Over-used by cliché wedding photographers, over-“influenced” by millions of instagrammers and over-sold around the world by tourism boards, this once peaceful hiking trail and overlook across Lake Wanaka has sadly now become a magnet for “look at me” shots worldwide.
Beautiful though it is, Roy’s Peak has fallen victim to the same challenges faced by “that Wanaka tree” and many other tourist traps nearby – the result of huge popularity following the publishing of (what were once) unique shots of couples and explorers stood out on the ledge. That said, I’m yet to find a corner of New Zealand which isn’t stunning to look at, so on that basis I figured it might still be worth the trip, especially in the relatively quiet winter months.
As with many of the plans on our trip, this one started with a bout of hunger, Wayne making a handy police enquiry and some rather frothy “home brew” from the bar recommended to us by the helpful officers. I put the idea to the guys: “It’s winter, extremely cold, and we’re too slow(/lazy) to hike all the way up there just to take a look – so why don’t get get a helicopter up in the morning to see what all the fuss is about?”
While the hike is open to all, access to the landing area for helicopters is restricted – in part, I guess, due to the land owner also being somewhat fed up of the stream of companies now offering “magical experiences” up there in factory-line format.
That said, a quick call to the awesome guys at Wanaka Helicopters had us booked into a 7-seater Eurocopter Squirrel (well, it’s nice to have the extra legroom!) for a private sunrise shoot across Lake Wanaka and the mountain range beyond. Given the timing, the winter sun would make an appearance just off to the right of the lookout point from Roy’s Peak as we looked across to Mount Aspiring in the distance and Lake Wanaka below. Getting to the airport in the dark winter air to scrape ice from the helicopter windows was one thing, doing it the morning after drinking that restaurant’s home brew was quite another. Still – off into the sky we went.
The time just before sunrise really is magical – deep tones of almost every colour imaginable appear at some point as the horizon transitions from the cold night to the warmth of the day ahead. Seeing the banks of fog and mist settling beneath us was spectacular too. Perched on the crest of the mountain, we set down and got ready to shoot. It was only a matter of minutes before the sun would make its entrance, so time was of the essence.
Looking out over “that spot” with a light dusting of snow, I could easily understand the lure of the scene for all those who make the journey to get “the special shot” of them stood on the peak, looking out over the world below. In reality, however, New Zealand is absolutely full of such places – many with similarly impressive vistas below. So it seems the relative ease of access to Roy’s Peak via a designated 5-6 hour track has helped make this particular location as famous as it is now.
Sunrise was on its way, but so was something else out to the west – the pink pre-dawn colours across the sky in the opposite direction to where we were facing. The peak was as beautiful as I’d imagined it would be up-close, but this was even more special to my eyes.
Without the glaring water reflections from the gradually illuminated sky to the east, the topaz colour of Lake Wanaka and Glendhu Bay below, matched by the vibrance of the sky above, delivered a magical sight as the snow-capped mountains caught the rays of light from the rising sun. With that image saved, it was time to turn and hope I’d cleaned my filters well enough the night before…!
The temperature change was immediate – the second the sunlight hit, our wintery chills shifted to such an extent that coats were removed and hats put away. The scene unfolded before our eyes; the bay and islands absorbing more and more light as the sun rose slowly above the horizon, the cool blues faded to a warm orange glow as the snow began to glisten in the wintery air.
Stood looking across the southern Alps, camera set up and helicopter waiting, I was reminded of why I love photographing New Zealand so much. It’s a country that surrounds you with awesome scenery at every single moment you’re there. “Pure New Zealand” is their tagline, and it really does suit – unspoilt, raw, natural.
For photographers, capturing this scene presents an amazing opportunity – looking out over such a stunning place, with time to reflect on how lucky we are to spend our lives exploring the wonderful planet on which we live. It’s easy to see why people want their “selfie” up here too, but I can’t help thinking a lot of those moments are wasted as people spend more energy concentrating on their facebook profile picture than they do simply enjoying the moment they’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of.
With no set time “limit” as such, the temptation was to stay and capture even more phases of light across the lake as it bathed in the golden sun, but as always – nature (and the laws of physics) had other ideas. Mix a huge body of water, cold wintery air, a brisk wind from the south and an ice-covered mountain range and you’ll find clouds start coming out to play – and rapidly, when they do.
With the swirling bank of mist and clouds threatening to envelop us within moments, it was back to the helicopter to make our “escape”.
Once clear of the mountain range, the amazing scenery of the valley below quickly became the star of the show once more, as we zoomed over herds of wild animals, forests, rivers and the ground fog below.
They say timing is everything, and this morning would be proof of that for us. Only an hour later, helicopters across the area were grounded as the weather system kept a thick bank of fog over the entire region.
What an amazing sight, in an amazing country – cliché or not, Roy’s Peak is still definitely worth a visit.