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!
On 22 August 2015 the Canon EOS 5d turned ten years old – my own 5d turned 10 last week. Now they reckon dog years are seven for every human year. In terms of digital photography I reckon ten years equates to over a hundred human years as technology has advanced so fast. Despite that the original 5d, or if you want to really annoy the anally retentive Canon fan bois over on the DPReview forums the 5d Classic, is still more than a capable camera, in fact I would go onto say that if you don’t shoot video and don’t print any larger than A3+ you don’t need anything else. If all you do is post shots on Flickr and Facebook then I would say you’re over gunned and look for a Canon EOS 300d! Why was it so special – well it was the first “affordable” dSLR with a 35mm sized sensor. That meant a lot back in 2005 because a lot photo enthusiasts and pros had cut their teeth shooting 35mm film and had got used to a certain look with particular focal lengths. The advent of the cropped sized sensor (APS-C for Canon and DX for Nikon) meant that we couldn’t just look at a scene and say that calls for a 85mm lens, or a 24mm lens. No we had all these funny focal lengths and the other annoying thing was the camera and lens manufacturers didn’t populate their lens line ups with high quality cropped factor lenses – a fact that is still true today. So when the 5d was announced I thought at last I can get my favourite focal lengths back. I literally ran to my then favourite retailer PRA and placed my order. Since then my 5d has been in constant use, there are some 14,000 images in my Lightroom catalogue taken with that camera and it hasn’t missed a beat. It still gets used on a regular basis because those 12.8 Mp render an image beautifully. Many of the cameras detractors said that it had an atrocious auto focus system but I never had any problems with mine.
A lot of people complain that Canon sensors are crippled when it comes to dynamic range, again it has never been something that has caused me any problems.
Long exposures such as the shot above and below didn’t cause any problems, just a little judicious use of noise reduction software in post.
As I said earlier I’m still happily using the camera after ten years and in that time quite a few other cameras have come and gone. I think the EOS5d deserves the appellation Classic because it helped a lot of photographers recover their preferred means of working with focal lengths, it quickly became a mainstay of a lot of working photographers, and it established the idea of the prosumer full frame sensor in camera market. Will it last another ten years? I don’t think so as a working camera. The problem is that the spares are no longer manufactured to keep the camera going. I’ll still continue to use mine until it fails but not as a mission critical camera.
As always clicking on an image will take you through to my online gallery.
The Avon valley was officially discovered by Ensign Dale in 1830 when Governor Stirling saw that the newly established Swan River Colony was going to starve unless it found some decent arable land. Of course the Nyoongar people knew about its existence all along and the upper reaches of the Avon were very important to their dream time stories. As we drive out of Perth on the Great Eastern Highway it’s difficult to imagine how hard it was for Dale all those years ago. What takes us an hour today in a car took him nine days of sheer heart breaking slog. The going was so bad that his horses became bogged in mud and it took all day just to travel one mile or 1.6 Km and he named one spot the Vale of Misery. Ensign Dale opened up a parcel of land the size of Tasmania, although in many cases it was not until the 1860’s that the townsites were established. In the tradition of Nineteenth Century explores he named many of the places after his friends, family and places back in England where he grew up.
Ensign Robert Dale of the 63rd Regiment of Foot is perhaps one of the great unsung heroes of early colonial exploration. Everyone remembers Burke and Wills, and Leichhardt because they lost their lives and that heroic failure mythologized them. Ensign Dale’s exploration and surveying of the Avon Valley, the Canning River and Mount Barker region was of vital importance to the survival of the early settlers in Western Australia. His survey of King George’s Sound in Albany was considered an important work then and is seen as an important artistic and historical document today. While undertaking this achievement he never got lost, he did not loose any men and he maintained excellent relations with the local aboriginal population. In total he mounted seven official expeditions and the journals from them were published in 1833. He was appointed to the post of temporary assistant government surveyor and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. He acquired a lot of property with two town allotments in Albany, a thousand hectares in York and a further 750 hectares in the Swan Valley. But as quickly as his star had risen it fell. He was placed under virtual house arrest by his commanding officer in mid 1832. Soon after he became embroiled in the ugly saga of Yagan’s murder where he was ordered to take Yagan’s pickled head back to England and explain the situation to the Colonial Office and they stripped him of his rank of Lieutenant. Disenchanted Dale resigned from the military and went into business with his brother Thomas importing mahogany. In 1853, at the age of forty-four, he died of tuberculosis in the English town of Bath on the banks of the River Avon.
Today tourists drive out to the Avon Valley to see historic heritage towns, atmospheric homesteads, rocky outcrops and to picnic along the banks of the River Avon. A pleasant spring time trip would be to drive out to Toodyay and then follow the Avon down through Northam, York and Beverley returning to Perth via Westdale and the Brookton Highway. If time permitted you could arrange to stay overnight in Northam or York to get the most out of the trip.
85 km northeast of Perth Toodyay was settled in 1836 and named after the Nyoongar name for the area “Duidgee” which means place of plenty. The original townsite was prone to flooding so it was abandoned in the 1850’s and relocated 5 km and renamed Newcastle. In 1911 the name was changed back to Toodyay because people confused Newcastle in WA with Newcastle in NSW. The Heritage Council of WA list over one hundred places of historical significance in or around Toodyay. Some of these are:
- Newcastle Gaol – this was constructed in the 1860’s using convict labour in response to Moondyne Joe’s repeated escapes .
- Connor’s Mill on Stirling Terrace was built in 1870 and was as the name suggests a flour mill, it was then converted into an electricity generating plant, and is now the Toodyay Visitors Centre.
- Toodyay Post Office – designed by George Temple-Poole and built in 1897
- Toodyay Fire station – designed by Ken Duncan and built in 1938
Toodyay plays host to several events throughout the year, the major ones are:
- The Moondyne Festival is held on the first Sunday of May and celebrates Moondyne Joe’s life with re-enactments of Colonial life.
- The Avon Descent – see the Northam entry for more details.
- The Festival of Food coincides with the Avon Descent and provides culinary delights from all over the world, cooking demonstrations and free entertainment.
- Theo’s Run is a convoy of classic cars and motorbikes that starts in Midland and travels to Dowerin via Toodyay.
Toodyay’s Moondyne Festival is the story of Western Australia’s favourite Bushranger, Joseph Bolitho Johns, aka Moondyne Joe is a classic case of where truth is stranger than fiction. Transported to WA as a convict, given a ticket of leave and released, some would say that Johns was a victim of society while others would see him as a recidivist, but what ever your viewpoint it is a fascinating story of a man who is hard done by, has a disdain for authority, who makes repeated escapes from custody and ends up spending his last days in Fremantle Asylum suffering from dementia.
The Toodyay Moondyne Festival has Joe and his gang running riot in the streets of Toodyay. He holds people up, consorts with floozies, avoids the incompetent police and the annoying temperance ladies, is arrested, put on trial and escapes. With local people dressing up in period costume the end result is a gigantic al fresco pantomime with heaps of audience participation (chants of “Free Joe” and “Behind you” ). Alongside the theatrical mayhem there are bush poets, market stalls, displays from the 1860 Regiment, vintage cars and mustache and cleavage competitions. A brilliant day out for all the family.
Northam is 98 Km from Perth on the Great Eastern Highway and it is the largest town in the Avon Valley. With its central location in the valley it makes the perfect base from which to explore. Up until 1891 it was the poor relation to York, but this changed with the coming of the railway linking Perth with the Goldfields and the town became an important staging post. During the 1940’s and 50’s Northam became an important centre for housing displaced European refugees and migrants, in fact the Northam Accommodation Centre was the third largest such facility in Australia. By the time it closed some 23,000 people had passed through its gates. There is a photographic exhibition telling the story at the Northam Visitor Centre. There is a historic town walk that enables visitors to experience the town’s history, some of the significant places on the trail are Morby Cottage – home of the founder of Northam and built in 1836 – and the Old Railway Museum which was built in 1886. More details for both venues can be had by contacting the Visitor Centre. The town hall on Fitzgerald Street is a wonderful example of concrete carbuncle architecture from the 1970’s.
Northam is also the eastern terminus of the Kep Track a 75 km long mountain bike and walking trail that starts in Mundaring and follows the water pipeline the engineering genius CY O’Connor built to take water out to the Goldfields of Western Australia. The name Kep comes from the local Nyoongar word for water. The Golden Pipeline Heritage Trail follows the pipeline in its entirety all the way from Mundaring Weir to Kalgoorlie 650 km to the east, and it also passes through Northam.
Northam is the staring line for The Avon Descent, which was first held in 1973, and there were only forty nine competitors. The event has grown so much now that this year there were over 800 competitors and 2000 plus support crew. In more ways than one it deserves the title the “world’s greatest white water event”. The 134 km 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 race happens on the first weekend of August every year. It kicks off on the Friday night in Northam with a float parade and firework display. On Saturday morning the event kicks off proper.