High Plain Driftin'


ABOVE: Falls Creek Dam is for me the embodiment of Graham Sydney’s vision of the Maniatoto. Tiny, lonely shelters and relics of the pioneers’ existence in this sparse vastness, dwarfed by distant walls of weathered rock. It pays to plan shots like this. We arrived as the sun was setting so in my rush I used too high an ISO, resulting in very noisy images which required a lot of editing.

A week ago we were in the high alpine plain of the Maniatoto. A sparsely populated region, inhabited by sheep and hardy farmers, where winters are biting cold and the summer sun burns. This is a landscape of extremes, an ancient lake bed, lifted and folded, dotted with bizarre rock formations, walled in by mountain ranges with strange names like Old Woman and Hawkdun. Quaint outposts remain here as museum exhibits, romantic testaments to the gold rush that brought fortune seekers flocking across these wild plains a hundred and fifty years ago to scour the rivers and hills of Central Otago.

This was the yearly field trip for the Queenstown Photography Club. We were all looking forward to exploring the towns that thrived so briefly and live now as relics of wilder time. Inspired by the art of Graham Sydney, who brought this region into the public imagination with his paintings, I was keen to capture the vastness – the lonely shacks set against the backdrop of the snowy Hawkdun Mountains. My images were already in mind, but as so often happens, the weather and light didn’t play ball.

ABOVE: On this trip I aimed to capture a landscape with the elements that inspire me in Graham Sydney’s paintings of the Maniatoto. For me a lonely building or relic in a wide expanse of rolling plain, almost monochromatic – juxtaposed against a line of mountains glowing with the last rays of dusk, is emblematic. This day there were clouds above the mountains – messy and ragged – not fitting my concept. My choice was to drastically edit the sky or go back another day. I couldn’t wait that long.

Harsh and barren in parts, but home to sheep in thousands, there is a history of wresting wealth from this land. The Otago Rail Trail is a multi day bike ride following the old rail line from Dunedin to Clyde. It passes through of the tiny villages, quaint relics now, but but once loud, bustling centres of industry. We stopped at Oturehua in the Ida Valley, a cluster of buildings stuck in a time warp, and visited Hayes Engineering Works, a complete factory turned museum, where clever pioneers once manufactured fence straining equipment. Full of old lathes, drills and forges, powered by electricity made from flowing water, this place captures the ingenuity and pioneering spirit of settlers who forged new lives in this remote region.

Within an hour’s travel of Queenstown there is such a wealth of subjects for the photographer, from the spectacular to the magical. Glenorchy, Arrowtown, Wanaka, Kingston, Cardrona, are all unique and interesting, but head further afield and you have the vertiginous wilderness of Fiordland and the rolling pastures of Southland. The Caitlin’s is a windswept and wild coastline full of wet rainforests and waterfalls. Two hours east of Queenstown you head through the gateway towns of Clyde and Alexandra into Central Otago and the Maniatoto.

ABOVE: The Maniototo has a reputation for its sparseness, baking hot in summer and frost covered in winter. A wet fog bound morning wasn’t what I expected. The landscape was misty, blue and green and because it is the height of spring, lambs were everywhere, testing out their new legs. This one mistook me for me for mum and came bounding joyfully over – then realised I looked nothing like her.

Our photo tours don’t usually go this far afield, but if you are interested in exploring let us know. We love to venture further out and show you the landscapes, the people and the history.

Martin Kohn
Martin Kohn