Journal Excerpt: On Location/Sahara Desert

I was attacked by a camel today. I was knocked down from behind while shooting Tuareg nomads who were riding camels against a “Lawrence of Arabia” backdrop. All I remember was a loud belch, the tripod and camera falling to earth and a giant camel toe next to my head as I laid on the ground. My scalp and shirt was wet but it was not blood but camel saliva that was as thick as jello . After dusting myself off and getting back to work I detected an odd smell of  coffee grounds mixed with asparagus emanating from my hair and stained shirt. Later tonight I plan to stand in the shower with my clothes on and free myself from camel drool and Sahara sand. My clothes will be dry by morning.

Last shot of the day and a welcome relief from the desert heat. If all goes well this will be the money shot – but most of the time it is just plain luck and being in the right place to capture a good image.

The Parting Shot

Journal Entry: March 30, 1999 / Marathon des Sable / Morocco / Sahara Desert.

“This is our fourth day of covering the Marathon des Sable; so far we’ve managed to lose our way, we’ve been blasted by a sand storm, we’ve run out of toilet paper and are now surviving on granola bars, turkey jerky and hot bottles of Coca-Cola. I have no idea how many miles we have traveled or how many times we’ve managed to get stuck in the sand. My driver, Nouh, speaks no English and smokes three packets of Marlboro Lights a day.  He’s also fond of breaking wind each time he exits the Land Cruiser.

What I can tell you, should you not already know, is that the Marathon des Sable is a stage race that lasts 7 days and covers 243km/151 miles. To make things even more difficult, each competitor has to carry everything they may need for the duration of the race (apart from their tent) on their backs in a rucksack – their food, clothes, medical kit, sleeping bag, etc. In addition, runners’ water is rationed and handed out at each checkpoint.

The backdrop to this event is the Sahara Desert. Not only is the Sahara the largest desert on earth, covering an area of 3.5 million square miles, (which amounts to 8% of our planet’s surface area), it stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the west across half of Northern Africa, to the Red Sea.  It then extends down to the highlands of Ethiopia with temperatures recorded as high 40° +Celsius / 120° + Fahrenheit. The Sahara is a great leveller, making all men equal regardless of their station in life. So, when you come across another soul within this vast arena of sand, you stop, share, and remind yourself that here, we are all brothers.

 

Depending on whom you ask, the estimated population of the Sahara Desert varies from 2.5 million to 4 million people – so you would think finding a singing rabbit would be easy. Oh contraire.

The singing rabbit is competitor Derek McCarrick of the UK. Mr. McCarrick has been running marathons for Leukemia and Breast Cancer Research for the past 20 years and is still going strong at the age of 73.  Mr. McCarrick has personally raised a staggering £200,000 ($ 319,920.00) for charity, an achievement which is all the more impressive as he has completed each race dressed as the cartoon character, Roger Rabbit!

Eureka! On the horizon we spot a lone figure of a man with the head of Roger Rabbit tied to his backpack.

 


‘I’m the only rabbit in the world that’s run across the Sahara,’ Mr. McCarrick once told me. He also added, ‘People think I’m bonkers!’ In 2008, this former coal miner was awarded the MBE (Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. For those who are not British, an MBE award is one of the highest distinctions that can be gained by a British citizen.  Not bad for a chap from Minster on the Isle of Sheppey.”

 

I don’t buy prints from fellow photographers, but while reading the Huffington Post I came across this article titled; o-homeless-portraits-ten-900Photo Series Captures The ‘Beauty In Every Line’ On The Faces Of LA’s Homeless. There is no better way to describe my reaction to those images then to say “Impact”. I stopped and gave my full attention to this photographic essay of black and white images named  “The Elders”. Photographer and artist Aimee Boschet had captured the humanity and dignity of homeless people in America. I didn’t just look at Aimee’s work, I studied it, and absorbed  every face. When I came across image number ten of an elderly black man in a straw hat I was gobsmacked.

I ordered that print and it came today. That online image cannot be compared to the 8×10 print that I held in my hands.The elegance and wisdom of this man who life’s journey is written in every line of his face provoked an emotion that  is hard to describe. It wasn’t sadness or pity but connection. In spite of his station in life, this image of grace by Aimee is a reminder that we are all brothers and sisters in this life and that we all have a story to tell. My hat is off to Aimee Boschet who’s essays is not about lost souls in a cruel world but is an embodiment of humanity that reveals their soul, even Aimee’s own soul.
FYI: 
According to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, an estimated 254,000 men, women and children experience homelessness in Los Angeles County during some part of the year and approximately 82,000 people are homeless on any given night. Unaccompanied youth, especially in the Hollywood area, are estimated to make up from 4,800 to 10,000 of these.
  • 33% to 50% are female.  Men make up about 75% of the single population.

  • About 42% to 77% do not receive public benefits to which they are entitled.

  • 20% to 43% are in families, typically headed by a single mother.

  • An estimated 20% are physically disabled.

  • 41% of adults were employed within last year.

  • 16% to 20% of adults are employed.

  • About 25% are mentally ill.

  • As children, 27% lived in foster care or group homes; 25% were physically or sexually abused

     

Excerpt from Cue The Camels, Chapter Eight, Dog Biscuit and Noah’s Ark 

We waited another half an hour after the Turkish patrol had disappeared out of sight before we hauled ass off the apron of Mt. Ararat and on to flat ground. My knees were shot and my feet were thrashed. We crossed numerous gullies, sliding down their drops then trudging back up their inclines, which rapidly depleted our Mt.Ararat-On plainremaining energy reserves. 

Stumbling forward, my boots scraped against the rolling rocks as I repeatedly stabbed with the ski poles for an opening between the rocks to right myself. The flare must have burned out because it became dark again. I faltered a number of times but kept an eye on my fellow climbers Cronuck and Stublich and watched them move at a steady pace towards the faint yellow and white lights of Doğubayazıt on the horizon – which I affectionately call Dog Biscuit

My feet felt warm and soggy which was a sure sign of blood. 

Mt.Ararat-2nd paragraph-BlogIt was at this point – stemming from many things, such as dehydration and sheer exhaustion – that I fell into mild delirium and David Byrnes of Talking Heads became my chaperones. 

‘And you may find yourself in another part of the world. And you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?’

‘You know, David, you’re holding me hostage with that broken record. I mean, I can appreciate your words but after a while it gets a little old. Know what I mean?’

I didn’t get a straight answer from David; instead, he gave me his advice. ‘The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now…’

                 At that moment, a second flare burst in the night sky. It was a couple of seconds later that we heard the low boom of the flare gun, which meant there was a good distance between us and the Turkish military. I made it to the edge of the stone field; Cornuke and Stublich stopped long enough to ask me if I was okay. My lips were cracked, my tongue was swollen and all my saliva had evaporated. I could only answer with a nod and a whisper: ‘I’m okay.’

Ahead, I could hear Dick slapping the iridium satellite phone repeatedly, trying to get enough charge out of the dead battery to make a call to Micah, our Kurdish fixer, so that he could meet us at the predetermined rendezvous point.

George grumbled. ‘This is fucking stupid. Let’s go to the main highway and catch a ride to town.’

Mt. Ararat  3rd Paragraph Sepia-BlogDick stopped smacking the sat-phone and directed all his attention towards George. ‘Shut the fuck up, George. The Turkish military use that road all the time. What do you think they’ll assume if they come across us on that highway with all our gear?’

George didn’t listen and relentlessly argued his point as the sound of the dogs’ howls grew louder. There was a gunshot in the distance followed by the hiss of another parachute flare. That was all the motivation we needed; the five of us turned and hauled ourselves across the plain. David followed nearby. ‘We make a pretty good team. Don’t get exhausted; I’ll do some driving. You ought to get some sleep.’Mt.Ararat-003-Blog copy

‘You know, David, it must be Mercury in retrograde with all the hurdles we’ve had to clear,’ I muttered.

There was no response.

We’d been tramping about in the darkness for hours and we were spent, physically and emotionally. We walked on autopilot, using the light of Dog Biscuit as our beacon.

‘You know, David, I could’ve stayed in L.A. picking up work shooting a mindless sitcom and watching a celebrity with two soft, protruding organs give us the local weather report. I could have, but I wouldn’t have had this wonderful field trip to remember. Know what I mean?’

David paused then caught up with me. ‘You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here? You may ask yourself: where does that highway lead to? You may ask yourself: am I right; am I wrong? You may say to yourself: my God, what have I done?’

While researching material for Cue The Camels, I came across this old journal entry from a shoot I did in Egypt. Which was included in my book Cue the Camels.
Assorted images from my years in the Middle East

Northern Alliance, Afghanistan

Saqqara, Egypt
High Atlas Mountain Range, Morocco
Northern Alliance, Shibar, Afghanistan
Sahara Desert, Morocco
Sahara Desert
Bedouin Girl, outskirts of Jerusalem
Passport Lane, Kabul, Afghanistan
Mt. Ararat, Turkey

In mountaineering, there is a phenomenon known as ‘Summit Fever’ in which the heightened anticipation of summiting out weighs all reasoning. It is a step into the Twilight Zone where one’s critical faculties take a leave of absence and reckless decision making begins. The boiling frog story is often used as a metaphor for the inability of people to perceive significant changes that occur gradually –  the premise is that if a frog is placed  in cold water that is slowly heated, the animal will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

In Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air,  he describes climbers so intoxicated by the drive to get to the summit that the common sense of survival gets discarded even when exhaustion, dehydration and  bad weather becomes overwhelmingly evident – not to mention the absence of  fellow climbers who have met their death.  

Summit fever is not only limited to the tallest peaks in the world but can be found anywhere the human spirit is challenged- including the Sahara Desert. 

It has been called the toughest footrace on earth, The Marathon des Sables. Competitors have described the event as running on the surface of the sun. The  race is  held each year in Morocco over six-days covering  254 km which is the equivalent to six regular  marathons. Competitors must carry all personal belongings and food for the entire event in their backpacks. Water, tents and medical support are supplied by the race organizers. During the 1994 race,  Carabinieri (Italian police officer) Mauro Properi lost his way during a sand storm. Not wishing to endure a long drawn out death of dehydration, Mauro attempted to commit suicide in an abandoned mosque by cutting his wrists. The attempt failed – lack of water had caused Mauro’s blood to congeal the wound before the blood could escape his emaciated body. Nine days later he was found by a nomadic family and taken to an Algerian military camp. Mauro was nearly 200 miles off route.

Whether in the mountains, oceans or deserts for many adventurers the ultimate goal is to finish – at any cost. 

” I think that if you see me crawling I might be in trouble, but until then I think I’m okay.” Triathlete Felicia Wilkerson, competitor # 378, Marathon des Sables.

 

 

 

 

I slid my right boot then my left boot into the hole leading to the tomb’s tunnel. There was the soft, muffed sound of my pants sliding against the rough stone as my feet fell into the tomb. My knees passed and my thighs followed – which was as far as I got. I was stuck between two worlds. My companions started laughing before cheering me on. “Push! Push, Dave”. There was a scraping noise as my 34 waist and belt buckle tried to shimmy. I’ve been told in the past, during romantic endeavors, that I have ‘a booty like a black man’ – something I’ve always thought of as an attractive asset, but which, in this instance, was a real liability. ‘I think I’m too big, guys,’ I told my audience, ‘I’m wedged in!’ as giggles grew louder and escaped from the darkness of the tomb. I too began to chuckle, which was uncomfortable considering the added pressure of stone against my waist.

When I returned to the States and the Tonight Show, I shared my big ass adventure with one of the comedy writers for the show, Larry Jacobson. We both had a good chuckle when Larry added. “You know Dave, if you were Kim Kardashian you’d still be stuck in that tomb.