Stormy Southern Alps

A trip to the Canterbury Plains beneath the Southern Alps delivers the quintessential South Island experience—wild weather and wondrous scenery.

Running the length of the South Island, the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps is an immense alpine environment boasting thousands of glaciers, many of which I have photographed over the years. However, on my most recent photographic expedition, I was not venturing to the icy tops but instead exploring the incredible braided rivers of the Canterbury Plains far below, most notably the Rangitata River.


The Rangitata River

has its origins in the Southern Alps, beginning at the confluence of the Clyde and Havelock rivers. Both these rivers originate high in the Alps, fed by snow and glacier melt. The Rangitata is one of fourteen rivers deemed to be of significant value because of the ecosystem it supports and its role in forming the vast Canterbury Plains. Braided river systems are unique and important ecosystems, and Canterbury’s braided rivers are home to unique fish, plants and birdlife. While there is much farming, hydroelectric generation and salmon farming throughout this area, there is also conservation work being done to protect these waterways, particularly in the Hakatere Conservation Park.

On the right side of the Southern Alps

The vast open plains near the Rangitata River appear peaceful enough; however, the presence of the Southern Alps looms. So too does its wild weather. As always, I have checked the weather forecast carefully when planning my trip, and I am hoping some of the weather rolling through will deliver what I am looking for.

The forecast is for stormy weather and westerly winds increasing in the afternoon. I am thankful to be in the interior today. The situation would be very different if I were on the other side of the Southern Alps along the West Coast. Here in the lee of the Alps, I am protected from the full brunt of the wild west coast weather that rolls in from the Tasman Sea.

Known as orographic lift, prevailing westerly winds travel over the Tasman Sea and collect moisture as they head towards the Southern Alps. As moisture-laden air is pushed over the high alpine peaks, it cools and drops vast amounts of moisture as rain or snow. This snow accumulation is what creates the many glaciers of the Southern Alps.

However, today, here on the right side on the right side of the Alps, and out of the wild weather, I am waiting to see some sun breaking through.

Hiking for a better view

After finding a good place to stop, I take a hike up a nearby hill, giving me a bird’s eye view over the plains. This spectacular area is remote and wild, yet beautiful. It’s no wonder it featured in the Lord of the Rings movies. (For film buffs, it was Edoras, Rohan’s capital city.)

From the top of the hill, I am starting to see some good contrast between the clouds and the breaking sun. As the wind picks up, I am thankful my sturdy tripod can withstand the wobbles, a must-have for photography in the south. I settle in to watch the wild weather roll through.

After a few hours of fast-moving cloud and mostly grey sky, a promising gap begins to break. I enjoy the moment as the sun breaks through; a spectacular contrast between the plains below, the mountains and the moody sky above.

Patience is part of the process

On top of the hill, I am waiting for the right moment. It has been a long wait, but when the moment presents itself, it’s time to move fast. In the moments before the sun sets behind the Two Thumb Range, the sun briefly appears between a break in the cloud. I know it won’t last long, and this is the time to spring into action.

Here is the final result

This piece was achieved by stitching six individual images together to create one panorama piece. This work is done back in the studio and, in my opinion, is the best way to capture the big scenery of the south.

Above the fog

The next morning, the weather is not ideal. Rather than clouds, rain or wind, it’s fog. This is not great for photography but not uncommon for the Canterbury Plains. I am not easily deterred by a bit of South Island weather, and instead, I start planning the best way to work with what I have.

I head to Mt Hutt to get above the fog. During the winter season, Mt Hutt is Canterbury’s main ski field, but with ski season just finished, it’s the perfect location to get a better viewpoint.

Pro-tip: Early starts are part of the photographer’s life. My trick is to always take my coffee machine with me wherever I go. Today, after a good coffee (or two), I make my way up Mt Hutt.

It only takes five minutes of driving to get above the fog. However, I decide to head further up the road, and it’s not long before I’m feeling impressed by the view. In the early morning, dark skies on the far horizon bleed into the glowing light of the new day appearing.

Some of the final images…

Disappearing mist.

Shot with a longer than usual lens; an 80mm on medium format IQ4.

Canterbury Plains.

Back to a super-wide lens — 12mm. Methven still in darkness.

Mt Hut.

Further up the road. Mt Hut to the far right the day after they closed the ski field.

All up, it took around four hours on the Mt Hutt ski field road to get what I wanted. It was a long wait before the sun finally appeared while Methven was still deep in fog. Happy with the results, I head back to Methven for a big breakfast and just one more coffee.

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