Photographer of South Island Rural landscapes and people

Bill Irwin


The Rainbow road

The Rainbow road is a 116 km of beautifully isolated road from Hanmer to St Arnaud. The route runs through passes in the Upper Wairau Valley and was a stock route between Canterbury and Marlborough. In the 1950's the road was built to service the electricity pylons following this direct path. Today the road is open for a few months over the summer, but as it runs through private land of Rainbow Station a toll is paid and permission forms need to be filled out (more info here).

Even though I've lived in the middle of the South Island for 50 plus years, for a small island I'm constantly surprised how much there is to see. I don't know how those international tourists do it in a week - mind you, you won't see any white campervans on this road. It's classed as high clearance 4WD only, but 90% is just your average shingle back country road. Bits of the last 10% though could possibly polish the undercarriage of your Suzuki Swift. There are a few fairly rocky paths across shingle fans and a bit of water to get through, but most crossings were bridged.

When I started early from Hanmer, I was a bit worried about the weather - low misty fog all the way up Jacks Pass was atmospheric, but not ideal.

Misty morning, Jacks Pass

Fairly soon I found the fork in the road; straight ahead for Molesworth or take a left to the Rainbow road.

Molesworth and Rainbow roads go seperate ways

By the time I came to the first of many gates, the mist was lifting and letting hints of sun brighten the landscape.

Please shut the gate

A little further on the day was looking good, and I went by the turn off to the St James Conservation Area.  Crossing over the Clarence river I found some nice compositions where cloud and river seemed to be reflecting each other.

Rainbow road, Hanmer to St Arnaud

This road through dry, brown tussocky wilderness was reminding me a lot of the Mackenzie Country (or should I say the 'old' Mackenzie, the one without green circles...). Just a short diversion off the road I found Lake Tennyson, it was beautifully clear and calm.  Hordes of tourists had invaded it for Waitangi weekend though (well I think I saw 3 tents scattered around the lake edge). 

Lake Tennyson, Rainbow road 0043Lake Tennyson, Rainbow road, Hanmer to St Arnaud

From here the road narrowed and climbed up through some fairly open country. Island Saddle (1347m) is the high point of the road.

Middle of the

Cattle were wandering all along the road, certainly no evidence of overstocking though! 

Cattle enjoy some space

There wasn't exactly a lot of traffic on the road, but by no means was it quiet.  There were almost more motorbikes than cars, and a couple of people on pushbikes - I didn't envy them at all.  Respect, though.

Bikers crossing bridges

By now the sun was baking, heat shimmering, dust flying.  Thank goodness for air con.  This was really feeling like the Mackenzie space I like.  

Heat, tussock, space: crispy wilderness

Canterbury now was in the rear view mirror, Marlborough ahead.  The flat open space looked to be narrowing ahead.

The Wairau river, now in Marlborough

Following along the Wairau river the road became a notch more claustrophobic as I drove through the gorge.  The road was pretty rough in places, it crossed several scree slopes and some looked like it had been a while since a grader had been through to tidy up washouts.  

The Wairau narrows down through the gorge

Fairly quickly the open brown space became the closed in green space of beech forest. By now I was near the St Arnaud end of the road, and came to the toll gate - $25 per vehicle, fair enough. 

Beech forest at the northern end of the Rainbow road

After a few more km through beech forest the road turned from shingle to paved at the Rainbow Skifield turnoff, leaving an easy drive back to the main road at St Arnaud.  The DoC blurb says to allow 3 hours, I took more like 5 but of course that included dozens of photo stops and investigation of side tracks.  I find it quite exciting to find a new remote part of the South Island to photograph, I feel like this was just an initial exploration though and I'll need to go up and down this road a few more times before it feels familiar.

Nice rock soaking in the sun

Mt Hutt fireworks: planning an image

When I heard about Mt Hutt skifield's  planned fireworks display to mark their 40th year I immediately visualised an image of the familiar mountain outline exploding with fireworks.  I ended up with an image I like, and a few others did as once I posted it on my facebook site it had 7500 views in 2 days and several hundred shares.  

Many of the comments asked about the capture so I thought I'd write a quick back story to how it was constructed.  

Location was key.  I knew most people would head right up to the mountain, where the fireworks would be but I wanted the show in context of the whole mountain.  I have a favourite spot near the Pudding Hill / SH72 intersection that gives a good view right in to the basin so decided to go there.  

At 6.30 pm, when it was due to kick off, the whole mountain was invisible in cloud.  I set my gear up and waited, luckily the cloud started to lift 20 minutes later when the show kicked off.  I'm not sure if they were waiting for cloud to lift or just doing the '6.30 for 7.00' thing.

Exposure was the next issue.  I wanted to capture enough detail so the mountain was recognisable, but had to balance this with the insane brightness of exploding fireworks. I was using my beloved Hasselblad H4D-40 to get the most detail possible, but it's best kept to ISO 100 which meant exposures of around 2 minutes to get enough detail from the available light.  You can sense the movement in the clouds during the exposure. 

I had the camera set up on a rock solid tripod (a Really Right Stuff carbon fibre one ) so the framing was exactly the same between shots.  This meant I could combine different frames if needed. Once one shot finished, I took another, ending up with about 20 images to work from.

In one shot, just after I started the long exposure, a ute came cruising down the deserted road.  I watched as it sailed past and lit up the trees and buildings at the far end of the road.  Nice!  Now I had some good detail for the foreground.  The fireworks in that shot were just average, so I picked a frame that had a brilliant display that lit up the whole basin and merged it.  There were also cars driving down the access road, the long exposure with dust flying added more nice definition to the hill.

Now I had an image I liked.  Not just a 'lucky snapshot' as some think, but one I'd pre visualised and planned, with a touch of opportunism that happens such as the ute driving through. I shared it on Facebook and it ended up being spread all over the place. I'm not sure if it has a commercial home yet, but it goes in to my library of images for future, as yet unknown, uses.

It's nice that so many people enjoyed it.  It's also interesting that, as a working photographer, there is a paradox that my most visible work is the least profitable.  I'm glad I have good clients who realise the value excellent images add to their business.  Most people see the images but have no idea where they came from, yet they provide most of my income. It allows me the time needed to build the skills I need to create my own most personally satisfying work.  

Now, if I can just convert all the Facebook likes to an income stream I'll really be living!