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Te Araroa through the lens

Mark Watson timed his day's walking around the golden hour - that time when the light is best suited for photography. Photo: Supplied

Mark Watson has completed an epic project: photographing the Te Araroa Trail. Alistair Hall finds out what it was all about

A far as jobs go, it’s got to be up there with the best. Walking the length of New Zealand, taking photos as you meander through coast, forest and mountain landscapes then publishing a book about it. Who wouldn’t want that gig?

Considering the gig involves being away from home for six months, walking 3000km while carrying 8kg of camera gear on top of your regular tramping kit, not to mention the difficulty of taking just one photo worthy of publication in a glossy coffee table book let alone more than 350, and for most the lustre of the world’s best job will have totally worn off shortly after starting.

Not for Mark Watson, who walked the Te Araroa Trail earlier this year with the express purpose of photographing the journey for his pictorial book Te Araroa.

While most Te Araroa walkers might plan to walk a certain distance each day, Watson’s entire journey was centred around shooting times and optimising the ‘golden hour’ – that hour after sunrise and before sunset where the light is softer and produces less contrast. That meant he woke before dawn every day and often pitched his tent on random summits and in the bush away from the regular campsites so he could be sure to photograph a scene at the right time. This meant 3am starts weren’t uncommon, nor was knocking off for the day after 9pm.

“There were days when it felt too much like work and some days I felt a weight had been lifted from my shoulders when I had taken a good shot,” he says. “I was always in constant awareness mode, thinking about how I could best convey what that section of trail was like.”

The effort has been worth it. Watson’s ability to capture unique angles, fresh perspectives and enticing scenes mark him as one of New Zealand’s best outdoor photographers. There’s little in the way of ‘artistry’ in his book, rather a keen photographer’s eye and an understanding of what makes a good shot and will appeal to viewers. The result is a large-format book that would inspire the most laid back couch potato to lace up a pair of boots and go tramping.

Watson, whose images have often graced the cover of Wilderness, decided early into his project that readers would experience Te Araroa as he did. He resisted the urge to use “crazy focal lengths and funny perspectives”.

“I wanted it to be quite honest and straight up imagery,” he says. He made the best of the conditions he experienced, rather than return another day to get the perfect shot.  “It had to be a visual narrative of what was happening while I was walking,” he explains. “I photographed the conditions I got so it was more about the subject and telling the story of the landscape and the trail, the things you see and interact with.”

Like many who walk long-distance trails, Watson found his six month tramp a transformative event. “It was a very affirming experience, both physically and mentally, to maintain that focus and the discipline around making a photography project for the entire length of the trail,” he says. “The fact my pack was quite a bit heavier than your average Te Araroa walker, made it hard work. I couldn’t just absolutely fang it and knock out 50km in a day. But having it harder was a good thing.”

Now his book is finished and the frantic photo selection over, Watson has had time to reflect on his 3000km tramp. He’s keen to go back and walk the trail again.

“I’d like to do it again like a normal person,” he says. “Without it being work. Without that daily pressure. To relax in the evenings and to do it with a really light pack.”

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