlight broke through to reveal the glistening face of Mt Tutuko.
This is the magic moment. Mother Nature does precisely as she wants. All I can do is watch, wait and have the camera ready when that perfect moment arrives.
Mt Tutuko is the highest peak in Fiordland National Park (2,723m/8933ft) and New Zealand’s second-highest peak (the tallest peak is Aoraki/Mt Cook at 3,724m). Alfie and I circle a few times to take it all in.
Hollyford to Humboldts to Lake Wakatipu
From here our aerial journey takes us over the Hollyford Valley. The Hollyford Valley is another popular hiking and tramping destination in Fiordland National Park. The Hollyford Track is a bucket-list hike for many. The spectacular traverse takes hikers from the lush Fiordland forest to the wild coastline of Martin’s Bay.
We begin to head towards home, flying east over the Humboldt Mountains and Mt Somnus. Mt Somnus is another favourite location of mine, its sharp peak reaches 2,293m (7,522ft) and provides some wonderful opportunities the way the sunlight works on its snowy ridges. Alfie expertly manoeuvres close to the snow and we circle this impressive sight a few times to capture it from different angles.
In this final image, you can catch a glimpse of our first location, Mt Alfred, we are close to home. A short flight up Lake Wakatipu and back to Queenstown.
Mt Somnus looking back towards Mt Tutoko (next to the sunset).
And from the other side, Mt Somnus looking back towards Queenstown with Mt Bonpland (the highest peak of the Humboldt Mountain Range) at the end of the ridgeline close to the horizon. A glimpse of Lake Wakatipu on the left and Mt Alfred again.