Cold coast, pointy mountains, polar bear
Spitsbergen, main island of the Svalbard archipelago. ©Robyn Mundy
Procrastinating about writing, I was seized yesterday with the urge to back up my computer, RIGHT NOW, THIS VERY MINUTE. In the process of tidying-up I lingered over images, including these, photographed last season on a flight from Tromsø in northern Norway, to Spitsbergen, the main island of the Svalbard Archipelago.
Looking across to Hornsund on the south-west coast of Spitsbergen. ©Robyn Mundy
I’ve been flying to Spitsbergen since Polar Pioneer, the small ice-strengthened ship I work on, set off on its maiden voyage in the year 2000. It’s a rare reward to look down upon this wild place and gaze across its breadth. And you know it must be good when the pilot manoeuvres the plane so that both sides can gain a clear view.
This icy part of the world earns its title: Svalbard translates to cold coast, Spitsbergen, to pointy mountains. Svalbard is also territory to a large population of polar bear. To encounter this mighty animal roaming across its foraging ground is a heart-pattering thrill of any voyage.
A female polar bear foraging on pack ice in north-east Spitsbergen. ©Robyn Mundy
In our final weeks at Maatsuyker Island, my partner Gary and I had the joy of sharing the island with the Friends of Maatsuyker Island (FOMI), a fun-filled volunteer group who visit the island each year for an intensive working bee. Amongst the hard workers was photographer James Stone. On the second morning of FOMI’s stay, I made my way down to the lighthouse at first light to carry out a routine daily check. Rounding the corner I did a double take at the sight of a camera and tripod standing untethered on the path, where it had stood overnight. With the relentless winds at Maatsuyker, snagging a time when you might find your camera and tripod in the same place as you left it is a noteworthy event in itself. But when I saw the results of James’ photography, the aurora shown above, and a second image below, I was the one blown away. I invited James to share the story behind his stellar images.
As a night sky photographer and self-confessed aurora-addict I couldn’t believe my luck when an aurora was predicted for my first couple of nights on Maatsuyker Island, Australia’s southernmost lighthouse and maybe the best location from which to view the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights outside of spending a winter in the Antarctic. This was in conjunction with clear skies and no wind – conditions exceedingly rare on this exposed lump of rock in the Southern Ocean, renowned for being amongst the wettest and windiest places in Australia. Despite a very early start to get to Maatsuyker I knew I had to stay up and make the most of this incredible opportunity.
The lighthouse stood as a stoic sentinel as the lights danced high in the sky behind, the peace of night broken only by the cries and bellows of the seals on the rocks far below, and the occasional muttonbird swooping by. Being my first night on the island, and with restoration work going on in the lighthouse, I wasn’t sure if I should venture inside, but chanced sticking my head through the door to shine my headtorch up the stairwell, illuminating the windows and lantern room for effect. I would loved to have posed for a silhouette shot on the upper gantry but didn’t think I had better risk it without permission. Next time…
I watched the display long into the wee hours of the morning, in awe of not only the stunning night sky, but my spectacular good fortune to be able to be there, in that location, under those conditions, a unique and truly memorable experience.
Eventually tiredness overtook me and, placing my tripod in a sheltered spot out of the wind and flightpaths of birds, I left my camera clicking away shooting a time lapse until its battery ran out. Meanwhile I staggered back up the hill to bed.
For keen night-sky photographers, James shares his camera settings, and a second aurora image below: Camera: Nikon D750, Lens: Nikkor 16–35mm f/4, Exposure: 20seconds @ f/4.0, ISO: 5000. Be sure to check out James’ brilliant time lapse sequence on Vimeo.
Wave: Land’s End Study II. Cape Denison, Antarctica. ©Alasdair McGregor. Gouache on paper, 52 x 38cm.
Imagine being commissioned to paint en plein air at the world’s windiest location recorded at sea level.
Meet my friend and shipboard colleague Alasdair McGregor. If Alasdair wasn’t such a nice guy, he could be really irritating. That’s because he can rightfully lay claim to not one but several creative talents.
Alasdair began his working life as a professionally trained architect but has devoted years to writing and painting, esteemed in both regards. Alasdair has written numerous books: you name it: natural history, architecture and design, biography, great explorers. With my own Antarctic background, one of my faves is his brilliant biography Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life.
As a writer and visual artist, Alasdair has spent significant creative time in Antarctica. In the 1980s he took part in a mountaineering expedition to sub-Antarctic Heard Island. In the late 1990s he was artist and photographer for two expeditions to Mawson’s Huts at Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, recorded as the windiest place on earth at sea level. Alasdair’s painting, Wave: Land’s End Study II, comes from his Commonwealth Bay experience. Here is what he has to say about it.
Spending seven weeks in early 1998 camped on the ice at Cape Denison was an immense physical and artistic challenge for me. For a plein air artist, it was not just the cold, but the ferocious winds for which this stretch of Antarctic coast is justly infamous that had me apprehensive from the start. But I need not have worried. There were fine and calm moments every few days and I made the most of them. I was particularly fascinated by the spectacular ice cliffs that stretched away to the horizon to the east and west of the tiny cape. The cliffs were the physical, and in many ways, the psychological limits of our existence. So near and yet untouchable, I would venture to what Mawson’s expedition dubbed Land’s End and John O’Groats to paint the cliffs in all lights and at all times of day. To me they the essence of frozen motion and this is what I sought to capture in my work.
Learn more about Alasdair and his wonderful creations at www.alasdairmcgregor.com.au
Soviet Chic 1981
Honestly, who needs a smart phone? There are many things I love about MV Polar Pioneer, the Russian ice-strengthened ship I work on seasonally in the polar regions. While this stout little vessel has undergone plenty of remodelling to bring it into line with 2016 adventure travel, it still retains relics of its 1980s charm from its cold war days as a hydrographic research and “listening” ship. This vintage phone, used for daily communications throughout the ship, sits on Chief Engineer’s desk and is still going strong. Nazdarovya!
When I saw Anna Swain’s striking images from her book BURMA, I knew I had met a photographic artist with an extraordinary sensibility. I invited Anna to contribute one of her favourite photographs for Image of the Week. I can see why she chose this one. Anna writes:
Early in the morning at a local village market on the shores of Inle Lake, central Burma, I came across this tiny little person. She was sitting amongst the spices in her mother’s stall, eating a giant bowl of rice. Our eyes met through the lens and this moment was captured. She was undistracted by my presence and continued eating contently. Her beautiful face was painted with Thanaka, the traditional make-up used for sun protection. Life of a market child.
Anna developed a love of photography from an early age. Two years ago, after a life changing trip to Burma (Myanmar), she published BURMA — Tiffins, Nuns and Turmeric,
a photographic journey through a mystical land, capturing the culture and its people. A premium quality hardback production, with almost 300 photographs to feast on. Available online at www.shutterbooks.com.au
Storm front off Maatsuyker Island. ©Robyn Mundy
On a day of screaming winds and rain squalls right across this island state of Tasmania, I am reminded of this rain-bearing front approaching Maatsuyker Island. Within minutes Maatsuyker was deluged. During the writing of Wildlight I frequently drew upon my island photographs; this one helped build a scene for a destructive storm that would leave its mark on a fleet of fishing boats as well as those on the island.
The phone app I most love messing around with is my Hipstamatic camera. Lenses, films, flash bulbs: there’s no end to playtime fun and funky effects. Here’s a selection from a driving trip across Australia.
Leaving Western Australia
Corny Point Lighthouse, South Australia
Wheat fields, South Australia
Harvest time, South Australia
Koala devastation, Cape Otway
Cape Nelson Lighthouse, Victoria
Street art, Melbourne
Street art, Melbourne. (*I hope this beautiful young woman in sunglasses, who allowed me to take her photo, does not mind being included)
Above the clouds, Sydney