New England Tablelands Part 3: Gondwana

This post is the 3rd instalment from my trip to the New England Tablelands a few weeks ago. This time around I’m going to take you into New England National Park itself (link | brochure PDF).

The defining feature of New England National Park is the Great Escarpment - huge basalt cliffs - overlooking rainforest clad wilderness as far as the eye can see. The landscape has been forged by the lava flows of the massive Ebor Volcano over 18 million years ago.

Just below the escarpment are cold temperate rain forests, home to Antarctic Beech which are some of the oldest trees on earth. The name speaks to the history of these trees. Their pollen has been found in Antarctica and the distribution of the trees around the Southern Pacific Rim are proof that these trees were once widespread in rain forests across the ancient continent of Gondwana (modern day Australia, Antarctica and South America) when the dinosaurs roamed over 100 million years ago. As the Earth has warmed, these trees have sought sanctuary in the cooler upper climbs of the Tablelands here in Australia, and are protected by the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area. You can read more about the Southern Beech, the genus to which the Antarctic belongs, here.

Point Lookout sits atop the Great Escarpment and, as for so many photographers before me, was where I went to take in sunrise, looking east over the wilderness. Well, that was the plan anyway. My headlights diffused through ever thicker patches of fog as I climbed Point Lookout Road. I walked the short distance to the viewpoint to be faced with the inevitable - thick cloud and fog as far as the eye could see. Which was about 3 metres.

At an elevation of 1,564m it’s not unusual to be stood in a cloud here, though on clearer days the view extending east towards the coast usually sees the fog nestled in the numerous valleys. I sat in the rain and the darkness waiting for the cloud to clear, knowing from past experience that it wasn’t going to happen. A hole into the landscape beyond offered hope for the briefest of moments before quickly shutting closed again.

Not a sunrise.

Plan B

Clinging to the escarpment below Point Lookout.

So no glorious sunrise to speak of, but my main intention here was to explore the rainforest below which the weather was perfect for. The walk descriptions warned of unsteady and slippery terrain, so I decided to travel light. Given the fairly persistent rain I wanted to avoid lens changes too, so I took my Fujifilm XT-1 and XF18-135mm lens. This gave me a lightweight, flexible and weather sealed combination plus I’ve always liked how the Fuji renders trees.

Dropping below the escarpment and into the green gloom of the rainforest was like entering into another world, and given its age I suppose it was. It's difficult to quite put into words the feeling of being in this place. The vegetation was thick, vines and moss hanging from the trees, lichen crusted to the rocks and trunks. Precipitation fell from above, from the clouds or the trees I no longer knew.



Before arriving in Australia I had read and looked at the wild forests of Tasmania, and enjoyed Peter Dombrovskis’ beautiful work from there. The Gondwana rainforest I was now standing in evoked in me that same sense of ancient, primeval woodland. Here it was on my relative doorstep and I was in awe of it. The colours, the shapes, the sense of entaglement, the visceral experience all soaked into me as the rain.

Ordinarily when walking somewhere new I have an impulse to move too quickly, eager to overcome any obstacles earlier rather than later. This often impacts my photography, not allowing myself to dwell too long. Eager also to escape the rain, I would hasten along until the wild forest would give me pause, and then it begged me to stay a while longer until I lost all sense of time.

With so much potential it was easy to feel overwhelmed at times. Many of my images were shot handheld, relying on image stabilisation and higher ISO to get me sharp pictures in the murk. When surrounded by the confusion of branches, vines and mosses, looking through the viewfinder provided a welcome respite and it becomes easier to find compositions. The danger is that almost anything looks good through the viewfinder here. The challenge I find is to keep focused on strong shapes and contrasts to provide the viewer a clearer path through the undergrowth.


Once I found something I was happy with I would then use my tripod for a sharper result. However, as is so often the case, I came home really loving the 'sketch shots' (for want of a better word) I had made while exploring the forest. At high ISO (a couple are at 3200), relying on IS and without the finesse offered by careful composition on the tripod they lack technical perfection. Nonetheless I love them and for me they have captured the spirit of the place. Indeed, technical perfection in a place like this almost seems at odds with its wild nature, thought that does sound like I'm making excuses! I will quite happily print them, so it’s all good.

I’m returning to New England in a few weeks. With the benefit of a longer trip I'm hoping to go slower, work more deliberately, and lose myself - metaphorically rather than literally - in the forest for a while. I often find that first visits happen all too quickly, eager to see everything rather than enjoying the gifts to be found in what can be just a small area. It’s often in the return visits, after some reflection and with a slower pace that I find better images present themselves.

Wright's Lookout

Finally let me leave you with Wright’s Lookout from where the featured image at the top was made. Wright’s is a couple of kilometres from the road through the forest, perched atop an ancient trachyte remnant of Ebor Volcano. From here the views back towards the basalt cliffs below Point Lookout and again east across the rainforest are quite remarkable.

The view stretches for mile upon mile over wooded mountains and valleys, the like of which I have never seen with my own eyes before. A real advantage to this 'lookout' is that it is a wide plateau. Due to the poor soil the vegetation is low lying heath. This means that there are many more views and compositions that can be made here than from most, manmade, lookouts.



I really loved my first visit to New England. I’m excited about returning and spending more time exploring the rainforests of Gondwana, with the hope of creating a new body of work that evokes at least some of its wonder.

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.