It’s adventure time! An awesome Via Ferrata recently opened on the UAE’s highest mountain, Jebel Jais in Ras Al Khaimah. With the Hajar Mountains as your backdrop, you can now attach yourself to a steel cable and, under the watchful eye of the Absolute Adventure guides, you can spend hours exploring the rock and rushing down cool zip lines.
During my years as an outdoor instructor in the French Alps, I spent lots of time of Via Ferrata’s and believe me, RAK has done a great job in building the real monty. It’ll certainly get your heart pumping; think exposed ledges, intimidating step ladders and the sheer adrenaline rush of being on the country’s highest peak. Anyone who’s up for a bit of adventure should check it out.
I covered the inaugural PR launch with the RAK tourism CEO Haitham Mattar, and the Emirati adventurers Huda Zowayed and Hamad Al Mazrouey. Yip … never a boring day in my office! Now it’s open to the public and I really can’t recommend it enough. Check out jebeljais.ae
I would love to go back here and shoot a series of ‘staged’ action shots. It’s a tough one. Access outside the Via Ferrata route is, as you can see, difficult but there is scope for more. And yes any excuse to spend more time on the rock…
During my younger years, I worked as an outdoor instructor around Europe, enjoying life’s great adventures, travel and camaraderie. One of my favourites was mountain biking in the Belgium forest with over-energetic school kids… hitting the hills, trails, mud pools and river crossings. After a day on the bikes, we’d be exhausted, filthy, aching and thoroughly beat. I’m left with wonderful memories!
Following the great Adventure HQ catalogue shoot, we got together to shoot a new Ozzy bike brand called ‘Fluid’, prior to their launch in the region. As always, the preproduction is the most important element of any shoot… knowing what, where and when to shoot, scouting to find locations that match the brand and give a strong selection of backdrops. One of my scouting trips found me at the Hatta Mountain Bike Trail Centre, which completely blew my mind.
Awesome technical trails surrounded by glorious mountains. I hadn’t even known it existed. I rocked up at sunrise but I wasn’t having much luck. My bike had a flat tire and I found my spare also had a puncture. After scouring around for my repair kit, I found that the patches were dried out and no good. But alas, I had my trail running gear and my two feet so off I went! I don’t want to be seen to be promoting running on mtb tracks but it was my only means of getting the job done.
Back in Hatta for the actual photoshoot, we all set out on bikes to get to our chosen locations. My style is very much real people in real locations and we worked with some very talented bikers, which brought back great memories.
Anyone who owns (or rents) a mountain bike should go and visit the place. The trails are marked based on different skill levels and it’ll be a guaranteed great work out.
There’s never a dull moment in an adventurers life, particularly when it comes to UAE hero Adrian Hayes… over the last ten years, I’ve followed Adrian’s extreme expeditions and had the pleasure of capturing some of them. I’ve seen him at his best and and at his worst… I’ll never forget his flying start on his Footsteps of Thesiger expedition, when the camels turned into rodeo bulls and threw Adrian and his expedition team members off their backs and onto a rocky wadi bed. The next stop was the local hospital rather than the desert! Time with Adrian during both Footsteps of Thesiger and the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge has left me with some wonderful memories. We even did an adventure race together once but unfortunately my bike frame snapped just five kilometres into the race so we were forced to complete the full Arabian Quest course on foot… needless to say we were last in, but at least we didn’t give up!
Adrian is a hard man to pin down as beyond his great adventures, he has a crazy busy schedule with speaking engagements and corporate coaching in Europe, the US and here in the Middle East. I love spending time with him though… it’s always inspiring to pick the brain of a full time adventurer, where he stands now and how he turns future fantasy’s into reality. So I jumped at the opportunity to organise a shoot when a simple yet great idea sprung to mind.
We both share a friend and client, Dewald, who distributes amazing outdoor brands like Marmot and Patagonia. Together, I felt we could build a super strong portfolio of images around Adrian’s training regime and desert jaunts, in preparation for tackling high altitude peaks in the Himalayas or hair-raising polar crossings. Marmot could throw in some amazing new gear… without which Adrian would probably have rocked up in a tatty Ironman Finishers Shirt dating back to 2005 (!)… and Marmot, in return, would get great visual assets and stories for social and editorial use. Win-win for all!
So organised it was and we set off, suited and booted, on a energetic day shooting, hitting the desert in time for the morning sunrise. We headed for Fossil Rock first of all, followed by RAK’s mountains in the afternoon. Needless to say, we had lots of fun and got cracking shots along the way.
What’s my take on Adrian’s life as a full time adventurer? It’s restless, thrilling, vibrant, passionate and his living on the edge is an inspiration. As a worldwide, record-breaking adventurer, the world is certainly a crazy one. Where to go next? What to climb? What to cross? Who’s not done what? You constantly need to be thinking of something harder, higher and more extreme than what’s already been accomplished. How do you maintain your unique voice in a pretty crowded space?
Perhaps this instills in you some crazy thoughts and ideas?
Thanks to Canon Middle East, I had the great pleasure of spending a day with ten media creatives from a range of publications and blogs. We were hosting a full day program centred around the theme of Urban Exploration. The video below is a great summary of the energy of the day.
Urban Exploration means different things to different people. We spoke about this at length during the class room session, particularly in terms of access and location. My definition is this… urban relates to the urban environment and culture and exploration relates to the intention of discovery and being open minded about the outcome. Together, Urban Exploration means hitting the streets in a rich and dynamic place to randomly wonder and tell stories with photographs.
Exploring is all about spending time on the street, either on foot or on a bike. Strap on a backpack and hit the road. I’m a big fan of fstop gear bags for three reasons; they’re super comfy, they’re not immediately recognisable as photo gear bags (thereby allowing you to blend into a crowd) and they provide easy access to kit. Trying to stay unnoticed is key. Depending on where you are in the world, that could mean looking like a local or a tourist. Ditch the tripod, travel light and keep your camera in your pack (lens mounted) until you really need it. Walking around with your camera around your neck would be a definite no no and simply draw attention to yourself.
Beat sunrise and shoot well beyond midnight. Remember the unexpected stories come from the out-of-the-ordinary. Every city bustles with energy 24hrs a day. Think bakeries, fish markets, bus stations, entertainment areas, ports… they all run around the clock and each one tells a story regardless of the time of day. If travel time is an issue, just book a room in a cool neighbourhood. I booked a heritage hotel along the Dubai Creek once to fully immerse myself in three days of exploring Deira and Bur Dubai. A truly amazing experience.
Heba showing off her latest collection of Canon gear…
With regards to access, my advice is to be bold. Ask for forgiveness rather than permission. From experience, I know that if you ask the question re whether its ok to enter somewhere to take a photograph, you’ll spend ages waiting for someone to respond, which eventually turns out to be “Problem Sir, not allowed. No photo”. This particularly applies in this part of the world. So just find a way, walk with confidence like you know where you’re going and keep moving forward.
At some point, we hit the grey area of trespassing and going somewhere (truly) off limits. My point of view is that there are certainly things that would be damn stupid to enter. I’m talking military camps, Skeikh Mohammed’s private palaces, the safe of the central bank, the ladies section of mosques etc. These are absolute no no’s. And then there are other places where I guess you’re not suppose to tread but, if you get caught, a bit of sweet talk might be all you need to get away with it. Think container complexes at the harbour, old ruins, building rooftops and abandoned warehouses. Accessing these would just amount to a little harmless mischief. Both lists can go on and will differ for everyone. It all depends on your own comfort level. For me, it’s important that I’m not doing anyone harm, not damaging anything and not doing anything super illegal. Common sense really.
Jessie standing in as model for magic hour demo shot
To get the max out of your time, do your homework first to see what the area has on offer. A simple google search will have tons of images. Coffee table books are a great source of inspiration as are searches on a good image bank like Getty Images or Arabian Eye. Get a detailed map to plan a rough route. I find the ‘sun scout’ app super helpful to see how the sun travels at precise times of the day. So have a wishlist but don’t get too hung up on it. Be open to change. Take a left turn when you planned a right, just because the light looks better or you feel there might be a good story at the other end of the street. Follow your intuition. Listen to your gut. I’ve discovered the best places on random explorations. Remember what Tolkien said. ‘Not All Who Wander Are Lost.’ Don’t be disappointed if your wishlist isn’t met. Instead, celebrate the lucky and unexpected encounters. Embrace the unseen.
Urban Exploring is only partly about taking photographs. It’s also about meeting interesting people and having unexpected conversations. It’s about having roadside food, whether a schwarma from a roadside vendor or some tea in a crowded joint. It’s about the mindset of choice and freedom and not chasing someone elses wishlist. It’s about the adventurer and explorer that lives in all of us. It’s quality ME time and that’s so valuable. Leave your phone at home… don’t be disturbed by ringing, buzzing or vibrating.
Finally, it’s about getting out there. Don’t be an armchair dreamer. Get out, do it and experience it. Explore first, brag later.
A big shout-out and appreciation to Canon Middle East for the opportunity to spend the day with such an amazing crowd. There is something super rewarding about sharing passion and trade with those keen to learn. Also many thanks to SanDisk and f stop gear for spicing up the media kit with valuable products. The crew at Clarke and Romero did a fab job in putting the behind the scenes video together.
The crew at Red Bull took me down to Big Red, an enormous, iconic and pretty daunting sand dune between Dubai and the Hatta mountain range. With a reputation for being able to separate the novice 4×4 drivers from the real dunes bashers, those who make it to the top are considered real heroes!
On this occasion, we didn’t aim for the top but set our focus on a skatepark custom built for newly recruited Red Bull ambassador, Jan Hoffman. It’s tough being a skater in Dubai, with frantic roads and hoards of security guards blocking access to abandoned industrial sites. So what to do and where to go? This reportage is about thinking outside the box and going that extra mile.
I came across Big Red years ago whilst competing in a desert running race. I recall around 2am, 20km or so into the race, expecting a desolate dune… little did we expect a huge crowd of local boys cruising the sand and showing off with tricks on their quad bikes. This dune certainly holds its own when it comes to action and adventure.
How to summarise a stunning year in one word? … Blessed.
It is a true blessing to work with so many amazing clients seeking to go that extra mile, athletes who are at the top of their game and so many interesting, inspiring and courageous people. Yip, 2015 has been a pretty awesome year and I’m very grateful for all that’s happened.
The last five or so years, I’ve written a recap post reflecting back on the twelve months behind me and every year I make the same observation about the speed of our lives. Consumed by the digital rat race, we play a constant juggling game between family, work and play. So much happens that unless I sit down and recap, I forget about all the great opportunities that have landed on my plate… and I forget, I realise, to often appreciate it all and say ‘Thank You!’
This year, I decided to keep my post short and sweet by sharing my six lessons from 2015. They’re in no particular order…
Nothing happens in isolation.
Simply nothing happens in isolation. Nothing. An idea might come from a quiet place but only grows once it’s out in the open. I built my own Studio//73 with the help of others. I work with creative talent to build greater books and deliver amazing shoots. As a brand ambassador and influencer, it’s about sharing the buzz about our industry. My behind the scenes videos is about giving back. We attract what we put out in the world and great ideas are worth spreading.
Be open to new things.
In 2015, we finally wrapped up the Falcons of Arabia book project… something we’ve worked on for 2 ½ years. Sure, we’ve produced over a dozen books but the sport of Falconry was new to me. Why it landed on my plate, I still don’t know, but I grabbed the opportunity. New topics require a great deal of research, study and learning… and in the process you evolve personally and connect with an entirely new crowd. This project meant immersing myself into the Emirati world of Falconry which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m grateful for this opportunity and for being raised in a culture where exploring new things was always encouraged. And thankfully, I still have all ten fingers!
Turn thinking into doing.
In March, I spent a week solo in The Empty Quarter, which is the second biggest desert in the world. An entire week ‘off the grid’… self sufficient and without any digital connection, it was a week of pure quality time in nature away from the digital rat race that consumes us. I named it ‘Project Pause – The Empty Quarter’. I thought about it for twelve months or so but once I’d made the commitment to just go, there was a complete shift in my mind. Suddenly, I found myself saying, “In March, I’m going on…” and as luck would have it, brands, friends and clients all picked up on it and wanted to support. Wow. With a bit of cash, my thinking was to produce a cool film about the experience, with the aim of inspiring others to find a Project Pause of their own. And so it happened…
Be patient. Good things will happen, when you least expect.
A gig that pushed the boundaries in 2015 was shooting two big Hollywood stars. Two weeks prior, I got a call… “Are you available on the 5th of November. Please say yes”. Euan and I had worked on a gig in 2012, shooting the world’s biggest golf players in the world’s biggest bunker. This time he pitched a similar idea to do a shoot of Margot Robbie in the same stunning desert landscape. We did just that and the results were amazing. One led to another and the next day, I found myself on the Hyatt hotel’s rooftop helipad shooting Orlando Bloom. Clearly the story isn’t quite this short as there was all the pre-production to think about, but the message is there. Creating great work leads to new work. Yes it might take time, but when it does, it rocks! This story is just one of a few. In March, I flew to Kuwait for ten days to shoot some amazing fast cars. This opportunity came out of the blue, but it also sort of didn’t…
Create from who you are… and do what you love.
As many of you know, I’m a big outdoor and adventure guy. For that reason I tend to attract like-minded lifestyle brands as clients. Attracting them is one thing but turning their briefs into real, RAW imagery is where the real challenge comes in. I put it simple, you have to work with real people in real places. With Adventure HQ, we went on a five day photo gig, touring the best locations and shooting the best possible content. Yes we got fried, dehydrated and sleep deprived but hell did we capture the real stuff. For Lululemon, it was all about creating the unstaged moments with their pro ambassadors. Creating the unstaged isn’t easy but if you can bring passion and positive energy to the shoot, it’s certainly do-able. My love for the great outdoors has been with me since childhood but turning it into a source of business has required patience and the constant seeking of opportunities.
Learn to let go.
I normally start a gig with a clear vision in my head, knowing what imagery I want to get out of the shoot. Most of the time this works but not always. When you find yourself swimming upstream, there really is great value in letting go and leaving the shoot to chance. Just letting it flow. I’m not saying to settle on anything less but to allow something different to pan out. Just let things happens as they are meant to be. I’m a big believer in this and it works. Try it.
So there you have it. My lessons from my humble observations working as a photographer, a producer, a storyteller and an aspiring filmmaker. Our futures lie in our own hands and are transformed by the actions we take day in, day out and by the people that influence our lives. 2016 will bring amazing opportunities so make sure you’re ready to grab them with both hands.
That million-dollar question… how long will it take to shoot? Rock climbing, mountain biking, skate boarding, road cycling, kayaking, surf skiing, camping, trail running, yoga, fat biking, diving, fishing, BBQ… and the shoot list didn’t end there. I looked at the client and replied with “10 days”. They looked back, grinned and responded with “how about three days?” I laughed… and then we settled on five.
Five days… and I still don’t know how we fitted it all in. Days were jam-packed with crew call times at 3 or 4am making for 16hrs day. Pre-production was key, with extensive location scouting and setting up the shots at the best outdoor locations in both the UAE and Musandam in Oman. We pretty much crafted a minute by minute production schedule, making the best of the sweet early morning and afternoon light. I can’t remember how many brands were represented with hundreds of items and dozens of athletes / talent. But most importantly we all an amazing time in the great outdoors.
Why do I love shooting adventure sports? Because we’re all in it for memories, all keen to create stories. And stories are so powerful. It’s a great opportunity to work with amazing athletes and adventurers. And its a grand excuse to head out into the mountains, live it to the max and enjoy the great outdoors. For me, it’s pretty much second nature but for some of the crew it meant first-time camping or getting high up in the mountains. Seeing their enormous grins during those long days was super rewarding.
I created a mood board with images I’ve shot in the past or collected from adventure brands for years, just as a reference to dig into when stuck on site or to explain individual concepts to the team. In an ideal world, you’d shoot a real and raw adventure over a ten day expedition where gear, people and clothing naturally gets worn in and roughened up. Instead, in this shoot we sped up time by rolling in the sand and using other dirty tricks. At the end of the day, the images had to look genuine, unstaged, real and inspiring. I know that’s what we delivered.
Have a look at my main site where you’ll find the full image gallery and seriously check out the behind the scenes video on the top of this post, which besides the production side of things also shows the adventures YOU can have in our region. We do live in an amazing playground with unlimited access.
A big shout out to the crew at Absolute Adventure for keeping us out of trouble and being our partner in ground support. Anyone who gets inspired and is keen to venture off should contact these guys. They’ll take you outdoors, look after you and give you an amazing adventure experience.
I’ve got a few amazing brands that support me with the work I do. Many thanks to Goal Zero for keeping us powered up, fstop gear for their fab pack to haul our gear around the mountains, Aquatec for keeping my camera bombproof dry in the ocean, SanDisk for their fast and uber reliable CF cards and Western Digital for safely storing 100’s of GB’s of data on their HD’s. These are amazing brands to rely on when digging it deep in far away places.
Finally, thanks to everyone for bringing their energy and making it all happen! When tempted to buy some new outdoor toys and gadgets. Check out the Adventure HQ stores around the UAE… and when you’re there, pick up the new catalogue. I heard it looks really nice…
I’m currently prepping for my annual escape from the heat… Dubai, you may have heard, was recently marked as the hottest place on the planet! As always the loose agenda involves quality family time in Europe, fresh air, green mountains, local produce and hooking up with friends. A little work but mainly play, a chance to take a breather from Dubai’s hectic work-life balance…
This trip is also pinned to be a chance to crank up my running mileage again, digging into my passion for trail running and exploring new places. So with 55 days in Europe, I’m up for a little challenge. The question is, what challenge? One that gives me ample chance to run but also falls in line with family time… I wouldn’t swap valuable time with my wife and kids for any race. Being too sore to play with my boys or falling asleep during dinners just isn’t an option.
So my decision landed on committing to run every day… 55 consecutive days and 555km total mileage. I’ll run a few trail races (listed below) and in between I’ll just crack on with daily jaunts myself. I figure by writing down my wish list, I’m making myself accountable… telling the world via the world wide web. I plan to record my runs too with my Suunto Ambition 3 so stay tuned to my Facebook page where I’ll be posting updates, stories and images.
19k Trail De Schaak – Holland
24k Oosterhoutse Trail – Holland
30k Utrechtse Heuvelrug Trail – Holland
26k Trail du Ventoux – France
31k Matterhorn Ultraks – Switzerland
31k Trail des Fantomes – Belgium
16.5k Trail Landgoed Bornia – Holland
29k Kromme Rijnpad – Holland
Why am I doing this? I’m not going to answer that question. If you can’t answer it yourself, just take the plunge and give it a try yourself. You’ll soon discover why!
As for how I came up with the 555 challenge?
I was inspired by my South African friend, Lisa de Speville, who started off running every day for the 35 days before her 35th birthday. She’s been doing this ever since, adding a day with each passing year. I loved the idea and started off with a 40 day running plan, to mark my turning 40 this year. Somehow that evolved into 55 days! Lisa runs her own adventure blog and also www.AR.co.za… a must visit for avid runners.
To avoid running injuries and ease myself gently into the mileage, I’ve been doing some shorter runs here in Dubai. 5.30am starts mean I can beat the sun rise and the soaring heat. Each one acts as another reminder of why I’m escaping next week!
NOT ALL THOSE WHO WANDER ARE LOST… The inspiration for Project Pause came at the tail end of 2013, during a flight on an assignment to Qatar. The magical views over Nakheel’s The World islands stirred my hunger to spend more time in isolation, away from distractions and a hectic schedule. It brought an abrupt awareness that my days are filled with chasing deadlines, promoting noise and pushing for creativity. Add to this an energetic family life and I realised that the engine most definitely needs to be recharged every so often.
My initial idea was to spend five days on an island in The World but access and permissions issues proved to be a real obstacle course. So now, just over a year later, I’ve remapped the idea. You see, a recent automotive gig in The Empty Quarter reminded me on the sheer beauty, scale and isolation of the desert. Hundreds of kilometres of the best desert landscape in the world, right here on our doorstep. So I’ve decided to take the bull by the horns and next month shall be dropped off somewhere in the middle of The Empty Quarter, amongst of the biggest dunes you can imagine, for one whole week. Solo.
I walked through The Empty Quarter back in 2012 with explorer and adventurer Adrian Hayes, covering his Footsteps of Thesiger expedition. I even wrote my own ebook ‘Real Men Don’t Shave’ (on sale for just $11) about the amazing experience. The Empty Quarter is simply a magical place and I’m so much looking forward to spending time there, seeking adventure, thinking and being.
Why? Do you really have to ask? The quest to live a simple life, just me and a note book, a supply of healthy food, a stack of powerful reading, a tent and the spirit of Robinson Crusoe. Just letting the days evolve as they’re meant to evolve. Sometimes, little more is needed.
I shall spend time completing some personal projects and thinking about how I want the next few years to pan out. I might even come up with a solution to save our planet. Who knows! It’s an open quest and I’m open to whatever may present itself.
My very first experience with The North Face goes back to a purchase some 25+ years ago and over the years, I’ve trashed their packs, duffles, tents, tops, base layers and shoes at exciting places all over the world. They’re an awesome outdoor brand just crying out to be played with.
So when the phone rang and Craig, their Middle East brand guy, asked if I wanted to do some trail running work with them, it was a no brainer. Their logo is on my ‘brands I would love to work for’ board so needless to say, I was eager to grab this opportunity. I did some work with The North Face brand ambassador, Dean Karnazes in ’08 and ’09 with some extreme running in Chile and China and my… (more…)
Just recently, I completed Dubai’s Extreme 3, a three day ultra race covering local desert and mountain terrain across a grand total of 140 kilometres. If I could sum it up in one word, that word would be AWESOME. I just loved being on the other side of the lens and it was truly refreshing not having to worry about f-stops, iso settings or RAW conversions. Instead, my days were filled with clocking up mileage, freeze dried meals and trailing pink flags.
The course was spectacular. I’ve been exploring the UAE for over years and I still find I’m constantly discovering new places. The route took us through farms where you could smell the local herbs, through exposed wadi gorges, interspersed with massive boulders and, of course, through its fair share of deep sand! The desert always looks stunning but after hours on foot.. (more…)
I’m wondering what their out of office reply will be. “Got your email, thanks… but it’s unlikely I’ll reply anytime soon as I’m off sailing around the world for eight months with the Volvo Ocean Race.”
The team Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing is in town and I had the privilege of spending a few days with them. They’d just announced the new crew for the Volvo ocean race and this was the first time they were all together in Abu Dhabi.
Over the course of three days, the agenda was all about having… (more…)