Surrounded by soaring snow-capped mountains, vivid blue lakes, and lush dense greenery, Queenstown is the kind of place that fires the imagination and begs to be immortalised on film. It's a good thing, then, that I'm doing just that with Photo Safaris, a boutique operator offering instructive photography tours through this picturesque region.
Run by Mike Langford and Jackie Ranken, a husband-and-wife team of award-winning Canon Master photographers, Photo Safaris take enthusiastic shutterbugs on day trips to the most gorgeous spots around Queenstown, including Paradise Valley, the Rees Valley, and Skippers Canyon. While several companies offer similar expeditions, Photo Safaris takes it one step further by offering practical guidance for improving your photography skills.
We're heading out to the unimaginably photogenic Nevis Valley, where Mike and Jackie have taken many of their most inspiring landscape images. The morning dawns grey and dreary, the kind of day you only get in between seasons. There's a constant drizzle and clouds shot through with streaks of light, as if the weather can't quite decide whether to turn from a sleety autumn to a full-blown winter.
But when Mike arrives, the weather doesn't get to him at all. In the rugged Nevis where we're headed, this undecided weather will make for interesting photos. As our group of four begins the drive, he hands me the Canon EOS 750D camera I'll be using today. And the adventure begins.
Wild and rugged, the Nevis Valley is some 100 kilometers from Queenstown, set behind the towering Remarkables mountain range and past the sleepy Scottish-inspired towns of Cromwell and Bannockburn. As well as being a photographer's dream, the Nevis is steeped in history. A Maori farmhand found gold here in 1862, sparking a frenzied gold rush that saw masses of pioneers seeking to make their fortunes descend on the valley.
Just past Bannockburn, we turn off the sealed road and onto a dirt track. We're officially in the Nevis. Going through through a ramshackle gate, we see a sternly worded sign mounted upon its entrance. It warns visitors that the path is closed between June and September; you don't want to get caught out here in winter.
A few minutes in, we make our first stop. There's a rocky outcropping of "tors" with views to the lake and valley below, all bathed in dramatic light. The weather's worsened, forcing us to brave heavy gusts of wind, sleeting rain, and tiny hailstones that feel like piercing glass shards against our faces. Mike patiently teaches me to work the camera's white balance and contrast settings to take advantage of the weather and lighting, and we come away with some otherworldly monochrome shots.
Ambling on, we stop at whim to capture images of this vast, untamed valley with its wandering sheep, dirt roads, and tall mountains. The desolate landscapes are littered with relics of the area's gold mining past, making this a trip through living history. We find abandoned dredge ponds, tailings snaking over the ground, and old miner dwellings and woolsheds fallen to ruins. Set against the barren landscape, they make for wonderfully evocative and raw images.
As it turns out, patience and perseverance are essential elements in a photographer's toolkit. After a quick lunch on the sheltered veranda of a crib, as the few ramshackled holiday cottages here are called, we're rewarded with clearing skies and swathes of sunshine. Towards the end of our time in the Nevis, we reach a cluster of cribs drenched in that elusive perfect lighting that photographers rave about. We spend a good half-hour shooting here, and while we come away with some truly gorgeous photos, they hardly do justice to this stunning, secluded spot.
As the sun dips towards the horizon and the light begins to fade, we start the drive back to Queenstown. Flipping through the photos on the camera, it's clear that our day in the Nevis Valley was more than worth it. It's certainly not on par with Ansel Adams', but thanks to Mike's expert tutelage, these photos are probably some of my best.
To explore more photography tours with Photo Safaris, click here.
About Gayatri Bhaumik
Always ready for her next adventure, Gayatri took her first flight at 10 days old and hasn't looked back since. After 12 years in Bangkok and seven in Melbourne, she's now based in Hong Kong when she isn't globetrotting. Besides serving as the Travel Columnist for Liv Magazine, she contributes travel and lifestyle stories to a range of publications, including Jetsetter, The Art of Business Travel, and The Loop. Most recently, she was the Deputy Editor at Hong Kong's Artemis Communications, working on titles such as Elite Traveler Asia, Explorer Magazine and Necessity.com. Follow her travels on her blog and Instagram.