When I picked up a camera to share stories with friends and family about my little adventures in the Rocky Mountains a few years ago, I had know idea where my camera would eventually take me.
It didn’t take long to realize that I loved being outside. As soon as I started sharing photos of my adventures, people began asking me if I was selling them. I sold a few prints and after that, a lightbulb went off… I thought I might be able to make a career out of this photography thing! I met a photographer, Chase Teron of Artica Studios through a mutual friend. We hit it off immediately and planned a 4×4 trip around Iceland in the middle of winter in February 2015. Chase was already an established outdoor photographer, he gave me a head start by showing me the ropes. I took what I learned from Chase about photography and about the business of photography, and I started my own business… a business where I could be outside as much as I wanted to. I learned something on that trip that I’ve found to be true, over and over again… The lessons that you learn in the Arctic, are lessons that you never forget.
Soon after that trip in Iceland I realized that waiting around for the occasional print sale wasn’t exactly a long term business strategy. I began photographing people in the mountains, people will pay for their photos to be taken, unfortunately mountains and landscapes usually don’t.
I met Ray Zahab who was directing a successful ultra-trail race series in Gatineau Park, just outside of Ottawa ON. After photo- graphing a few of his Ultra-Trail races, Ray and I became good friends. Ray Zahab is an extremely accomplished explorer and adventurer… in 2015 he was recognized as a Top Explorer by Canadian Geographic. He has ran over 14,000 kilometres across the worlds’ deserts, and in 2009 he was the first person to trek to the south pole without the assistance of skis.
So when Ray called me and asked if I would go with him to Africa to film and photograph his crossing of the Namib desert, I was elated… And then I asked him when he was leaving, he said “three weeks”… Good things never arrive at a good time. Ideally I’d have months to prepare and I had literally just returned from a project in Banff AB. But luck wouldn’t have it. I’m a Professional Photographer, but an amateur filmmaker at best at this point. I only had three weeks to basically learn an entirely new skill, not just learn it, but attempt to master it. After spending about a thou-sand dollars on creativelive.com and honing my skills everyday at least 12 hours a day, I was feeling confident, OK, I was feeling semi confident at best.
I met the team in Virginia Washington, we did a “gear shakedown” and went over logistics. We mostly just drank Woodford Reserve and traded stories of adventure. Our team consisted of Ray Zahab, his running partner Stefano Gregoretti, Team manager Jeff Dean, Photographer Jon Golden, and myself, amateur videographer. While we were going through our final checklists, my photography hero, Chris Burkard, emailed Jon Golden to wish us good luck on our expedition. I was pretty stoked about that, and that was about all the motivation I needed for the upcoming weeks. We flew out of Virginia and arrived a few days later in Windhoek, Namibia.
Ray ran about 40 kilometres on +67°c asphalt, before he ran out of water and collapsed under the unforgiving desert sun.
After being in country for five minutes, we drove past a black mamba (the world’s deadliest snake) slithering along the side of the highway on our way to downtown Windhoek. I was seriously wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into when I saw that snake. We loaded the two expedition trucks in Windhoek, met our two local guides who would drive us, and keep us from becoming a lion’s afternoon snack. After packing five weeks worth of gear and logistics into our two trucks, we all squeezed in, and drove south, two days, to the border of Namibia and South Africa… where Zahab and Gregoretti would begin there 1,800 kilometre run across the country.
Day one, the locals were complaining it was the hottest day of the year so far. It’s probably just my luck, but when I’m on trips, I often hear locals saying “It’s usually never this hot… It usually doesn’t rain this much… It’s usually nicer than this”. Apparently I travel when anomalies in the weather are prevalent. It was +47°c and even the baboons were losing their minds. Zahab and I left Ottawa airport and the temperature was nearly -30°c. We were both struggling with the heat almost right away. Once the runners had finally began their journey, Ray ran about 40 kilometres on +67°c asphalt, before he ran out of water and collapsed under the unforgiving desert sun.
“The first few days are always like this”, Ray said. We were recording cutting and uploading videos every few days, and Ray asked me not include him passing out in our first video upload. Other expedition athletes and endurance athletes would probably infer what’s taking place when you say “It’s really, really hard, and the sun is beating us down”… People like to celebrate huge successes, but sometimes when you show the reality of what it takes to accomplish seemingly impossible goals, it can come across as reckless and dangerous… in reality it’s just the evolution of realizing your objectives and the execution pushing past physical and mental barriers, sometimes it hurts.
The next day, the team woke up with the sun. The runners started their days earlier and earlier to avoid as much direct sunlight as possible. They were averaging about fifty-five kilometres a day, taking roughly eight to ten hours including pit stops and lunch breaks. Filming the expedition so far was going well. Zahab is a natural when interviewing, he made it easy to extract information from. My job was essentially to record, edit and upload eight short videos during the thirty day run. I would record three days of footage, interview the runners every evening, and I would occasionally interview them when they were least expecting it. Candid interviews while they were hurting, tired, and feeling miserable, is a part of the expedition I wanted to shed light on. It’s not always fun breaking new ground, but it’s always worth it.
My biggest challenge by far was sleeping. Because I was a one man show, I was wearing a ton of hats… creative director, director, producer, interviewer, camera operator, photographer, time lapse tech, audio operator, editor, post Producer, colour corrector, graphics design, audio mixer. I also had to ingest and backup all of my files every evening, creating multiple copies for safe keeping. After all of that, I would use an Explorer 710 Bgan to broadcast and upload my short films and the photos shot in tandem with the videos. Each upload would take anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours, and the device couldn’t be left unattended… Needless to say I seriously had my work cut out for me.
Eventually, well after everyone would be sound asleep in their tents… The animals would start coming out. Wild dogs would congregate outside of my tent, mating and fighting with each other. Elephants would roam gracefully through our camp, sometimes wild foxes would raid our temporary sites as well. My days often started a few hours after I’d get to bed, I’d be up early to take a time-lapse of the scenic landscape we were waking up to. And then I would start my routine all over again.
It was an extremely difficult workload, in the harshest environment I’d ever worked in. But it was also the most wild and beautiful place I’d ever seen. Namibia reminded me of Utah and Arizona in the midwest of America. It’s how I imagine the midwest looked like just as the ranching industry started to evolve there. The world’s Deserts fascinate me. There is a sense of scale, and fragility in the desert that can’t be found anywhere else on earth.
We were deep in lion country and as a safety precaution Zahab and Gregoretti wanted a truck to stay beside them while running.
Near the end of the trip the heat had really hit me hard. The local water was very brackish and getting harder to drink where we were up north, so I was drinking a lot less of it. You lose a ton of water from being in such a dry environment, and you pay for it if you don’t drink enough… And I did pay for it. I had the energy zapped from me a felt pretty queasy for two days, I wasn’t even sure if it was just the lack of water at the time, I just felt awful, and worst of all… I still had a job to do.
We were about a week away from our final destination. The runners were completely exhausted, they were sick of the desert, and just tired of running. The entire team was starting to look forward to the end, to accomplishing our goal. But it was also distracting, when you’re thinking about home, or thinking about the end… you make mistakes. We were deep in lion country and as a safety precaution Zahab and Gregoretti wanted a truck to stay beside them while running. Zahab instructed the other vehicle to drive ahead fifteen or so kilometres and set up camp. The two guides discussed a suitable camp site near a dry river bed, and then they parted ways, one guide with the runners, and one guide with the camp gear. I was in the truck with the camp gear, I wanted to set up an interview at camp and have it ready for the runners as soon as they arrived.
Three hours later, the sun started to get closer to the horizon, our guide was getting increasingly concerned. The runners and the first truck are nowhere to be found. Our guide at camp asked Golden and myself if he should go look for the guys before dark, we agreed it was a good idea. We were also essentially in the middle of a massive wildlife corridor, and Golden and I didn’t feel safe at camp without a vehicle to retreat to, so we joined our guide. The sun eventually set, we made our way back to camp to make a decision… we knew that the Zahab and Gregoretti were with their guide and team manager, Jeff Dean, we also knew they had food, water, and shelter with them. We too, had food, water, and shelter. We also knew where we were, and we knew that the other guys probably knew where they were… we just didn’t know where each other were.
There is one chief rule in Africa, do not drive after dark. I voted that we set up camp, and find the rest of the team in the morning. I was overruled, but there was no way in hell I was staying in a dry river bed in lion country alone… I went with the Golden and our guide on the search for the rest of our team.
After a few hours, we were completely lost, we were going in circles and avoiding herds of desert elephants in the darkness of the night. It was terrifying, you couldn’t see the elephants until you were beside them, and they were twice the size of our Land Cruiser. In Canada, if you see a grizzly bear, you’re completely safe inside of your vehicle, In Namibia, if you accidentally provoke an elephant, your vehicle isn’t going to do a thing to protect you. We eventually found the river bed that we had set up camp in, and we drove up and down it, until we found our campsite. I was relieved we knew where we were gain. We slept in the truck for a couple of hours and waited for daylight.
Sure enough, the next morning we found the first truck and the runners. Nobody was worse for wear. It was however, a humble reminder that things can happen quickly in the dessert, and if you let your guard down it can potentially have dire consequences. An American had ventured out near where we gotten lost, just weeks prior. He left his vehicle behind and headed for the hills, he was never seen again. The search was still ongoing in the area when we traveled through it. It was a sobering reminder.
For me, it was a reminder that no matter how remarkable a place is, the people that reside in those places, are that much more remarkable.
The expedition ended just 60 kilometres shy of our original goal, the Angolan border. The only routes from where we were, were through a potential minefield that still hadn’t been cleared since the last civil war, and a washed out road that was impossible to cross, even with our guides’ outstanding ability to navigate off-road. The expedition was a supported one, and if the trucks and the team couldn’t continue on, nobody would. Zahab and Gregoretti set their last GPS mark, and called it.
We had traveled 1,800 kilometres together. The runners ran everyday for 30 days to achieve their goal. The set back at the finish turned out to be a blessing, as we were finishing close enough to the northernmost primary school in Namibia. Zahab reached out to the Principle and asked if we could share our experience of the Country with his students. The school was happy to host us.
We arrived early the next morning. The students were packed into a medium sized classroom, where the principle introduced us to them. The students had prepared a song for us, one boy took the lead and the rest of the class followed along. For me, it was a reminder that no matter how remarkable a place is, the people that reside in those places, are that much more remarkable. Zahab had pre- pared a slideshow of images we had captured on our journey. The students had never strayed far from their remote village before, they had never seen some of the marvellous sites that their country had to offer. Zahab then showed them images of Canada, and expeditions he had been on in Baffin Island. The students laughed at disbelief when they saw snow for the first time, they laughed even harder when they saw a photo of Zahab with icicles hanging off his frozen beard.
So often when we plan a trip to experience a new place, we forget about the incredible people that live in these amazing places. Engaging with the primary school students, seeing a glimpse into their world and their daily lives… encounters like this are exactly why the runners do what they do, it’s why I do what I do.
The coolest part about adventure photography and filmmaking is constantly being surrounded by such inspiring athletes, culture, and people. People who take their sport, or their craft, and push it to the next level. Being able to to document that process, and then share it as a means to inspire others.
Photos by Ryan Richardson