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Night Sky over Mount Aspiring

by Yan Zhang

The starry night skies over the Southern Alps have always fascinated me since I started my mountain photography journey in New Zealand. The Dutch-American astronomer Bart Bok once said that the Southern Hemisphere holds all the good stuff in the night skies. I believe that New Zealand's Southern Alps is one of the greatest places in the Southern Hemisphere to view the night skies. On a clear and moonless night, with our naked eyes, we would be able to see millions of brilliant stars twinkling in the lonely darkness.

During one of my 2014 winter climbs in Mount Cook, I noted that every day from early July to mid-July, beginning at midnight and finishing around 4am, the Milky Way centre would move down towards the west and become parallel with the snow-capped west facing mountain ridges. It formed an extraordinary mountain scene that I am sure not many people would have witnessed.

After undertaking detailed research and more observations, I acquired a better understanding of the stars and Milky Way movement in the skies over the Southern Alps. In July 2016, I decided to put my knowledge to practice with a new destination – to capture the night sky over Mount Aspiring.

We arrived in Wanaka on the 2nd of July 2016, but realised there had been snowfall in the Mount Aspiring area for several days. The DOC office in Wanaka told us that the weather would improve in a couple of days. After waiting in Wanaka for two days, we finally got a chance to move on. In the early morning on 5th of July, we drove to Raspberry Creek Car Park, then trekked 9 km along Matukituki Valley to reach Aspiring Hut and stayed there one night.


Aspiring Hut

The next day, on the 6th of July, after finishing my morning shoot near Aspiring Hut (see the above photo), we began our trek to Liverpool Hut. I chose this location to take my night photograph because at 1074 meters altitude, the hut is high enough to gain an open view of the entire Matukituki River West Branch. The hut is situated in a lower flat region below a west-facing mountain ridge, which provided an ideal close-up mountain background when shooting the night scene towards the west direction. 


Hiking along West Matukituki Valley


Trekking to Liverpool Hut was a delightful and challenging experience. We first hiked 8 km starting at Aspiring Hut along the West Matukituki Valley Track before climbing 1.2 km with 530 meters elevation gain. Finally, after another 2 km hike along an exposed ridge, we reached the hut.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at the hut. After examining the surrounding area, I identified a spot 70 meters above the hut. From there I would gain a grand mountain view over the valley with the hut as an interesting backdrop.


The night sky over Mount Aspiring

The above photograph was taken at 1:40am on the 7th of July 2016, when the Milky Way centre had moved down towards the west just above the mountain ridge. The tiny Liverpool Hut down the valley illustrates the scale of this giant magnificent mountain range. The red light from the far left side came from Wanaka down town – 60 km away from Mount Aspiring.

This panorama image was a result of creating two rows of four successive shots in a horizontal format at 14mm focal length.  That is, the image consists of eight shots stitched together and displays a 180-degree wide view of this scenery.

Yan Zhang is a Sydney based Australian photographer. His works have been published in professional photography, geographic and travel magazines including Practical Photography, New Zealand Geographic, Australasian Nature Photography and Colours. In recent years, Yan has devoted great efforts in exploring New Zealand Mountains, combining mountaineering adventures and geographic studies with his photography practice.

Yan Zhang's website