Viewpoints

We all have viewpoints. Mine tend to be moulded in a woolly leftish laissez-faire egalitarianism which is open to paying extra tax for everyone to be educated, receive healthcare and live in an environment less likely to be heading towards a fiery doom. But I would say that because I am comfortably suckling at the teats of first world capitalist privilege and not really confronted with all the hazards of war, poverty,  illness or being able to cope with a few extra immigrants contributing to our collective prosperity or the alarmist perils of gay people being able to marry. It’s not very 007, but live and let live I say.

Thankfully the world has millions of apolitical viewpoints that are generally unchanging and far more impressive. A physical vista; a snapshot of what lies in front of your eyes every time you look up, back or around the corner. And amongst these scenes are many structured and grandly formalised viewpoints: the tourist lookouts set up for our collective exploration and viewing pleasure. The mountain tops and observation decks, the roadside turn outs and waterfall balconies, the plateau points and tunnel views, the Mecca to the coach tour pilgrims.

Yes, humans seem to adore lookouts and, yes, I am entirely culpable of some kind of sycophantic, unconditional love towards them. On a map my eyes will be drawn to the star or sunny symbol denoting a high point with a view; on the road, a directional sign indicating an overlook will be dutifully, religiously followed; on a trail, the aim will often be the top. Sometimes they will disappoint, other times they will marvel, always they will provide a purposeful sense of exploration and appreciation of the landscape.

A gauge on my viewpoint love-in can be deduced from this blog. It started at the top of the Empire State Building, sporadically flailing around the globe to sublime points and hurricane ridges, taking in fairytale views and homely vistas, reaching snowy high peaks, glacier points, and key summits, pausing for elegant city views before marvelling at wild canyon overlooks. It seems a written piece dedicated to viewpoints is merely an extension of everything that has come before. Surely there can be no lookouts left to look at, no vistas left to visit?

It is perhaps no coincidence that the city in which I (kind of) live is no stranger to viewpoints. On one particular hill, people gather with all sorts of different perspectives and childishly bicker about their views in an effort to cement these into legislation [1]. Still, the good thing is you can escape this nonsense and climb onto the roof of Parliament House for a much better view, noting many other viewpoints rising up within the 360 degree panorama of Canberra.

Phil Liggett, the renowned and rambling voice of cycling, would best describe Canberra’s terrain as ‘lumpy’, akin to those long tortuous days through the Breton countryside. Sure, less verdant and lacking real quality cheese, but rarely a piece of sustained flat on which to take a breather. The geography offers a number of hills, ridges and ‘mountains’, with suburban streets clustered into undulating bowls and smaller hummocks. It’s a landscape of amphitheatres within one bigger colosseum, where numerous viewpoints are the upper circles looking down on a sedate and civilised performance.

I rather cherish these tops, particularly as they usually involve a varied and energetic walk through grasslands and Eucalypt woods, a smattering of kangaroos and darting blurs of birdlife accompanying the trip up. Each hill acts as a beacon calling, a bastion of nature and wildlife with an inevitable, reliably scenic viewpoint at its summit.

V_CBR views

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There are varying degrees of effort required for the ascent of Canberra’s hills and peaks. This brings us to a consideration of the effort-reward ratio sometimes involved in attaining a view. That is, will the view be worth the effort required to reach it? Sometimes this is blatantly in the positive, such as pulling over on the roadside and easily waddling to a nicely paved lookout over an expanse of wild forest and mountainous outcrops. On other occasions, the effort-reward ratio veers towards the negative that is a plodding, endless haul up a Scottish Munro in the cloying rain to a view of two whole metres of blanket misty white.

The effort input is – I would say – very high to extreme on the Tongariro Crossing on the north island of New Zealand. To start, there is an alarm call of 4:30am and pre-dawn gloom to navigate the initial gravelly meander along a long, narrowing valley. As the valley nears its end there is an inevitable sense of foreboding about the onward route; it is clear that there can be only one way to continue and, as Yazz & the Plastic Population screams in your head to make things even better, the only way is up. Up along the invitingly named Devil’s Staircase.

Steps and zigzags mark the way from here, but at least the emerging landscape offers the chance to use that little trick of taking a photo every ten paces, more for an intake of oxygen rather than genuine quest for photographic perfection. However, with heart pounding, head dizzying and legs in a brittle strain of tension, even that becomes a bit much to persevere with [2]. The top does come and there is an adrenaline boost of reward, quickly flattened like the astounding lifeless volcanic plateau of the South Crater on which you stand. For this is but a halfway point and over this one ridge another higher one rises.

While the first climb was hard going, at least it was well-graded and decently constructed with switchbacks and steps. On the second, the loose scree and large boulders of an ever narrowing and ever steepening arête have you wishing for a fat hobbit to carry you on his back. But as energetic youth bound their way up and past you without any offers of assistance, there is motivation to continue at your own pace. Effort inputs are maximised for reward outputs that are logarithmic in scale.

The viewpoint from the top of Red Crater is staggering in many ways. Staggering in directions and distance you can see; staggering in the otherworldly landscape of smooth craters and conical peaks and blasted red mountainsides and steaming green pools; staggering in the knowledge that the earth from underneath you could blow up as you bite into a deliciously fulfilling ham sandwich; and staggering because you made it. Here, the big effort makes for exponentially greater rewards.

V_tongariro

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Effort to reach a viewpoint comes in many forms and a final case in point can be illustrated via an afternoon in the Arkaroola Wilderness of South Australia. Indeed, this particular afternoon on a gloriously sunny late autumn day involved sitting down for two hours to reach a pinnacle called Sillers Lookout. Sitting down is surely the easiest thing in the world, but becomes infinitely more difficult when seated sideways in the semi-open back of a 4×4 that is traversing a corrugated rock-scape at precipitous gradients.

Sitting at the back, there is a different physical effort here which fluctuates with an uphill or downhill stretch of ‘road’. Uphill and it is a case of bracing the body from being squashed by the collective ample weight of other passengers and preventing it from falling out of the back; downhill and the effort is on not squashing your fellow passengers too much and falling forward to the front. Beyond these physical endeavours there is the effort to – at various points – make conversation with grey nomads, avoid swallowing flies, concentrate on not being sick, and pretending to be excited that the afternoon tea involves that underwhelming favourite: Lamingtons.

V_arkAll I can say is that it is a good job afternoon tea occurs at the ultimate viewpoint of this ridge top tour. In the afternoon, with the sun lowering it is a quite incredible vista of absolute primitive and earthen wilderness. No doubt shaped by that perennial favourite of ancient inland seabed activity, the scene is a very Australian red, with a very Australian sense of harshness and ferocity, which is somehow very, very beautiful. And despite the different perspectives and world views of the people here to see it this afternoon, it is a viewpoint we can all agree is special…a reward that comes with all good viewpoints.


[1] Meanwhile, journalists lazily refer to ‘Canberra’ as imposing these views on the rest of the country: ‘Canberra slugs unfair tax on mining billionaires’, ‘Canberra scraps science funding’, ‘Canberra hits the hip pocket of working families’. Bloody Canberra, is it any wonder there are so many negative connotations from people who have never been here?

[2] Meanwhile, lithe and energetic teens annoyingly bound their way past and, to add to the enjoyment, you are rudely reminded of ageing.

Links

Bumps in the ACT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mountains_in_the_Australian_Capital_Territory

Canberra Nature Park: http://www.tams.act.gov.au/parks-recreation/parks_and_reserves/canberra_nature_park

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz/

Tongariro National Park: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/tongariro/

Carry me Sam: http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Mount_Doom

Hold on to your hats: http://www.arkaroola.com.au/ridgetop.php

Some more top views: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com.au/travel/top-10/vistas/#page=1

A to Z Activities Australia Photography Places Walking

Momentum

I do tend to like a song that builds; one that’s all tender and melancholy to begin, subtle layers of sound layered with every soft verse until they rise into a crashing crescendo of strings and vocals and guitars and tambourines and bassoons and triangles and maracas and backing singers, passing out in an epic conclusion. Well, I didn’t expect that, may be your reaction if you hadn’t listened to it a hundred times already. What could have been so dreary gradually gains pace and noise, rhythm and harmony, and comes with a climax that makes you feel good and want to cry out loud. Which you sometimes do when not in company or stopped at traffic lights.

There are many parallels to be had between music and travel. Both offer the chance of escape, an exposure to culture, and a form of enjoyment (or annoyance!). We often listen to music while we travel and we often travel while listening to music. Indeed, catch any bus or train today and see if you can spot anyone who is not attached to a small electronic device by some white wires sticking out of their ears or a pair of oversize earmuffs like they are some kind of Craig David wannabe. Craaaaaiiiiiiiig David. And like a good piece of music (i.e. not Craig David), can there be anything better than travel experiences that gather an unexpectedly irresistible momentum and culminate in an ecstatic high? Transformative moments which end with you pinching yourself to check that they really happened?

Well, picture the scene on the far south coast of New Zealand, in a picturesque swathe of countryside and coast making up The Catlins. Alas today, like many days no doubt, is grey and a constant chill wind blows off an iron sea. Mist and drizzle occasionally grips the rocky tumult of the seashore and hovers among dense, dark forests. It’s Waitangi Day, a national holiday, but there is little sign of people gathering in revelry, the area remote and sparsely inhabited. It feels as though banjo-plucking will be echoing through the rolling valleys as the van propels itself on the few remaining drops of petrol in its tank. But that would perhaps be a bit too chirpy a soundtrack for this uninspiring morning.

It’s been a few days like this now…swishing wipers down to Dunedin and braving gaps in weather to look at seals and seabirds, admiring their resolve to make a bombarded clump of grey rock their home. Home for me has mostly been the van and it smells damp. It’s also almost out of petrol now, but there is a town or two coming up. The first offers a small garage but a wonky handwritten sign tells me I would have better luck going to the next stop along. It’s only twenty kilometres, but lights, heating, radio and lead foot driving are all dispelled while the red warning light continues to taunt me. And these valiant attempts mean that the van makes it to a town with another closed petrol station.

This is the low, and there has got to be a way to climb out of it. At the other end of town from the petrol station that is also a visitor centre and shop and fishing bait store and whatever else not being offered for sale today, is a house that has a banner for ice cream beside the road. I’m not sure whether this is a shop or cafe or just someone’s shed with a few trinkets in. I didn’t see any ice cream, but then I wasn’t really looking. The owner – we shall call him Pat (because I don’t remember his name) – looks bemused when asked whether the petrol station is open. “Well, if it don’t look like it’s open I guess it’s not open”. For once, endearing Kiwi frankness not very endearing. “I’ll call Nigel”.

Whoever Nigel was he wasn’t so keen to speak to Pat, the phone line mysteriously cutting out on the first contact attempt. Things looked bleak, while my exterior has a forlorn look about it, inside I was quietly sobbing. This would not be a great place to stay for another night…and it was barely 10am. Behind his beard Pat could sense this, so he tried another call and this time successfully woke Nigel from his hungover slumber. Nigel, it turns out, could fill our car with petrol. Begrudgingly so and clearly needing another beer to kick start his day, but he gave up some liquid gold (at a commensurate price) nevertheless. Nigel and Pat, two unlikely saviours, a solid backing coming in to give thrust to this song of a day.

So it was that the van comfortably made its way to Invercargill where it could properly fill up its tank on petrol and cruise past the disproportionate amount of drive-through liquor stores which do a roaring trade [1]. M_catsInvercargill represented a line in the sand and from here the journey was west and north. Straight out of a Tolkien tale, the town of Riverton was a necessary pit stop that became late morning tea. If Pat and Nigel kick-started the van, this was the sugar comfort hit that kick-started the endorphins.

Somewhere between Riverton and Te Anau the sun emerged, weakly at first but increasing in frequency, offering a pleasant symphony of colour and warmth across the landscape. This was turning into a very different day, a day where you need to change into shorts at Te Anau itself, because it is warm and clear and sparkling. A day where you need to savour a ham sandwich beside the beautiful lake but avoid lingering too long because it can still get even better. From here, Fiordland National Park is waiting.

There is a dead end road from Te Anau, but it is no dead end of discarded breeze blocks and tumbleweed tottering in the wind. Its terminus is Milford Sound and the route to it must rank as one of the most awe-inspiring in the world. The scenery is so grand it will make Gandalf look small, as the road follows valley and plain, fringes a series of small lakes and eventually has to cut through the mountains to get down to the precipitous chasm of water that is Milford Sound.

It is a journey where you want to pull over at every available opportunity and take a dozen photos and pinch yourself again because it is so inexplicably sunny and warm and better than what could have been. Eglinton Valley is a perfect place to do this, with its broad plain of swaying gold grass tantalising you to loll around in it like you are five again. Or, as is often the case in such mountainous terrain, break out like Julie Andrews and proclaim the hills to be alive. But I can save that for a higher vantage, a reward for a walk and a lofty paradise in the late afternoon sun.

Can there be anything better to do than getting out in this environment on foot, leaving the van far behind and below. A walk. A hike. A tramp! Who would have thought it this morning? It’s a bit of a climb but sure and steady, inspiration added by being on a section of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s premier multi-day tramps. With forest at first there is little to see beyond the dark green boughs and flourishing fronds. It is cool and shady, serene and ancient. Occasional glimpses sight the road down in the valley or tops of mountains still a long way above. Then, all of a sudden, the vegetation clears and you are reaching the crescendo.

A few more steep zigzags and you emerge onto a rolling plateau – Key Summit [2] – where the hills do seem to be alive with the sound of music. Small tarns pepper the bright green grass and forests continue to spread over and along the hillsides. The late afternoon sun, still warm and pristine, highlights the pleasingly rocky Humboldt Range as it disappears north and east. The bright light battles with towering peaks that plummet to the west, down into the waters of the fiords and Tasman Sea. Far below, the van sits with half a tank of petrol, happy to rest and sit vacant and linger in memories of Nigel.

M_keysummit

It’s an immense ending to an indifferent start, a reminder that things change for the better all of the time. You may have gotten out of bed the wrong side or endured a period of drab drizzle, but the sun does always shine again.[3] And shine again it did for many more days on that trip of New Zealand – on Milford Sound the next day and into the mountains after, glistening off the amazing bays of Abel Tasman and striking dramatic light on the volcanic doom of the north island. Indeed, such is its remarkableness it doesn’t take much to gain momentum in New Zealand. Just a little bit of petrol and some good tunes along the way.


[1] They do call this region ‘The Scotland of the South’ after all.

[2] I don’t think named after New Zealand’s current Prime Minister

[3] At least for something crazy like 500 billion years or whatever Brian Cox said in some documentary, by which time we would have easily destroyed everything anyway

Links

The kitty kat Catlins: http://www.catlins.org.nz/

Amazing Fiordland: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/fiordland/

Dirty tramp: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/fiordland/northern-fiordland/routeburn-track/

Route to Routeburn: http://neiliogb.blogspot.it/2013/02/finding-me-marbles-christchurch-to.html

A to Z Driving Walking

Icefields

Despite being composed of perishing frozen particles there seems to be an inherent allure to the presence of snow and ice. I wonder if Eskimos feel the same way.

Maybe this romantic view is nourished in temperate climes, where snow falls are but an irregular memory of childhood. Something scarce is prized, and I can sombrely recall that when winter rain sweeps in to Plymouth, turning to snow pretty much everywhere but Plymouth, it delivers a fresh pile of disappointment. In Australia, no such disappointment because there really is no such expectation, with only the tiniest, highest pockets of land periodically subject to frozen weather. Still, at least they are generally reliable.

Away from Australia (and Plymouth) I have had the fortune to brace myself for arctic conditions, ghost through flurries of snow, and marvel at sweeping icefields, like a crow from atop a very big wall. Even just across the ditch, in New Zealand, one can appreciate the aesthetic value added by the white stuff, which has carved out its valleys and shaped its lofty mountain spires; peaks on which snow and ice still perches precariously and sweeps down graciously until it feeds into crystal clear rivers of melt water. Ninety-nine percent water and one percent fish, so it is said.

Such attractions are not without peril however, particularly if you decide to sled bungee flying fox BASE jump black raft off them. And because of their allure, they are incredibly popular, the two west coast glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef – a mandatory stop for coach tours, campervans and Apex International drivers everywhere. Indeed, in high season the walk to see the crumbly, dirty dust-coated moraine of Fox Glacier is an orderly procession of ages and nations. The old and overweight defy impending heart attack. Chinese and Japanese and Korean visitors dutifully file their way along for picture stops, wrapped up against the cold. British visitors do the same, basking in shorts. Youngsters scramble without fear over rocks and creeks, and Aussies stride nonchalantly along in thongs. Somehow here the grandeur and spectacle of the landscape becomes a little diminished.

Crowds bustle about just as much on a beautifully clear summer’s morning in Chamonix, France. Here, in an ever narrowing valley at the foot of Mont Blanc, glaciers creep down towards the pine forests bordering the town. The mechanic shrills of souvenir marmots cut through the Gallic hubbub, as people wait for lifts to take them to precipitous heights. Indeed, the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi takes them up some 2,807 metres in 20 minutes. It’s an alarming rise that leaves you a little breathless, literally and then metaphorically once you are confronted with the dazzling ice world around. Up here the crowds seem less intrusive, limited as they are through access, muted by an oxygen depleted sense of drunkenness, and made minuscule by the perspective of being near four kilometres above sea level; most of the Alps seem to be on view, stretching across three countries in a series of rocky turrets and icy hollows. A rare, and staggering, European wilderness.

 I_alps

Anyone would think I don’t like people given my desire to experience such places without being part of an inevitable tourist procession. Well, let me say that first I quite like some people and secondly I cherish the chance to share some of these places with them. In fact, some of the more memorable moments of life are the random conversations you have with random strangers in random places. Like waiting with like-minded photo seekers for cloud to never clear from mountain tops in the Cascade Mountains, or trying to translate the feverish sighting of marmots from Italian to French to English to a Japanese visitor heading down a mountain railway in Switzerland. It turns out most people are just like you and me, the common bond of the experience overshadowing any differences at that point in time. A smile is a smile in any language.

In fact I’m not immune to being part of a bigger tour group…sometimes it is nice to let someone else take control and just go with the flow, especially when having decisions to make equals indecisiveness. Plus longer tours over days and weeks provide a fascinating ethnographic experience [1]. At the start individuals unbeknown to one another mutter polite greetings and eye one another with caution. A few break the ice with time-honoured inquisitions of where do you come from and where have you been. Barriers break on the first good walk or, more likely, the first few beers. By the end of the night you are BFFs with Darlo from Wonthaggi and within a week you cannot imagine not being with this same group of people, getting on this same bus, stopping at viewpoints, eating meals and sharing a beer or two practically every day. Yeah, cliques may form and these may or may not include the rejection of people initially embraced as BFFs, but the group dynamic remains in a fluidly socially cohesive melting pot of fluctuating hormones and alcohol.

And this, my friends, is an encapsulation of a Contiki tour, albeit a description that is unlikely to be used by their marketing department. For those not in the know, a Contiki tour is a particularly popular way to see the world for 18-35 year olds, especially Australians who have 14 days to see every country in Europe [2]. With a core populace of 18-35 year old Australians there tends to be a significant emphasis on end-of-day drinking, but not without a range of energetic activities and processional sightseeing stops in the day. The relevance of a Contiki tour, and justification for my written meandering, is that I did one once. It was in Canada, with the blue and white bus traversing an incredible stretch of road called the Icefields Parkway. Finally, back on topic.

The Icefields Parkway links the Canadian Rocky Mountain towns of Jasper and Banff. I would love to go back since I cannot recall every instant and every stop, this before the days of blogging and digital photography. And I would love to have my own wheels and take my own time this time around. I seem to remember that along this road, around every corner, there is a panoramic view which you wouldn’t find out of place in a Rocky Mountains 2002 calendar. Bulky grey mountains laced with white rise up from all angles, as glaciers stream downwards, melting into rapids and falls and filling the most incredible blue green lakes. Huge swathes of fragrant pine forest fringe the lakes and valleys, a dark cover for elk and moose and bear.

It turns out the easiest way to spot a bear is to look for the cars and caravans parked beside the side of the road and the coaches slowing to a crawl. Once closer, a telltale sign is the sight of someone with a very big lens snooping around the undergrowth, fringed by other enthusiastic amateurs decorated with silver compact zoom cameras and, I guess now, iPads and iPhones and Surfaces and Robots. No-one seems to figure that the bear might just be interested in the hands and arms and torsos holding these devices, so long as you can get a good shot to post on your wall [3]. The other approach to spotting bears is to have a really nice picnic in a wicker basket and hang about in a national park with an uptight ranger. By contrast, moose spotting is much easier given they are generally roaming loose aboot hooses.

Apart from bears, other highlights of the Icefields Parkway are fluid, from the glaciers to waterfalls and rapids and lakes. During my trip, a ride on the Athabasca Glacier on some huge wheeled contraption afforded an opportunity to walk on ice and clear the head. The wonder of glacial till (or flour) culminates at Peyto Lake, with its incredible colour and picture postcard viewpoint. More subdued but serene is Lake Louise, with a fine grand hotel and gardens at one end, and wilderness beyond, with the seemingly impenetrable Lefroy Glacier a barrier to further exploration. And dotted along the road, at turn-ins and parking stops, are any number of rivers and falls and forests for bears to lurk within.

 Canadian Rockies

(Picture credits here go to my brother. I think I had an old film camera and do not have any pictures in electronic format)

The end of the spectacular Icefields Parkway trip came at Banff, another well-kept resort kind of town. Here, the Contiki tour pulled out all the stops, with a three night layover in some rather charming mountain style lodges. Of course these provided a good opportunity for house parties and sleepovers, but it was nice to wander a little down the street and run into random elk crossing the road. There were also some optional extras – probably sky diving and white water slaloming but I just went on the day trip to Calgary. My abiding memory of Calgary was the raised walkways linking buildings and malls so that people can avoid the metres of snow piled up below over the long winter months. You see snow may be alluring, but I guess it would be a real pain in the arse to live with for half of the year.

The Icefields Parkway was just one part of the trip in Western Canada but probably the most spectacular. I came to realise that Canada and Canadians were rather special and this endures today in friendships, a love of maple syrup and fondness for movies starring John Candy. I wish I could remember more about it, but time hazes memories and written records are scarce. I think back to Canada and it was the first time, apart from those snows that only seem to entrance childhood, that I witnessed the astounding impression that ice can make. It’s perhaps no wonder I have been drawn back, to the Alps of France and Switzerland and peaks and lakes of Slovenia, the High Sierras of California and Cascade Mountains of Washington, the upside down Alps of New Zealand and even the rounded Snowy Mountains of Australia. I am quite happy to enjoy the pleasures of a beach and the proximity of the coast, but what invigorates me, what takes my breath away, are mountains. Mountains that are even better served with ice.


[1] Excuse my sociologically geographical anthropological research terminology that I used once when I did some stuff like about something

[2] Today: breakfast in Paris with a coffee and chocolate stop in Belgium, before reaching Amsterdam for some lunch / clogs / drugs / rooting, and then onto Berlin to buy some wall and drink oversize tankards of frothy beer with serving wenches. Optional sky dive over Denmark.

[3] I’m entirely culpable of this, though I tend to favour pictures of cakes which are typically a lot safer.

Links

NZ glacier country: http://www.glaciercountry.co.nz/

New Zealand highs: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-high-ground-te-anau-to-franz-josef.html

Aiguille du Midi: http://www.chamonix.net/english/sightseeing/aiguille_du_midi.htm

Le Massif Massif: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2008/08/fromage-foray.html

Life is a Highway: http://www.contiki.com/

Entrancing on ice: http://www.icefieldsparkway.ca/

Smarter than average: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPbLJnbRTF8

A to Z Driving Europe Food & Drink Photography USA & Canada Walking

Mountain Views

I love mountains! This may be because usually they offer a lookout or two and, frequently, a good, feisty walk or a spectacular trip on a masterful feat of railway engineering. Some are close to home, others far away. Green, red, white, blue; snow-capped, sun-baked, forested, bare; cut by water, ice and wind. Mountains just sit there and beg to be looked at!

Below are a few images from mountains and high points I have captured and cherished. Click on an image to open a slideshow view…

Australia Europe Galleries Photography USA & Canada