Real New Zealand – Outback New Zealand Under the Stars with Astrophotographer Mark Gee from The Art of Night

One of the magic wonders of the universe for so many of us is our fascination with star gazing.  Last week I was lucky enough to spend some time with one of the best, Wellington based International Astrophotographer of the Year 2013, Mark Gee.  I have followed his work for some time and we became friends over discussions about the night sky and his stunning photography, he comes to Lake Tekapo every year to spend time at the Mt John Observatory so we met up and had a star adventure.

An evening pickup at Timaru Airport then we head off for the dark skies of the world renowned Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand.  

In all my excitement of learning how to do some astrophotography and the night sky being absolutely stunning on arrival to Lake Tekapo we drove straight to our first location to set up for an epic milky way shoot as a bit of practice for the shoot we were doing at Mt John Observatory the following evening.  

Mark said it was on the cards possibly for an aurora over to the south so we kept an out eye out for that also as we set up the tripod.  It was breathtakingly beautiful just being in the middle of this amazing wilderness in total darkness and quiet.  This place is one of my childhood escapes, my happy place, where my family and I spent many years as children, learning about nature and the magic of star gazing, so it really was extra special to me for this reason.   We spent a few hours taking many different exposures, no sign of the aurora and I quickly came to understand the level of commitment that is required for this kind of photography.  Since meeting Mark I had always been in awe of the quality of his work, especially his time lapses, they inspire people to stop, look up and open their hearts.  Something these days that many of us don’t take the time for very often.

The Lake Tekapo and Mackenzie Region is one of the most amazing places to view the stars in darkness.  Mount John University Observatory is New Zealand’s premier astronomical research observatory.  It is situated at 1,029 metres (3,376 ft) above sea level atop Mount John at the northern end of the Mackenzie Basin in the South Island, and was established in 1965.  

Mount John University Observatory is operated by the University of Canterbury.  In June 2012 an area of 430,000 hectares (1,700 sq mi) around the observatory was declared as the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve by the International Dark-Sky Association, one of only four such reserves around the world.  From this location also operates the local Earth and Sky Stargazing Tours.

As we finished our first shoot we decided to move to a secret location that our family calls “The Office” as it’s the only spot where you can get mobile phone coverage.  On our arrival we could see that the moon rise was going to be amazing so we set up to shoot the moon, it was one of the most moving experiences I have had in a very long time, reminded me how insignificant we can be in this moment and at the same time I felt at total peace without a worry in the world.  We laughed a lot on this shoot as the moon rose, and I found myself as an outline model jumping over tussocks and potholes!  Not as glamorous as it sounds but the results was pretty cool.  

The sky was so beautifully clear, we were very lucky to get such an amazing night and the images were amazing.

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The next day we did some sightseeing around the township of Lake Tekapo, it was a great time to talk with Mark more about his work, what he loves about the night sky and particularly choosing astrophotography to specialise in.  With his day job working in a senior role at Weta Digital he has gained some amazing visual effects skills that definitely come across into his work.   What impressed upon me most about Mark during our week on the road was his commitment to serving others, how much time and detail went into editing one image, to share his work with people who are inspired by it and how humble he was, a rarity for someone well known in his field these days.  I quickly came to see that he is actually more of an artist than a photographer.  

We checked out the local hot pools at Tekapo Springs where we would return at the end of our trip and in the afternoon set off to Mt John Observatory for our sunset time lapse.   Now this was an epic experience for me, sitting perched high on the rocky hilltop just south of the Earth and Sky building on Mt John we setup the camera for a time lapse.  First with the sunset over to the west and second it would capture the night sky turning to darkness and the magnificent twinkling of the star light coming through.   While it was still light we chatted with many tourists who had ventured onto the walking track that led to our location until the sun went down and the beauty of the silence around us set in.  We sat on that rocky mountain for over 6 hours to get the footage that took only seconds to watch after production, it was then that I really started to appreciate the amount of time, patience and energy it takes to be an astrophotographer.  

The next day we drove to Mount Cook National Park, in preparation to explore some of the wonders of the world in the Hooker Valley and up on the Franz Josef Glacier, on this part of the trip it was time to get out the Go Pro and get some action footage.   Unfortunately that evening the stars were hiding behind a thin blanket of cloud so no star gazing for us.  

The next morning we walked up the Hooker Valley Track a 3 hour return journey with many other people from all over the world, lugging cameras and tripods through the mist.  We couldn’t see the mighty mountain, Aoraki, Mount Cook, but could see the sunshine trying its best to glimpse through from time to time.  We took many photos and snaps on our phones, instagramming along the journey sharing our adventure.  On arrival at the Hooker Glacier we sat down on the stones, huge pieces of ice broken off floating close by and suddenly the cloud just melted away to show the mountain’s beautiful face.  Wow it was breathtakingly beautiful.   It has been many years almost 20 since I had walked to that part of the park, it was like coming back to visit an old friend.  

We had a flight to catch with Mount Cook Ski Planes for 2pm that afternoon to go up to the Glacier I was so stoked that the cloud has gone and knew that what was about to happen next would be one of the things I had always wanted to tick off my bucket list.   

We jumped on the helicopter up to the Franz Josef Glacier and met up with our mate Pete who was flying the Ski Plane, both Mark and I were stunned at the beauty of the rugged mountains and glaciers, flying through the Tasman Glacier and past Aoraki, Mount Cook landing over to the west side on the Franz Josef Glacier.  We spent a long time exploring and taking photos before changing modes of transport onto the Ski Plane.   The Ski Plane ride back was the most exciting tour I think I have experienced of its kind, and right up there with one of my top 3 NZ experiences ever, it seemed like we were up in the air for a very long time, I have no idea how long it actually was, the view was more than I expected it to be, difficult to put into words really, I thought of nothing else other than the fact of how beautiful this country of ours is, and how incredibly lucky I was to be able to see it from that viewpoint.  New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most beautiful places worldwide.

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The team at Mount Cook Ski Planes were amazing and we had some laughs getting to know their crew, overall it was a great experience.  I highly recommend adding them to your tour list if you are visiting the Mount Cook Area on your travels.  

We had a mission to get to back at Lake Tekapo that evening so off we headed back to the beautiful little town for an awesome Thai dinner and a soak in the Tekapo Springs Hot Pools which was well deserved after the few days of work and adventures we had just experienced.  Ahh it was pefect just what I needed to get my creative mind back into action for that evening’s photography.  

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Mark quotes:

“One of the highlights of going to Lake Tekapo in New Zealand is soaking in the hot pools at Tekapo Springs There’s plenty of other activities there as well, including the ice skating rink and day spa.  This shot is overlooking the pools with the Milky Way rising in the starry sky above. It’s quite amazing to sit there in the 36 degree celsius pool and look up at the night sky. If you ever get to Tekapo, I highly recommend it.”

The following day we headed for Christchurch where our journey was close to an end, but not quite, we had been invited to attend the Family Day Fundraiser for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter, something that is very dear to my heart in Kaikoura as it is a crucial part to our medical services, living so far away from any major hospital.  We took some photos of their heroes taking part in a training exercise which will help them with their fundraising efforts as something we can give back to our community.  

And for now that is were our journey came to an end, much of the trip we took was part of a planning exercise for our Travel Showcase Event Series in May 2016 where Mark and I and our crew of social media and business experts will share our stories and how we can help you build your online footprint.  This trip has for me however turned into something so much more inspiring and reminded me why I love to share my country with you all and the level of creativity that every single photographer goes to, to share this land with us all is huge, the hours and hours of travel, photo taking and editing really is pretty amazing.  Massive thank you to Mark for sharing his time with me and teaching me new skills and inspiring me further with my own dreams, it was epic.

For more info on the Showcase go to our Facebook page

Article by Rachel Gillespie, Editor

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