Thursday, 11 February 2016

Lake Ruataniwha - MacKenzie Basin


Our next stop after Mt Cook was at Lake Ruataniwha, an artificial lake just south of Twizel in MacKenzie Country. Twizel often gets a bad rap because of it’s location and past history- it was founded in 1968 to house construction workers on the Upper Waitaki Hydroelectric Scheme and was meant to be a temporary town, most houses were prefabricated and intended to be portable. It was to revert to farmland once the hydro work was completed but in 1983, as the project was winding up, residents successfully fought to save the town. Twizel is a now a service and tourist town for the many visitors to the MacKenzie Basin.

Personally I love this area, I love the remoteness when you leave the main road, the dry bleached high country, long lonely roads, the surrounding mountains and the beautiful turquoise blue canals and lakes. The salmon fishing is reputed to be pretty good too- we are yet to find this out though.

We usually stop at the NZMCA park beside the Ohau B canal but decided a change of scenery was in order. And just across the lake from the NZMCA site (centre right of the small mound)- is a freedom camping area near a stand of trees and just a few steps from Lake Ruataniwha.

We parked between the pine trees in the shade because as you can see the weather was perfect and the sun very hot! We left any bad weather behind at Mt Cook for a few days.

We stayed for a few days and explored some of the areas we hadn’t covered on our previous visits. We also went looking for the elusive adult Black Stilts.

Other Movanners came and went, and often we arrived home after exploring to find new neighbours. I love this time of the year (early December), the weather is fine although crisp & cool in the morning, and it’s a few weeks before the silly season kicks and the traffic get heavy, both on the roads and in the camping sites.

We shared the grove of trees with this memorial; before the hydro scheme and the dam that created Lake Ruataniwha, the Ohau River flowed past here.

Don’t worry he’s not doing what it looks like- it's another hapless fisherman trying his luck amongst the lupins.

Another grebe’s home base was the length of lake front below our van (we must have seen the total NZ population on our travels) and it was fun to watch him (or her) through our tinted windows- our own personal bird hide- swim up and down all day fishing and relaxing without being aware he was being watched. Whenever I stepped outside to photograph him he’d dive and disappear.

Other wildlife included my new favourite bird, the Black Fronted Tern, who did circuits of the lake corner and rested on the ‘camping regulations’ sign post nearby. A mother NZ Scaup and her two ducklings also shared the same length of lake edge with the grebe, both keeping a wary eye on each other and on me.

You’ll remember this shot from a quick blog post I did at the time to say we had arrived at the lake. 

David fishing as the sun went down. He didn’t catch dinner though.

I’ve been on a half-hearted mission for some time to catch the Southern Lights; the Aurora Australis. I follow a couple of Facebook pages and receive alerts when the solar activity around the sun is high; this usually means the lights will be playing loud & clear a few days afterwards. You will be surprised to learn that the lights actually play a lot more often than not but they’re not usually visible to the naked eye. They play at many different strengths, sometimes for only brief spurts, other times, for most of the night.

As you can see from the following photos I had a go at catching them while parked at Lake Ruataniwha. I knew there was going to be an issue because of the salmon farm lights across the lake (right), the bright blue lights on the floating boom in front of the spillway (centre) and the passing traffic on SH8- that’s a large truck and trailer with two rows of red lights down the sides. Made a pretty cool photo though.

So far on our travels I’ve missed the best activity, there’s been a few times when we weren’t far from a good showing but mostly we’ve just missed it or it arrives just after we’ve left a good site with excellent views facing south. Winter is also the best time and often it’s just been too cold to venture out in the middle of the night- I’m not that fanatical about them yet- unlike some who chase them night after night and are up all night.

To photograph the aurora you need a dark sky with no moon and definitely no artificial light. It helps to have a water body in front of you for reflection and a good unobstructed view to the south, it also adds interest if you have a jetty, boat shed, lighthouse or something similar in the foreground. You need a wide angle lens, large aperture, high ISO and it’s a fine balance with the shutter speed- too fast and not enough light gets in, too slow and you pick up star trails of varying lengths. You also need to focus before it gets dark otherwise you’re shooting blind, this one is not sharp at all but there’s a hint of purply-pink aurora.

I gave up after a 20 minutes or so, it was never going to work not least because there was too much rustling going on in the grass nearby- I think I need to stand on a table or seat or something and wear my gumboots(wellington boots) instead of my Crocs- it’s pitch black and I had visions of water rats or weasels shuffling about my feet. It’s also 12am and getting cold by the minute.

I like this shot because I caught a shooting star; I didn’t see it until I uploaded the photos. One day I’ll get serious and one day I will shoot the Southern Lights.

In the meantime I think I’ll stick to day-time shots (taken from the same position as the night photos).

There was quite a bit of activity on the lake and near our camp site over the weekend while we were there. Children’s birthday parties and boating families enjoying BBQs. This dodgy looking rust bucket of a vehicle took the birthday boy and his guests for a few spins around the reserve and along the top of the stopbank. I’m not so sure I’d be letting my son ride in this contraption, it was all good fun but it really looked like an accident waiting to happen.

We were woken early most mornings by very loud voices coming across the lake- it took me a few moments to work out where they were coming from initially; mega-horns on board a number of small dinghies chasing rowing teams along the beautifully smooth lake.

Early morning and again early evening most days there were half a dozen crews practicing on the lake. Lake Ruataniwha is the home of South Island rowing and many regattas, both national & international are held on it. The Meridian Rowing Centre is just over the rise from where we’re parked and marked race lanes stretch nearly as far as the eye can see up the lake.

Towards the top of the lake there are a number of boat ramps and picnic areas below the road level and another freedom camping area on a plateau above and overlooking the lake.

I walked over to the main road and across the spillway bridge so I could take a summer photo of the historic old Iron Bridge that sits below the road.

Here’s the last shot I took of it when I drove up from Winton to see the ‘big snow’ back in June; it’s amazing how much a scene changes through the seasons.


  1. The reflection in the turquoise blue water is achingly beautiful! Seeing a scene changes through the seasons is a blessed pleasure. That's why we're never tired of coming back again and again. Maybe next time we'll see you adding another photo of the historic old Iron Bridge in beautiful autumn :)

    1. Thanks offstone, I've added to the request list :)

  2. The first freedom camping area that you stayed at, is it the one marked as 'Lake Ruataniwha Reserve' in Rankers? It looks so close to the Lake Ruataniwha Holiday Park & Motels! I tried to locate the second freedom camping area on Google satellite map. If it's directly above the boat ramps in your photo then I could only find a raised bare and exposed patch about 30m away from the main road.

    1. Yep, you have it, it's actually just a little further on, on the next bare patch just before the road comes back up from the lake level. And yes, about 1 km further on than the campground. Nowhere near as pretty as the other end.


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