The Southern Alps are the great divider of the South Island, a 500km mountain range splitting human settlements between two distinct shores and restricting travel between them to a handful of alpine passes.
Views from the summit at Mt Fyffe
The alps are integral to the character of New Zealand’s largest island, and extend over several ecological and climatic zones. Beginning in the north as snow-covered alpine peaks erupting dramatically out of the sea, they slowly transform into wetland temperate rainforest on their journey down south. Named by Captain Cook after its European counterpart in 1770, long before him it was known as Kā Tiritiri o te Moana.
The alps are home to several unique mountainous species, a big attraction for nature photographers. This includes the kea, the world’s only alpine parrot and by far the most ill-mannered bird you could meet. On a series of trips over the winter of 2020, I explored different parts of the Southern Alps for the first time in a bid to witness the diversity of the South Island.
Kaikōura, a historical whaling outpost nestled in the northwest, is where the alps first meet the sea. Formed by two parallel alpine ranges, the tall seaward range terminates abruptly into the Pacific Ocean, and on a lucky day, can even been seen from the North Island.
Panoramas of Kaikōura
Whaling first found its way to Kaikōura in 1842, when the Scotsman Robert Fyffe emigrated with his family, and persisted all the way up until it's ban in 1964. Today the whale-hunting legacy of the Fyffe family can still be felt in town, and the family house remains open to visitors, its foundations built out of whalebone. Such was the family's reputation that Mt Fyffe, one of the many peaks dominating the seaward range, was named in their honour.
Upwelling of nutrient-rich waters from the south supports a large network of marine species, attracting whales (mostly humpbacks) to stop and feed on their northerly migration to warmer waters, and making the Kaikōura peninsula a biodiversity hotspot. Along with a protected colony of Kekeno (fur seal), there is an apparent wealth of seabirds throughout the shore, including albatrosses, petrels and gannets. Below, a small plover blends in amongst the beach rocks during sunset.
To create this circular reflection effect, I included as much foreground as possible and opened my aperture wide to produce colourful bokeh, pulling from the reflections of the fading light sparkling off the wet pebbles.
Tekapo, nestled squarely in the middle of the Southern Alps, is home to one of the most photographed locations in New Zealand – and therefore, a place I will only talk about briefly. A huge turquoise-coloured lake has garnered it significant attention and attracts countless onlookers, even during a global pandemic. Attempting to find sanctuary away from the crowds however, a hike up a nearby ridge overlooking the lake rewarded us with a surprise performance of Chukar partridge. A game species introduced from India, males climb and call from large rocks to attract prospective mates.
Further South, the go-to adventure city of Queenstown provides a gateway to the wilder parts of the alps. To make the most of our one-night stopover, we decided to watch the sunrise from the top of Queenstown hill.
Surprised again by wildlife at the top of a hill, a large gang of polite-looking feral goats was grazing quietly by the summit.
These herds roam unkempt and can damage large areas of natural habitat, which is not prepared to defend against their rampant appetite. Even hooved excursions into the city streets is becoming a common site, but on this morning they kept very much to themselves.
A baby on high alert
Te Anau and the Kepler Track
As the lower tip of the Southern Alps tapers towards the Tasman sea, its ridges become inundated with native rainforest. The change of climate is caused by an upheaval of moisture blowing from the west, and makes it one of the wettest places this side of the equator. Unfortunately for humans however, this area also happens to be home to some of the most beautiful (and wet) hikes in the world.
Morning views from the Te Anau hostel
With walks in mind, we based ourselves in Te Anau, a small and somewhat empty town over the winter, and made plans to explore Fiordland National Park. Playing dice with the weather, we decided upon the Kepler Track, potentially one of the least popular but most accessible great walks in New Zealand. Passing through temperate rainforest, limestone cliffs and waterfalls on its path above the clouds, we hiked the first (and hardest) day to Mount Luxmore as an overnight loop due to weather warnings.
Evening visitors at Luxmore hut
One of the busiest huts during the summer, in winter we easily managed to get an entire room to ourselves, and spent sunrise the following morning glued to the wide views bursting over lake Te Anau.
Deep Cove and Doubtful Sound
The Fiordland National Park is comprised of splintered land inundated with seawater along its fractures from the west, overlaying the alpine habitat of kea with the forests of kakapo and the coastal waters of bottlenose dolphins. Views of waterfalls crashing over mountains lined with rainforest and reflected by the seawater has made this area one of the most visited places in the world, with Milford Sound, one of these fiords, being the poster boy for New Zealand tourism. However, further south from here lies Doubtful Sound, a larger and less accessible fiord, though arguably just as beautiful.
With no direct road access to Doubtful, you must first travel over lake Manapouri by boat before taking a bus over Wilmot Pass, the only road in this area of the park. Here you will arrive in Deep Cove, a place that, like its namesake, really does feel like a hidden shelter at the end of the world.
Other than its two permanent human residents, Deep Cove is dominated by a dense network of ferns, with fronds decorating every tier of the rainforest. Weka, a native and flightless bird described as the “cat of the forest”, march around like miniature dinosaurs, scavenging without an ounce of fear, and the trumpeting of kiwi can be heard throughout the night. This is New Zealand at it’s wildest, and its easy to see here why the fern has become a national symbol.
Weka and the city of green
Traditionally a destination for school trips, we stayed in a hostel ran by a very welcoming Billy and his wife Vilma, and were the first non-school visitors in five months. We fell in love with Deep Cove in a matter of minutes, and decided to extend our stay for an extra night (ignoring our dwindling food supply, lesson learned). Billy had formed a friendship with the local kea unofficially named Ar Sol, who made frequent appearances to boldly steal food from the school group.
Can I check in?
Although Doubtful looks like prime kea habitat, speaking to Billy, Ar may now be the only survivor of what used to be a large group of kea killed off by 1080 poisoning. The grave of another, Kevan, lost to a trap designed for rodents and weasels, lies beside a hostel building.
Somewhere on the 13-hour total journey home from Deep Cove to Christchurch, on a glass-topped bus repurposed from Milford Sound private tours from the lack of demand, I ponder on the future of tourism in New Zealand and beyond. The economical turmoil that countries are experiencing from a reduction of tourism has been disastrous, but it is also providing nature with a welcomed break from the last thirty years of intense human activity. I may be able to justify myself as being an environmentally conscientious biologist and photographer, but do I have any more right to experience nature over others?
Although Fiordland National Park is a two-day journey away from Christchurch at best, there are many stretches of the Southern Alps much closer to my doorstep. This includes Arthur's pass, the unofficial kea capital of NZ, and a location I also visited over winter. Click here to read about my time with kea during a snowstorm in Arthur's Pass ∎