A question I’d had at the back of my mind for many years was whether it might be possible to flash one of the Midland Line viaducts. While there was always the lingering fear that after a great deal of effort such a shot might not turn out to be technically feasible, after much studying of online satellite pictures and of my own, I figured Broken River might be worth a crack.
By far the most ambitious night shot I’ve attempted, somehow the stars and planets aligned to make things alright on the night.
The first challenge was to scare away the rain for a day during the week I spent in NZ in October. And ideally I’d find a pair of cleanish KiwiRail locos on the chosen day. The Victoria University weather website predicted Sunday the 7th to be ideal, and spies told me that Hokitika bound 827 would have its fairly regular KiwiRail branded combo that day. 827 was chosen for its timing and also because it would flash better than a black coal train. At 6am I set sail for the mountains to get some shots of the passenger train before attempting Broken River.
The next hurdle for the night shot was bringing a few suitcases worth of flashes, lightstands, battery packs and other gear into this remote location. After receiving an official go-ahead for hi-rail and train access, a chance encounter with the track inspector on the Friday revealed that it was possible to drive right up to the viaduct with the help of KiwiRail and local farmers. This option was quickly selected for its flexibility but was only realised in the final hours of that Sunday because a vital keyholder was on holiday and the farm track was different to the one expected and involved some mild river fording. It was lucky I wasn’t in my untrusty Mini which would probably have drowned.
The biggest challenge was always going to be whether it would be possible to light all 130+ metres of the Broken River viaduct itself. On top of two flashes I had hoped to place in locations beside the coach road, two other spots were planned on the bluff just north of the bridge. However thanks to my mother’s feeble old branch loppers struggling against the always denser than expected NZ bush and gorse, this was reduced to one outpost at the top of a 150 foot sheer rock face after enough scratches, bumps and prickles had been accumulated in the fading light of evening.
Lightstands were duly duct taped to trees, fences and each other in deference to the wind, flashes were set up with guestimated outputs and beam spreads, and 30 minutes after sunset, a test shot was fired. I guessed f5.6, 1/200th, ISO 320 settings and it would be fair to say that I was over the moon (so to speak) when the image revealed not only a perfect exposure, but even lighting of the entire structure on the first attempt.
Completing the setup, I was relieved when my passed-on message came over the scanner warning the driver of our location and intentions. Our good railwaypeople have enough to worry about without being ambushed by a face full of flashes. It goes without saying that headlamps, safety vests and warm layered clothing are also a must at night.
In due course, Locomotive Engineer Chris Hengst wheeled DXB 5016 and DCP 4559 across the bridge a little earlier than expected at 8:47pm, with a 388 metre, 620 tonne train 827 to make the picture considerably more interesting.
I almost always take night shots alone, but was grateful for Alan Matthewson’s assistance here. With some great sunny shots of the Tranz and this night shot in the camera I drove back to South Canterbury and collapsed into bed at 2:30am after a long but thrilling day (and night!) of trainspotting.
Trains on KiwiRail network from rail ferry terminal at Picton to Bluff. The Southern Alps are overcome at Arthurs Pass by the Otira Tunnel on 1 in 33 (3%) gradient. The longest rail bridge in NZ over the Rakaia River is near Christchurch.