New England Tablelands Part 2: Wollomombi Gorge

During my recent visit to the New England Tablelands (see Part 1 here) I travelled to Wollomombi Gorge. Within the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and afforded World Heritage status, the Chandler and Wolomombi rivers plunge over the plateau into the deep and dramatic gorge below. The name Wollomombi is said to be derived from the Aboriginal word “Wollumbi”, which means “meeting of waters”. "Wollomombi". It's a wonderful word isn't it? I love place names, particularly non-English place names. In Scotland, Wales, Iceland, or here in Australia, the native names for places inspire in me a sense of adventure and fantasy, they spark my imagination. It also seems to me that the native names are part of the landscape. Not just a name to put on a map so that someone can find it, they are descriptive and evocative of the place itself. They almost sound like the landscape.

I’m minded, perhaps tangentially, of an article that appeared in the Guardian a few days ago by Robert Macfarlane talking about “rewilding our language of the landscape”. I think the language of a place helps our connection to it. It’s well worth a read and a think about (link).

Returning to Wollomombi, my goodness it is some sight. Being 4 hours away it’s not exactly on my doorstep but I never expected to have such a grand spectacle so close to me. From other photographs I’ve seen, it is particularly breathtaking after heavy rain where the rivers turn into huge torrents and the base of the falls obscured by the spray thrown up. The conditions I experienced were less dramatic, but nonetheless very beautiful.

I arrived about an hour before sunset hoping for some special light. As this was my first visit it was difficult to be certain where the light would be in this complex terrain just from looking at maps, Google Earth, TPE and other photographs. Conditions were pretty much as I expected however, the yellow sun catching the top of the gorge, deep blue shadow falling on the rocks below.

There are several lookouts as well as bush walks along the escarpment’s edge. As with Ebor in my previous post, most photographs of Wollomombi are taken from the couple of lookouts near to the car park. I started out with the ‘tourist’ shot but quickly switched to my 100-400mm lens to allow me to get closer to the falls and the gorge. As is often the case these detail shots were the most pleasing of my time there, though the stiff wind did its best to ruin a number of them with the lens fully extended to 400mm.

wollomombi gorge

With the obvious lookout shots done, I decided to follow the well worn cliff top path towards Chandler’s Lookout. It sounds like it offers brilliant views but sadly it is closed, I believe due to erosion. Note to NPWS it would be great if you could put the ‘lookout closed’ sign at the start of the path rather than at the end of it!

This is Chandler Falls on the far side of the gorge using a 400mm lens. I loved the more abstract nature of the shot from the longer focal length, light and shadow. I particularly like the illuminated tree at the base of the shadow.

One of the main things that makes the mountainous parts of Australia that I’ve experienced so far quite different to Scotland - other than that they have cattle ranches on top of them! - is that they are swathed in thick vegetation. For the most part British mountains have been denuded of their trees and vegetation, revealing their rugged rocky skeletons.

However in large parts of Australia, and certainly in the large and numerous National Parks, nature is left to its own devices and appears to conquer all. It is quite wonderful, and a real delight to spend time in this wild environment of rich biodiversity, some of which goes back to prehistoric times.

As a photographer it does present some difficulties though. With trees everywhere, if you want to photograph something that isn't a tree then you can have a bit of a tough time. There are few tracks through the wilderness, and ‘going bush’ is at best left to those with more experience of this terrain and at worst discouraged. Even if you were to brave it, with limited detail on topographic maps and little hope of actually finding a clearing where nature doesn’t dominate, it seems pretty unlikely that your time would pay off.

Contrast this with open access land in the UK, such as in the Peak District or the mountains of Scotland, where you can roam freely looking for something to take your fancy almost completely unimpeded (other than from the contours of the terrain itself). I remember wondering if, over the course of history, a human foot had trodden on every inch of land that I was looking at. Out here there is no doubt that nature dominates and man’s presence is very limited, albeit partly because a line has been drawn around it and the loggers haven’t moved in (yet?).

There is a huge irony here. I catch myself cursing that I can’t get a particular shot because the trees are in the way, because vegetation seems to infringe the frame on all sides. And yet, is it not this glorious expanse of nature-run wilderness that I/we should be celebrating?

As photographers I think we are too often guilty of wanting to tame the landscape, to turn it to our own advantage and a beautiful picture. Perhaps in many parts of the world, the landscape is willing - or has been bent too far - and photographs come more readily. Here though, on the fringes of man's domain, the natural landscape is less willing to pose brazenly for a photograph.

Here and there can be found lookouts. On the roadside, or at the end of long bush tracks, where the land rears up and has been partially cleared to offer a better look at the wilderness that we walk through. Wooden platforms with metal rails. I’ve always tried to avoid using them for photographs.

In most places with high visitor numbers, this is where a million photographs are made with naught but a few inches and a different time of day to pick between them. Laybys, lookouts and famous locations seem to me to be the least likely places to make compelling and emotive photographs. Yet here in this dense vegetation they provide the only respite from the claustrophobia one might feel spending hours walking alone in the company of trees and the strange sounds beyond them.

It’s a strange dichotomy indeed.

The walk above Wollomomibi was most lovely, yet the many trees continued to interfere with my photographic vision. As I walked, I would look for gaps through the foliage to the dramatic gorge and the snaking river below. Sadly few presented themselves.

At points I caught a glimpse of an opening and went off the path to take a look. But clearing one tree meant bringing in another couple. With the ground unstable and slippery, and a pretty big drop below, I decided that I would just have to make do as best as I could. I made a few shots that I was originally happy with, but my enduring feeling is that I have unfinished business here. I will return. And here I will learn to make the most of the wonders that nature presents me. I will worry less about simple, denuded compositions. I will instead use the trees as a more effective element in the photograph to tell a truer story of Nature's Domain.




G'Day World! (Aka a New Life Down Under)

Last week I moved to Australia. Can you believe I just said that so flippantly?! If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook this may not come as a surprise to you. If you don’t, it quite likely does! The story behind our move is probably one for another time. For now I just wanted to say ‘hello’ and share a few initial thoughts on our first week here.

"My" kind of weather.

"My Idea of Hell" type of weather. Next Thu/Fri look like fun though!

Blue Skies. What the...?

It’s fair to say that photographically I was apprehensive about making the move to the bottom of the world. Burning sunshine, bright blue skies and red rocks seemed to be the antithesis of what I’d adopted as a dark, moody, and desaturated photographic style in the UK.

Of greatest concern to me was the weather. Blue skies lack all of the mood and drama that get me excited. It is said that the worst time to make photographs is in the middle of the day, and I rarely venture out during the day unless the weather is poor. I've been worried that Australia would be like shooting in the middle of the day all of the time.

Yet the creative spirit rises to a fresh challenge. Whilst my style is certain to evolve, I'm confident that the experience will be a positive one. A totally fresh photographic adventure, another step on the journey.

I’m relieved to say that after a week here I’ve already found ample photographic opportunities - and even some clouds and fierce waves! - and have really enjoyed numerous forays along the coast from my base here in Yamba NSW. Already I’m confident my photography will prosper rather than suffer. Indeed I’m now actively relishing the prospect.


Until you get here it's difficult to comprehend just how big this country is. Ok, you know it's big, but the scale of the place is incredible. It's the world's 6 largest country at nearly 8 million km2. Contrast that with the UK's 242,900 km2 and you begin to appreciate that a 'long drive' to Scotland for a photo trip is like a trip to the shops here! Ok, not quite, but being 4 hours from Brisbane and 10 hours from Sydney there are a lot of kilometres to cover to get anywhere.

Where I'm based we're surrounded by national parks. Compared to the UK, national parks are very common and unsurprisingly very large in Australia. Nonethless they're still a bit of a drive away. I have a couple very local to me (one within 5 mins drive) but it's inland to the mountainous wilderness of the New England Tablelands that I find myself strongly drawn to.

Part of the mountainous spine running down eastern Australia known as the Great Dividing Range, the New England Tablelands are the largest highland area in Australia. Most people don't think of Australia as being mountainous thinking instead of beaches and vast desert but these are proper mountains. For example Round Mountain is 1,586m making it 242m higher than Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain. There are 25 national parks here, 3 of which are World Heritage Sites. The opportunities that lie up there are mind bending. Plus one of the national parks is Guy Fawkes National Park, named after my great great something uncle, so I have to go don't I?

The downside is that although these are 'close by' they are still several hours away from me here. Whilst I expect to visit them regularly it will be relatively infrequently, spending several nights under canvas to make the most of it.

I don't believe in over-travelling to make photographs. Setting aside the environmental concerns, I think finding locations to work with nearby is important for repeated and frequent visits. This also provides a more personal challenge to produce more intimate and deeply satisfying images than relying on dramatic and iconic locations alone, and helps with my creative progression.

So I'll be picking my way along my little stretch of coast. We sit on the mouth of a large river, the Clarence, with a ferry required to cross. A five minute drive to the south is Yuraygir National Park which at 65km is the longest stretch of undeveloped coast in New South Wales. So I've got between here and there to work with before I have to pack the tent and pull on the hiking boots (which I will of course!).

On paper twilight lasts about 20 minutes less than back in the Peak District but it seems to go from pitch black to light very quickly here.

Hey Dude, Where's My Twilight?

Beyond the size and the seemingly perpetual sunshine, the other thing that has struck me so far about Australia is how short twilight feels and how quickly the sun rises.

This morning I was climbing over rocks by head torch only 30 minutes before sunrise. Once the sun is up, it rises into the sky very quickly giving the ‘middle of the day’ problem of high contrast white light. In the UK I would expect to be shooting for up to an hour before the sun came up.

At the other end of the day the sun sinks and darkness seems to set in unbelievably quickly. One minute I’m making an image, the next I’ve got the head torch on trying to find my way back to the car. We don’t so much get a Blue Hour and a Golden Hour as 30 minutes but Golden Half Hour doesn’t sound quite as good!

The weather also reduces the shooting window. Post-sunrise in the UK you often get more usable light due to ample cloud cover. This is one reason I love being out when it’s cloudy. If it’s overcast you can basically shoot all day. So far I’ve experienced little cloud cover so the light quickly turns harsh forcing me to pack up the camera. Of course part of my adaption to this new landscape will be making best use of this light. I don't believe there is such a thing as 'bad light' rather it's about adapting your approach to the available light.

Nonetheless as a Scot living in one of the wettest parts of the UK, bright sunshine is a bit alien to me and definitely provides me a challenge. With time I expect my images will become lighter, and will play on light and shadow and the graphic shapes they produce. I am also sure that I will be ever more grateful for the short windows of blue offered to me by twilight.

Some Images to Finish With

Anyway that’s a few opening thoughts on my time here. It’s a big country, full of fresh wonder and adventure for me. Already my early apprehension is fading, filled with renewed confidence and excitement that I can produce some great work here. I hope that you stick with me to see some of the results.

Here are some images from the last week. You can see more in my freshly created Australia gallery.