I had the chance to nip down to Margaret River for the day while my partner, Helen, was playing croquet in Bunbury. Most people when they think of Margaret River think about wine or surfing but there is more to the area than that. It is a beautiful part of the world with forests and beaches that are home to some very spectacular flora and fauna. I was looking for orchids, but as I had the dog with me I wanted to tire her out before so she would be more settled while I was on the hunt. I don’t know whether you, my dear readers are fans of so-called cosy crime TV such as Morse, Lewes, Midsummer Murder, or Endeavour, but when you watch those it is always the dog walker that finds the body. To be more precise it is the dog who finds the body. Well we were just walking along a track when Frida – the dog – took off like a rocket into the undergrowth and after much thrashing around emerged holding a large femur. As far as she was concerned she had found treasure and after a couple of minutes later thundered back into the bush and reappeared with another. At this stage I was wondering whether she had found a body and whether I should have a look, but I decided to have a look to see what sort of bones they were. Now whenever Frida gets a bone she becomes very possessive and develops a level of distrust befitting a paranoid schizophrenic. Fortunately she hands over the bone nicely as she obviously feels that she a great big pile of the things and again dives into the bush to return with the skull. Definitely not human, much to my relief, it was a western grey kangaroo which had obviously been hit by a car and managed to drag itself to these bushes to die. My overseas readers may not realise this but ‘roos are a bit like rabbits, if they get dazzled by car headlights they will just sit in the road rather than take off. Unlike rabbits they make more of a mess of your car.
Thankfully after all that excitement we managed to find what we were looking for which were leafless and hare orchids.
This is the first video in a new series called Paul’s Pootles. Now for my non English readers my dictionary defines “Pootle” as “move or travel in a leisurely manner” and that is the name of the game. Anyone who knows me well will probably say that I’ve pootling throughout my life.
This walk is along the coast at Cottesloe in Western Australia and has been taken from my book Perth’s Best Bush, Coast, and City Walks, published by Woodslane (ISBN 9781921606793 ) in 2010.
I’m always pleasantly surprised by the things I find while pootling along the back roads of Western Australia. Last weekend was a case in point. I was driving along the bucolic Ferguson Valley in the south-west of the state when I came across something that just expressed a sense of spontaneous anarchistic fun. That something was Gnomesville. We’ve all seen garden gnomes haven’t we? You know those kitsch garden ornaments usually made out of plaster and sometimes out of cement that can be found in gardens all over the world. Usually they are seen singly, occasionally in twos or threes. Sometimes you come across a garden that has maybe a couple of dozen and that is regarded as a bit OTT. So imagine a place with thousands of gnomes. That’s right thousands. The exact number is not known, but some reckon the figure could be as high as 5000. They are not in a garden, it’s not some commercial tourist attraction. Gnomesville is found on the verge by a roundabout in a very rural setting.
The whole thing is absolutely bonkers. So how did it start? Well there is the legend of Gnomesville which is as follows:
“A long, long time ago, a Gnome was travelling on an Australian country road. It was at night and far from anywhere. All around was leafy and green. A pleasant place.
By and by, he came to a fork in the road. He followed the road, which seemed to go around and around.
Now, being a little person, he could not see over the curb. If he did, the story would have ended here.
He walked all night with the feeling he was going nowhere. Roads branched off every so often. By the morning, he was exhausted. Then it was clear. He had come across a ROUNDABOUT—a circular intersection in the middle of (almost) nowhere.
This was something he had never seen as a country traveller.
But it was a nice place and reminded him of home. There was a bubbling brook and shady trees. So he stayed a while. And another while. Other Gnomes passed and visited, and many stayed. Word passed around.
Gnomes from far and wide left their gardens and came to visit. But they stayed. This was something new for the mostly solitary Gnomes. There was something irresistible about the place. It was as if the ROUNDABOUT was casting a spell.
For people who need the real actual true story well Kevin and Vicki Campbell were a local couple who played a large part in the creation of Gnomesville. The local shire had annexed some land from a neighbour to create a T junction at the bottom of a hill. The local residents weren’t too keen as they felt that it would be unsafe. So after a public meeting and some toing and froing it was decided that a roundabout would be built instead. Not long after a gnome appeared in a hollow tree by the roundabout. It was in fact the very spot where Vicki used to leave her bicycle when she caught the school bus as a child. It was the start of a gnome sit in protest. Soon there were twenty gnomes all showing solidarity. And so Gnomesville was born. I prefer the legend. Now people come from quite literally all over the world to leave a gnome. When I was there a young couple with their son had come all the way from Malaysia to leave a gnome. There are Dutch gnomes, gnomes from Japan, even from Finland. Gnomesville is a very cosmopolitan place.
So if you are in the vicinity of Bunbury and are kicking your heels wondering what to do take a drive out to the Ferguson Valley and enjoy the sights of Gnomesville. You could even stop off and buy a gnome to leave there.
*apologies to Wally Johnson and Bob Brown for corrupting the title to their all time Aussie favourite song “Home Among The Gum Trees”
When I was a kid one of the many rebuffs used was “take a long walk on a short pier” – it was, I suppose, a more imaginative way of saying get lost. Well whoever first coined the phrase hadn’t taken into account Busselton Jetty in Busselton Western Australia.
Busselton Jetty is the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere and it is 1.81Km or 1.12 miles long. Building the jetty commenced in 1853 and it opened in 1865 and by the 1880’s it was already attracting tourists. By 1972 the jetty ceased operation as a commercial port and today it attracts a staggering 450,000 people per year.
At the end of the jetty is the Underwater Observatory which takes visitor down 8m to the seabed where they can observe the huge variety of marine life that has made the jetty home.
To get there you don’t have to walk, there is a solar-powered electric train, the Stocker Preston Express, which can carry up to 90 people. So now it is the case of a small train journey on a long pier.
“Few things are as exciting as the idea of travelling somewhere else. But the reality of travel seldom matches our daydreams.”
Alain de Botton
I’ve never been a fan of mass tourism, but over the last few weeks I’ve been reading a lot about the negative aspects of it and in particular with what is happening to Venice. Apparently as many as 44,000 cruise ship passengers pour into Venice a day during the high season. That’s roughly 5 cruise liners worth. When we lived in Tasmania we’d get the boats pull into Hobart Harbour, thankfully just one at a time, and the passengers would be like a tsunami as they headed for Salamanca. I hate to think what 5 times that number would be like. Along with the negative impact that has on the local population and the environment there is also the fact would you really want to visit somewhere with another 44,000 people? It’s hardly getting away from it all is it? Then there is the whole thing of “Right you’ve got six hours in port and then we’re off to the next location”. Six hours following several other thousand people all traipsing round the same location, looking at the same few things only to herded up at the end of the day and taken somewhere else to do exactly the same thing the next day. It’s a gross version of the 1969 film “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium”. It’s worthy of Dante’s vision of hell. So why do people do it and pay a fortune for the privilege? Essentially people do it because they are bored with the ordinariness of their life and want something out of the ordinary with a touch of luxury.
When I lectured in photography one of the most common complaints from students was that there was nothing to photograph in Perth or Western Australia. They wanted something new, something exciting something that they’d never seen before. The problem was photography’s history encourages that kind of thinking – we only have to look at the photographic tradition of the road trip established by the likes of Robert Frank and his eponymous book The Americans with its hip introduction by Jack Kerouac. Stephen Shore and Alec Soth amongst others have popularised it to the extent that it has almost become a photographic rite of passage. Indeed at a portfolio review at FotoFreo my reviewer actually said I should go on a road trip as a means of finding myself. But the thing is booking a package holiday to Bali or Vietnam is not going to work as all you will see are the usual tourist attractions and maybe you’ll take some photos of poor third world people. Invariably you return home and the photos get ignored and languish in a dark recess on your computer hard drive as they look the same as everyone else’s. They are not out of the ordinary. The British philosopher and writer Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel said “Then I realised that the problem with going away is that you take yourself with you.”
I would suggest that if you want to produce interesting work look to the ordinary and easily accessible. Many photographers have taken this path. Robert Adams documents the changing American landscape and in particular the spread of suburbia. Chris Killip,Sally Mann, and Larry Towell are all photographers who have done projects about ordinary things on their door steps and have produced extraordinary images. The American photographer Minor White once said “…all photographs are self-portraits.” so thereis no need to travel to find your self just keep exploring with your camera. The frequent retort from my students was that everything around them had been photographed before well White also had an answer for that “Everything has been photographed. Accept this. Photograph things better.”.
So what have I been doing photographically for the last week? Well I’ve been out to some local nature reserves, I’ve visited them many times over the last 14 years and it never ceases to amaze me that I always find something new. So I was delighted to find these two flowers.
Hell or high water is the new motto for the Avon Descent and was adopted because recent years have seen decreasing amounts of rainfall falling and competitors have had to carry their craft where there was insufficient water. This year, 2017 and the 45th occasion of the race, the water levels were high which meant potentially new records could be set. The Avon Descent was first held in 1973, and there were only forty-nine competitors. This year there were 370 competitors with many coming from interstate and overseas. In more ways than one it deserves the title the “world’s greatest white water event”. The 124 km or 77 mile two day event starts at Northam and finishes at the Riverside Garden in Bayswater with an over night stop at the Boral Campsite just outside Toodyay. For the majority of entrants the aim is just to complete the course, but for the elite athletes it is a chance of competing in a unique endurance race.
The beauty of this race is that you can pick out a few vantage points from a list put out by the race organisers on their website and follow the whole event documenting the whole story rather than just getting an isolated snap shot. In previous years I’d covered the race for magazines shooting stills and then writing the story. This year I had intended to cover the entire event from start to finish and it was to be first time I’d covered it shooting video. Having planned my weekend around the race it was time to check the maps and the approximate timings for each stage. For instance there was no point heading to the first stage after the start as I would not have had time to get there by car, park, and then walk along the river to find a good location to set up. Also I had to think about the weather conditions, because at some of the viewing points you are bussed in and that would mean I’d have to carry everything with me. As the forecast for the weekend was a cold start it was thermals, and fleece. he key was light layers that could be added or taken off as conditions permitted. Camera and lens choice was hard, and I found it difficult to make a decision. For the Friday shots I could work from the back of the car and it was all to be people shots around Northam and for the sake of mobility using either a monopod or a gimbal. In the end I decided to use the Sony A7r and with Olympus OM Zuiko lenses – the 20mm, 50mm and 135mm. This and the gimbal went in a belt pack. Saturday involved shooting at three sites and I wanted to shoot some time-lapse as well as video footage. So I chose the Olympus OMD EM 1 with 40-150mm f2.8 lens for the video work and the EM10 with 12-40mm f2.8 for the time-lapse. I couldn’t set up a tripod at the start as I was going to shoot on the swing bridge so I used a monopod for the video and for the time-lapse I clamped the Syrp Genie Mini to the bridge safety barrier with a Manfrotto super clamp. All this went into my photo back pack. Sunday was the biggest problem with no car access to Bells Rapids everything had to be carried. So I took the Canon EOS6d with 24-70mm, 70-200 and a x2 converter. I’d also need plenty of batteries and memory cards as there would be no nipping back to the car. I decided to carry all this in pouches on a belt as I needed to be able to scramble up some rocks to get a good vantage point. At Bells I mounted the camera on a tripod but at the finish line I shot just using a monopod.
The race happens on the first weekend of August every year. It kicked off on the Friday with the competitor registration at the Northam Swimming Pool and then their craft were taken down to the race marshalling area on the banks of the river. Late in afternoon and into the evening was the Avon River Festival with a huge fireworks display on the Avon River, stage shows featuring a variety of local talent, a family fun zone, rides for all the family, sideshow alley and roving entertainment, a community street parade, markets for avid shoppers, and food. On Saturday morning the event kicked off proper. As I arrived I could see hot air balloons drifting lazily above the river. The power craft were away quickly and smoothly and then it was the turn of the paddle craft. I was surprised to see that someone was competing for the first time on a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP). Barely had half the paddle craft left than the news came through that the first power craft had reached Toodyay. It was going to be a very fast race with little hope of getting shots of the power craft. I spent a total of an hour and half standing on the swing bridge -it is a wire suspension bridge that bounces a lot, the police constable standing next to me complained of feeling seasick from the constant motion. It didn’t effect me but it really made me glad that I had the in body stabilisation activated on the cameras. After the start I went to Williamson Weir stayed there for an hour and a half. The Weir is man-made and its concrete lip and rock wall are hazardous to boat and paddler alike so around half the competitors choose to portage around it. Thankfully the other half run it and you get the thrills and spills with plenty of encouragement from the watching crowd. Finishing up in Toodyay for the day is great. There is always a great vibe with a tremendous crowd and a party like atmosphere. When I got there the town was packed and in full on carnival mode. It took an age to find some parking and get down to the river. Here there was a team change over area, and along the riverside were lots of anxious looking paddlers all staring up river for any sign of their team mates. As the first canoes started to come round the corner and pass under the timing gate they got their first sight of their team mates and their faces would burst into a huge grin of relief. The spectators would burst into rapturous cheers as the fresh team-mate paddled away heading for the Boral Campsite that marked the halfway point and the end of day one.
I couldn’t face getting up at 4;30am in the dark and freezing cold to get to the start at Boral Camp for day two so I just headed out a bit later and went straight to Bells Rapids in Walyunga National Park. You have to leave the car at the nearby state equestrian centre and then you taken in by bus. From there it was a quick walk to what I call the media rock. It’s a nice big rock that juts out into the river which gives a good view of the competitors coming under the bridge and through the rapids. I got there just as the TV crews were claiming their spots and setting up. I squeezed onto the end closest to the bank and put my tripod up to mark my territory. When the press photographers arrived they gave us a filthy look, but as they were shooting hand-held they didn’t need as much space. A little while later a hopeful photo enthusiast asked if could join us on the rock, one of the guys I know from the papers said it was OK if he didn’t talk about equipment – his or ours – and if he did he’d get thrown in the river. He decided that he couldn’t not talk about kit and took himself off somewhere else. After a couple of hours I knew that I’d have to get my skates on if I was to get to the finish line.
The finish line is in Bayswater a suburb of Perth. A huge screen had been put up and there was a live commentary being given. I positioned myself by the finish line as I find that the images taken as the paddlers beach their boats and walk ashore tells a very powerful story. It does not seem to matter whether they are newbie’s in their first race or veterans each face has a similar look etched upon it. It is a mixture of pain from the sheer physical effort, relief from finishing, and disbelief that it is all over. Some will swear that they will never do it again, but most know that even as they hit the finish line that they will be back next year.
So now a week later, I’ve edited the 50Gb of footage and made a 7 minute clip. As I write this I’m thinking about how things went and what I would change if I were to do it again. Well to start with I wouldn’t bother with the Sony. It produces very nice images, but the screen is terrible. It is winter here and the days aren’t as bright as they can be, but the Sony’s rear LCD panel is virtually unusable. The other thing that puts me off is that the user interface isn’t very intuitive and so adjusting some settings in a hurry is a pain in the nethers. The OMD EM1 mk i is constantly a surprise when shooting video. The touch screen is a pleasure to use and the phase detect auto focus does very well. It is tempting to run off and get a mk ii for the 4K and the improved focusing. The Canon EOS 6d was the surprise, the autofocus is crap, but Technicolor’s CineStyle Profile and Canon’s superb lenses produce gorgeous images. All it needs is a flippy flappy touch screen and dual pixel auto focus and it would be perfect. “The 6d mk ii has that!” I hear you say, but (and there is always a but) the mk ii’s video compression is worse than the mk i. What Canon give they take away! There is always the EOS 80d. I might try to hire one for the next project I shoot. I wish I’d used the gimbal more instead of the monopod, accepting the fact that I couldn’t use it for the long lens shots. Sound could be a lot better – it is the aspect of video I always struggle with. I’m also beginning to think that I’ve out grown iMovie – a better editor would give me some more options. I’ve downloaded DaVinci Resolve to give that a whirl on my next project. In many ways I’m no different to the competitors in the race – I’m already starting to plan for next year!
Talk to a lot of people in Perth (Western Australia) – especially migrants – and many haven’t left the metro area. They know nothing of rural Western Australia at all. Few people realise that the Wheatbelt has a large number of lakes such as Kondinin Lake pictured above. The assumption is that because the rainfall is low there can’t be any large bodies of water. The truth is that the Wheatbelt has a very low drainage profile which means that water collects in large shallow depressions. During the hot summers the rate of evaporation is high and tat creates these salt lakes. Kondinin Lake is huge – it covers an area of 15 square kilometres – and after a decent bit of rain it attracts a huge variety of wild birds. It is also a popular boating and water ski destination. Now who would have thought that.
On the shore of the lake is the Kondinin Pioneer Cemetery. A final resting place with a nice view. It’s not the most interesting cemetery but it does make you think at what life must have been like as you walk around. The saddest part of the cemetery the grave of the “unknown pauper” who in 1934 shuffled off of this mortal coil. The people of Kondinin couldn’t find it in their hearts to bury the poor wretch in the cemetery itself so the grave lies outside it. Unfortunate in life and unfortunate in death.
So if you are driving to Esperance or Hyden, then do a bit of a detour and see the lake.
*Today’s musical reference is of course Road To Nowhere by Talking Heads.