A bike tour from Dunedin to TeAnau with Dawn Kish and Gavin Wilson (pictured), New Zealand.
This issue’s column continues my discussion about adventure photography in New Zealand. My latest adventure Down Under was a bike trip across the South Island from the east coast to the town of Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland National Park on the west coast. This short, nine-day trip was a photographer’s dream and, at times, an equipment and logistics nightmare. Like any good adventure, I wanted to see as much beautiful country and visual treats as possible from a bike, but I still wanted several hours a day devoted to photography. To make this sort of photo bike trip a reality took hours of planning to find the perfect travel route. When my plans for the trip were complete, I had traced a route that would take me 500 kilometers across the island. Some of this distance, about 50 kilometers a day, was pedal-powered, but I included travel by train, bus and steamship. Due to space and weight constraints, my camera gear was as minimal as possible. For this trip, I traveled with one camera and a single lens, and with this kit I still managed to shoot many successful images.
I went to the usual sources when laying plans for this bike trip, such as guidebooks, the Internet and maps. But I had the added advantage of having already lived in New Zealand for a couple of months. I used this knowledge to help devise the best route through Central Otago. The greatest benefit in choosing my route was the chance to have conversations with local cyclists familiar with riding around the South Island. They thought this trip sounded pretty fun, and that was the stamp of approval I was looking for.
On some adventures, the objective is as simple as bagging a peak or making your way to the end of a river. My bike ride across New Zealand could have been that simple, but my objective wasn’t only to go from the east coast of the island to the west, a route that can be ridden in a matter of a few days. I was looking for a bike route that would include many aspects of Kiwi landscape, nature, history and remoteness and, most importantly, the potential for some good photography.
The final trip ended up shaping up like this. Starting in the city of Dunedin on the east coast, we traveled with our bikes 75 kilometers aboard the old Taieri Gorge train to Pukerangi. From there, we rode our bikes to Middlemarch and connected onto the 150-kilometer Otago Rail Trail through Central Otago on to Clyde. We then took a bus 70 kilometers to Queenstown where we purchased a one-way ticket on the steamship TSS Earnslaw for passage across Lake Wakatipu. The ship would drop us at the remote Walter Peak Station boat dock and we’d bike 90 kilometers past the Eyre Mountains to Mavora Lakes. From the lakes it was 70 kilometers to Te Anau and the end of our bike tour, where we’d hike the Keppler track in Fiordland National Park.
Joining this trip were Gavin Wilson and Dawn Kish. I really was excited to have them flying all the way from the U.S. to join me for this adventure. Gavin is a photographer and artist, and was co-publisher and co-creator of Blur magazine. For six years he did photo/illustrative images for a monthly comic book called Sandman Mystery Theatre published by DC Comics/Vertigo. He has created artwork for snowboard graphics and album cover art, among other projects. His art and photography have been displayed in various New York galleries and locations for the last 10 years.
Dawn, who has been reported about previously in this column, is the former editor of the indie magazine Wig and has been a working photographer for the past 12 years. She’s a frequent contributor to National Geographic Adventure magazine.
None of us had ever biked through this country, and for Dawn and Gavin this was their first bike tour ever. We’d have no support vehicle, and because some of the rides around the remote Mavora Lakes required us to have a tent, we decided we’d camp the entire time during the ride. Each of us needed to pack rear panniers with summer/winter clothing, as well as camp supplies. This left little room for photography gear. My photo equipment for the nine-day trip included a Nikon D700 camera with a Nikon 24-120mm VR lens, plus four 8-gig and four 4-gig Lexar CF cards, a camera brush, chamois cloth, five fully charged camera batteries, a split-neutral-density filter and a Sealine waterproof bag to carry the camera with a lens and five large Ziploc® bags to carry the other camera gear. I carried the camera in an Osprey hydration pack to keep the camera in a place easy to reach and less exposed to the vibrations and knocks of riding in a bike-handlebar bag.
During the trip, we encountered every type of weather except snow. I rode with the camera out as much as possible, but when the wind started blowing dust on the trail, the camera would go into the water- and dustproof bag. On the ride from Walter Peak to Mavora Lakes, we had some of the worst weather we encountered on the trip. At times, wind-driven rain would blow horizontally across the road. Despite this I was able to make some of my best images of the entire trip. I learned again how important it is to constantly maintain your camera in the field and not wait for the end of the day. I tried to anticipate a potential photo so that I could keep my camera in the waterproof bag and not risk it getting drenched for no reason. Each time I took the camera out to get a shot it would get wet, so by the third time out of the bag it would be soaked. Despite this I kept the camera operational with a chamois and took time to dry it when possible.
Here’s a trick to drying a camera on a rainy day. You still can dry it by using the evaporative effects of air movement over the camera body. On a bike I could generate air movement anytime I wanted by pedaling. During our worst rain day, when rain was a constant from morning until evening, my camera maintenance went like this: If the rain stopped for even a minute, I had my camera out of the dry bag, around my neck and drying in the air movement created on my moving bike. This did the trick. In the critical moment in the middle of the day, during the worst of the rainstorm, my camera and lens that had been soaked from fog just 20 minutes earlier were dry and now ready to capture a photo of Gavin. In the image, he’s waiting in a patch of sunlight for us to catch up just as another wave of ominous rain clouds rushes up the pass. This is one of my favorite photos from our trip.
On my blog (billhatcher.typepad.com) you can read my April 3, 2009, entry that discusses the sequence of making this image. To view additional photos from the bike tour, go to the blog’s “Bike Across New Zealand” photo album.
Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. A regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside, his images have appeared on the cover of 40 magazines. Visit his website at www.billhatcher.com.