Documenting the Te Araroa trail: Mark Watson's new book

Mark Watson tramped the length of New Zealand, following the 3000km Te Araroa trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff, and photographed the landscapes and locations he found himself at as he walked. He has created a book showcasing the shots he captured during his trip, called Te Araroa: Walking New Zealand's 3000-kilometre Trail. D-Photo caught up with Watson to learn all about his journey and the creation of his book.

D-Photo: Can you explain what inspired you to set out on your journey of walking the 3000km Te Araroa trail?

Mark Watson: Curiosity mostly, and the recognition that it was a unique opportunity to create a set of New Zealand landscape images with a common theme. I've been a tramper most of my life and had heard much about the trail's inception and gradual increase in popularity. The trail is now widely recognized, with hundreds of people ‘through tramping’ or ‘section tramping’ it each year. I was looking for a new photographic project and Te Araroa ticked the right boxes, requiring an immersive and active approach to shooting it, and also being so incredibly diverse; the trail takes in a huge variety of terrain and in doing so becomes an essential New Zealand experience. Even though most of Te Araroa's route is not through the ‘top ten’ tramping destinations, it delivers a very genuine sample of what our country is about, and something of interest can be gleaned from all parts of the trail, especially for the open-minded. For people who have not seen much of New Zealand, or want to understand their country better, Te Araroa is a very good way to go about it!

Mark Watson

How often would you stop and take photographs of your surroundings?

My routine was typically to wake well before sunrise, then shoot the location I was at before breaking camp, or walk to a location in the dark and then shoot sunrise. If locations captured my interest during the day I'd stop to photograph then too, but generally I'd focus on being in a good location for nice light at the end of the day — sometimes shooting for an hour or two around sunset and then walking further in the dark to a hut or campsite. I was usually on my feet eight to 12 hours a day, so during the winter I didn't usually have enough daylight to get between night stops. Overcast conditions are great for bush and river photography, so if this was the case I'd shoot more during the day — sometimes stopping and setting up my tripod and equipment every few hundred metres if it was a good location and the subjects were there. 

Mark Watson

Were there any places in particular that you stopped and spent a lot of time absorbing? 

There were some locations that I picked in advance as requiring extra time to shoot well, for example Cape Reinga to Ahipara I allowed an extra day; Tongariro National Park and the Tararua Range I also broke into smaller sections to give me more shooting time. There are definitely trail highlights that I wanted to see represented well in the book.  

Mark Watson

What photography gear did you take with you to ensure you captured all the shots you wanted?

I decided early on I didn't want to compromise over equipment and either not have the gear to get the images I sought, or end up with images that didn't render the best detail and quality possible (within reason!), so I carried nearly 8kg of kit, comprising: Canon EOS 5D MkII, 16–35mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.2, 70–200mm f/4, and a 24mm tilt-shift lens. The tilt-shift is a very sharp lens, and is excellent for both forest and architecture photography. The trail passes through more than 60 cities and towns, so I knew there would be opportunities to capture some classic Kiwi buildings and streets. I also carried ND and ND gradient filters, a polarizer, spare batteries (up to five), and a small cleaning kit, along with a carbon-fibre tripod with a lightweight ball head.  

Mark Watson

Did you have an idea in mind, or a shot list, of what you wanted to capture, or did you just go with the flow?

In some places I went with the flow, but I was generally mindful of being in the best locations possible to express a place or area during the best light of the day. Sometimes this meant a short day, but more often or not it meant long days and sometimes having to walk really fast for a few hours to get somewhere in time to scope and then shoot. There were several mornings where I rose at 4am and walked for a couple of hours in the dark to get to a summit or ridge line and then photograph. 

Mark Watson

How long did the entire journey take you all up?

171 days. 17 of those were rest days, except there wasn't usually much resting going on as I was occupied with logistics, downloading, keywording and backing up images, and other admin.

What was the creation of the book process like? What was involved and how long did it take?

From when I finished the trail to when I had to hand the final chapter's content over to publisher New Holland was only five weeks. So it was a very busy and focused time. I came home with about 18,000 exposures that had to be viewed and picked from to compile a rough cut of about 60 photos per book chapter. These would be given basic processing, and I'd then refine the selection in tandem with the New Holland team until we had a chapter's worth of images that were not only the best images, but that also best conveyed that section of trail or region. Images were then given final processing and captioning for placement in the book, along with the writing for the book and chapter introductions, and a Trail Notes chapter. To go from the routine of the trail and walking all day, every day, to long hours in the office, seven days a week was a shock to the system — to say the least!

Mark Watson

To what types of photographers would you suggest they undertake the Te Araroa journey? Is this something everyone should do in their lifetime?

The Te Araroa trail presents a multitude of opportunities for photography; it's just so diverse that there really is something for everyone. It was definitely a big challenge to get the daily walking quota in as well as photograph in such a way as to do these places justice — even the more ‘ordinary’ aspects of the New Zealand landscape. As for walking the trail, I think there is no better way to ‘join the dots’ that define New Zealand, I certainly learned more about my country than I expected and witnessed a wider context of what New Zealand is about, both as a society and geographically.

Where can people purchase your book?

Te Araroa: Walking New Zealand's 3000-kilometre Trail is available from good bookstores nationwide, as well as at my website highlux.co.nz.