Taranaki, in the southwest of the North Island of New Zealand, has been relatively isolated from the rest of the country, a knob that juts out into the Tasman Sea. In the centre of the knob, rises the majestic volcano of Taranaki Maunga. I think of the area as a more benign, version, both in terms of climate and soil fertility, of the South Island’s West Coast.

Taranaki Maunga

The high rainfall characteristic of both areas promotes lush natural forest, while its clearance has made way for a profitable dairying industry. A large, circular area around Taranaki Maunga stretching some ten kilometers from the peak in every direction, was preserved by the Forest Service in the last years of the nineteenth century. The abrupt transition to dairy pasture is visible from the air as an almost perfect circle.

Looking out across the forest below the mountain peak.

Although when I first visited Taranaki it was relatively unknown, the area now receives a smattering of tourists, most of whom zero in on the mountain itself. In spite of dire warnings from the Department of Conservation deterring would be hikers with insufficient experience and equipment from attempting the climb, it is extremely popular. Social media posts on successful climbs in perfect weather attract hoards of aspirant climbers. In addition to the summit routes, there are many walks through the forest along tracks that make their way tortuously across the deep indentations running down the flanks of the volcano.

Lower Wilkies Pool

In addition to agriculture, Taranaki hosts a number of specialist nurseries growing exotic plants for gardens throughout New Zealand. There are also some beautiful gardens, such as Pukeiti at the base of the mountain where many rare and interesting plants can be found. It is famous for its collection of rhododendrons, many of them grown old and seeding naturally into the lightly managed forest of natives and exotics. My visit was too late in the season to see many flowers. However, in sheltered areas near the main building, a collection of vireyas flowers all year round. Hydrangeas were still flowering too, providing another subject for my camera.

Vireya rhododendron

Tolkien Tree

I love trees and have attributed personality to this specimen in beech forest at Arthur’s Pass National Park. Playing with iPhone apps that produce a variety of creative effects allows me to experiment with camera movement. Many of the results are unexpected, but with practise, sometimes I manage to create the effects that I’m after.

Pining for the White Mountains

Of the places I visit when I am in California, the bristlecone pine groves high in the White Mountains call me back most often. Usually I spend several months during the New Zealand winter camping and hiking in the mountains and deserts of the western United States. Last year, Covid put paid to that. Probably this year, too.

These trees survive in a hostile environment, a high altitude desert, growing ever so slowly. They die slowly, too. Standing trees may be thousands of years old and fallen timbers thousands more.

Dead bristlecone in the Schulman Grove, White Mountains, CA

I made a photo book of these trees last year, a tribute to my heroes of the plant world, using images I have made over a number of years. I love the gnarled and twisted branches that reflect the hardships endured by trees growing at such high altitudes and subject to extremes of weather.

A few animals survive here too. The golden mantled ground squirrel can be found scavenging for cones in summer. In winter these small mammals hibernate to escape the cold. Clark’s nutcracker also feeds on seeds from these trees.

Young golden mantled ground squirrels
Clark’s nutcracker

As bristlecone trees age, their protective outer bark becomes eroded so that eventually the cambium layer beneath can no longer function to transport water and nutrients through the tree. Many very old trees have just a narrow strip of bark connecting their roots to the canopy above, a lifeline that ensures their survival for maybe many years more.

Eroded trunk of bristlecone pine tree
Snow is late to leave the bristlecones at this altitude of close to 12 000 feet (3500 metres)

Apart from the harsh climatic conditions endured by these trees, they grow on thin, limestone soils, which are very low in nutrients. These factors combine to make bristlecones in the White Mountains grow very slowly indeed so that they are the oldest trees in the world, some over 5000 years old.

Bristlecone pine tree in the Schulman Grove growing out of rock


Practicing the skills of photographing mammals

Nature photography is one of my passions, and my favourite photographic subjects are mammals. I say ‘mammals’ rather than ‘animals’ because I really do mean that, and don’t include birds, reptiles, insects, etc, which are all members of the animal kingdom. This may seem an odd preference for someone living in New Zealand where there are almost no native mammals. We have just two species of bats, and I have never even attempted to photograph these. They are not very common, nocturnal, and fast! We do have a number of introduced species that are established in the wild, but somehow they don’t interest me so much.

For me, then, opportunities to photograph mammals in the wild are restricted to trips overseas. I spend about 3 months each year camping and hiking in the western USA, and have visited other countries too. However, to improve my success rate in the wild, I practice on captive mammals, especially in wildlife parks and zoos that keep their mammals in natural-looking surroundings. Here in Christchurch, we have Orana Park, and the Willowbank Reserve. Both these places allow most of their larger animals, at least, to wander through outdoor areas that are visible to the public without the impediment of obtrusive fences and other man-made structures. So I try to make images of these captive mammals that look as natural as possible.