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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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New England Tablelands Part 1: Ebor Falls

Many people don’t think of Australia as mountainous, yet the Great Dividing Range is the third longest mountain range in the world at 3,500km. This pretty much runs down the eastern length of the country and includes Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko which is 2,228m. I live in Yamba on the New South Wales coast. It sits on the mouth of the Clarence River, one of the largest rivers in Australia. Its headwater is on the eastern slopes of the Northern Tablelands (or New England Tablelands) which form part of the longer Great Dividing Range as it passes through NSW.

The great thing is that I can get there in 2-3 hours. Where I am I enjoy the the best of both worlds - living on the coast, but with mountains and something wilder not too far away from me, especially considering the vast geography of Australia. Nonetheless, a 4-6 hour roundtrip is not to be sniffed at and uses up a $60 tank of petrol and about $20 of munchies.

When I visit I tend to camp overnight to make the most of my time and the journey, allowing myself to explore longer and further, and to increase my chances of good light. I particularly love having a night or two away camping with the camera. It truly feels like getting away from it all, I can just forget about everything and become fully immersed in the landscape and my photography. Blissful, but adventurous.

I’ve been to the closer parts of the Tablelands a few times, but a couple of weeks ago I headed further south to the area around New England National Park for a short recce trip ahead of a longer trip in Autumn. The New England NP sits on the ‘Waterfall Way’, a road that travels from Coffs Harbour, on the east coast, inland over the mountains to Armadale. Though called the Waterfall Way, it wasn’t the waterfalls so much as the wild and expansive mountains that I was wanting to explore. If you want to take a look at the area the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) do really good visitor guides for the National Parks (download the PDF here).

After a 3 hour and, towards the end, very windy drive I arrived in Ebor atop the wide mountain plateau. It's quite strange up here. At 1,300m elevation Ebor is a good deal higher than any of Scotland’s mountains. Yet the terrain is rather flat - perhaps unsurprising given that it’s a plateau! With gentle undulations and wide grassy expanses, this is cattle country. Not exactly what you expect to find at the top of a mountain. It's also quite temperate. Down on the coast the temperatures are close to 30C. Up here I don’t recall it reaching 20C and the nights were a wee bit chilly. It even snows! More my natural environment really.

Ebor is known for a series of rather stunning waterfalls, where the Guy Fawkes River plunges off the plateau and over the escarpment edge. Beyond, the river winds through the gorges of the Guy Fawkes River National Park. It is these escarpments and gorges that make the area particularly beautiful. I’ve yet to find out why the river is named after my ancestor, but it gives me a strangely warming feeling being so far from home. As does Armidale the ‘original’ (well, it's actually spelt Arm-A-dale) being on the southwest tip of the Isle of Skye, close to my more recent ancestors' old croft.

There are two lookouts close to the car park, which is only just off the main road, offering good views of the waterfalls. A path following the escarpment edge links the two. Having reviewed dozens of images in my research of worthwhile places to visit in the area, I was feeling pretty downhearted at how similar they all looked. With limited clear views of the falls, almost all of the photographs that you see of Ebor Falls, Upper or Lower, are taken from one of these lookouts and so offer limited potential for something different. I've never been a big fan of such photography, feeling a need to have more than lucky environmental conditions to make a noteworthy photograph.

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However I did spot one photograph made from below the falls. This gave me renewed hope that there was more potential than the many other photographs suggested. Having taken the obvious shots at the top, I determined to find my way down the escarpment. I’m not going to share the story or the route here, but it was a bit hairy scary at points.

When I bashed my leg on a rock, I recalled the accident my friend Doug Chinnery had in a river in Glen Coe when he badly broke his leg leaving him immobile for months. Or David duChemin falling from that wall in Pisa. Nobody would even know I was down here, nor would they hear my cries above the roar of the waterfalls if something did happen. At once I felt a bit stupid. I know that sounds melodramatic, and in reality it probably wasn’t that bad. As photographers and outdoors people we are familiar with and accept some element of risk in what we do. The extent of the risk we accept is personal.

Past psychological profiles have shown me, as if I didn’t know myself, to be generally risk averse. I have also always been scared of heights. Photography to a large extent cured me of that, my desire to get the shot overriding my irrational fears. My photography has helped me to develop a more intrepid side. I’ve fearlessly scrambled gorges in Wales and the Peak District, trekked moorland in thick snow with a blizzard on my shoulder, and climbed one of the highest mountains in Scotland. Each time I was prepared and comfortable with what I was doing.

Sometimes though that (irrational?) risk aversion pops up and imagined stories of "The Idiot Scotsman who broke his legs climbing the cliff at Ebor Falls" splashed across the international media made me feel a bit foolish. So I hastily made a couple of shots by the edge of my namesake's river before carefully picking my way back up to higher ground. I wonder now, on reflection, if it wasn’t quite as dangerous as I thought. I wonder if I should return with better light and more time, or if my initial instincts were correct and to be trusted. I guess my next visit there will decide how bold I feel.

Read more about my trip in my next blog. In the meantime, enjoy and read about a few more images below.


 

Upper Ebor Falls


 

 

SLPOTY 2014 Commendations

I’m very happy to have had two photographs commended in the inaugural Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. I’m a bit later than everyone posting about it as my MacBook decided to pack up the very same day I found out about SLPOTY. It then spent 2 weeks in the repair shop – bitter sweet eh?! Overall I had three images in the final, and was glad that two of them went on to be commended. You can see the three images below.

Interestingly, the pair of commended images were made on the same week long trip to Assynt via Torridon that I made in November 2013. What an adventure that was, full of ups and downs. But It was also a very productive trip especially considering a couple of images did well at SLPOTY.

I remember writing about the trip for a magazine submission. Sadly the article was never printed but I thought it was worth sharing now that the images have been recognised. I’ve collated it into a short eBook which you can download here.

Over a year later, the memories of that trip are still fresh, particularly the morning I spent on Stac Pollaidh where I made one of the images in question.

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The day before I was in the depths of despair. The clamp on my My Really Right Stuff ballhead had, for want of a better word, exploded on me. The pin holding the lever onto the clamp popped out and dropped into the boggy vegetation of Torridon, never to be seen again. Needless to say having a broken tripod was a major downer on my day and threatened my whole trip – I hadn’t even reached my destination at that point!

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However the fantastic Lizzie Shepherd responded to my SOS call over Twitter and despatched one of her spare clamps to me by next day delivery. The replacement clamp was waiting for my return to the hotel the very next day. Thanks again Lizzie!

The morning that I climbed up Stac Pollaidh I was still tripod-less, but I had determined not to let it ruin things. In fact, being able to leave 2.5kg in the back of the car probably helped the climb up.

The conditions on the top were incredible, and it’s such an amazing location. I could hear the wind howling over the ridge as I made the final, steep ascent and was blasted by an arctic wind as I got to the top.

Stac Pollaidh seemed blessed that morning. The weather forecast had talked of strong winds and heavy showers coming in from the west, which was pretty spot on. However the showers seemed to part on the prow of Stac Pollaidh and move down the glens either side. For the most part I was standing in blazing winter sun, while the glens and distant mountains came into and out of view through the heavy rain showers. It was like watching Mother Nature from the best seat in the house.

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As brooding squall after squall marched down the glens, the bright sunshine light the air in front of me with incredible rainbows, the like of which I can’t recall seeing before. Rainbow after rainbow danced upon the wild and wondrous landscape.

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I tried to make the most of my situation, sheltering behind and bracing myself against rocks to stabilise myself and the camera from the fierce winds. When hand-holding like this I’ll switch to Auto ISO to help maintain a sufficiently high shutter speed to avoid camera shake, preferring to deal with a bit more noise than a blurry picture. My lens's image stabilisation certainly helped too.

A polariser was needed to bring out the colours of the rainbows. Without one rainbows often appear dull and faded compared to how we remember them. With it, their vibrant glory is restored.

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I spent several hours on Stac Pollaidh’s ramparts, watching and photographing in wonder, until the sun’s position was such that the rainbows had dulled and moved out of shot. I was on such a high having seen nature’s light show over such a wonderful landscape that I didn’t feel the chill wind until I started to descend again. The pain in every other step reminded me of the ankle I had turned the previous week, almost ending my trip.

From utter despair to pure elation in the space of 24 hours. It almost seems like a photographer's life in microcosm. In the doldrums one minute, buzzing with creative energy the next. Not everything goes your way, you just have to go with it and make the most of it believing that something amazing is just around the corner.

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From a gear perspective, I love tripods. They open up a world of shutter speed possibilities. I love the time to think and precise adjustments they allow. But you can live without one if you have to. Yes, it restricts your options, but perhaps also offers fresh opportunities too. I can’t bear to think about missing the best morning of my photographic life because I’d chucked in the towel over a broken tripod.

To this day I find that if something goes wrong – a piece of kit malfunctions, I’ve forgotten something, or things just aren’t working out – that I get very down and can be very hard on myself. I always use the “Stac Pollaidh and the Tripod” experience to put things into perspective and pick myself up again. Ironically enough, my tripod failed on me again this morning - the leg fell off! Oh well, I'm sure tomorrow will be a better day! :)

(Here's that link to the free eBook if you missed it at the top.)