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Which camera and lenses to take for your overseas travel holiday? Best travel camera kit in 2017

Monday, April 17th, 2017

For many people, they are happy with their smartphone, but as convenient as a smartphone is, it does have severe limitations on your travel photography and knowing these limitations may make it easier for you to determine what you need to take to supplement it.

For example, the iPhone 6S has a fixed optical focal length of around 35mm with the ability to digital zoom in albeit with loss of image quality. It has very limited ability to isolate the subject by blurring the background. It is difficult to take control of the exposure and manual settings. You can’t use an external bounce flash to take nice portraits. The image quality in low light indoors or outdoors at night is pretty awful unless you resort to the built in flash and then you have the on-camera flash issues. No RAW output for high quality post-processing. No high quality 16-20 megapixel resolution images. ISO limitations such as ISO 500 on the iPhone 6 Plus. Fixed default tone mappings to create the jpegs, for example the iPhone 6 Plus is renown for creating poor skin tones. Limited burst rates. Image stabilisation not as good. Fastest shutter speeds for freezing motion is probably around 1/500th sec despite the phone suggesting otherwise. Poor ergonomics.

But most modern smartphones do take serviceable shots in bright light conditions as long as you are happy with the 35mm focal length field of view and the lack of high quality RAW images, and the 1080 HD video and Slow-Mo video are not too bad in good light.

What then do we need?

  • preferably the camera and lenses coming in at under 3kg to comfortably allow other goodies in cabin luggage and still stay under the weight limit, plus it is not fun carrying around heavy gear everywhere – and if you are feeling exhausted, you won’t be feeling inspired to take great creative imagery!
  • ideally, the camera and at least one of the lenses should fit in a jacket pocket
  • the camera kit should not scream out wealth – it is not only insulting to people in poorer cultures when your camera is worth a year’s salary, but it may also place your life at risk!
  • a camera with:
    • a viewfinder
    • fast, accurate autofocus
    • full manual controls when needed
    • ability to wirelessly transfer images to smartphones without needing a computer
    • good image quality at least to ISO 1600
    • excellent image stabilisation to allow long exposure wide angle flowing water waterfalls, rivers and seascapes without needing a tripod
    • weathersealed would be nice
  • a wide angle lens to take in the epic scenes of our travels or the massive buildings
  • a bit more usable telephoto if possible, preferably with some ability to blur backgrounds and emphasize your subject
  • a kit for walking the streets at night for hand held urban night shots but discrete enough that it can be placed in a jacket pocket for safety
  • a kit capable of nice indoor shots (and if you are really keen, add in bounce flash for flattering portraits – no more need for those ghastly Instagram filters to plasticize everyone’s features out)
  • if you are super keen, then perhaps ability to use a tripod for night shots, or for long exposure flowing water shots with a ND100 filter during the day time.
  • unless you are shooting wildlife, you probably don’t need a long telephoto lens
  • unless you are going for a long time and are bored, you probably don’t need a dedicated macro lens

What options do we have?

Fixed lens compact cameras:

  • these are great, particularly if image quality is not as high a priority as having an ultra-compact 3x zoom camera or a relatively compact super-zoom
  • they are not usually weathersealed and they generally have a small sensor which does not perform well for low light situations without a tripod, or for blurring the background
  • some of these do have larger sensors for better image quality and low light capabilities but they generally only have a 3x zoom, but these are worth considering such as the Panasonic LX100 or the Sony RX series

Digital SLRs or full frame mirrorless:

  • these will do the trick but are a bit too big, heavy, noisy (dSLRs), and obtrusive, and certainly not jacket pocketable when the thugs start tailing you.
  • the larger, heavier lenses also can impact your airline cabin baggage weight limits.
  • BUT if you are prepared to accept the many problems of carrying full frame cameras and their large lenses, they can potentially take the best quality images, especially if you are shooting high dynamic range scenes or you need to shoot at ISO 6400 and higher – not sure why you would want to do that while traveling!
  • if I was going to go full frame, then the Sony a7II (or Sony a7RII if you can afford it) would be reasonable options but you do miss out of the fun, feature set and the much less burden of carrying the Olympus cameras, and it does really force you to take a big, heavy tripod for those waterfalls, etc, and then you may as well bring along large ND gradient filter sets and the mandatory large, heavy , expensive lenses – then you need to work out how to stop them getting stolen in checked baggage on airlines – good luck with that – and don’t be thinking travel insurance will cover it!

Micro Four Thirds mirrorless:

  • for me, the Micro Four Thirds system is the ideal compromise in terms of compact size, weight, image quality and versatility, and unlike the Fuji and Sony mirrorless systems, it has an enormous range of lenses to satisfy your needs.
  • the ideal compact travel camera is something like the Olympus OM-D E-M10 mark II, Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II or the Panasonic GX-85, but if you want something more substantial with built-in grip, then the Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark I or II (if you want bell’s and whistles!)
  • if you don’t already own a zoom and you have plenty of budget to pay for a pro 8x zoom lens then the new Olympus mZD 12-100mm f/4 OIS lens will serve most of your needs in the one lens, if this is too expensive, then there are many cheaper super zoom options,  or you can resort to a 3x pro f/2.8 zoom lens such as the Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 and mate this with either the Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 or  Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 for awesome portraits and background blurring in a short telephoto lens
  • for walking the streets at night or shooting indoors, I would recommend a compact, wide aperture wide angle lens (but you could potentially get away with an f/2.8 3x zoom lens) such as:
    • Olympus mZD 12mm f/2.0 but this is expensive
    • Panasonic 15mm f/1.7
    • Olympus mZD 17mm f/1.8
    • Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II pancake lens
  • if you are an ultra-wide angle fan, then consider the Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 or perhaps even the Olympus mZD 7mm f/1.8 fisheye
  • if you really need a bit more telephoto and don’t mind a bit of extra weight and bulk, then the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens can come in handy

 My choice kits for best image quality but still relatively compact:

  • Panasonic GX85 + Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 + Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II pancake lens (for jacket pocketability)
  • Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II + Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 + Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II pancake lens (for jacket pocketability)
  • Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark I or II + Olympus mZD 12-100mm f/4 OIS lens plus perhaps Olympus mZD 12mm f/2.0 or Panasonic 15mm f/1.7

If you are budget conscious and can skip the smartphone WiFi transfer functionality, then a smart move would be to buy an Olympus OM-D E-M5 original version second hand ($AUS300 for body only or $AUS450 with a kit lens or two) for the same price as a entry level dSLR and you will have a far better camera in almost every regard, and the lenses will be smaller.

Disclaimer: I don’t work for the photography industry nor do I receive any incentives from them, but I do own Olympus OM-D E-M5, E-M1, E-M1II, Sony A7II, and a Canon 1D Mark III pro dSLR – the latter two cameras will NOT be coming with me on my overseas trips!

 

Fascinating maps of cities comparing where tourists take photos vs the locals

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Tourists experience cities in a vastly different way to local residents.

Eric Fischer has created a series of fascinating maps of the major cities of the world from a database of geo-tagged photos.

The red bits indicate photos taken by tourists, while the blue bits indicate photos taken by locals and the yellow bits might be either.

See the maps at https://www.flickr.com/photos/24431382@N03/sets/72157624209158632/

and a more readable blog post at http://brilliantmaps.com/tourists-vs-locals/

Sydney

Sydney, Australia

 

 

One week in South Korea – part 1

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Last week I had the fantastic opportunity of spending some time in South Korea (the Republic of Korea), most of which was in its bustling capital Seoul but also a weekend in the coastal resort town of Sokcho on the eastern coast and adjacent to the beautiful Seoraksan National Park.

This first post is to give some background of South Korea and introduce its culture.

Geography and how to get there.

South Korea is the mountainous southern part of the Korean Peninsula located between China and Japan and, obviously, south of North Korea, with which it is still technically at war and thus is separated from it by a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

Seoul has a population of 25 million (half of Korea’s population) being the world’s 6th leading city and 4th largest economy while over half the population live in high rise apartments and only 3% are non-Korean foreigners and half of these have Korean ethnicity! South Korea had the world’s lowest birth rates in 2009 but it has been increasing since

It’s time zone is only 1hr different to Australian Eastern Standard Time.

From my home town, Melbourne, Australia, there are no direct flights to Seoul as thus I needed a short flight to Sydney first before catching a direct 10hr 30m flight via Asiana Airlines.

One should allow around 90 minutes to get from Incheon Airport to Seoul CBD by bus or taxi, and there is also a train service.

Be warned taxi drivers can be lacking in safety awareness with Korea having high road trauma rates, one of our taxi drivers thankfully slowed to 140kph in 80kph zone.

In Seoul, there is a very advanced subway system, just download the app for your smartphone to navigate it, purchase a CityPass card at the vending machine (there are English instructions), load it up with some won – perhaps around 5000-10000 won at a time (~$US5-10 and this pass can be used on buses, or even to buy food in some shops).

Half of all tourists are Chinese.

Climate:

South Korea has a humid continental climate and a humid subtropical climate and the best time to visit for comfort is Sept-Nov (autumn) but no matter what time of year, an umbrella or rainwear is advisable.

Seoul has an average annual rainfall of 1,370mm, mostly in July and August which receive over 300mm each month.

There are four distinct seasons:

  • spring: late-March to early-May which may bring yellow dust pollution from strong winds from China and Mongolia
  • summer: mid-May to early-September which is hot, wet, humid and may be associated with East Asian monsoonal rains as well as a brief high rainfall period “jangma” which occurs in July
  • autumn: mid-September to early-November
  • winter: mid-November to mid-March which can be extremely cold with the minimum temperature dropping below −20 °C (−4 °F) in the inland region of the country

July and August are the hottest, most humid and wettest months, and we arrived in a mini heat wave with daytime temperatures of around 34degC with high humidity and night temperatures dropping to around 27degC. Later in the week the temperature cooled to 27degC max and 18degC minimums and the last two days on the east coast were dominated by heavy rains.

A brief history:

Koryo was one of the leading East Asian powers from around 1st century BC and ruled northern China, Inner Mongolia and parts of Russia for over a millenium of relative tranquillity.

Buddhism was introduced to Korea in the year 372.

In 1446, Sejong the Great, created a unique alphabet Hangul, which enabled anyone to easily learn to read and write.

These dynasties resulted in establishment of 12 World Heritage Sites.

In the 19th century, the Joseon Dynasty tried to protect itself against Western imperialism, but was eventually forced to open trade.

After the 1st Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Korea was liberated from Chinese influence as a state of the Qing dynasty, and after the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894 to 1895 , a short-lived Korean Empire formed (1897-1910).

After Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Korea initially became a Japanese protectorate and then was annexed by imperial Japan in 1910.

Towards the end of World War II, Russia liberated Korea north of the 38th parallel, while USA liberated the areas to the south. After Japan surrendered to Western and Russian powers at the end of World War II in 1945, Korea was then divided into North and South Korea, and this, along with Cold War issues resulted in North Korea invading South Korea with China and Russia coming to aid the North, and USA-led UN forces backing the south in the Korean War (1950-1953) which saw Seoul change hands four times, until a truce was formed by signing an armistice, but the two states are technically still at war, and the threat from North Korea, always present and seemingly increasing.

 Culture, language and health:

It has the world’s eighth highest median household income, the highest in Asia, and its singles in particular earn more than all G7 nations, and half have no religious affiliation, most of the remainder are either Buddhist or Christian.

The world’s most innovative country in 2015 and has the world’s fastest Internet speed and highest smartphone ownership.

South Korea is the most industrialized member country of the OECD.

South Korea has a universal healthcare system and amongst the most technologically advanced healthcare in the world and has over triple the number of hospital beds per capita compared to USA, UK, Sweden, and Canada!

Compulsory military conscription for men continues and South Korea has very high defence spending – 15% of all govt spending.

Few Koreans speak English as it only became compulsory in schools this century and although young adults may be able to read some English, their verbal skills are quite limited. This is compounded by the very few English speaking tourists who arrive and the monoculture of 97% Koreans who live there. Despite this, the Korean language is quite phonetic and signs are often  in English.

Korean food is still largely devoid of Western influences (although there are some Western take away food places such as MacDonalds, Dominos Pizza and many coffee cafes), you will probably not find fish and chip shops, dim sims, potato cakes, french fries, chocolate bars, ice cream and in addition, wine is rare but beer, soju and whisky/rum are plentiful – in fact, the Koreans are generally heavy drinkers after their long hours at work.

The Korean population generally come across as quiet, cool, calm, collected, well dressed, high-tech savvy, generous, respectful and kind people with very little obesity issues although smoking and high alcohol intake is still problematic.

Seoul feels to me to be the safest of cities I have been to – I felt ashamed that I may cause offense in securing my valuables in the hotel room but I still did so. There is no evidence of pick pockets in the areas I visited and free WiFi is everywhere and given the apparent trustworthiness of the Koreans and lack of Western tourists, I felt I could get away with not using a VPN.

The widespread free WiFi – in hotels, on train platforms, bus stations, airports, etc, meant that one does not really need to have a Korean sim card or use international roaming – just switch phone to airplane mode and turn WiFi on and communicate using a messaging app such as WhatsApp.

Koreans respectfully bow to each other to thank or give leave and there is a strict aged-based hierarchical respect system stemming from Confucian and Buddhist teachings and Koreans are taught from a young age that they need to know who is their senior and who is their junior and that they must obey and respect their seniors, who in return, provides support and pay for meals, etc.

Young men in the city generally wear a shirt, tie, trousers with black belt and stylish shoes reminiscent of the well dressed Italian.

Young women generally wear smart summer dresses, shorts or short skirts whilst the upper part of the body for both sexes remains covered – no cleavages or open shirts (even for men as the upper torso is regarded as a sexual zone – legs are not).

The Koreans appear to have a body image issue as plastic surgery rates are amongst the highest in the world with some 25% of young adults having had surgery – and the surgical skills appear to be very high tech and transformative – see here for some mind blowing examples!

As most Korean young people live with their parents in high rise apartments, many go to resort towns for the weekends for romantic getaways in “Love Hotels” such as in Sokcho.

Koreans appear to like booking small rooms for karaoke fun for 2-4 people. K-pop is an extremely popular Asian music and culture phenomenon.

Communal thermal spas are generally true Oriental style with clothing and underwear banned, and a requirement for a good, long, whole of body soapy scrub and shower before entering the bathing area au naturale (although women and men have separate areas).
Korean temple

Korean temple in Asian ink sketch style – Olympus OM-D.

old and the new

Old and the new – Seoul – Olympus OM-D

the essential umbrella

The umbrella – an essential sun shade and for those rain periods – Olympus OM-D with mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens.

Early autumn road trip and camping holiday to the Australian Snowy Mountains

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

It has been over 30 years since I last drove north across the Victorian border to the Tumbarumba region west of the Snowy Mountains, and the last time I went I drove the long trek on mostly gravel rural roads from Tumut to Canberra via Wee Jasper (according to Google, this part of the trip now takes around 3hrs not sure how much is bitumen).

This week of annual leave I decided to embark on a solo road trip to Tumbarumba region, but this time explore the Snowy Mountains where I had never previously visited.

Tumbarumba is some 450km or 4.5hrs drive from Melbourne along the quite boring Hume Freeway, so on my way up I decided at the last minute to divert from Wodonga on the border and head through the more interesting but much longer back roads.

This took me through lovely hilly rural country sides, initially along the Hume Reservoir which is currently suffering from a massive toxic blue-green algae bloom which stretches from there down stream some 700km down the Murray River thanks to low water flows and the hot summer, early autumn weather over over 30degC on most days.

This is quite a nice drive and takes one through Tallangatta township and past the old now submerged Tallangatta township then onwards to Corryong some 1.5hrs drive from Wodonga. Just before Corryong there is a nice looking caravan park at Colac Colac adjacent to the highway on an open farmland region.

Between Tallangatta and Corryong there are opportunities for the nature lovers to further explore either:

  • Omeo Highway south to:
    • Lake Dartmouth
    • Mitta Mitta River valley
    • Mount Benambra
    • gold and tin mining relics at Mt Wills (granite summit, snow gums, and great scenery), Mt Murphy, Cassilis Historic Areas such as the Green Creek historic battery,Pioneer Mine at Mitta Mitta,
    • Harrington’s track historic bridle trail along Murray River from Tom Groggin to Bunroy Station, 20km one way
  • Bethanga Historic area and Wallaces Smelting Works to the north
  • The Plateau to the north
  • Mount Granya State Park to the north – steep slopes rising above Lake Hume, 870m elevation, Granya Falls are seasonal.
  • Tallangatta Valley to the south
  • Mount Lawson State Park to the north – steep slopes, rocky bluffs, 1041m
  • Burrowa-Pine National Park to its north
    • Bluff Falls and walk to Ross Lookout (not suitable for caravans, nearby Blue Gums camp ground)
    • steep sided Mt Burrowa (1300m) which sits atop a sub-alpine plateau accessible by walking tracks
    • Pine Mountain (1062m) – a gigantic granite rock monolith 1.5x bigger than Uluru – walking track to summit
  • Thowgla Upper to the south
  • the Benambra-Corryong Rd valley which takes one southwards to:
    • Wabba Wilderness
    • Pinnibar Pendergast State Forest
    • Benambra and nearby Alpine National Park, Tambo State Forest and the Mitta Mitta River valley
    • further south to Omeo and then through the Alps down to Bairnsdale and Lakes Entrance on the southern Victorian coast

From Corryong I decided to head to the southern parts of the Snowy Mountains via the tiny town of Khancoban where I would have to pay my day access fees (these are only required for the southern areas – I accidentally paid for 3 days of fees but only used 1 day in the southern area).

Khancoban is also the last stop for fuel, food, public toilets that are not drop toilets, internet and mobile phone access, but as I was to find out, no car repair services.

After an early dinner, I proceeded up into the windy bitumen Alpine Highway past the Murray 1 and 2 hydro-electric power stations and to Scammel’s Lookout which looks southeast towards Mt Kosciuszko (Australia’s highest peak at 2228m) which is hidden behind the steep barren western fall of the Main Range and Mt Abbott.

View from Scammel's lookout

View from Scammel’s lookout.

From there it was a short drive down to popular Geehi Flats camping ground along the banks of the lovely shallow but fast flowing Swampy Plains Creek. I had intended to continue on to Tom Groggin camp ground on the banks of the upper reaches of the Murray River for the night then next day tackle the steep drive up to Thredbo, but as I pulled into Geehi Flats, I noticed a very loud noise coming from my front brakes highly suggestive of a lost brake pad from the mountain driving although I try to use my gears to brake downhill as much as possible.

Geehi Flats camp ground

Bridge at Geehi Flats camp ground.

Nevertheless, this meant an uneasy night sleeping in my tent at Geehi Flats wondering if this was the end of my holiday plans.

Milky Way from Geehi Flats

Milky Way and my tent at Geehi Flats taken with Olympus OM-D E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera and Olympus mZD 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens at ISO 3200.

Although Geehi Flats camp ground is a lovely spot it is a LONG way for Victorians (perhaps 7.5 hrs from Melbourne) and does not offer any more than any camp site along a river such as around the Bright region, but for those traveling through the southern parts of the Snowy Mtns it does offer a more protected and warmer camp ground to rest at given it is around only 400m elevation and is accessible by caravans (caravans cannot get from here to Thredbo though as the Alpine Highway is too steep).

forest

Next day I drove back to Corryong (where they were getting ready for the Man From Snowy River festival over Easter) and after a wait of a few hours for the mechanics, had the welcome news that a stone and become stuck in the brake calipers and all is well.

So on early afternoon on day two, with storms, rain and strong winds forecast for the Snowy Mountains that night I decided to cut my losses, and head to Tumbarumba and get a better night’s sleep in a cabin out of harm’s way from the storms.

En route to Tumbarumba is a lovely drive through hilly rural countrysides reminiscent of Victoria’s Mansfield region, and past the Southern Cloud Memorial Lookout and on to lovely Paddys River Falls.

The Southern Cloud Memorial Lookout is a very exposed, but nice spot on a hill alongside the highway looking east at the western part of central Snowy Mountains and is a memorial for a historic Southern Cloud plane crash in the 1930′s, the wreckage of which was not found until 3 decades later – there is now a walking trail to the wreckage site. This plane crash was to change the safety of Australian aviation in profound ways.

Southern Cloud Lookout view

View south-eastwards from Southern Cloud Lookout.

Paddys River Falls is easily accessible at the end of a 2km gravel road and can be seen from the car park or a short easy walk down to the falls – although walking down to the stream itself can be a touch slippery!

There is no camping at the falls but just before you get to the turn off to the falls, there is a free camp ground on the river near the main highway which is popular for caravans.

Paddys River Falls vintage style

Paddys River Falls vintage style hand held long exposure.

Tumbarumba itself is a small town with little to attract a photographer but is a nice central location from which to base activities in the region. It was great to have a shower in the cabin and then steak dinner at the Tumba Hotel and a good night’s sleep.

See Day 3 next….

Overnight camp 1400m hiking ascent to Mount Feathertop – how a sedentary middle aged photographer survived to get some great pics

Friday, December 4th, 2015

I decided it was time to re-invent my life and instead of restricting myself to 2-3hr return bush walks, I needed to push the envelope and get a new outlook and actually be there for the golden hours at the start and end of the day instead of having to be heading home well before it.

For those reading my earlier blogs on central Australia, you will note that my largely sedentary lifestyle combined with man flu resulted in a lumbar disc prolapse back in August this year but I pushed through this and only a few weeks later with some help from my friends, I climbed up the 360m steep ascent to Mt Gillen near Alice Springs, then walked around Uluru and then followed this with a rocky hike through the Olgas – all of which markedly improved my disc prolapse pain to such an extent, I vowed I would regularly hike up some hills.

My friend then encouraged me to embark on my life changing aspirations and suggested we tackle the “gentle” climb up Mt Feathertop (altitude 1922m making it Victoria’s second highest mountain peak) and camp overnight.

Climbing Mt Feathertop is one of those bucket list items for many Australians as it is relatively accessible and the walk at the top is very enjoyable.

I was very dubious that a guy such as me, who, much to my wife’s disgust, hates the boring gym so much that he can only stand being there for 15 minutes twice a week,  would actually make this – yep, 2 minute sprints on a bike at the gym probably is not enough endurance training for this kind of hike – but he did say it is a “gentle” hike.

If I was going to do this, I was going to have to get as much as possible in my favour and this means buying some reliable, light gear and doing some planning as well as taking along 2 fit guys in case I needed them.

I did make it

Spoiler alert – Yes, I did make it to the peak!

Phase 1 – planning

I needed an ergonomic back pack that would not put too much strain on my neck or back – so after a bit of research I purchased the rather unique New Zealand Aarn Peak Aspiration “body pack” which encourages you to walk upright instead of stooped over as the load is not only mostly transferred to a nicely designed hip belt, but is counter-balanced by 2 packs on your chest in which you carry your camera gear, munchies, and water. These packs are cleverly designed to also place the load on the hip belt and at the same time lever away from your chest to allow air flow and visibility of your feet. I bought the “Long” version which allows some 47L in the rear pack and 6L in each of the front packs. The front packs are purchased separately as there are various designs for different purposes – I bought the regular photo version which is large enough top hold my Micro Four Thirds camera – the  Olympus OM-D E-M1 attached to a Olympus mZD 40-150mm lens in one pocket. If you are a dSLR user, you will probably need the Pro Photo version which is larger and better padded but makes the pack very bulky indeed. The back pack does need an experienced user to  customise the many fittings to your body shape, and I found that I could slope the hip belt downwards so it it optimised placement over my ASIS point of my pelvis while the buckle sits comfortably BELOW my little paunch which hides the 6 pack which should be there somewhere.
the backpack

The Aarn Peak Aspiration back pack with Photo pack on the front (Panasonic 15mm f/1.7 lens).

My aim was to be almost self-sufficient (apart from cooking which my friend was providing) and carry around 12kg which for me should make the ascent bearable.

Next I needed a 3 season light, compact, versatile sleeping bag which could be used for any temperature down to 2degC comfortably, and for this I chose the highly regarded Sea to Summit Micro II sleeping bag with 850 goose down and ability to keep foot end open, or open the whole bag into a quilt for thye warmer nights. This weighs about 600g.

For a light but stable, reliable 3 season spacious tent I chose the Big Sky Revolution 2 tent – a silnylon (and thus very slippery but waterproof and light) 2-man tent with 2 porches and although advertised at 1.3kg, actually weighed in closer to 1.5kg.

I picked up a Nemo Astro insulated air mattress on Ebay as reviews rated it well for comfortable sleep although it was a touch heavy at just over 500g, but much more affordable and less noise than the Thermarest Neoair XLite.

Being paranoid I decided to spend big and purchase a Camelbak All Clear UV light water sterilisation kit which weighed an extra 250g and which my colleagues thought was overkill as there would be plenty of water at the camp site, nevertheless, it came along as well as my EPIRB radio beacon, first aid kit, repair kit, extra guy ropes (gale force winds were forecast as 2 cold fronts were passing over that night).

Finally, camera gear. I had hoped to test out the Olympus mZD 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens on the last of the Milky Way for the season, so I brought it and a small tripod, plus spare batteries, gradient filters and my Olympus mZD 12mm f/2.0 and Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens, the combination of all of these would hit around 3kg – thank goodness I no longer use my heavy Canon dSLR gear.

Unfortunately, when all this plus some warm change of clothes, water and some food is weighed up it came to a potentially back breaking 17+ kg, but I hoped the ergonomic design of my pack would get me over the line – my family just laughed and said I was crazy – maybe they were right!

So an important part of my planning was to have 2 fit colleagues!

Other contingencies to consider:

  • re-check the ever changing weather forecast
  • ensure you sign the check-in book at the start of the walk and notify your family of where you are going and when you will be back
  • wet weather gear
  • warm thermals, gloves, beanie to combat the wind chill overnight
  • usual bushwalk gear – first aid kit (including blister repair kit), radio beacon, map, compass, water sterilisation, torch, multi-tool, emergency thermal blanket, trowel (probably not needed on this hike), compostable wipes, rubbish bag
  • cooking and food gear – stove, pots, cutlery, bowl, hand sterilisation liquid, tea towel, knife to chop veges, and of course food +/- wine
  • 3L water container to transport water from source to camp
  • Leave No Trace principles
  • snakebite bandage
  • usual medications if any, and include EpiPen if anaphylaxis is a possibility (eg. bullant bites), plus analgesics, aspirin, NSAIDs
  • turn off mobile phones to save battery, consider small USB power pack
  • be aware of the constant dangers in summer of bushfires, lightning, etc.

Phase 2 – getting there

Mount Feathertop can be approached via several different walk routes – we chose the “gentle” walk from Harrietville called the Bungalow Spur Walk.

Harrietville is some 340km from outer NW suburbs of Melbourne and takes around 4 hours drive plus time for lunch at the Milawa Cheese Factory, so after departing Melbourne around 9.30-10am after peak hour traffic had subsided, we reached Milawa around 12.30, had lunch then reached Harrietville around 3pm for the start of our alpine walk.

Phase 3 – the ascent

 

GPS map of actual walk

The actual walk from our GPS tracker – yep there are NO flat segments to catch your breath!

Despite it being 3pm, the early Summer sun was quite warm and temperatures were around 28degC – a lovely day as long as you were not carrying a heavy load up a tall mountain!

Hiking gear included broad rim hat, sunglasses, trekking poles (although often these were a nuisance in the many sections of very narrow overgrown trail), waterproof Gortex hiking runners, moisture wicking shirt and shorts active wear, sunscreen. I took gaiters but it was too warm for them and benefits were not sufficient to justify them on this walk and the snakes here were mainly copperheads which are unlikely to bite you unless you tried to capture them or you stood on it.

The walk is a leisurely 10.5km walk and the sign at the start advised one should take time to stop and smell the roses (metaphorically of course – we don’t have roses in our forests), and the walk would ascend 1100m to the camp site where there is a hut for emergency shelter and a rainwater tank. This camp is some 300m below the peak which we planned to do on the next morning.

The three of us set off in high spirits and even I felt pretty good in my new backpack despite the 17kg – but it didn’t take too long for me to realise this was going to be torture for my poor heart – the “gentle” walk was an unrelenting climb which took us almost 5hrs (thanks to my lack of endurance fitness – it would take fit hikers 3-4hrs) – and each time I found a little shade in which to get my heart rate below 150 per minute for a few seconds and catch my breath, my personal fitness trainer encouraged me that the next rest is just around the corner – although it never was just the next corner.

I managed to get 90% of the way (to the Bungalow Hut ruins) before the sun was getting low in the sky and every muscle in my legs started to cramp, so my colleagues took pity on me and jointly carried my backpack up the last steep ascent to the hut only to find the rainwater tank was as empty as our water bottles!

By this stage the temperature had dropped and the wind chill had dramatically increased so it was time to get into some warm gear with some rain protection although we probably only received 1mm overnight.

My colleagues then volunteered to go back the 200m down the mountain side in the dark with head torches to find the little spring past the well marked sign “DO NOT DRINK” – thankfully I had brought along the UV sterilisation unit and it tasted better than any water I have had – dead giardia and all – now to wait the 7 days or so incubation period to see if it worked!

It was too windy and cloudy to test the fisheye out on the Milky Way :(

The forecast 35knot winds soon unleashed on our tents and blew all night – I managed to get to sleep by inserting my noise isolating earphones and listening to some Beethoven and although a few times I felt the tent lift in the wind, I awoke in the morning to find I was still in the campsite. My colleagues in their tent did not get much sleep at all – perhaps it was the red wine with the late pasta and chicken, or the balmy warm (10degC) windy night.

The tent, sleeping bag and mattress all performed flawlessly, although some may find the Nemo mattress a touch “bouncy”.

For cooking, we used a MSR Whisperlite Internationale shellite stove which is highly regarded for being reliable in all conditions and worked extremely well.

Phase 4 – the walk up to the peak of Mt Feathertop

After breakfast, despite the occasional light rain shower, we decided to walk up to the peak with just a rain jacket, single trek pole each and our Olympus OM-D weatherproof cameras.

Photographically, phase 3 was not inspiring for me at all, perhaps mainly because of my fatigue, but phase 4 was a different story – walking up that ridge was inspiring and I was making my 40-150mm lens work hard although in the strong wind I had to be extra careful to avoid camera shake.

walking along the highest ridge

which way?

into the abyss

Not long after we had reached the peak, we saw another band of rain coming and to our surprise, a lightning storm – not a great thing to enjoy when you are the tallest objects on a very exposed highest ridge on the tallest mountain in the storm. We took a few more pics and headed back as quickly as possible to the safety of the hut where he had a quick lunch and packed up.

See here on how to reduce your risks in a lightning storm.

the incoming storm

Phase 5 – descent back to the car

cleaning up the hut

Cleaning up the hut – Olympus mZD 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens

Hiking back down the trail was vastly different to the previous day’s ascent, I was not troubled by the back pack and could even run some of it – the trekking poles of course were very helpful in taking weight of the knees and for avoiding spraining the ankle when one loses concentration on the loose rocks.

We collected some more water from the trickle of trackside “spring” and sterilised it with the UV kit.

Ironically, just as we were getting into the car, 2 very close lightning strikes made sure we didn’t waste any further time.

The next day, the second cold front produced unseasonal dusting of snow.

I am going to work on trying to get the weight down further – prhaps the Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 lens instead of the Olympus 40-150mm lens as a start.

More of my info on ultralight bushwalking on my wiki

More info on hiking to Mt Feathertop on my wiki

WARNING – if you are sedentary and over 35 years of age, DO NOT DO a strenuous hike like this without getting the OK from your doctor first – if you have coronary artery disease, such an activity is the perfect way to have a sudden death and your family won’t be happy! I know my heart can cope, nevertheless, on the way down, I took a NSAID to help with muscle soreness, and to offset its potential to increase the risk of heart attacks, I also took 300mg aspirin.

Disclaimer: I am NOT sponsored by any of these manufacturers or retailers and I purchased all items.

Tropical north Queensland – the Daintree wilderness rainforests, beaches and Cape Tribulation

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

This will be the last on my current series of posts of the wet tropics of north Queensland – previous posts were:

Daintree wilderness rainforest is in far north Queensland and as far as mobile phones, TV and internet goes, one is mostly off grid once you cross the ferry on the crocodile infested Daintree River.

It’s tropical climate, relative isolation and unique rainforest flora and fauna and lovely beaches make it a must see destination – see earlier posts on tips on time of year to go, etc.

The road is bitumen up to Cape Tribulation so you will not have issues with normal cars although an SUV is nice to give a bit more ground clearance, especially if you are renting a car. The new  2011 Q5 bridge across Coopers Creek allows all year access to Cape Tribulation (apart from major storm/cyclone/5 yr floods).

The road from Cape Tribulation north to Cooktown has been sealed since 2005 but travel past Cape Trib may NOT be covered by your rental car hire insurance! You can check current road status here.

When calculating drive times, assume an average speed of around 60kph – there are many speed humps to reduce risk of killing southern cassowary birds.

Alexandra Lookout – looking south east towards Snapper Island and the mouth of the Daintree River:

Noah Beach

Golden Orb spider the size of my hand on the Jindalba Boardwalk in the rainforest (Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens on Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera):

Golden Orb spider

There are 3 well maintained short boardwalks which you must do as each give access to different ecologies:

  • Jindalba boardwalk through the rainforest
  • Marrdja boardwalk  through mangrove swamps – very nice and perhaps the most likely place to see a southern cassowary
  • Dubuji boardwalk another coastal walk but this one takes you through tall fan palms

Bushwalks include the very steep walk from Cape Trib to Mount Sorrow for those who are fit – you are advised to start the walk no later than 10am and to allow 6-7 hours.

Swimming holes are available at Cape Trib Grocery Store and at Emmagen Creek north of Cape Trib (take the inland track from Emmagen Beach).

Sea kayaking is available just north of Cape Trib provided by Paddletrek, and also in Cow Bay / Snapper Island in the southern area, provided by Tropical Sea Kayaks.

If you want to snorkel with turtles then Ocean Safari‘s Great Barrier Reef tours take you 20km out to the to Mackay Reef or Undine Reef (25min fast boat ride) and depart from Turtle Rock Cafe at Myall Beach and also from Cape Trib.

There are quite a few nice accommodation options and a few restaurants and cafes and a pub or two, although grocery stores and fuel are not plentiful. Thankfully there are NO fast food chains such as Macdonalds. Make sure you stop for lunch at Lync Haven cafe – very nice lunches and they have some parrots to interact with and caged pythons as well as accommodation. Alternatively, the Whet Cafe Bar and Restaurant makes for a nice lunch or dinner spot near Cape Trib.

Camping in the beach-side camp grounds such as at Noah Beach is popular during the dry season (June-Oct) but be warned, in the wet season it rains hard and for much of the day although I am told it generally stops between 10am and 4pm unless there is a cyclone or tropical low really dumping rain. Also the local nocturnal giant white tailed rat (Uromys caudimaculatus) which can chew through the husk of a coconut, can also chew through tents, plastic, canvas, leather electrical wires and even into cans. They can damage car fan belts and radiator hoses!.

I stayed at the Heritage Lodge and Spa which is well situated in Diwan, half way to Cape Tribulation and near Thornton Beach and Cooper’s Creek. The cottages set within a rainforest environment are very nice indeed although en suites are tiny and there are no baths. The Cooper Creek runs within the site and allows walks and swimming in the crystal clear water. It has a very nice restaurant and a continental breakfast of cereal, toast, juices, fruit is provided.

The lower reaches of Coopers Creek is crocodile territory and boat tours are available from the bridge a couple of times each day – the walk along Thornton Beach to the inlet does make a newbie’s heart stir seeing the crocodile shaped shadows in the water (but these appear to have been sandbars although I didn’t wade in to find out!).

There is a kiosk serving fish and chips and burgers at Thornton Beach and there are some convenient affordable beach cabins opposite (Thornton Beach Bungalows).

Thornton Beach (Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens on Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera):

Noah Beach

Coconut:

Noah Beach

I had been worried about annoying biting insects on the beach such as sandflies (aka midges/midgies which cause persistently itchy allergic reactions to their bites and which are important in the pollination of cocoa plants and thus chocolate!) but in October it seemed there were no nasty bities even without DEET insect repellents except for the occasional March fly in the mangrove beach area of Cape Tribulation (Oct-Nov is apparently the time of march flies in the Atherton Tablelands so I guess it applies on the beaches too).

North of Thornton Beach is the lovely remote Noah Beach with its nice camping ground.

Aerial view of Noah Beach courtesy of Tourism Queensland:

Noah Creek

Cape Tribulation:

Butterfly (Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens on Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera):

butterfly

Lace monitor lizard goanna on the beach (Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens on Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera):

butterfly

Cape Tribulation beach with fisheye lens:

flower

Surreal mangrove beach (Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens on Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera):

surreal mangrove beach

Wild cannonball mango in the fantastic Marrdja Boardwalk through mangrove swamp (Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens on Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera):

cannonball mango

Aerial basket fern (Drynaria rigidula) – home to birds, tree snakes and other animals (Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens on Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera):

aerial fern

 

Tropical north Queensland – Palm Cove and why a fisheye lens comes in handy

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Continuing on from my holiday tips for the wet tropics of north Queensland and the Atherton Tablelands, this post explores the Palm Cove region north of Cairns.

Palm Cove is one of the most picturesque beaches with its lovely palm trees and towering melaleucas which line the esplanade which separates the beach from the little village which is filled with accommodation options and restaurants.

In October, it was a relatively quiet, friendly and relaxing village and surprisingly, the accommodation apartments do not use insect screens and we had no issues from mosquito bites even though we left the windows open much of the time – I guess the council keeps a tight control on insect populations in the area.

I stayed at Paradise on the Beach apartments and had the pleasure of having a unit which overlooked the beach and had a large double spa bath and kitchenette, although the downside is that it was close to a children’s playground over the road, and at night it was noisy from the patrons of the bar below – if these are not an issue for you, then it was a lovely way to relax and enjoy the beach.

As with all the beaches in the wet tropics, there is a small risk of crocodile attacks if you swim or walk near the edge, although this is much more likely near estuaries and very few if any have occurred on the actual Palm Cove beach.

A bigger risk from Nov-May is the potentially lethal jellyfish stingers, and thus one is advised to only swim within the patrolled swimming area within the stinger nets.

The beaches face east and so sunrise walks are a must and a perfect way to start the day before the sun gets too hot.

Palm Cove with the Samyang 7.5mm fisheye lens:

A fisheye lens is really the only way to capture the palms and melaleucas which give the beach its character. I used the inexpensive manual focus only Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye lens on Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M1 and E-M5 cameras, although one could use any fisheye lens including the lovely new Olympus mZD 8mm f/1.8 lens.

Palm Cove sunrise

Palm Cove sunrise

Palm Cove sunrise

The towering ancient melaleucas:

Palm Cove melaleucas

 

Palm Cove as a base to explore

Palm Cove is perfectly situated to explore the region as it is within 20min or so drive from Cairns, the airport and most of the local attractions.

A must do, is visit the Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures which is about 20-30min drive to the north. You need to spend at least 2-3 hours here learning about crocodiles and other tropical wildlife including the southern cassowary bird and snakes. They run a commercial crocodile farm which you can attend a guided tour to learn more about crocodiles, or go on a short cruise in the river and watch them feed crocodiles with the crocodiles jumping 1-1.5m out of the water.

The snake handling and crocodile attack demonstration events are well worth attending, but perhaps the best is indulging in a very tasty crocodile salad lunch at the cafe which I would highly recommend!

Other attractions in the region include:

Pics of the region using the Olympus OM-D and pro zoom lenses:

Walshs Pyramid Hill (the highest freestanding natural pyramid in the world) south of Cairns at sunset from a boat on a “sunset cruise”:

Pyramid Hill Cairns

Mangroves in Cairns at sunset from a boat on a “sunset cruise”:

mangroves Cairns

Mangrove beach near Port Douglas:

mangrove beach near Port Douglas

Mossman Gorge:

mangrove beach near Port Douglas

Rainforest stinging tree (Dendrocnide moroides) leaves – the leaves, stem and fruit are covered in tiny silica hairs which inject neurotoxins causing severe pain which may last for several days and then recur over months! Even the dead leaves can sting and worse can release hairs when disturbed which can then be inhaled! (I presume this is one of them! Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens on Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera):

stinging tree

The unique Atherton Tableland – high rainforest plateau and ancient volcanic maars and waterfalls

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

The Atherton Tableland is an elevated rainforest plateau 700m to 1000m above sea level which is littered with ancient volcanic hills, valleys, waterfalls and crater lakes making it a photographer’s and naturalist’s delight and is some 4 degrees Celsius cooler than Cairns and unlike the coast, you will need a jumper or cardigan for evening wear.

There are essentially 4 access roads from the coast – each will involve 20-30minutes of slowish winding roads up the mountains to get there:

  • Rex Range Road from Mossman
  • Kennedy Highway via Kuranda from Cairns
  • Gillies Highway via Gordonvale from Cairns
  • Palmerston Highway from Innisfail

The main town is Atherton with Mareeba to the north which is drier and with clearer skies.

Attractions near Mareeba:

  • Mareeba Tropical Wetlands and Savannah Reserve with Jabiru Safari Lodge, which is a great for bird watchers. Further north are drier woodlands with a multitude of tall termite mounds.
  • Granite Gorge Nature Park – great for picnics and their local unique wallaby species
  • The Coffee Works – for coffee and chocolate
  • Golden Drop Winery – mango wines

Central tablelands region:

  • Atherton township
  • Hastie’s swamp bird watching
  • Wongabel State Forest rainforest walk track 2.6km
  • Mt Hypipamee National Park – unique steep walled crater lake and adjacent Dinner Falls cascades make for a pleasant short walk and nice photo opportunities
  • Bromfield’s Crater
  • historic mining town of Herberton with its reconstructed 19thC mining township as a tourist attraction
  • Yungaburra heritage township, Nick’s Swiss-Italian restaurant and the massive curtain fig tree
  • Lake Tinaroo and dam
  • Lake Barrine lake cruises and rainforest walk through 2 giant Kauri pine trees
  • Lake Eacham National Park
  • Malanda and Malanda Falls
  • Nerada tea farm and their resident wild Lumholtz tree kangaroos
  • Bartle Frere mountain hiking for the fit (Queensland’s tallest mountain at 1622m)

Southern tablelands region:

  • Tarzali Lakes tourist attraction (privately owned) for platypus sightings and farmed barramundi fishing
  • the famous Millaa Millaa falls and the waterfall circuit drive including Zillie Falls and Ellinjaa Falls
  • Ravenshoe, Queensland’s highest town and the Millstream Falls
  • Tully Gorge and Misty Mountain rainforest bushwalks – 36km one-way Koolmoom Creek Track (several short loops possible); 19km one way Cardwell Range Track; 15km one way difficult Cannabullen Creek Track; 26km one way Gorrell Track; BEWARE the stinging trees!!! Bring radio beacon or satellite phone!! Most pleasant May-Oct but heavy rains any time of year can make creeks impassable! Camping requires a permit. Tracks are wet and slippery and leeches abound;

Millaa Millaa lookout

Millaa Millaa lookout – Olympus OM-D

Ellinjaa Falls

Ellinjaa falls, and yes, there are annoying Canikon photographers who take centre stage with their tripods. I decided not to wait for the queue of them and shot this long exposure hand held standing on top of a rock in the middle of the stream using my Olympus OM-D with its amazing built in image stabiliser which allows these hand held longer exposure shots without a tripod.

For bird watchers and ornithologists:

Mt Lewis NP in Nov-April but check road conditions as gravel road: upland rainforest birds such as Golden Bowerbird, Chowchilla, Blue-faced Parrot Finch.

Abattoir Swamp: boardwalk and hide – when paperbarks are flowering: lorikeets, honeyeaters; crakes and rails; Northern Fantail at the car park;

Davies Creek Falls NP via gravel road: granite boulder falls; Pale-headed rosella, White-cheeked honeyeater, Lemon-bellied flycatcher;

Barron Falls NP: Pied Monarch, Yellow-breasted Boatbill.

Mt Molloy: Red-winged parrot, Great Bowerbird are found near the school;

Malanda Falls Conservation Park: Aust. Brush Turkey, Orange-footed scrubfowl, Atherton scrubwren, Macleay’s Honeyeater, Eastern Whipbird.

Lake Mitchell man made wetland: Black-necked stork and dry country birds in the woodlands.

Crater lakes NP: Double-eyed Fig-parrot, Victoria’s Riflebird; Tooth-billed Bowerbird builds courts close to the track in breeding season (Sept-Jan).

Nardello’s Lagoon: waterbirds; White-breasted Sea Eagle and Swamp Harrier in Sept-Dec; Red-tailed Black Cockatoos; Sulphur-crested cockatoos;

Bromfield Swamp: unique volcanic crater is a nesting site for hundreds of Sarus Crane and Brolga in Apr-Nov best at dusk when they return home to roost, or early morning.

Hastie’s Swamp: home to 220 bird species; two-storey bird hide; Magpie Goose, Plumed Whistling Duck, Pink-eared duck, White-headed Stilt;

Millaa Millaa Falls: Yellow-throated scrubwren, Bower’s Shrike-thrush

Wongabel State Forest: Emerald Dove, Wompoo Fruit Dove, White-throated Treecreeper, Ferenwren, Bower’s Shrike-thrush;

Mt Hypipamee NP: Fernwren, Bridled Honeyeater, Grey-headed Robin, Chowchilla (early morning), Golden Bowerbird, Southern Cassowary

Kaban: drier western edge; Painted Button-Quail, Little Lorikeet, Fuscous Honeyeater, Varied Sittella, Crested Shrike-tit, Eastern Yellow Robin;

Tully Falls Rd: Pale yellow Robin

Innisfail region:

  • several waterfalls along the Palmerston Highway
  • Mamu Tropical Skywalk tourist attraction – boardwalks in the tree tops
  • Paronella Park historic rainforest mansion
  • Eubanangee Swamp National park near the coast and Josephine Falls

Further west from the Tablelands:

  • historic outback mining town of Chillagoe with limestone caves to explore
  • unique Undara Lava Tubes

 Finally, a little history:

The tablelands were originally inhabited by approx. 16 Aboriginal indigenous tribes who created clearings or “pockets” by using fire to clear the rainforest undergrowth and make it easier to hunt wallabies.

They had to deal with the volcanic eruptions, the most recent eruptions were approximately 10,000 years ago.

Then along came the British and Chinese miners in the mid 19th century when gold and tin was discovered resulting in the mining towns of Herberton and Chillagoe. The whites ran into conflict with the indigenous peoples and hence the naming of Butcher Creek.

For more indigenous history of the region see here.

Once the Europeans and Chinese gained access via Cobb and Co coaches (initially from Port Douglas through to Atherton then to Herberton via the “Mulligan Highway”), the timber-getters moved in and dominated much of the central tablelands and clearing much of the rainforest for its valued timber, especially Red cedar (Toona ciliata), but also walnut, Queensland maple, Silky Oak, Silkwood, Black Bean, Silver Ash and Kauri Pine.

A shorter route was established from Cairns called Robson’s Track – near the current Gillies Highway.

The 1st permanent white settler in the Yungaburra region was John Stewart in 1890. By 1903, the railway from Cairns had reached Atherton, and then was extended to Yungaburra in 1910 and operated until it closed in 1964.

Cyclone Larry in 2006 caused considerable damage to the Tablelands, snapping many trees off at 4m from the ground and damaging buildings.

Travel tips for north Queensland’s awesome wet tropics and the Daintree rainforests

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

I have just returned from a 2 week self-drive holiday in Queensland’s wet tropics so I thought I should share some tips.

Palm Cove

Palm Cove, Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Samyang Fisheye lens.

The Wet Tropics – something for everyone!

This is an amazing area in Australia so get there while the $AUST is so affordable, here is a taste of what one can do and see:

  • Cairns:
    • this is the main city and main point of access with its international airport
    • it is a hub for the multitude of overseas backpackers and thus is well suited to their needs
    • the main base for tours to all the regions below whether they be boat tours or bus tours
    • regular public bus travel to the northern beaches so you can get away with not having a car
    • the lovely free swimming pool and sunbathing area right in the heart of the CBD on the harbour – and with free outdoor gym machines and plenty of shade if you want it
    • Cairns Tropical Zoo
    • Cairns Night Zoo
    • Skyrail  Cableway or Scenic Railway to Kuranda tourist village at the top of the mountains behind Cairns gives access to the nearby rain forests and Barron Falls
    • sunset river cruises
  • The Great Barrier Reef
    • even if you are not into snorkelling or scuba diving, everyone should get to one of the reef islands such as Green Island and at least view  the coral and colourful fish from a glass bottom boat – although check the weather first as you don’t want rough seas
  • northern beaches such as Palm Cove and Port Douglas
    • Palm Cove is my favourite, lovely little village, very aesthetic palm lined beaches with a stinger net section for safe swimming monitored by surf life savers
    • Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure is a must do – well worth it and the food in the cafe is very nice indeed – you must try the crocodile dishes!
    • Mossman Gorge – north of Port Douglas, lovely circuit walk through rainforest although the highlight for many is the swimming in the cool clear waters of the stream amongst the many granite boulders
  • Daintree rainforests and remote beaches
    • if you enjoy the wilderness and can live without mobile phone access or the internet, or TV, then take the car ferry across the crocodile infested Daintree River and explore
    • some nice short easy walks on boardwalks gives everyone easy access to the rainforests and mangrove swamp environments – great for photos
    • several remote beaches with lovely sand, and when I went in October, no nasty bugs biting you (except the occasional march fly in Cape Tribulation) – but you need to be careful about swimming – crocodiles are a risk, especially near estuaries, while from Oct-April, swimming is not advised due to the potential dangers of lethal stinging jellyfish – nevertheless, these beaches are awesome to walk along and just relax
  • Atherton Tablelands
    • this elevated rainforest plateau 700m to 1000m above sea level is littered with ancient volcanic hills, valleys, waterfalls and crater lakes makes it a photographer’s and naturalist’s delight and is some 4 degrees Celsius cooler than Cairns and unlike the coast, you will need a jumper or cardigan for evening wear
    • great location for ornithologists who enjoy bird watching
    • backpackers find the swimming in the waterhole below the picturesque Millaa Millaa falls and the ability to get a selfie shot behind the waterfall an awesome way to spend a warm day
    • the elevation in the higher parts is said to be too high for mosquitoes, although mosquitoes seemed to be well controlled in Palm Cove – at least while I was there in October (Dengue fever outbreaks do occur in the Cairns region over the wet season in particular)
    • Mareeba to the north is drier with clearer skies and further north, the woodlands are filled with large termite mounds
    • the historic mining town of Herberton a little to the west is also drier and has a re-constructed 19th century mining town as a tourist attraction
    • 1-2hrs to the west is the much drier historic outback mining town of Chillagoe with its limestone caves to explore
    • 1-2hrs to the south-west is the unique Undara Lava Tubes
  • Innisfail region to the south of Cairns
    • recently hit by a major cyclone, a major tourist attraction here is Paronella – an old castle-like mansion estate amongst the rainforest representing one man’s dream
    • Mamu Skywalk is a tourist attraction amongst the rainforest tree tops
    • Mission Beach and Dunk Island are south of Innisfail

     

What will you see in the rainforests?

This depends upon the season and which part of the rainforest you are in.

Rainforests generally consist of 4 layers of life:

  • emergent layer at the top of the tallest trees  at around 50-60m above ground – exposed to the most sun and wind and occupied by birds, bats, butterflies, python snakes, etc.
  • canopy layer at tops of other trees to around 50m above ground forms an umbrella thick with leaves and flowers, birds, air plants
  • understory layer is immediately above the forest floor and with limited light, is generally filled with dense vines and vegetation along with green tree ants, birds, snakes, frogs, butterflies, etc.
  • forest floor receives perhaps 2% of the sunlight and is dark, damp and filled with ants, beetles, termites, fungi as well as snakes (including venomous snakes), birds including scrub turkey and southern cassowary, frogs, and butterflies.

In the “dry season”, wildlife is much more scarce and the flowers and fruit generally not in season.

Getting there and getting around

Thanks to the international airport, getting there is very easy and the airport is only a few kms from Cairns CBD.

If like me, you want the freedom of self-drive, hire a car – I hired a Toyota RAV 4 AWD SUV from Avis at the airport – this gives me more car elevation to minimise risk of damage to the undercarriage from unexpected pot holes, dips, speed humps, etc, as this damage is not covered by insurance. Avis do allow you to cross the ferry on Daintree River and drive as far north as Cape Tribulation (further north to Cooktown is via a 4WD only gravel road and is not covered in your insurance!).

If you are a backpacker, don’t despair as the public transport buses provide regular access to the northern beaches, etc and of course there are a multitude of tour buses and boat trips accessible from Cairns CBD.

When to go?

The coastal areas are classified tropical climate as they generally have no month with a mean temperature below 18 °C (64.4 °F) or with less than 60 millimetres (2.4 in) of rainfall.

The peak season is the drier “winter” months of July-Sept as this gives the best access to the rainforest and Great Barrier Reef with no risk of sea stingers and less annoying bugs, while the temperatures are more pleasant (relatively dry, clear skies and very pleasantly warm  with 15-24degC average daily range),  and thus you are generally guaranteed of mild to warm, humid weather with minimal rain apart from generally brief showers – so sun hat, sunscreen, shorts and sandals and plenty of water is all you need to take. In the cooler Tablelands, rainforest insects have gone into hibernation, but early morning fog can be great for photos.

October is a quieter month as it follows the Australian school holidays in busy September and this makes for cheaper accommodation and better access to tourist destinations but the weather is warming up with peak sunshine hours, but the rain and clouds is starting to increase. March flies are more common in Oct-Nov in the Atherton Tablelands (in southern Australia, they are mainly in the late summer months Jan-March). Most of the tropical fruits unfortunately are NOT in season.

Dec-April is the best time for best time for waterfalls, insects, fungi (especially bioluminescent fungi) and macro photography.

Feb-Mar is the wettest season with highest risk of cyclones (risk is from Nov-May), almost half of the 2,500mm annual rainfall in the rainforests falls during these 2 months, but if you want to see the rainforest wildlife at its most active, then bring your highest level of DEET insecticide and get ready to explore during the breaks in the heavy rain – usually between 10am and 4pm. Many tropical fruit such as mangoes are in season.

May is towards the end of the wet season and is a good month to indulge in the seasonal tropical fruits such as custard apples.

Safety issues

Rainforests are not really a place for urbanised humans so here are a few safety issues you need to be aware of:

  • many very deadly venomous snakes which can be quite small and hard to see – so be vigilant hiking, wear covered shoes not thongs – the ones in tops of the trees are usually non-venomous pythons and not problematic, it is the venomous ones on the ground you accidentally step on which are the dangers – in reality, it is quite uncommon to see one as they usually feel you coming and get out of your way, but they do like to sleep on warm tracks!
  • the coastal estuaries and beaches are saltwater (estuarine) crocodile territory – you need to be croc safe and aware of how sneaky they can be
  • marine stingers are potentially lethal jelly fish – do not swim Nov-May (October may also be problematic further north in Daintree) unless within the confines of stinger nets
  • dengue fever is a mosquito borne nasty viral infection – mainly a problem around Cairns in the wet season so avoid mosquito bites where possible
  • cassowaries are big flightless birds but are potentially dangerous stay away from them – they have dagger-like middle toes which can easily disembowel you
  • venomous bullrouts (freshwater stonefish) live in some rivers – wear shoes when wading or swimming
  • stinging trees are common – they grow to 4m and have large heart shaped leaves with serrated edges – don’t touch them as they have a painful sting
  • flash flooding (rapidly rising water) is common during wetter months
  • take water and use hiking cautions such as telling people where you are going in case you get lost or incapacitated – there is NO mobile phone signal in most rainforests up there
  • avoid sitting too long along creeks – very tiny ticks cause annoying scrub itch

 more information on my wiki.

A photographer’s guide to exploring central Australia – the Red Centre, Alice Springs, MacDonnell Ranges, Uluru and the Olgas – part I

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

I have just returned from just over a week’s brief explore of the red centre of Australia, and of course, I thought I had best share my experiences and tips, because you know you really want to go there!

Uluru

The last blue moon for 3 years and I managed to capture this one near Uluru, although from 30km west of Uluru, the moon was still too far south from Uluru to allow a telephoto lens to make it look larger and still capture it in the same image as Uluru. One is not allowed to just stop your car anywhere in the park so planning these shots are quite limited to certain locations. Olympus OM-D E-M5 hand held with Olympus mZD 12-40mm lens at f/5, 1/160th sec, ISO 200, 40mm focal length and Vivid picture tone.

Why go?

I must admit I was a Uluru sceptic who thought it was over-hyped and just a big rock, but walking around it is an awe inspiring feeling with a myriad of opportunities of different photographic imagery all varying with time of day and season.

Not only is it the largest monolith in the world and like an iceberg, we are only seeing the tip of it, it was formed millions of years ago by alluvium flowing from mountains to the south, and then gradually has eroded and in the past few thousand years has become a sacred site for the indigenous peoples who ascribe meaning to the many shapes created on its walls by erosion.

The region is just an awesome experience for anyone let alone the myriad of photographic landscape opportunities for the enthusiast photographer which include:

  • West Macdonnell Ranges near Alice Springs and its many rugged gorges, bushwalks (including the famous 200km Larapinta Trail)  and white ghost gum eucalypt trees
  • East Macdonnell Ranges near Alice Springs and its rugged gorges and Artlunga ghost gold mining town
  • learn about indigenous cultures at Alice Springs and view/purchase their art
  • Alice Springs Telegraph Station
  • Alice Springs Desert Park – allows you to see some wildlife that you are likely to miss out seeing on your trip
  • Alice Springs Royal Flying Doctor service
  • historic 19th century remote Hermannsburg German Lutheran missionary for indigenous peoples and nearby home of famous indigenous painter, Albert Namatjira
  • Palm Valley – this requires a high clearance 4WD as it is very rough driving along the creek bed and will take over 3hrs return from Hermannsburg
  • drive along the Mereneenie Loop Road to Kings Canyon from Hermannsburg and check out a very large comet impact site – Gosse’s Bluff
  • Watarraka National Park (Kings Canyon) and bushwalks to the rim of the canyon as well as to the valley
  • Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve
  • Henbury meteorite craters – asteroid impact sites via the unsealed Ernest Giles Rd which is another alternate route to Kings Canyon from Alice Springs
  • dry salt lake beds at Stuart Wells (on private land – a million hectare cattle property)
  • Chambers Pillar
  • Uluru (Ayers Rock) – the largest monolith in the world and the spiritual centre of Australia – a must see for everyone – well worth the easy 11km 3.5hr walk around it as long as weather is mild
  • Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) – even taller than Uluru, but very different being a many domed landscape of conglomerate rock making a striking scene at any time of day – has 2 main bush walks through the valleys

But first, let me introduce the region and try to convey its remoteness and climate – both of which are extremely important in your planning.

How do you get there?

It is in the centre of Australia in semi-arid to arid desert environs and over a 1,500 kilometres to the nearest state capital city – both Darwin and Adelaide are 1,500km from Alice Springs, while Melbourne is 2,260km, Perth 2,500km and Sydney 2,800km away.

To the novice, one may think that Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) is just a day trip from Alice Springs – of course you would be wrong, it is over 460km but thankfully it is all bitumen now but Google estimates it should take you 6 hours by car (under 1hr by air), and that is not including another day or two diversion to the wonderful King’s Canyon.

One can thus drive from Darwin or Adelaide – preferably with a high clearance AWD or 4WD vehicle so you can better navigate the many side gravel roads to gorges, etc, or you can fly to either Alice Springs or direct to Ayers Rock airport – although direct flights to either airport from Melbourne only occur once a day – Sydney is more fortunate in this regard as there are more flight options.

Note that there are no commercial flights to Kings Canyon which is about 5hrs and over 470km from Alice by car or tour bus – the shorter distance “scenic” route on the 200km of corrugated unsealed dry weather only Mereneenie Loop Road requires a 4WD and also a permit fee and still takes over 5hrs and will test your car out!

Once in Alice or Uluru you can either use tour buses or hire a car (book early to avoid disappointment and avoid picking up the car at airports as these is more expensive) – note that there is an entry fee into Uluru-Kata Tjuta park – currently $25 per person which covers 3 days, and the park closes at 7.30pm in winter.

HOWEVER, be warned that in renting a car, even a 4WD, you will NOT be covered for any damage at night away from the township (risk of hitting wandering animals such as kangaroos, cows, or even camels, is too high for the insurance companies), and furthermore, most ban driving on unsealed roads (although you can usually drive to the tourist sites). A good option is renting from the only local company, Central Car Rentals which generally will pick you up from the airport in Alice for free and do permit more gravel road driving but still no night driving.

The ban on night rural driving means one needs to be creative in how they get to see sunrise or sunset away from their accommodation – consider camping as an option but this will not address sunsets at Kata Tjuta where you cannot camp overnight.

When should you go?

The peak season is the Australian winter as the days are not too hot for bushwalking (maximums range from 15 to 28deg depending on where the air flow is coming from the tropical north or the cold south) and the night sky shows off the wonderful southern Milky Way in all its glory (as long as the moon is not in the sky).

The climate is quite different from any of the Australian capital cities which are all coastal. The generally clear night skies mean nights can be cold, especially in winter when the overnight minimum can drop well below zero deg Celsius although usually is around 4degC (and up to 10deg on cloudy nights in winter) – but it will mean you MUST take some warm clothing if planning any night activities – gloves, beanie, scarf, warm jacket, boots and even thermals should be considered in winter.

The climate is much drier than humid Darwin, and this means very few mosquitoes, but bush flies can still be annoying when temperatures rise above 16-20degC and there is little wind.

Walking in winter generally just needs sturdy bush walk shoes, shorts or trousers, shirt, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, water, lip balm, perhaps a fly mesh for face on hotter days, and warmer jacket and perhaps gloves for early morning walks.

Annual rainfall averages only 200mm or so (this is semi-arid so don’t expect expanses of endless sand dunes without vegetation – this can be found further east in the Simpson Desert) but can range from only 70mm to flood conditions every 12-15yrs or so at 900mm per year (most falling in the one month). The driest months are August and September while the wettest are Dec to Feb generally resulting from rains coming from the tropical storms to the north.

The many river beds are generally dry and only have running water after heavy rains – hence the famous Henley on the Todd canoe race in Alice springs in August each year is run on a dry river bed.

Although the days are much shorter in winter, the clearer skies in Winter means that average hours of sunshine is approximately the same each month.

From Oct-Mar, the average afternoon temperatures exceeds 30degC and thus any bushwalks should ideally be completed by 11am, especially in Dec-Feb when average 3pm temperatures are over 34degC. Many walks will be closed when temperatures exceed 36degC.

Winds are generally around 15kph in afternoons, but can be strong before storms and may occasionally create sand storms.

If you wish to photograph the Milky Way, make sure the moon will not be in the sky – ie. choose 3rd quarter to 1st quarter phases – if 1st quarter, you will need to wait for the moon to set around midnight.

If you wish to photograph the full moon rising near Uluru and photographed from Kata Tjuta sunset dune viewing platform, this will appear closest to Uluru at the equinoxes such as in March-April or Sept-Oct.

Where to stay?

There are a multitude of options in Alice Springs which is by far the most affordable location in central Australia – examples include:

  • Lasseter’s Resort – nice clean rooms, most with two queen beds and en suite, new gym, day spa, and a lovely heated pool and outdoor spa which is fantastic in the winter sun, a number of eating options, but rooms may get booked out if conferences are on; free shuttle buses to town (stops at Aurora Hotel) every 2hrs from 10am-4pm
  • Hilton’s Double Tree Hotel – perhaps the best restaurant in town and it’s a short walk from Lasseter’s – Hanuman’s Thai/Indian inspired menu
  • Chifley Hotel – nice seafood restaurant – Barra on Todd
  • in the shopping district – Aurora Hotel and many others including youth hostels, etc.

West Macdonnell Ranges:

  • Glen Helen Resort – note this is out of phone reception but they have a great restaurant meal, tavern-like feel, camping options and affordable WiFi
  • camping at various locations

Kings Canyon:

Yulara (the tourist township near Uluru and Kata Tjuta):

  • all are generally quite expensive and much more so if you choose the luxury accommodation at Longitude 131 ($2,400 per night for a luxury tent with views of Uluru)
  • Ayers Rock Resort offers a variety of accommodation including camping

What photography gear do you need to take?

Many of the walks are either long walks in the warm sun and/or strenuous uphill and downhill walks with often unstable, rocky paths and as you need to carry water and often extra clothing, one does not need to be further encumbered by heavy camera gear or tripods.

Furthermore airlines such as Jetstar tend to be more particular about both checked-in and carry on baggage weight and size – carry on baggage weight combined must not exceed 7kg.

Most photographs will probably be taken in the 24-80mm focal length range in 35mm full frame terms however, having a telephoto zoom allows one to get more options such as the smaller ghost gums growing off distant red cliffs, and abstract light/shadows on Uluru.

To reduce weight and size, my preference was the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and E-M1 Micro Four Thirds cameras with Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 lens and Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens (although I don’t have this lens and thus had to take the heavier and larger Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD lens) – both with circular polarising filters to enhance the colour saturation and blue skies, and a spare battery and charger.

I mount both of these on a waist belt to take the weight off my neck and back – but despite my care and attention, the EVF of the E-M1 suffered damage from sunlight on the 4hr walk around Uluru – this is a well documented problem with the E-M1 and E-M10 (my E-M5 with an older style EVF did not suffer this damage and has not been documented as having this issue) – so be warned, one needs to take extra care to stop sunlight entering the EVF – or perhaps better still, buy 2 E-M5′s instead of the E-M1.

There are very few areas of flowing water and thus long exposure shots are generally not needed during the day so a ND400 10x filter is not likely to be needed unless there is rain forecast.

For those wanting sunset shots or Milky Way shots, a tripod will be needed, and perhaps ND gradient filters for sunset shots, and a tripod will be needed for shots where 36mp or more will be used.

Those with special needs may need extra lenses such as ultra-wide, fisheye or macro lenses.

Next posts will be details on each site

 More information on my wiki.