Adventure to Taupo
Submitted: Friday, 20th May 2005 by Paul Russell

Lake Taupo Astrophotographyfest, New Zealand. – With an Australian Flavour

As most of you will be aware of by now, the New Zealand chapter of Ice In Space has just held its inaugural Astrophotography convention (May 6,7, 8) in the picturesque hinterlands of the North Island of New Zealand. The scenic area chosen was in the lush rolling hills to the north west of Lake Taupo. I thought that the journey and imaging at this remote and idyllic location had the potential to be an adventure to remember. I was so right! But as it turned out, not always in ways I had expected.

But rather than jump ahead to the brilliant nights and the fabulous company, let’s start where all great adventures start……at the beginning.

Earlier this year our compatriots from The Land of the Long White Cloud announced the likelihood of a get together in NZ for the purpose of bringing astrophotography buffs from all around NZ, to pick each others brains over for interesting and useful techniques to improve their own imaging techniques. And being the good blokes they are they extended an invitation to the Aussie members of this auspicious site. Needless to say I jumped at the chance to see a bit more of NZ and expand my imaging skill at the same time. For a while there I thought I might be the only Aussie to cross the dark and stormy Tasman. Not so! My fellow intrepid adventurer westsky (David Rigley) from Brisbane threw his hat in the ring. Two against a possible barrage of Kiwi imagers, sounded about as even as a Bledislow cup match. We were up for the task. So after numerous PMs and a phone call or two, the tickets were booked, the car was booked and we were ready to pounce.

Now this was to be no ordinary trip to the NZ countryside. This was to be a bare bones, no holds barred festival. How bare bones? Well tents in the wilderness (well not quite, it was in fact a deer farm, but more on that later) at between 450 and 500 meters above sea level in late autumn in Central North Island. This was going to be brisk to say the least. But we were up to the challenge. How no holds barred? You used whatever you could bring, beg or borrow to image with. Now that was a real challenge with a 20kg each weight limit on our baggage. Looks like we’ll be leaving some clothes at home to get as much in as possible. Besides if you’re going into the wilderness who cares that you haven’t showered or changed in three days.

But a stroke of luck came our way in the form of David’s son, George. He decided to come with us. Yes! We had another 20 kg to play with, and we needed every gram. Then our good friend Gary Beal threw a spanner in the works. (Damn you Gary I’m a sucker for temptation) He put his Losmandy GM-8 up for sale on the site, and I definitely wanted one of those. How can we reduce our packs so David could still take his mount head, rings and weights and all our accessories including cameras, laptops etc, over and still have enough weight allowance so I could possibly bring back 20 kg of telescope mount and tripod. Yep. Less clothes. Well even with the minimum we thought would be safe to keep us from getting hypothermia, we only managed to get around 10 kg of “freeboard”. That was good enough. We were on a mission. And on the 5th of May our mission/adventure really started.

On the day before leaving, my plan was to catch a train from home here in Nambour to David’s place in Brisbane. From there we’d train it to the airport for the 6:30 flight. Well my journey started out with the omens looking good. David called and said he was going to Gympie, north of me, in the morning and would pick me up on his way home at about 12:00 ish. You bewdy :D No Taxies and Trains for me. Then David finished early and arrived well before 12. Great! We had never actually met face to face so we had a leisurely late morning tea sitting on my back veranda drinking tea and coffee and getting to know one another. We hit it off straight away. Then off to Bris Vagus chatting a mile a minute all the way, about each others different fields of interests and experiences. We arrived in Brisbane well ahead of schedule, with George home from school early and waiting to go. It was only about 2:00. I thought if this keeps up its going to be smooth sailing.

We left for the airport with plenty of time up our sleeve, fully loaded down with the bare essential, catching a train from literally around the corner from David’s. Connecting train to the International airport, and we’re there, dead on 4:30. Two hours to book in and kick back and relax and wait for our flight. Picked up our tickets from Freedom Air, after I pointed us off in the wrong direction for their counter, (I was sure it was at the other end of the terminal), and changed our currency to NZ dollars. At this point I pointed out to David and George to watch the Kiwi’s money. They try to trick us unsuspecting Aussies by colouring their 50 dollar bills the same as out 5 dollar and their 20’s the same as our hundreds and their 5’s the same as our 50’s. But you gotta get up pretty early to trick me :P . Then it was off to customs and a relaxing hour or so wait. Can you believe this, straight through customs. Passport check and through the scanner and our in under 5 minutes. However this was one of those times I wish I had my camera ready. For those of you who don’t fly with laptops often, at Australian customs you are often required to take your laptop out of the bag before scanning. As David opened his bag to get his laptop out he suddenly saw…no laptop! It was still plugged into the wall at home charging. A callus person would have laughed, but not a true mate. I could imagine exactly how he felt. :D :D :D . Thank God for mobile phones. David quickly range home to get his wife, who had never driven to the airport before, to bring his laptop to him. Unfortunately, this is at peak hour, on the other side of the city, and by this time we only had just over an hour till take off. All we could do was wait. Suddenly there was a call over the public address system….”George Rigley…Please come to the Customs Security Center”. You could have heard a pin drop. It seems that all David’s mount, hand controllers, wires and solid weight sets were causing a bit of confusion over at the baggage x-ray area and no one was game to open it to see what it was. All they could make out were printed circuits, wires and large dark masses. Well another half an hour sorted that out. And still no laptop. Time was ticking. Finally with about 10 minutes to the boarding call, customs delivered David’s shiny laptop into his hot little hand. Happiness is a relieved man J. There’s the boarding call.

For those of you who have never flown, let’s just say flying at night at 35000 feet over the Tasman Sea is not very exciting. It was a good time to stockpile sleep credits for the coming weekend.

Four hours later……..(we lost half an hour when the plane tried to drive to New Zealand up the Brisbane international number 9 northern runway.)

Touchdown 00:00 hours, Palmerston North . Home town of the accomplished NZ astrophotographer and our host for this festival, Robby Beck. Pretty much straight through customs (half an hour), apart from me getting the third degree over why I was coming to New Zealand (I don’t look that suspect do I?) and I think David managed to get queried about his strange baggage contents again, (though I can’t be sure about that as I was otherwise occupied) and out to our NZ version of the Toyota Tarargo.  I’ll leave David to describe his first reaction to the New Zealand night sky. I’ll simply say it was stunning, and disorientating. Oh and it was a just a bit chilly too. Glad I was wearing most of my clothes. Rob had sent David a mud map that proved to be extremely accurate. We only got lost once. As navigator I accept full responsibility. I forgot that you can’t read a map that has the directions indicated in red felt pen with a red torch. Once I’d managed to get us out of the airport :D it was easy. All roads in Palm, as the locals call it, go either north/south or east/west. Even I couldn’t get lost. BTW if you get the chance ask David about the NZ right of way law. :D 15 minutes later we were knocking on Robby’s front door. An hour later the cops were knocking on the front door. One of the neighbours had rung them as there was a strange car out the front and people creeping round the back yard. Fortunately I had had enough excitement for one day and had gone to bed by then. Darn another perfect photo opportunity gone.

So ends the first day of our adventure.

After catching up on some much needed sleep we woke to absolutely perfect weather, at who knows what time, as the sun doesn’t get above about 30 degrees above the horizon so it’s either permanent 10 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon. Until we were ready to leave at about 3 in the arvo we decided to explore the local area. Rob’s blessed in living in a lovely town that is a riot of colour at this time of year with heaps of gardens, and has a sensible council that has installed fairly dim street lighting. You could easily see the Milky Way from his front yard. After our thoroughly enjoyable walk we stocked up on food supplies sat around and chewed the fat and waited for Rob’s partner Catherine to get home, so we could head off into the wild unknown. Fabulous lady, Catherine. Didn’t faze her at all to get up to go to work and find three strange Aussies sleeping round her house. Once Cath arrived home, everything was checked to make sure nothing was forgotten and we hit the road.

We had approximately a three hour trip ahead, but it could easily have taken 30 hours. This is a truly beautiful and breathtaking country. I wish I had remembered to get my camera out of the back before starting out, but I don’t thin Mike has enough room on his site to include all the photos I could have taken. But at one point we had to stop. A photo can’t do this mountain justice. Its so hard to put it into perspective. Its 2796 meters high. The scenes for the base of Mount Doom were shot here for The Lord of the Rings. It just sticks out in the middle of nowhere along a road called “The Desert Road”. This image only show about half of the height seen from the road. It is so wide that Autostitch has trouble dealing with the exposures changes from one side to the other and from the top to the bottom. And the sky is so bright and clear it tends to wash the colours out. And if it looks like a volcano that’s because it is. Mount Ruapehu is awesome.


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Mount Ruapehu

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A car? A nice one too :)

After Mt Ruapehu, we continued onto Lake Taupo. I didn’t even attempt to photograph this lake. Its huge. And it’s the remains of a volcano. They seem to be everywhere. George wants to move there, he was so taken in by the lake. We picked it on an almost perfect early afternoon. Almost wind free, it was like a sheet of glass for a kilometer or more off the shore and crystal clear. Once we arrived at the town of Taupo, we got to meet Rob’s Dad, David. And of course his house overlooks the lake. I hardly think there’s a house in Taupo that doesn’t. We dropped Cath off there, picked up a few supplies and headed off to the site, still another 15 km or so away. More beautiful country, past steaming geothermal power stations, the most varied shaped and sloped hills you could imagine to finally arrive at our destination. And who should be there to greet us, but mister temptation himself Gary Beal and his son the Photoshop guru Aaron. He was well on the way to getting set up, have performed the most important task first. Getting his mount setup. Now that is one nice mount. A Takahashi EM-200. But it wasn’t long before acquaintances were being made, and decisions being made on the prime spots to set up. Of course being the first ones there we got the pick of the choice (Kiwi speak for best) spots. While those with mounts started to set up, those without started to set up in a different way. It was tent construction time. Yes we really were going to sleep in tents in what could turn out to be sub-arctic conditions. I’ve had some experience of NZ cold from trips to Christchurch in April and September. Trust me when the wind gets up and there’s a little bit of moisture in the air, you wouldn’t want to be a jeep in those conditions. But we were confident. We were sure. We were Queenslanders. But above all we were Astrophotographers! We’re we going to let a little think like blood freezing in our veins stop us. No way! We had more clothes on than you could stuff in a backpack. Up went the tents, out came the long johns and on went the thick boots. We were ready for whatever the New Zealand weather could throw at us.


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The astrophotography field

I suppose I should describe the site a bit so everyone can get a feel of what we were about to experience. The grass was short. That was good. It had commanding views to the south and east. Another good point. It overlooked the geothermal valleys with steam rising everywhere and Mount Ruapehu in the background. Yes you could still see it even after and hour and a half of driving away from it. Very picturesque for the daylight viewing. We had a shed with a heater if it became too bitter, good. It covered about half a hectare or more, so plenty of space for every one. It was a bit sloping, but it had enough flat spots not to feel you were on the side of Mt Ruapehu. Ok. The deer sh*t was armpit deep to a Harlem globetrotter. Not good. LOL Well maybe I exaggerate just a bit, but it was probably the most talked about subject after astrophotography for the weekend. Oh that and how cold it was. It appears that the owner of the property had grazed his stock in the paddock for the previous week. Probably to get the grass down so we wouldn’t be inconvenienced. I must admit that was thoughtful of him, but I must also admit I had a few quiet chuckles to myself when the city slickers arrived (me having lived on a farm for quite a few years and was used to cow manure up to the eyeballs J ). All those lovely Addidas and Nikes were going to look slightly different by the end of the weekend. And where to put the tents? LOL Well everyone was arriving and after many of them having driven for three hours and more, no one was going to leave. So we all soldiered on. Come sundown it was starting to look more like and astrophotography get together with mounts and tents springing up, up and down the hillside.


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More of the field

It was impressive to see the range of equatorial mounts being set up. There didn’t see to be two of the same type anywhere. From memory there were two different Takahashi, Gm-8 g-11 and Titan Losmandies, Vixen including a Great Polaris and CG-5,just to name a few. And OTAs! Meade (of course), Celestron, Megrez, an 80 and a 125 mm Zeizz aporefractor, 16” newt, 8” binos and some of the most way-out setups you could imagine. And enough laptops to drain the local Geothermal power station. There was one Meade 12” SCT on a Tak mount that had so much imaging equipment, scopes and mounting brackets attached it looked like it was being prepared for the next Saturn imaging mission.


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The guest kept arriving well after dark, but by that time those that had arrived early were well into the polar alignment process, in preparation for the nights imaging marathon. There were high expectations as the sky looked great with only minimal thread of cloud and it was starting to really cool down, so it was hoped that the seeing would be settled. Yours truly, ably assisted by Aaron Beal, was the first to get the imaging session started with a couple of quick Avies of Jupiter through Gary Beal’s Takahashi Mewlon. Lovely scope. Unfortunately the seeing wasn’t turning out as hoped for, but it was early days yet. I did a quick Registax processing and decided I would wait for awhile till Jupiter rose a bit higher. Meanwhile Robby was setting up for his first deep sky of the night, The Tarantula Nebula. Using his StarMate system on his Losmandy with a 300D prime focus to a Celestron 9.25, he was able to set up for 10 shots to be taken automatically and walk away and leave it. Tricky stuff. At this point  a bit of faint wispy cloud started to drift in, and the owner of the property appeared and asked if anyone wanted to watch the rugby, and in true Kiwi religious fashion, they promptly fled the field and headed for the TV. It must have been a good idea for as soon as everyone started to return the clouds miraculously vanished. Hmmm, its often said over here that God’s a Kiwi. This little demonstration seemed to add weight to that belief. But he still wasn’t doing anything about the seeing. During this period I had been helping Aaron out with his Jupiter capturing skills and demonstrating my style of Registax processing, and I think David was out checking out set ups and chatting to whoever hadn’t abandoned the field of play.

With the return of the, I believe, triumphant Kiwis, and the rapid decrease in temperature, I decided to do the only correct thing. Opened up the duty free in an attempt to warm up. It must have worked; I can’t remember it being very cold after the first couple. I then proceeded to seagull (another Kiwi term I believe) around and stick my beak into what everyone else was doing. Mostly everyone was doing catch up with everyone else they hadn’t seen for ages. Though there was a lot of interest in the 8” binos. (I can hear the Dobbers now J ) Never having had the chance to look through such a set up I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. WOW! Eta Carina was absolutely awesome. It felt like I was sitting in space only a couple of dozen light years away viewing it in the flesh. It was unbelievably 3D. Stunning! And apparently David ( the owner of the binos) has a 16” pair at home! Now that would be something to look through. By this time Robby’s Tarantula session had finished so I wandered down that way to see what else was happening. Robby gave me a quick run through his StarMate ,Argo Narvis and Losmandy G-11 combo and we headed over to M65, M66, and his next imaging challenge. Set it up and walk away. Not bad hey. See these images here.

At some point in the evening fellow Iceinspacer John Drummond had turned up, so there was number three done on my Kiwi must meet list. John was going to be one of the speakers during the weekend and I was looking forward to his talk on focusing techniques. I suppose this is as good a point as any to explain what was in store for us at the Astrophotographyfest. John and Rob had put together a program of speakers to cover areas such as the Basics of Astrophotography (for newbies), Piggyback astrophotography, Guiding, Focusing and Image enhancement by convolution. Plus there were competitions in Jupiter imaging and DSO imaging. It was panning out to be a jamb packed weekend.

By the time I’d met John, completed another circuit or two of the site putting, my nose in everywhere, I thought it was time to hit the sack. It was now around 1:30 - 2:00 and it had been a long day for this little Queenslander. So I retired to my one man tent, made sure I left my now three inches higher hiking boots outside and hit the sleeping bag fully clothed. Yep it was now officially cold.

Daylight soon arrived, or so I assumed as it was no longer pitch black. But on climbing out of my tent I was confronted with the famous NZ Highland fog. It had moved in apparently about 4:00 when the last of the diehards had finally gone to bed. The fog soon burned off and we were confronted with another beautiful New Zealand Day. Glorious weather. Still a bit sharp on the cool side of things but the day certainly held promise. David and George decided to head for town and a bit of a sight seeing tour while I decided to stay put and try to put face to the people I had met in the dark last night. The glow of laptop light isn’t really enough to put a face to a name. Plus it was time to have a good look at all the mounts sitting around the paddock. And I secretly wanted to give Gary’s GM-8 a good looking over. I wasn’t the only one interested in mounts and scopes it would seem. Rather than blather away I’ll let some of the photos from that afternoon talk for themselves.


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Twin dobs

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Robby casting a critical eye

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Aaron Beal

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More Scope

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Gary showing his Zeiss 80

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David and George tinkering

After spending the day chatting and examining, it was time for the afternoons “seminars” on astrophotography skills. The show opened with Chris Pickering, a well know local wide field imager. Chris spoke at length about equipment needed, types of imaging objects and the techniques required to produce photographs and digital images similar to his stunning photos displayed in a PowerPoint presentation. Chris was followed by John Burt’s presentation on the skills and equipment required, techniques needed and pitfall waiting for those wanting to try both manual and auto guiding for imagery, particularly in using K3CCDtools for auto guiding. John then passed the baton onto John Drummond who spoke on the art of focusing for prime focus imagery. In particular he spoke of various devices and techniques to assist the astrophotographer in getting that all important focal point, especially for those imagers using fast f/ratio scopes where the critical focal point is in a very narrow range. The second last speaker was Mark Cannel who’s presentation on convolution, deconvolution and averaging left many listeners wondering how they could learn these skills. While Marks talk at times was very technical, and for some mathematically challenging, I think everyone gained some important understanding of what is behind the processes of convolution, deconvolution and averaging. Personally I enjoyed his talk immensely; as it has helped me to understand some of the processes we try to go through to achieve that special image. The final speaker was Rob Beck who spoke briefly on ways to automate the imaging and auto guiding processes. His talk was a continuation of John Burt’s presentation.  

After the final presentation, Rob offered up two challenges for those interested in a bit of astrophotography competition. Firstly there was the Jupiter imaging competition. For those interested, Jupiter was to be imaged in any way you chose, between 7:00 and 8:00 pm. The captured images could be processed in any fashion you wanted and then presented in the morning with the best image to be determined by their peers. The second challenge was a list of 10 deep sky objects to be imaged that night. The object was to either try to capture all ten or produce the best images you could of as many as you could. Again with the results to be judged in the morning. It looked like it was going to be a busy night. So after a quick barbeque and a tune up of the equipment the race was on. There were many hearty attempts during the night to meet the challenges but unfortunately the weather was not being totally helpful. It was certainly a spectacular night under very dark skies, with the brilliant Milky Way stretching from the ESE way overhead to the WNW. The clouds however decided to play tag and while there were not many large clouds, often very light high cloud interfered with the transparency and seeing. Even though it wasn’t perfect there were a number of excellent images taken that night in the deep sky category. The biggest let down was for the Jupiter imagers. Try as they could, the seeing just wasn’t going to be with them for the night with only two entries in the morning’s competition. David spent the night chatting and playing DSI for hours with Terry Butt with David pulling and amazing amount of detail out of a 15 sec? DSI image of M83.  Unfortunately young George came down with a bad case of the flu and was out of action for the night, opting to stay warm and snug in the back of the van. I spent most of the night making a pest of myself peering over everyone’s shoulder trying to pick up a few pointers and offering my own unsolicited advice. J  I spent most of the time with older George, Kevin and Robby. George (Celestron on a G-11) and Kevin (Zeiss 125mm aporefractor on a ? mount) were focusing on catching that elusive perfect image that would win them the Jupiter competition in the morning. It was going to be an uphill battle with the sky behaving as it was. Robby was trying to get his M83 image tonight. I picked up a lot of very useful information following him round like a puppy. It’s his fault I’ve now got the Argo Navis bug. Everyone persevered chatting, trying to capture quick shots and waited patiently for just the right moment to dive into the imaging. At around two o’clock everyone gave up the ghost and decided to call it a night. Even though our objectives generally weren’t reached, I think everyone had a great time. I know I did.

Sunday dawned murky, and I felt mood was a bit somber round the camp. Maybe everyone was realizing that in a couple of hours our little get together would be over. But not before a bit of astrophotographical excitement. The Viewing Session! There was a bit of a change of plans for the prizes to be awarded. As there were only two Jupiter images entered, one by George and one by Kevin, (being a good sport I didn’t enter my Saturday nights effort) and I don’t think anyone succeeded in the DSO capture competition, the prized were awarded by names drawn from a hat. This way everyone had an equal chance of winning. Even though the conditions weren’t optimal for imaging for the whole of the weekend the selection of images that were taken showed real skill. There were some truly outstanding images taken. I hope either John D or Robby is able to get approval from everyone who imaged to place examples on their websites. A display like that would certainly encourage me to come again next year.

Well it was getting towards that time. Pack up, clean up and push off. David and I had met some wonderful characters and made new friends over the nearly 2 days we had been at Taupo. It was a shame it couldn’t run longer, but Mother Nature was giving us the hint, so after a final scrape off of any excess DS, and a fond farewell, we hit the frog and toad for the three hour trip back to Robby’s place at Palm. And again the scenery didn’t let us down. It was just as stunning going back the other way, in fact I’m sure the country was saying good bye to us. As we motored along the Desert Rd a full double rainbow, as intense as any I’ve seen, lead us along the road from one end of Ruapahu to the other.

We arrived back at Robby’s and everyone was thankful. I could finally have a shower after 3 days. It was starting to get so that I couldn’t tell where the DS left off and I started. George and David were true gentlemen, they didn’t say a thing. Though George did have that cold and couldn’t smell a thing anyway. Or maybe that was why he was sneezing all the time. J After finally having a good nights sleep on a mattress it was up at 4:00 AM to head for the airport. And I didn’t get us lost this time. Straight through check in, customs and about a 15 minute wait and onto the plane. We were finally heading home. Nothing much exciting on the way home except a sunrise over the clouds that lasted for about half an hour. David had never seen a sunset like it before. He was mesmerized. Three and a half hours later (a half hour ahead of schedule) we touched down in good old Bris Vegas. Apart from a bit of a mix up over a couple of my packages and a quick trip to the customs DS scrapperoutterer, we were through in a flash. Time for the final leg of the journey. Over to the train platform for the trip to Roma St station for our connecting trains. David, George and I parted ways at Roma St Station. It had been a fantastic weekend in NZ with these two great guys. I know we’ll keep in touch as I’ve now heard so much about how much colder Leyburn is than NZ I’ll just have to go out there and compare.

There were a few hiccups with my connecting train which meant it took me over twice as long to get to Nambour as it should have, but I wasn’t going to let that disappoint me after a fantastic weekend. I know this last day or so has been a bit brief but this adventure has worn me to a nub. Besides I need to leave something to chat online with. :)

If you decide that next year you want to go to the NZ Astrophotographyfestival you will have a great time with a bunch of friendly and welcome people. I thoroughly recommend it to everyone.

Now I must say that I have tried to be true to the adventure throughout, however it may be that due to duty free the chronological order of some events may not in fact be completely accurate. And that indeed I have taken a smidgen of poetic license with some events, and some events have been forgotten. But lets not let that detract from what was at the start of all this only the possibility of an adventure. Well the possibility became reality and if a bit of colour got in the way I just hope it has made your journey through this tale a bit more enjoyable.

Cheers and Clear Skies


PS: Oh and by the way. Yes I did end up getting Gary’s GM-8, but he wouldn’t part with his Zeiss :)

Event report by Paul Russell ([1ponders]). Discuss this report on the IceInSpace Forums.
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