Spending anywhere from 7 to 13 hours walking through the day means, inevitably, that I spend much of it walking through beautiful scenery in less than ideal light. It's either bright and contrasting, or oppressively grey and flat throughout the middle hours of the day. It's something that I'm getting used to, and will no doubt have to deal with on a daily basis on the South Island when we spend our days walking through mountainous regions with the late, bright summer sun blazing overhead (he said, full of hope). That's why when we find ourselves spending the night somewhere that screams with potential I try to make the most of it in those early or late hours of fading light that is synonymous with great outdoor photography.
Day 35: Rangiriri to Hakarimata Ranges
There are stretches of the Te Araroa along this section that are well known for being not all that scenic. Following roadsides and through flat farmland, it's hard for it to compete for a place in people's memories when it's up against the likes of Kauri forests, coastal footpaths and of course New Zealand's famous mountain wilderness. This in itself posed it's own photographic challenges, but then factor into this the fact that the majority of our day was spent walking in the contrasting or downright bland ambient light of the day and I felt a little more up against it. I've found the best way to remedy this is to play around with slow shutter speeds. Close the aperture right down to f16, ISO as low as it can go at 50, and shoot on the move. It's the epitome of "spray and pray", but an approach I've taken throughout the hike with the resultant images becoming some of my favourites.
A night spent roughing it in the Hakarimata Range near Hamilton meant that the bush was my playground during the dying moments of light. With most areas of bush that I've experienced so far, you don't get viewpoints that have been cleared in the vegetation like you might in the UK, perhaps with a well positioned bench to take in the view, you're just fully submersed in the bush. The dense canopy overhead meant that light was low so the tripod would be important here, and it took some time to make any compositional sense of the tangle of vegetation that I was walking through. This Rata vine that clings it's way upwards against the backdrop of Nikau palm leaves worked well. I focus stacked just a couple of images to get the depth of field that I wanted, as having a subject so close to the frame meant the depth of field was limited. While it worked fine with a smaller focal depth, I wanted the foreground sharp as well as the detail in the contrasting lines of the leaves above.
Day 36 to 38: Hakarimata to Hamilton
The following day we were headed into the city of Hamilton, but found ourselves struggling to find a place to stay. Every backpackers in town seemed to either be fully booked or, in the case of one place, had made the excellent business decision to keep the backpackers title to their accommodation, but no longer take backpackers in... shrewd, very shrewd. Thankfully, whilst we were looking pathetically at our phones trying to find somewhere we could go, kiwi hospitality came to the rescue. A couple we had passed earlier on the footpath caught up to us, and clearly saw we were struggling with something. After explaining our predicament, with no hesitation or question as to whether or not we were likely to be wandering murderers, they invited us to stay with them. Not only did they feed us up, let us get everything washed and clean, give us a comfy bed for the night, but they took us on a tour of Hamilton city and the botanical gardens there. It was like visiting family, and one of many homes that we've been made to feel this way in along the trail.
Day 39 to 40: Hamilton to Pirongia Forest Park.
The next slog from Hamilton took us along roads and over farmland again for two days until we reached Pirongia Forest Park, a beautiful forested mountain reserve where we would also be spending our first night in a backcountry hut. Ideally situated near the summit it was in a handy spot to make a short trip back to the summit for sunrise, where a platform meant that I could get panoramic views across the range. For me, a feature that really stood out, and one that I wanted to capture here, was the dead trees that dotted the forest. A common sight in many of the forested reserves similar to this, these trees have been killed by non-native possums that live in these forests and browse on the trees. Introduced by European settlers hoping to build a fur trade, populations soon established in the wild and spread rapidly throughout New Zealand, damaging native flora and fauna such as these. This in turn changes the structure of the forest, removing the taller canopy species and leaving shorter scrub behind.
Day 41 to 47: Pirongia to the Timber Trail
Leaving Pirongia Forest Park on the Southern slopes was a wet and muddy experience, and after leaving here we would have several days of hiking through fields ahead of us. Tall grass and hot sun meant that we were sweaty, sneezy messes. I didn't often pull the camera out during these stretches, there wasn't much that gave inspiration as we walked. If passing through early in the morning with a mist rising from the farmlands it would most likely be a different story, but that wasn't to be seen on our trip. After a stopover in Te Kuiti we had been caught up by a group of hikers who, as the next few days and weeks passed, would become good friends. Building our tent villages in the various campsites before heading through the Timber Trail, one of the North Islands well known trails.
Day 47 to 49: The Timber trail
The quality of track throughout the Timber Trail was a huge welcome, as it was flat, free of roots and trip hazards and so rather strangely we could walk it's length whilst looking up at the things around us. Starting off at Ngaherenga campsite, the trail winds its way slowly up to its high point of 971m, where the forest is mossy, twisted, and serene. We managed to complete this trail in 3 days and reach Taumarunui owing to the fact that we hadn't quite got enough food for us to take a more leisurely approach. With the easier track to walk though we could do this relatively easy, with our longest day so far being made here at 37km.
Day 50 to 60: Taumarunui to Whanganui
The section of the trail following Taumarunui is perhaps the one that many hikers look forward to the most. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, taking you past Mount Ngauruhoe, and the mountainous, volcanic landscape that surrounds it. Our luck had run out however by this point and our one chance to cross in good weather had passed us by. Instead we were sat waiting for a new pair of shoes to arrive for Lydia, and once these had arrived, ended up waiting out the weather in the nearby town of National Park, watching torrential sheets of rain come down all day. In order to make it to our next section on time we couldn't wait and so we planned to return at a later date, which we did. So I must admit the image here was taken a number of weeks after the others in this post. But come on, it's a beauty of a place!
Our final push into Whanganui from Taumarunui involved a 5 day paddle down the most beautiful section of river. Completely isolated from the outside world you follow down a steep sided gorge as it winds its way to the sea over the course of 5 days. Naturally, as we didn't have to carry our backpacks for this section we could pack some slightly heavier items, so of course we bought enough alcohol to (almost) sink our canoes. On the river, I didn't often take the camera out. I'm not sure I trusted myself (or Lydia) to negotiate the rapids one handed whilst clutching the camera in the other hand. Arriving at camp often meant we had great views of the river in the evening light, but more often than not a chance to relax in good company with good drinks won out. It remains the highlight of the trail so far.
So that brings me up to Whanganui, which is still far behind where we currently are. After taking a month off of the trail in January to work on Great Barrier Island to assist with the Black Petrel monitoring that takes place there, we will be attacking the South Island in a Northbound direction. So as you read this there's a very real chance we'll be in the mountains somewhere, probably getting rained on.