Destination Kiama – part one The Wilderness Coast – Murray White

Destination Kiama – part one The Wilderness Coast – Murray White

There was a time when I thought the only worthwhile photographic destinations were found at the end of a dirt road. And not only that, I dearly wanted to believe that the value of any subsequent aesthetic dividend was directly proportional to the severity of a track’s corrugations or the number of tyre patches required. Alas, as is often the case with other burden/reward relationships, over time this link has proven at best, coincidental.

Now for thirty odd years I have thoroughly enjoyed pointing my vehicle (and camera) toward many of the roughest and least welcoming tracks across Australia’s outback and top end, and I have indeed been privileged to visit some very special locations. So it came as something of a surprise to my wife, Ana, when I suggested that we might visit the south coast of NSW. And yes, we would be mainly driving on bitumen roads, not unsealed and dusty stock-routes.

To say that Ana was overjoyed with this proposal has probably understated somewhat her actual response; for once her seatbelt will likely be a fashion accessory, not an indispensable restraint. So we set off with few plans but much enthusiasm apparently this was how normal people took a holiday!

Broadly speaking we would travel from our home west of Geelong, to Orbost, then follow the coastline until about Kiama, before swinging west and returning home. We had about four or five weeks up our sleeve, and decided that in the absence of a destination defining ‘Wally World’ we would let fate and inclination dictate where we would stop and what we may do.

This article is the first of four that details our travels and photographic encounters, and should not be seen as blueprint for others to follow, but rather as a collection of thoughts and experiences from only one perspective. We all have our own particular incentive to travel (or not) and will each assign a relative value to those aspects of a road trip that apply to us.

In terms of photographic equipment I used a 4×5 Ebony RSW view camera, or a roll film Mamiya 7, each with three basic lenses and loaded with Ilford FP4 plus, and always anchored to a tripod. I have a particular strategy with the choice of which camera to use that I will elaborate on later in the series, but fundamentally I will reach for the Ebony when the light is stable, the wind is low and I am walking solo. The Mamiya’s forte for me is during inclement weather, or when walking with others and needing to be more photographically nimble.

Ana and I travel in a 4WD ute with a slide-on camper. This is a fairly recent set up for us, and one that has placed some limitations on where we can now travel, but at the same time has permitted us to remain relatively self contained, and allows for a quick deployment after we have selected a camp for the night. On this trip we chose to camp mainly at national park sites, although there were also some commercial caravan parks and a few free or informal camps.

The reality of the latter option in the rather populous retiree/tourist belt that defines the south coast of NSW is limited. Where we would routinely find a quiet water crossing or similar setting to camp in the station country up north, the smaller land holdings of what is largely a coastal suburbia, required a more understanding, and indeed law abiding approach.

Fortunately the national park camps (at least along the coast) are quite appealing to a bush enthusiast, with usually excellent facilities and quite efficient layouts. In addition, and by definition, they are located directly within areas of high conservation value, together with the photographic possibilities that may flow on from that. Of course fishers and other park users also frequent these same locations, but we found that outside of the peak seasons they were an ideal base from which to enjoy the natural environment.

Our first night was spent at Banksia Bluff in the Cape Conran Coastal Park. It is a large camping area, just a short walk from the rocky headland that many photographers find quite irresistible. Unfortunately the mega-bushfire of 2019/20 decimated almost all of the forested hinterland both here and indeed throughout much of the coastal forests that were to come.

Nearby Croajingolong National Park was hit quite savagely, and it is hard to know when or even if it will ever totally recover. Wingan Inlet camp is currently closed for major repairs, and while the small camp at Mueller Inlet remains open, it is only really suitable for canoe based visitors. We encountered some restrictions from bridge and other infrastructure rebuilding works throughout the area, and unfortunately completion seems to be some time away. Similar reconstruction along the parks of NSW is also ongoing, although we never found our travels to be greatly impacted by the works.

Nonetheless, our two nights spent in Victoria were enjoyable and we settled into a routine that would be sustained for the trip’s duration, catering well for our shared and individual interests. Ana is not a photographic enthusiast, but she does enjoy bushwalking, observing native flora and fauna and general sight seeing ñ mostly at what could be considered for holiday makers as a civilised time of the day.

I, on the other hand, love getting up early in the hope of witnessing that quiet light that I think only predawn can bring. In practice this means that I get one or two (sometimes three.) hours to walk around with my Ebony as the world in the particular space I find myself wakes up to a new day. I find these contemplative wanders quite stimulating, and even if I return to camp with not a single image exposed, there remains a sense of having experienced landscape as a participant rather than an observer.

For the remainder of the day I am quite content to undertake those activities with Ana that she would prefer and in many cases this could be a bushwalk or stroll along the beach, where I carry the Mamiya (just in case!). The reality for me in this setting is that I typically find more traditionally scenic images than my morning amble may reveal, but I generally don’t feel compelled to commit them to film.

In recent years I have transitioned from a broader view of our environment to an intimate, more selective assessment of its character. This is not to devalue the grandeur of a big picture capture; I remain as humbled by that interpretation of our landscape as probably anybody else, but I am particularly drawn to those natural subjects and implied relationships that can slip through the cracks of a less restrictive outlook.

And so it was as we began our travels along the coast; Ana capturing reality in all of its unmitigated glory on her iPhone during the daylight hours, and me searching for something not yet lost, ironically hopeful that illumination in all senses of the word will occur somewhere here on the fringes of darkness. Our brief time spent in Victoria following what is affectionately known as the Wilderness Coast set the scene for the next month. As we steered our camper through Genoa and toward the NSW border, the winding arterial blacktop offered precious few turn-offs to the coast. This was soon to change.

PILLARS IN THE MIST The crumbling granite structures of Pebbly Beach near Mallacoota are great subjects at any time, but seem especially evocative under a subdued morning light. I set the Ebony up at a respectful distance from the ocean here, mounting a 270mm lens to ‘gather’ this succession of rock strata. I can’t remember the exposure details but at f32 I probably held the shutter open for 30 seconds or so. Typically my landscapes do not include sky for reasons of implied intimacy and to avoid areas of toneless distraction, although I feel that for most settings, toneless areas of water are visually more palatable than either featureless skies or blocked up shadows in the headland.
FOREIGN LESION I was initially disappointed with this subject’s capture at Pebbly Beach, muddied by the inherent limitations of B&W film. What I witnessed as a vibrant orange tinted kelp clinging to rocks cast in a bluish hue has collapsed into the necessary compression of tonal values. An orange filter would have helped lift the contrast between the kelp and rocks but I am not really comfortable with routine filter use; something about a slippery slope perhaps.. However over time I have become more accepting of the anonymous but intriguing presence of these tentacles, structurally disappearing without an apparent beginning or end into a jumble of disjointed rocks. Maybe that image we see levitated upside down and reversed on the ground glass can sometimes capture our attention for reasons that don’t fully coalesce until some time after the moment of exposure?
JAILHOUSE ROCK I believe that there is a lot of luck in photography and this image is an example of a subject I may have passed by had the lighting been softer or originated from higher in the sky. These almost cubic structured blocks at Cape Conran took on a clinically arranged appearance in the direct afternoon side light, suggesting perhaps of a colonial prison cell and even its implied bar-work, (not that I am particularly familiar with either colonial architecture nor the interior of prison cells for that matter).
AFTER THE WASH This image is a good example of where I find the roll-film Mamiya can outperform my view camera. There was action aplenty near this rock with surfers chasing modest waves and children paddling on the beach in front of Banksia Camp late in the afternoon. With the surf rolling in rhythmically, I just had time to plant my tripod and camera (preset for focus and exposure) in the quivering sand between sets. Low tide with the Ebony may have been another option, but I probably would have missed the smooth glisten of the saturated rock and sand, and perhaps lost the back-lighting glancing off this beautifully moulded subject.
CHANGING TACK Given the choice, I would probably request soft, directionless light for photography, partly because most subjects are easier to capture this way; less nasty, hard to manage areas of contrast and plenty of detail, right? But in more recent times I have become quite accepting of a harsher light, even welcoming of it. In my opinion the dominant shadows of this print from Cape Conran are not a visually complex distraction, but may introduce a conceptual element to the image ñ for example, can we quantify the dimensional qualities of the parent entities responsible? Perhaps we should look to the given lighting conditions not as an impediment, but as an opportunity to broaden our visual narrative?
SNAPPED There are many intriguing rock formations at Cape Conran, although perhaps at first glance it is their sheer multiplicity rather than nuance that catches our eye. I know that I was initially overwhelmed by the extent of Nature’s handiwork here, but on closer observation realised that it was the unique fingerprints of those individual entities that could reveal of the subject with more clarity. This particular extraction from the visual clutter would probably have been better captured on the view camera with its tilt capability, but at f32 on the Mamiya at its closest focusing distance of about one metre, I am not unhappy with the result.
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Murray White is a fine art photographer based in regional Victoria.

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Mark Darragh at 1:54 am

    Thank you for your great article, Murray. I’m very familiar with the Wilderness Coast, so it’s great to see your perspective and photographs. Like you, I felt for years that the more remote and wild, the better when it came to making unique photographs. I’ve also come to appreciate that a focus on details really helps to capture a unique personal perspective far more than the “grand landscape.” I look forward to the rest of your series.

    • Murray White at 8:05 am

      Thankyou Mark, I’m yet to go on foot as remote and wild as you, but I’m sure we both have experienced the same sentiment. While the travel experience is undoubtedly reward in itself, if we go looking there is probably photography of substance to be found before we leave the carpark! Although my interest in the more intimate landscape has developed in recent years, I still admire a broader view, it’s just not what I choose to photograph. All the best, Murray

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