It’s been a few days now since our friends Younn and Francois dropped us in Wanaka, after an amazing trip to Fiordland National Park and a cruise on Milford Sound. Wanaka is a lovely little town, with its wonderful surrounding lake and mountains, and well known all over the country for the numerous outdoor activities it can offer all year round. There we met our friends Aline and Cyril, the French bloggers « chou-trotteurs ». We also contacted the famous Belgium world wide traveller and photographer Johan Lolos » le backpacker » whom we wanted to meet for a long time. We have been following his travelling adventures for a while, and we quite admire his talent and success. He immediately accepted to meet us and even offered us to join him on a shooting session ordered by the company « Good Rotations » who wanted some nice pictures of their awesome fat-bikes! (By the way, they are a great way to discover the area)
With Johan, we will experience the most awesome event of our journey in South Island…
Wanaka : hunting for aurora Australis!
As we are spending a very nice evening at Johan’s working on our blogs and eating home made crepes, Johan’s phone suddenly starts buzzing like crazy! Aurora Australis alert! And a fairly powerful one by the look of it! The evening sky is clear and moreover it’s the new moon period. In other words, it’s the perfect evening to go out sky-shooting!
Johan, whom we have only seen quiet, becomes absolutely ectic. In less than a minute, we jump in his car and he drives us fast up the narrow countryside roads to a remote place he knows. He hardly takes the time to pull over before he jumps off his car and we have to run to catch up with him as he sets up his camera. This guy is truly passionate about his work! His excitation is communicative. We all wait feverishly as the first 30sec long picture is being taken. And then, exultation:
– MALAAAAADE !!! Les gars j’ai une photo de mabouuuule !!!!! Putain c’est DIIIINGUE ! ( Craaaaazy!! Dudes, I’ve got a crazy picture! It’s f***** awesome!!!!!)
Indeed, the camera captured an explosion of colours of a rare intensity. The aurora, in all its majesty! By naked eyes, we can see it evolving against the dark sky, moving pink-purplish halo pierced by green dancing rays…. It’s absolutely fantastic! The three of us are in a state of total over excitement, and very conscious that we are living a very special evening of our life. It’s unreal. And truly exceptional… Camera sensors and long exposure reveals the entire beauty of the aurora, doing it more justice than our poor night eyesight. We spend hours their shooting hundreds of pictures, entranced despite of the cold.
We will learn later that this aurora had been the most powerful of those last eleven years. Even if it haven’t been the strongest, this sun storm had been the quickest to reach our dear Earth creating a powerful geomagnetic storm that illuminated the skies of this 17th of Mars 2015 all over the world!
Aurora Australis from Roys Peak
The next day, the aurora is even stronger. Apparently, you can even see it from France! Mid-afternoon, it reaches 8kp on a scale from 0 to 9, which is particularly exceptional.
To enjoy the show at its best, we decide to spend the night on top of Roy’s Peak, Wanaka’s highest mountain (1578m). The program sounds pretty awesome : sunset over the mountains, aurora, milky way rising, followed by a sunrise over the lake in the morning…! We start the walk up to Roy’s Peak around 3:30. It takes around 3 hours to reach the summit, but we don’t want to miss the most beautiful lights of the evening on the crest so we literally run up the path, carrying our heavy backpacks loaded with all our camping equipment, food, water, warm clothes… We try to follow the enthusiastic Johan who seems to be flying up the slope. But this pace is a little bit too much for us, and we are soon out of breath and exhausted. Johan is now far ahead!
We finally catch up with him on the ridge, lights up by the golden late afternoon light. The large blue lake at the foot of the mountain sparkles like a perfect jewel. We wouldn’t have miss that for anything in the world! We could stay there forever!
But we have to keep walking now, to reach the top before the night catches up with us!! In total, we will walk a 1200m high in less than two and a half hours! We set up the tents at the top, in the orange sunset glow. It’s very beautiful up there and very quiet too. No sound can be heard, except the continual « clicketicli » of our cameras. The temperature drops by the minute, along with the luminosity. We take refuge in our tent to eat hot comforting instant noodles, while sharing experiences and travel adventures.
At 9:30, the night is pitch black. We leave the relatively comfortable tent to face the harsh mountain coldness. This night again, we are lucky : no cloud dared to disturb the perfect stillness of the sky. The temperature is now under 0°C. A thin crust of frost covers everything. At the foot of the mountain we can see sparkling Wanaka reflecting on the dark waters of the lake. The aurora is here as well. We can see it’s green rays dancing amongst the stars. It has lessened in intensity since this afternoon, and unfortunately it’s less impressive than yesterday. Still, being here at the top of the world to admire the show is definitely worth it! And again, craziness follows the first pictures we take. Our cameras capture every single details of the aurora that our eyes can’t catch. It’s unbelievable!! We stay there for a full hour and a half, shooting pictures and admiring the hypnotic sky. The temperature is now very low and we suffer from the cruelty of the cold. (We will learn later that the temperature dropped to -10°C this night!!)
It’s time to take refuge in our sleeping bags and struggle to warm up our frozen bodies. Around 1:00, Quentin-the-Brave goes out and faces the cold again to take pictures of the rising heart of the Milky Way over Wanaka. He comes back rather quickly, but victorious (he took some awesome shots). Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel his fingers anymore. They are so numb he can’t switch off his camera or open his sleeping bag’s zipper! As for Mariette, she stayed in bed all that time wrapped in all her clothes trying desperately to sleep despite the cold…
Waking up in the clouds
We are up at 6:30 expecting to see a beautiful sunrise. Unfortunately, we won’t see any. And to been honest, we hardly see anything at all… We are in the middle of a thick white cloud! We have probably no more than 5m of visibility… A thick crust of frost covers the floor as well as the canvas of our tents! No wonder we were so cold… The atmosphere is really spooky. There is no wind, no sound, no life except ours. We really feel like we are lost in the middle of nowhere. The Silence is deafening and it really seems that we are wandering in a giant frozen cotton ball…
We fold back our tents stiffened by the frost and start our way down the mountain. This exercise helps us bringing back some warmth in our feet and fingers! As we have walked a third of the track down, the massive cloud suddenly gives way to an amazing view over the lake then over the entire valley! And all of a sudden, the sun is shining again over our head. We strip off layers of clothes one by one as we start sweating, disbelieving that we would be ever hot again! We finally set foot at the bottom of the mountain, a bit exhausted but also in the amazed daze that usually follows incredible experiences…! What an adventure!!!
Thanks you very much Johan !
See you soon
Tintin & Riette
To do in Wanaka :
- To discover Wanaka, one of the best options is to rent a bike to have a ride around the lake. Good Rotations propose different kinds of bikes, from the classic one to the excelent fat bike that will allow you to ride on the edges of the lake and its beaches.
- From the touristic center, go ahead on the lake front over a few hundred meters to have a look on the lonely tree, the most photographied tree in New Zealand !
A burger in Wanaka ?
- We’ve tried Boaboa, on the lake front. They propose some nice and huge home made burgers. Not really cheap though…
Hiking in Wanaka :
- Roys Peak : 5-6h return.
A must do !
A few minutes away from Wanaka, Roys Peak is probably the worst hiking track we’ve done in New Zealand. Indeed it’s a large path (like a 4WD track) that goes up the mountain staying on the same site making uturns every few hundred meters. The panorama is stunning but stay the same during 3h. But… But the view up there is exceptional, breathtaking, and definitely worth the effort !
- Mount Iron : 1h30, 4.5km loop
A great alternative track to Roys Peak for those who don’t have the physical condition or enough time. That 250m high rock offers a nice view over the lake and around
- Rob Roy Glacier : We’ll make a full article about it next week. Wait a little bit 🙂
Camping in Wanaka :
- The cheapest option is situated at 8km from the city center, in Albert Town where you’ll find a large campground with toilets, where you can camp for 7$/night/person.
- Around 40km south of the city, you’ll find a huge free campground just before Cromwell, on the shore of the lake. Be aware that the campground is higly exposed to strong winds. There is toilets on site.