This is the fourth of a series documenting our photography trip in New Zealand in 2016.
We pick up the journey again after driving north from Wellington in a new rental car (nondescript, this time, but of questionable mechanical shape), to the town of Taupo on the north shore of a large lake by the same name. We are entering the low portion of our trip, not because the areas we were in were bad, but because we had tried to pack in too many places into too little time. Catherine and I both were more than a little frustrated by that fact, so through no fault of the North Island, we didn’t enjoy ourselves these few days as much as we had earlier-on. As a result of there being so little of interest for me to tell, this will be the shortest post of this series. The first place I will brush past is Wellington. I am sure there are a lot of great things to do in one of New Zealand’s most metropolitan cities, but we will have to experience them another time. It certainly looked like a nice place from the airplane, but after the flight and getting ourselves situated, we had only one afternoon there. Our original thinking had been to go to a wildlife park called Zealandia Ecosanctuary, or visit the WETA studios, but by then we didn’t think we had enough time to make either worthwhile. So instead we tried a brewery I thought looked good, but we couldn’t find parking anywhere near it. In the end, we had to content ourselves with just walking around part of the downtown area. I did take a few images of the architecture and street life, and it certainly looked like an interesting town to explore, but it felt like an opportunity missed.
Based on the traffic, North Island seemed much more crowded than the places we saw in South Island, and the population got denser the further north we went. Getting to Taupo the next morning involved another long drive. We passed through forested hills and eventually through a stretch of desert terrain (which I didn’t know New Zealand had). The mountains of Tongariro National Park could be seen in the distance to our left. We didn’t go into the park, but we did take some drive-by pictures of the mountains from the highway. Lazy, I guess you could say, but we were getting tired of driving and were on a tight schedule if we wanted to do anything in Taupo. Things got a little better once that leg of driving had finally ended.
We stayed in a Taupo motel for the night across the street from the beach, and within walking distance to the downtown restaurants and shops. On the shore were a number of gulls, pigeons, ducks and swans, all of which allowed us to get very close for photos. The evenings were getting a little cooler as we started heading closer into winter in the southern hemisphere, but the days were still pretty warm. We had plenty of the afternoon left, and the local sites we were interested in were mostly just north of the town. We drove to the first of the local sites, Huka Falls, which was a series of walks on either bank of a river with strong rapids and a few waterfalls. I took images at various angles from both banks, using a tripod and filters to get long exposures, which can be seen at the end of this post. I also had a little fun with the 8mm f/1.8 Pro Fisheye, taking self-portraits with the tripod-mounted camera pointed down at our foreheads. The final image of this post is my not-so-serious version of a “selfie shot”.
It was at this point that we had our third and most memorable encounter with a New Zealand Fantail. My E-M1 was tied up on the tripod, taking the 30-second long exposure of the waterfall you see above. As mentioned, the E-M5 had our fisheye lens on it. Out from the cliffs below, one taunting fellow flew right up to me, literally crossing within feet above my head before winging away off into the trees. His namesake plumage was arrayed in all its graceful glory, burned in my memory forever. I could swear he was laughing at me as he danced by. Truth be told, it was all so sudden I might not have managed to get the shot even if my camera was available for use, but it was one of those one-chance-in-a-million photo opportunities that I will be kicking myself over for years (perhaps until I eventually capture one of the elusive little devils in flight).
Perseverance can pay off as much or more as luck, or so I tell myself. We had been so taken by the Fantail’s bait that we went back early the next morning to try to find another one. While we wandered the same area for about an hour and did shoot some birds, we didn’t see another Fantail that morning. They, as did the Southern Harrier, seemed to best us at every turn. We did see a Sacred Kingfisher (shown near the end of the blog). In the States, I am always happy to see a Kingfisher, as they are pretty hard to find where I live. It turned out that they actually were quite common in the North Island, however, and we started spotting them all over the place, mostly perched on power lines. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to see one hunting.
We had a nice dinner that evening in downtown Taupo. The moon was full, and I once again took the 300mm Pro out to take some night sky images. This time, I experimented a little more — adding the teleconverter for some shots, and using different art filters and exposure settings to attempt different effects. The night had some swift moving clouds that occasionally occluded the moon, so I had to shoot in between them. I also took a few shots with the clouds crossing the moon, but exposed to them instead in order to make for a very different type of picture. The version shown here has a little extra saturation and a lot of noise reduction applied. Though I wish I had thought of it then, this experience brings to mind an idea for an experiment I would like to do — shooting a windy, cloudy, full moon night with Live Composite. Zoomed out a little, this technique might capture the clouds without overexposing the moon, as my image to the below right did. I’ll definitely try it some day, but it might be a while before another opportunity presents itself. if anyone has a chance and decides to try it out, please let me know how it goes. I suppose HDR might have worked as well. The next morning’s sunrise from across the lake was pretty spectacular as well. A few of these pictures, as well as others from the locales in this post, can be found on our Flickr page.
The next morning, we had another great breakfast at a restaurant in Taupo. I’ve said it before, but foodies take note: New Zealand is a surprisingly fantastic place for food. Almost everywhere we went was extremely high quality, and they really know how to do breakfast. Eggs Benedict and White Coffee, with a fresh scone on the side, became my morning staples, and I still miss them almost a year later. I can’t think of any dish in particular that defines New Zealand cuisine (perhaps someone can help me there), but we had very good Western and Asian dishes everywhere we went.
Afterwards, we hit the Huka Honey Hive, a store and general celebration of New Zealand’s amazing honey scene. The Huka Honey hive had more products made from honey than I ever would have imagined, and they let us taste a number of different local varieties. This was not the first store we visited in New Zealand that specialized in honey, but it was by far the largest, so I’d saved discussion about New Zealand honey for this part of the trip. It’s really good. Perhaps their most famous style is Manuka honey, which is made from bees who harvest from the Manuka tree native to New Zealand. Our Milford Sound guide had pointed out and explained Manuka trees to us in the Te Anau area of the South Island. The plant itself has antiseptic properties and is used for various medicinal purposes, as is the honey. I can’t vouch for its true medicinal value, but the flavor was what attracted us. All styles of honey impart some of the essence of the flowers they are made with into their flavor, and there are more floral-sweet varieties that are just as delicious, but I would say that Manuka honey has the most distinctive flavor. It’s subtly astringent, which balances well with its earthy sweetness. New Zealand Manuka honey has a purity measure on the label identifying how much Manuka is actually present. The purer the honey, the more potent its medicinal values and unique flavors supposedly are, and the more expensive. It is all quite expensive and rare in the States, unfortunately, so we stocked up with all sorts of varieties of New Zealand honeys for the trip home.
The drive from Taupo to our next stopover was not far, and after the Honey Hive we had one more stop along the way. This area in the North Island, known as the Taupo Volcanic Zone, has a great deal of geothermal activity. In fact, we had to endure the strong smell of sulphur over the next day, and it lingered in our clothing for days after that. The trees are stained with yellow from the sulphur in the air, something we had begun to see even back at Huka Falls. We stopped at one of the two main geothermal sites, Wai-O-Tapu, to take pictures of the colorful hot springs and bubbling mud pools. There is a geyser as well, but we didn’t have a chance to see it. While it’s not an overly long walk, the day was very sunny and warm, made hotter by the earth boiling beneath us, and the paths meandered around rocky pits made mostly barren by the cauldron we were in, surrounded by the normal, lush green of the area. Dotted all around us were small plumes of hot gas venting from below. I don’t know if Peter Jackson’s crew shot any Mordor footage for The Lord of the Rings movies here, but they easily could have.
It was an academically interesting place, but not as photogenic as I had hyped myself up for. Or at least I should say, it was not what I had anticipated, so I had to change my approach to shooting it. Mud pools are pretty much what one would expect, and I’d recommend capturing them with video instead of stills to make the bubbling grey blobs more interesting. I was rather more looking forward to the water pools, which according to the literature have amazing rings of rust and blue color because of oxides in the water. However, I was disappointed to find that the scenery was not as colorful as I had seen in pictures of such places. I don’t know if it was because of some chemical or microbial composition that was lacking in the pools at the time, but this was even true for the large Artist’s Palette, Wai-O-Tapu’s centerpiece feature. The vivid colors I expected were mere faint rings on the water’s outline, even compared to Visitor Center’s promotional pictures of the same pool. Either the photographer had heavily boosted the colors in post processing, or perhaps there was something about this particular day or time that muted the colors. The pool also had a lot of (sulphuric, I suppose?) fog above it, which may have been a factor, as can be seen in the image at the beginning of this chapter. A few of the shots I had taken in Dramatic Tone, which made the predominantly dour scene more interesting by embracing and accentuating the deathly vibe of the place. Most of the images here, including the title picture, are examples of these. I placed one image that wasn’t Dramatic Tone near the beginning of this post, and posted one more just below This last shot was the only pool that ended up being particularly vibrant. I believe it is called Devil’s Bath; a jewel-green pool at the end of the Wai-O-Tapu circuit.
Not much further from the thermal springs, we checked into a motel in Rotorua, a forested, lakeside tourist town that was permeated with the smell of sulphur. There was not too much time left in the day after the drive up and our two earlier stops, and the air was cooling rapidly, so for our one excursion we chose to go to the town’s Giant Redwood Forest — another landscape feature I did not expect to find in New Zealand (which really has just about everything). We wandered underneath the huge trees as far as we could see. They were not as large as what you would find in the Redwood forest in California, but it was a really beautiful place to walk and decompress.
Eventually, we came across a path that passed by a small brook, where we saw must have been four or five Fantails — one of the birds that been thwarting us since we first saw them in Te Anau. We were so determined to get a good shot, we stayed in that spot for about an hour, both of us trying to catch the elusive birds. The evening was already setting on, and in the thick forest the light was even dimmer, forcing us to push ISO levels to 5000 to get shutter speeds of only about 1/400th of a second, which wasn’t nearly enough. The birds mostly stuck to the deep foliage, making unobstructed views difficult. Nevertheless, patience is what matters, and the best images we were able to get of a Fantail were taken this final time we saw them on this trip. In such extreme conditions, the noise in the images was predictably pretty bad. I used Macphun’s Noiseless on the Light setting to get rid of some of it, but that wasn’t enough to mask the grain in the green background. So, I used the brush tool in Snapheal to apply a light amount of blurring to the background areas. This is a trick I discovered that helps with both of the technically weaker aspects of M4/3 cameras — depth of field control and noise performance — without sacrificing any image quality. As long as I am careful with the brush and don’t overdo it to the point where it doesn’t blend well, I find the technique is an effective way to completely absolve those issues when they appear.
We finished the evening restaurant-hopping, sharing dishes at three different places so we could try as many of them out as possible. I am sure there was much more to do in the Rotorura area besides the Redwood forest, but we were still at the mercy of our ill-planned schedule. However, that frustration was now behind us. It was about to get a whole lot better. The next morning, we had to leave Rotorua very early and drive north without stopping, because we had a 1100 reservation booked in Middle Earth. Actually, it was the Hobbiton movie set, and it was simply awesome. It was exactly what we needed to make us feel thrilled again about the trip, and perhaps it was the highlight moment of a trip that was full of great memories. I will talk about that amazing place, and Auckland afterwards, in my next and final blog of this series.