If you just look at the media you’d think that there’s not a lot of hope for the world. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, there are bushfires raging on the west coast of America, eastern Australia was ravaged by bushfires earlier in the year, there’s a global recession – the list goes on and on. There seems very little hope left in the world. If you want to find some hope then you’re going to have to go looking for it.
Every now and again I come across a place that gives me hope for the present and the future. They always take the form of a scrap of land that somebody has decided to regenerate. I’ve written about a couple of these places before – Lake Seppings and Lake Claremont.Both of these are examples of urban regeneration based around a lake. This month I’ve been out in the Wheatbelt exploring a reserve east of Narrogin. It’s a bush block in the middle of farm land that is being allowed to regenerate. To say it’s off the beaten track is an understatement. When you get there there is no access to it, no paths, no signs other than one telling you that it is a regeneration project. As you you make your way through the scrub you begin to notice something quite remarkable – there’s no evidence of any human visitation. No litter, no vehicle tracks, no foot prints. Nature is being left to itself and it is a wonderful sight. It’s not in anyway shape or form picturesque – just dense scrub fringing a granite outcrop.It’s hard country to move in as the scrub and the rocky uneven terrain make the going quite difficult in places, and then when you hit the rock it is quite steep and exposed.
Straight off the the things that were most noticeable were in the larger gaps between the trees where the sun hit the ground were amazing profusions of wildflowers – everlastings, orchids, all sorts. Then I started to stay still and just tune into the environment. The bird song was really loud and was made up the calls from lots of different species. Moving slowly I saw lots of different insects – spiders webs, butterflies, different types of beetles that I’d never seen before. There was a lot of evidence of digging on the ground. The small holes the size of a saucer and a couple of centimetres deep were signs that kangaroos were looking for moist roots and tubers. The larger holes had me puzzled until I found the culprit- these were made by echidnas looking for ants and termites. At one point I stopped to photograph some flowers and I was lying in the leaf litter to do so when I felt something touch my foot. Ever mindful of snakes I looked and found not a snake but an echidna. I was having a close encounter of the spiny kind. As I came to the rock the trees thinned out and there were bob tailed lizards basking in the sun. On the rock itself there were crested dragons (Ctenophorus cristatus), they are virtually impossible to photograph as they are so quick in dashing to the protection of an overhanging rock or crevice.
It would be tempting to over romanticise the place saying it was a return to the Garden of Eden or Paradise Regained. Looking at with a more down to each perspective it just illustrates how nature can recover if it is allowed to. There are no groups of volunteers here replanting and doing pest eradication as there was at Lakes Seppings and Claremont. It is just nature being allowed to do its thing and that is what gives me hope. So if you are feeling overwhelmed and hopeless with the current situation I can thoroughly recommend going to a nearby nature spot, or even your own garden, and thoroughly immersing yourself in it. Look up, look down, listen, even sniff. Just soak it all up and let it feed your soul.
This nature photography lark is a lot harder than it looks. I follow a couple of YouTube channels from the UK that weekly show the host going out to some location to photograph and /or film a particular animal or plant. They always find it and always get good images. My experience is a bit different to that. I find that you can go out with all the best intentions in the world, but if nature isn’t playing ball then you don’t get anything. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve set out to look for the Cleopatra’s Needles Orchid (Thelymitra apiculata) driving 100’s of kilometres to find absolutely nothing. Take last weekend. We were down in the South West of Western Australia as my partner was again playing in a croquet tournament. So I’d researched what was about in terms of birds and orchids and set out to several locations with a specific list of what I wanted to photograph. The first stop was Malbup Creek Bird Hide where I wanted to see tawny frogmouths and white-bellied sea-eagles. Well I spent a nice morning at the hide without seeing them. I did get a nice shot of a shelduck and the local kangaroos were hamming it up for a photo.
The next stop was Locke Nature Reserve looking for common helmet and midge orchids. Well after a couple of hours of scrabbling around in the undergrowth fighting off the unwanted attentions of the local mosquitoes I’d found lots of them, but none in flower. There were some Splendid Fairywrens in the nearby bushes but they really didn’t want their picture taken and kept dancing out of the way every time I got close. On the walk back to the car a couple of Western Yellow Robins flew slightly ahead of me. They would stop and perch periodically and I was lucky enough to grab a few frames.
My last spot was Westbay in Augusta looking for scented autumn leek orchids. Now I’d seen them before at this location and knew where to go. They weren’t there. Not a one was to be seen. But I did find some autumn leek orchids – close enough so I photographed them. Funnily enough the autumn leek orchid has a much more pleasant scent than the scented variety which has decidedly unpleasant pong.
So there you have it another rewarding trip. I may not have found what I was looking for but I found other things and really enjoyed my time in the bush and that is what it is all about.
* This weeks musical reference is of course U2’s song I Still Haven’t Found. My favourite version is the one on 1988’s Rattle and Hum album.
The video is the short version of this article with a slide show of the best of this year’s orchids at the end.
It’s not for nothing that Western Australia is referred to as the “Wildflower State”. There are over 13,000 species of plant to be found, with new discoveries added every year. If we narrow it down to my particular area of interest – orchids – there are 394 species of terrestrial orchids in the South West Corner of the state. Some of these species are so specialised that are confined to very small areas and found nowhere else. Some species will not bloom unless there has been a bush fire the summer before, others if the winter rains are delayed or are insufficient will not put a show on either. This means that no two years are the same. An example of this is my favourite spot near where I live is prolific with the number of orchid species found there. When I first went I was simply amazed by the number of fringed mantis and white spider orchids that were flowering. Over the ensuing ten years I’ve seen such a display of those species since. This year there was a carpet of purple and pink enamels like I’ve never seen before. So this not knowing quite what you are going to find adds to the whole experience. On a few occasions I may be lucky enough to be able to access the flowers by car and a short walk, but most of the time I end up walking through the bush for anything up to four hours.
I approach photographing orchids as I would shooting a person’s portrait – using off camera flash and reflectors to fill shadows, separate from the background, bring out the shape and textures. Too many botanic studies show indistinct photos where the subject does not fill the frame and the background is intrusive. To that end I use a macro lens of around 100 -120mm (35mm equivalent). It’s not because I’m necessarily shooting at a 1:1 ratio, it’s just because I’ve found there are very few zoom lens that focus close enough and have a fast aperture to allow control of depth of field.I used to use a Canon DSLR with a Canon EF 100mm f2.8 IS L lens and carry around a Manfrotto 143 Magic Arm Kit to support the lights. I made a video about using that setup some 7 years ago and that can be seen just below. Since making that video I added a full frame 6d, the Canon macro lens, and extra light and a set of TTL wireless flash triggers and consequently found myself schlepping 10-12Kg of kit into the bush on longer and longer forays. Something had to give – and my back did! So fast forward 7 years and I’m now using an Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii with Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro lens. I’ve not given anything up in terms of image quality with this change because I’m generally working at a base ISO of 200 with lighting which means all the usual objections to m4/3 about excessive noise and poor dynamic range have been taken out of the equation. The Olympus 60mm f2.8 is easily the optical equal of Canon’s EF 100mm f2.8 IS macro L lens at less than 1/2 the price and about 1/3 of the weight. The Manfrotto Magic Arm got binned as it was very heavy at 2.7 Kg and replaced with a Manfrotto Table Top Tripod Kit 209, 492 Long which weighs 454g. As far as lighting goes I’m using a Metz 64AF – 1 and an Olympus FL-600R flash with small soft box, snoot and honeycomb grid. The only thing that I have given up is radio TTL triggers for the flash, I’m using a TTL flash sync cable at the moment. I prefer to use the Metz unit when doing a lot of high speed sync work as it is the more powerful of the two. This may change in the New Year, it may not.
Other things in the bag include an 80cm 5 in 1 reflector – I only use the white reflector as the silver is too strong, the gold too garish. Some times I use the diffuser over a plant to cut down on ambient light levels. A Vittorinox CyberTool L is there. It has a good selection of small screwdriver bits that can most screws on a camera body, a set of pliers, wood saw, metal saw and file and a host of other doodads. I once re-assembled my Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color-Skopar with it while in on holiday in Beijing. Water – this can be in a 1L bottle for shorter expeditions or a 3L water bladder for longer ones. Extra clothing if needed, sunscreen and insect repellent to avoid nasty encounters. Batteries for camera and flash. Wallet of memory cards. That’s it. The whole process is very simple.
Tomorrow here in Western Australia is the first day of spring. I don’t think Mother Nature got the memo as the bush around York sprung into life a couple of weeks ago. Flowers are bursting into bloom and the birds are in a frenzy of nest building and dancing around trying to attract mates. This means that I have also sprung into action trying to document as much of thais activity as possible. The cameras are working over time.
This could have been titled Hyden – the return. Hyden is a small town in the middle of the Wheatbelt in Western Australia some 292Km east of Perth. Regular readers will remember that we’ve been before and maybe somewhat perplexed as to why we’d bother to visit again. Well Hyden’s claim to fame is Wave Rock which is a large granite rock face that has been eroded in the shape of a perfect breaking wave. More than 100,000 tourists make their way there very year. Most just stay about an hour before zooming off to another destination to get the perfect instagram shot without taking any time to see what else is there. A great shame really as there is so much more to offer. When I wrote about our previous visit I concentrated more on other sites and the Aboriginal heritage of the area. This time I’ll look at what Hyden has to offer in terms of the natural world.
We decided to make a three day trip and on our way we’d stop off in Corrigin whose main claim to fame is the being the holder of the world record for the number of dogs in a ute and being the home to a dog cemetery. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Corrigin is a bit obsessed with dogs. Anyway it was a nice spot to break the journey, stretch the legs, make the bladder gladder etc. Corrigin does have a pretty impressive wildflower drive which begins just opposite the dog cemetery just on the outskirts of town. Most people just pull up in their car, jump out and walk a couple of metres. They then declare that there’s nothing to see and rush off in a cloud of red dust. Just take your time and have a poke about and you’d be amazed at what you can find. Here are a few examples.
When we got to Hyden we drove out to the Wave Rock Resort on the shore of Magic Lake which is where we were staying. The lake is quite startling. It’s not very big but is comprised of crystal clear salt water with a gypsum base. That pale coloured lake bed combined with the water makes a giant reflector that takes on the colours of the sky so as the day progresses the lake changes colour. To add to it’s other worldly qualities is that it lies in the middle of a salt plain which is fairly uniform in colour and is covered in mainly scrubby bush and a smattering of trees. It all made me want to get the tripod and graduated neutral density filters out.
The next day we decided to combine the Wave Rock Walk Circuit with the Hippo’s Yawn Loop and the Breakers Trail to create a loop that would take us from the resort up to the Hippo’s Yawn then along the bottom of the rock out to the Breakers picnic area and then back to our accommodation at the resort. The best part of it was that we could take the dog as it is all very pet friendly. Along the way we hoped to see more orchids and birds as we passed through the salt plain and into the bush at the base of the rock.
When we got to the base of the rock the vegetation changed from the scrub of the salt plain to thick bush fed by the water run off from the rock. We both enjoyed pocking around in the undergrowth looking for flowers, taking photos of each other and trying to dissuade Frida, our dog, from trying to climb up the rock face in search of interesting holes. It was amazing to see so many orchids – the blue beards were like a carpet in places. It was absolutely wonderful to see.
All in all we had a great time. There is so much to see and do that we’re already talking about going again. If you are planning a trip to Wave Rock there is a whole lot more to it than posing for a selfie for Facebook on the rock.
… with flowers. Definitely not Julie Andrews and the ghastly singing Von Trapps.
When people think about Australian biodiversity and nature hot spots they automatically think of the rainforests of North Queensland, Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory or Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park in Tasmania. If prodded a little bit Western Australians might mention the Stirling Ranges National Park. But what if I were to tell you that there is a very significant region of biodiversity, a landscape that is still in its pristine state (i.e. has never been cleared) that is less than two hours drive from Perth? That it contains more than 1400 species of flowering plant, 24 of which are unique and not found anywhere else, there are 78 different species of bird, and there are ancient Aboriginal artefacts. So where is this place? Wongan Hills.
The name Wongan Hills comes from the Nyoongar Wongan Katta which means talking or whispering hills. The range of hills, which are about 10 north-west of the townsite are the largest single area of natural vegetation remaining in the northern wheatbelt. It is spring when everything happens – there is a truly spectacular display of wildflowers. I focus on native orchids and it is absolutely gobsmacking the number of different species and the sheer quantity of them. In the space of a morning’s walk around we found ten different species and they were totally new to me. Below are the fruits of that trip.
As you might have gathered from my last post I didn’t pay a lot of attention to Wave Rock itself. Besides watching tourists I spent my time looking for orchids. I had seen on my Facebook feed someone had found some dark banded greenhoods at the base of the rock so I spent ages walking along the vegetation looking for a small green and brown plant amongst a sea of other small green and brown plants. Amazingly I found a patch of half a dozen under a clump of sedge. I did my usual thing of lying down to photograph them. So there I am my torso in amongst the sedge and my legs out on the path quietly photographing flowers.
After a little while of me lying completely flat trying to get the best possible viewpoint a woman walks along the path and finds my prostrate form. Perhaps being a fan of the “cosy crime” genre she thinks she has found a body, or at best someone who has collapsed sick while sightseeing. So she kneels down to touch me – I suppose to check whether I’m alive or not. I say “Hullo” and she jumps out of her skin and looks like she could keel over with a heart attack. I quickly explain that I’m fine really, and it’s very kind of her to be so concerned, but I’m just photographing some flowers. From the look she gave me I think she would have rather found a dead body than a mad man lying in the mud taking photos.
Yesterday I decided to go on a little road trip to Babakin in search of the winter spider orchid. You’ve got to be mad to do a round trip of 320Km in the hope of finding one very small flower. It was a good day for it, the weather was cloudy and overcast, perfect for this type of photography, and I had nothing else scheduled. So packed my camera gear into the car, made sure the mobile was loaded with music and set off to the teeming Wheatbelt metropolis of Babakin. Now Babakin is in the local government area of Bruce Rock, which according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics covers an area of 2,727 square kilometres (1,053 sq mi) and has a population as of 2015 of 939 people. Babakin itself has a population of 25 – it is safe to assume that the local canine population out numbers the people – so there’s not a lot out there except wheat fields.
The drive was great, a lot of it on dirt track so plenty of red dust, and the time and distance just flew by thanks to the music. The shuffle play threw up some golden oldies – the best being Crazy On You by American group Heart. Put that one on full-bore. I wasn’t exactly head banging but lets say that the bouncing around of the car wasn’t entirely due to the road surface. Oh that took me back to the Chichester RocSoc at the New Park Road Community Centre.
Now these days we rely an awful lot on technology, I’m no exception, I was using my mobile phone for music and navigation. As I got close to my destination the phone just cut out – no more navigation, no more music. No mobile network coverage could explain the first but not the later. I switch to my TomTom SatNav and that packed up – couldn’t get a signal. OOOOeeeeeerrrrrr! Luckily I was nearly there. When I got to the nature reserve I did what I normally do and that is switch on my handheld GPS and mark the position of the car. These reserves have no facilities of any kind, not even paths or tracks, so I do this so I can just wander around in the bush and then when I’ve had enough I just follow the GPS to get me back. So off I walk. After an hour and a half I eventually find a single tiny specimen and proceed to photograph it. I use off camera flash fired by radio triggers to light my pictures of orchids. I set everything up as usual took a shot and noticed the flash didn’t go off. Tried again – nothing. Checked everything was firmly in place – nothing. Changed the batteries in the transmitter and receiver – still nothing. Bugger! Had a rummage around in my camera bag and found an old TTL cable so that got me out of the fix. Eventually I packed up and started walking to the car. I looked at the GPS screen and saw that it was blank. Bugger! I replaced the batteries – nothing. Another set of batteries and still NOTHING!!! Buggeration with bloody great knobs! A rising tide of panic starts to wash over me. Wash? No it was more like a tsunami. After a little pep talk I heard a truck go past. Now remember how I said earlier that this was a sparsely populated area? Yes? Well I can tell you I have never been so glad to hear a truck. I walked off in that direction battling through the scrub and eventually hit the road about 300 metres from the car. Phew!
The drive home was quiet – no phone, no SatNav, no music. When I got there after an hour and a half I carried everything into my office and started my usual post shoot ritual of zeroing all the camera settings, downloading the images and checking batteries prior to packing everything away. I almost jumped out of my skin when my phone beeped and started to play music. I checked the SatNav and it was picking up a signal, as was the handheld GPS. I tentatively got the flash triggers out and checked them and they were working just fine. WEIRD! Perhaps there’s just something about Babakin.
I can’t go without putting a YouTube video up for Heart’s Crazy On You. It’s a cracking track and this time I’ll put up a live recording from 1978 and from 2013 so you can see how the band has fared over time. All I can say is that Anne and Nancy Wilson can still strut their stuff in their sixties. Respect!