One of the things I’m discovering on our Australian adventure is that travel photography can be risky – in unexpected ways and in seemingly tame locations. I’ve known for a while that intrepid photographers can come unstuck in their quest for the ultimate, jaw-dropping shot, by getting too caught up in the moment and not paying enough attention to their environment. I remember reading a terrible story in the paper last year about a photographer who fell to his death when he lost his balance on a cliff edge at Machu Picchu. As someone who can get carried away at times, I can understand how that happened. When I read that story, I didn’t think ‘wow, what an idiot,’ I thought ‘that could so easily have been me.’ That’s because photography can be addictive and can drive people to take risks they wouldn’t normally take. Creative pursuits carry some people, including me, to an amazing place where the senses are heightened and there’s a feeling of complete detachment from everyday life. Some people call it being ‘in the zone’ – a place where great things can happen, but where (depending on the activity) danger sometimes lurks.
The Beautiful Monaro
Monaro, on the southern edge of New South Wales, is the type of place that stirs my inner photography addict. I knew I was in trouble as we headed south from Canberra, and the vistas of the southern tablelands were replaced with epic open skies, distant mountains and sweeping, untamed grasslands. The further we got from the towns, the more captivating the landscape became: uncultivated and sun-bleached, so remote and raw that it is still the realm of Australia’s extraordinary wildlife; where human efforts to tame the land are gradually defeated by nature. For me, it was love at first sight. As we rounded every bend in the road, my eyes greedily drank in the beauty and marvelled at the photo opportunities.
It’s probably just as well Al was driving, otherwise we wouldn’t have reached the tiny rural settlement of Maffra (where we were staying) until late into the night.
The Treacherous Hill
As it was, we arrived during the golden hour, and so as soon as we had checked into our cottage and chatted with our hosts, I grabbed my camera and headed out. I was feeling confident that I’d be able to find a vantage point above the farm on our hosts’ land: a hill with sweeping views across the valley to the Snowy Mountains beyond.
Five minutes later, I was driving up an extremely steep and rocky track, wondering if I was in the right place. Surely, they wouldn’t send me up there, I thought, as I looked up to a stone cairn at the summit. The track was so precarious that I was wondering if our Land Rover would make it, as the handbrake had been playing up and I wasn’t sure if it would hold. But the thought of a stunning view across the valley kept me going, and I reasoned that I’d be able to find a flat space to park at the top.
Well, that turned out to be not quite accurate – I ended up having to traverse the rocky hill so that I could stop and take my photos. The car was at such an extreme angle that when I opened the door it swung into the tussocks with a thunk and I practically tumbled out of the car along with some of our stuff.
That’s when I noticed a farm vehicle roaring up the track behind me, bouncing over the rocks and trailing a plume of dust. My first thought was that it must be our hosts, coming to join me. But why are they driving at such breakneck speed, I wondered? As the truck drew closer, I realised I was in a bit of trouble: it was clear that the red-faced driver was livid, and that he had come to chase me off his land. Anyway, it turns out it isn’t easy for a lost English girl in her Land Rover to convince a furious Aussie farmer that she hasn’t deliberately trespassed on his land. I wish I could say the photographs were worth the telling off I got, but they weren’t!
The Angry Bull
Things improved the following day, when we discovered a lovely microbrewery near Dalgety, not far from where we were staying. After spending most of the day there (they made quite a few different beers and they all had to be sampled), we headed back to our cottage, which overlooked a picturesque lake. The lake and all the land around it was owned, I knew for sure, by our hosts. So even post-many-a-beer, I felt my camera calling me, and set off (on foot this time), to find a spot by the lake and wait for the sunset. I crossed a couple of paddocks, climbed over a couple of gates and fences, and finally reached the water, and spent the next couple of hours photographing the light changing through all the colours of the rainbow, until it finally reached deep indigo and it became too dark to focus.I’d been in the zone for quite some time at that point, and as I began to pack up my kit I realised that not only was it dark, but my path across the fences and through the paddocks was blocked by a very large bull. I could see the whites of his eyes in the darkness as I edged up to the fence, and I didn’t like the way he was looking at me. I started talking to him: ‘You do know I need to pass through your field to get home, don’t you Mr Bull?’ I said. ‘Just a few steps. Then I’ll be out of your way.’ I took a deep breath and began climbing the fence, but just as I was swinging my leg over the barbed wire and preparing for my quick dash through his paddock and over the next gate, he snorted and lunged towards me. I fell, and thankfully landed on my side of the fence.
For the next half hour, as the night drew in, I was stuck by the lake, with no phone and no torch, and only an angry bull for company. I was only able to escape when some cows came to my rescue – they came trotting up to the bull and distracted him for long enough for me to make my escape.
The Suicidal Kangaroo
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself: Tanya should get herself a different hobby. Or at least she should be chaperoned by a responsible adult. Al, maybe? Well, the reality is that no one in their right mind would want to traipse around with an avid photographer when they’re in the zone, Al included. It involves an awful lot of waiting and hanging around and…just one more, then we can go…okay, I’ll just take this one…ooooh, look how the light has changed again, I’ll just take this shot, then we’ll be on our way…wow – look at that! Quick, where’s my telephoto lens? That’s literally how it goes, every time. All self-control goes out the window.
Because of this tendency, I sometimes try to combine my photography outings with other tasks to stop myself getting too wrapped up in it. That’s what I did the morning we were due to leave the Monaro region and drive further south to Gippsland, Victoria. We needed to get a safety certificate for the Land Rover before we left New South Wales, so we booked it in for 8am in the nearest garage, which was an hour’s drive away (or three hours if you’re me and you’re taking photographs along the way).
So that morning, I headed off at 5.15am, before the sun was up, to photograph the sunrise and then take the car to the garage. As soon as I was up, I knew it wasn’t going to be an ideal day for landscape photography because the sky was clear (patchy clouds make for much more interesting photographs). But the blow was softened slightly by a heavy dew and a veil of mist that was lying in the valleys. So as I drove, I found plenty of places to pull over and survey the scene.
I knew I had to drive very slowly and concentrate hard because in rural Australia, kangaroos often feed by the roadside at night, and dawn and dusk are very dangerous times for roos and drivers alike. That morning, there were kangaroos and wallabies all over the place, but luckily most of the route consisted of long straight roads and grassy verges, where it’s easy enough to take avoiding action. A few times, I had to come to a complete stop while young kangaroos dashed back and forth in front of me, trying to work out where they could jump the fence and rejoin their groups. I’m used to it, so I took my time and took extra special care in the misty hollows.
But as I rounded one particularly sharp bend that wound up a wooded hillside, I saw a huge male Eastern Grey, standing right in the middle of the road. He was tall (about six feet) and muscular. By a stroke of luck, he was facing towards me and we both saw each other at the same time. I slammed on the brakes as he leapt sideways, and we missed each other by what seemed like just a few inches. That was the end of my photography for that morning, because I was too shaken up to continue.Love letter to Monaro
My experiences during those few days in the Monaro region reminded me of the risks of travel photography, and of adventure travel in general. The landscape looks so serene, but capturing it on camera comes with risks that only the photographer really knows. For me, it was worth every minute of it, even if I didn’t produce my best work. I loved the Monaro region from the minute I set eyes on it: the soft light on the tussock hills on an overcast day, the stillness of the golden dawn, the deep blues of the distant Snowy Mountains, and the dilapidated rural buildings, rusting in the mist. I loved it all, I’ll never forget it, and I hope we’ll return one day.