Altitude South

Posted by TIMOTHY WRATE on

The engine splutters to life and vibrations are sent through the aircraft’s chassis. Our pilot, Steve Joyce, increases the revs of the propeller and the aircraft jerks into motion runway on the runway of Kolendo Station. The aircraft bounces down the bumpy rural runway and the vibrations give way to a sense of weightlessness and we’re soon gaining altitude as the ancient, weathered, Gawler Ranges below us grow smaller and Lake Gairdner – out next target location for photography – comes into view.

Lake Gairdner, South Australia

We’re 2 hours into an epic three-day photography expedition and my face hurts from grinning with excitement from the past two hours of photography and the anticipation of what is to come. I’m exactly where I want to be - exploring remote parts of South Australia in a light aircraft with good friends David Dahlenburg and Paul Hoelen.

Altitude South, the collective name for our collaboration, was the brainchild of David Dahlenburg. David has multi-generational familial ties to South Australia and his deep respect for the landscape and passion for capturing it from the aerial perspective is infectious. David reached out to Paul and myself in late 2020 with the intention of arranging a project of capturing the vast and varied South Australian landscape from the unique aerial perspective. Opportunities like this don’t come around often and both Paul and I jumped that the chance.

Lake Harry, South Australia

Despite several false starts and cancellations due to COVID-19 and rare severe weather events, the project finally came together in April 2022. David had spent countless hours pouring over maps to come up with an ambitious plan to fly from Port Pirie to Birdsville and back via Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre and the vast expanses of the Channel Country among many other photography locations.

I have been photographing Australia’s landscapes for over 15 years. For most of that time I have travelled and photographed much of the country on terra-firma, capturing its cities, outback, rainforests, beaches and amazing landscapes that makes Australia so diverse and magnificent.

Whyalla Salt Manufacturing, South Australia

Some of my earliest memories are of flying in my Grandfather’s Cessna 175 Skylark, a four-seater light aircraft, that he flew from his farm in Queensland’s Western Downs Region. The buzz of the propeller, the vibration of the chassis and the bumpy rural runway were all part of the thrill. However, it was the distinctive viewpoint of the geometric patterns of the fields of grain and ant-like dots of livestock scattered across the paddocks that stayed with me.

I felt a sense of nostalgia when I first stepped into the cockpit of Steve’s Cessna 182 as we embarked on our aerial mission across South Australia. As the single engine aircraft’s propeller coughed and spluttered to life, adrenaline surged through my veins and my early childhood memories came rushing back. I was right there - back in the cockpit of my grandfather’s plane.

Channel Country, South Australia

For me, the sense of freedom of being in the air scanning the landscape for shapes, textures and forms is all-consuming. I feel that aerial photography provides me with a unique perspective to explore my passion for photography, as what may seem ordinary from the ground can be extraordinary from above. This is what excites me about aerial photography and the opportunity to fly with Steve, Paul and David - it provides me a new way to collaborate with photographers I admire and to see the landscape I have obsessively been photographing for over a decade from a new perspective.

Photographing from the air can be tricky, and not only is rewarding but hugely enjoyable. Working out of an open window means dealing with some serious wind buffeting, wash from the propeller, high frequency vibrations from the engines and sometimes severe aircraft movements from turbulence.

Lake Giles, South Australia

As we move through the air, I find myself multi-tasking; from grappling with my equipment, dialling in the best technical settings on my camera, working to shoot powerfully composed images and keeping up with the rapidly changing perspective, all while communicating with Steve to orchestrate the best flight path and to slow the aircraft down to below 80 knots to allow us to open the window and photograph unobstructed.

I had never photographed from a plane with two other photographers – this proved to be both a challenge and immensely rewarding. Steve’s Cessna 182 is a four-seater plane with a cabin just over a meter wide. Three photographers shooting one window approximately the size of a computer monitor in a small cabin was the biggest challenge – but after three days it was like a well-choreographed dance with each of us cycling through the window in contorted shapes and yoga-like poses one after another. While there were challenges, these pale into insignificance to sharing the experience, knowledge, bad humour, and friendship.

Lake Gairdner, South Australia

As we approached Lake Gairdner the cabin fell silent as the most remarkable landscape unveiled itself below us. The silence was then abruptly interrupted by hooting and hollering from David, Paul and myself as the glistening, white, salt, surface have way to magentas, pinks and mauves. These rich colours were punctuated by an array of interesting features from the red foothills of the Gawler ranges to sand dunes, springs and the sensual curves of wind-carved salt mounds.

As photographers, our ability to abstract the landscape is emphasised in aerial photography. In landscape photography, a horizontal line usually indicates the horizon, suggesting time and place by anchoring an image and creating depth. By angling the camera down, abstracting or often excluding the reference point of the horizon, allows me to focus on texture, pattern, shape, balance, contrast, and colour.

L to R: David Dahlenburg, Steve Joyce (Pilot), Paul Hoelen, Tim Wrate (photograph by Paul Hoelen)

Aerial photographs can translate spatial mapping into a game, beachy shore, or a protruding landmass can exist independently and abstracted from the contexts that typically define its features. As we flew over Lake Gairdner, David Paul and myself focused on capturing these artistic qualities, creating enticing and provocative imagery – and we were only a matter of hours into our 3 day journey!

Over the coming 3 days, David, Paul, and myself would spend a total of 19.8 hours flying over the remote north of South Australia and capture subjects and diverse as salt lakes, costal intertidal flats, sand dunes, mining sites, tailing pond lagoons, creeks and mountain ranges. Collectively we captured ~20,000 images and hours of video footage.

Leigh Creek, South Australia

Unfortunately, our trip was cut short by a day from our planned 4 days to a condensed 3 as we raced storm cells south from Birdsville across the outback – but that’s landscape photography and something must be left on the table for next time.

A special thanks must be reserved for Steve. Steve’s passion for all things aviation and exploration was inspiring. Steve’s passion combined with our passion for photography created a certain magic I haven’t experienced before. Steve’s attitude and nothing is a hassle attitude helped create memories that will stay with us forever and the chemistry is a significant ingredient in the images that we created as a collective.

L to R: Paul Hoelen, David Dahlenburg, Tim Wrate (photograph by Paul Hoelen)

It may seem whimsical, but if you look a little harder, you often see trees in the sand or rivers in the ocean. This allowed us to focus on subjects, some literal, some metaphorical, some that provide context on the nature of the landscape and the human impact on it. These images are interpretations of our responses to the land that unfolded below us.

In coming together for this collaboration, it was our intention to create images that inspire and intrigue. As much as possible, we strived to be inspired by what was below us: often a sense of wonderment of a world so magnificent, diverse, and complex. These photographs are abstract, but they are also real pictures of the South Australian landscape and explore not only the organic interplay between land, water, wind, and rain, but also the devastation and beauty of the human environment.

Neale's Delta, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, South Australia

 In photographing for Altitude South, we aimed to look past the obvious. The challenge was to see beyond the distraction of the conspicuous to capture unique reflections of our journey. Some of our subjects are quite beautiful, others less so. Our goal is to inspire those who see our work to look more carefully at the world around them, to discover beauty in unusual places and to see South Australia like they’ve never seen before.


Our Pilot, Steve Joyce & Port Pirie Flying Group's C182 (photograph by Paul Hoelen)


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