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|| News Item: Posted 2000-12-20

The Toughest Shoot in the World:
Shooting Eco-Challenge is an Adventure in Itself

By Corey Rich

Photo by Corey Rich/Quokka

Photo by Corey Rich/Quokka
The Eco-Challenge adventure race is known to many as the toughest event in the world. Teams of four adventure racers thrash their bodies, minds and souls on an approximately weeklong, non-stop race through desert, jungle, oceans, mountains and rivers, facing whatever nature throws in their path. Teams often go days on end with little or no sleep, and hallucinating on the course is common. Competitors travel by foot, mountain bike, kayak, sailboat, canoe, horse, camel and any combination of non-motorized travel, depending on the course. Each year, the race travels to a different exotic and remote location. This year's Eco-Challenge was set in Borneo, an island in Malaysia in August 2000.

Created by Mark Burnett, the producer of the famed television show, Survivor, the Eco-Challenge has become a huge media opportunity as well as a grueling physical event. Undoubtedly, competing in Eco-Challenge is a wild adventure, but so can being a photographer at the event.

This year's Eco-Challenge was covered with digital cameras by Arkhaven, a group of veteran photographers who have been covering the race for years, and Quokka Sports, who provides live coverage of events from the NBC Olympics to Mt. Everest expeditions.

In Malaysia, the paradox of high-tech camera equipment and the remote, wild environment with relentless weather proved challenging for photographers at work.

The following four photographers tell their tales about shooting in a land far, far away.

-- Porter Binks (Arkhaven) is a picture editor at Sports Illustrated.

-- Tommy Baynard is a Field Producer for Quokka Sports.

-- Corey Rich (Quokka Sports) is an adventure sports photographer based in Sacramento, California.

-- Reed Hoffmann (Arkhaven) is a freelance photographer and digital photography guru based in Overland Park, Kansas.

Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Arkhaven

Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Arkhaven
1. What are some of your best memories of Eco-Challenge 2000?

PB: Mostly the beauty of Borneo. I continue to be amazed at the places this event is held, because you learn so much reading about the country to try and get a handle on it before you have to work there. Then you see it, and it may or may not be as you imagined it. The mountains, as always, were breathtaking. And when I had the chance to fly over the mountains and the South China Sea to places where competitors were battling the elements, I could see that although parts of the country were very primitive, they was beautiful as well.

CR: The swim-up bar at the hotel was first-rate. The majority of the assignments I get sucked into doing require traveling to remote places, sleeping in the dirt and taking risks. Eco-Challenge, on the other hand, is a made-for-TV event and it is important that photographers are well-rested and pampered in five-star hotels before it comes time to shoot. After all, it's the athletes who need to be suffering. We're just there to document it.

TB: I used to work for the Eco-Challenge event as a race coordinator, so I'm well-aware of the fact that teams travel in remote areas, far-away from the main media centers. I would have to say my favorite part is when you've busted your ass by boat or on foot through the jungle or just waited and waited, and finally, a team you're covering emerges and no other media is around. I feel like my best pictures happen after I've traveled with a team for a while and they feel comfortable, and I can find them on remote parts of the course.

RH: I'll always remember the beauty of the country, the ocean and rainforests. The people were friendly and welcomed being photographed. Also, as always, the competitors were a blast to be around (most of the time!). You've got to figure that anyone who willingly puts themselves through this must be at least a little bent, and that makes for fun people. Finally, with this being the fourth one that Kevin, Porter and I have done together, it's gotten to be more little like a fraternity reunion each year. In addition to having lots of fun with each other, we've gotten to be friends with many of the camera crews, and have fun with that too.

Photo by Rob Myers

Photo by Rob Myers
2. What do you wish you brought but didn't?

PB: Not much. I thought I had finally learned how to pack for these things. I brought too many clothes. But my equipment was just right. I quit bringing stuff like clamps, magic arms, ball heads and small stuff like that because those things can weigh a ton and I never used any of it the three previous years. I do wish I had my hybrid bike. I think I could really make some nice photos on roads that were closed to regular traffic, especially at night, if I had the ability to get around. We could have used a bike at one site to get in when our trucks were taken for a rescue. I think we should ship one next time.

CR: Cotton. I thought I would be "roughing it" in the jungle for a month so I decided I needed to outfit myself in a 100% synthetic Patagonia wardrobe. I wanted clothes that would wick moisture away from my body in the wet humid environment. The only problem with synthetic clothes is trying to clean your camera lenses. My lenses were only clean for the first seven minutes I was in Malaysia.

TB: Gold Bond medicated powder!

RH: An assistant. Seriously. We've done this enough times, and in enough strange places, that having the right gear along isn't much of a problem anymore. On the other hand, it's not getting any lighter, and shooting all-digital this year added battery packs, laptops and such. I'm not fond of being a mule.

3. What sucked the most?

PB: The seven hours I spent in the sun (nearly all day), at a place called the Segama River Bridge. We were told (classic Eco-speak!) that the lead team was coming through about 9am. And by 3pm, when they still weren't there, we had been baked by the high sun. Why didn't we leave? First of all, our reports were sketchy as to how long it took teams to make the "float" to that spot, and leaving would risk missing them. We had no way to track them, which is always a problem. Second, we had a pretty nice view from the top of the bridge as teams went under us and thought it might make a cool picture, so we opted to stay. But it was a long, hot day.

Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Arkhaven

Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Arkhaven
CR: The Malay people have their whole weight-loss program down to a science. A strict diet of steamed white rice and pineapple can do wonders to your waistline in a month's time. If you enjoy fine culinary experiences, you should consider crossing Malaysia off your list.

TB: Our boat drivers on the ocean leg of the race. They were from China and spoke no English, no Malay. Not even jive! I'm seriously convinced these clowns never drove a boat before the event. I think they were homeless and scored great jobs. We got stuck in the mud at the start of the event and almost missed it. Then, we ran aground whenever we could and hit most stationary objects: docks, other boats, fishing nets, coral, etc. Plus, I bought a cooler to keep the cameras in while on the water -- a trick I learned from sailing shooters in Key West. We left the boat for a day and when we returned, our cooler had fish in it. Stinky ass old fish. But after getting lost on numerous occasions and being constantly pounded by weather we ended up becoming pretty close to our incompetent boat drivers.

RH: A few years ago, a friend and I left San Diego one morning, and the next day went up and down Mt. Whitney. Twenty-two miles and 12,000 ft. elevation gain and loss over a 16-hour day made it my benchmark for hard days. In Borneo, I learned the true meaning of "beat." In the jungles, it was 105 degrees with 100% humidity. One day, I had to hike two hours in to a spot to shoot from. Ten minutes into the trip I was drenched in sweat. By the time I got there, I could not only wring sweat out of my socks, but I was able to pour it out of my boots! Yuck!

4. What took you by surprise?

Photo by Corey Rich/Quokka

Photo by Corey Rich/Quokka
PB: I'm always amazed at what we don't retain from the year before. There are ways not to make this job any harder on yourself by making lots of notes. And while we get better every year in terms of access, communication, transportation, I always seem to have to relearn simple stuff. I was also surprised at how well we worked with some of the TV crews this year. There's always a little friction: They shoot lots more than we do, from every angle possible. And their crews seem to have grown to four or five from the usual three. That's two more people everywhere, and twice that if the crews double up. And if they put four crews on something like the Playboy Bunnies, it can be hard to get a photo without getting in their way. After a few days, I noticed that some crews were relaxing around us, trusting us not to screw their shot up.

CR: Ice cubes were a rare commodity. I was hot and super humid for the 26 days I was in Malaysia's tropical climate. For all the ambitious entrepreneurs out there, the ice-making business could be to Malaysia what the "dot-coms" are to the U.S.

TB: How lack of sleep and constant chaotic interruptions in naps, either by pounding rainstorms or head-on close calls in a Landcruiser can turn you into a five-year-old child with a big bottom lip and an attitude to boot.

RH: I didn't know, I could eat rice for ten days and survive. Seriously, I didn't expect that I'd be dripping sweat all over my cameras and lenses constantly. I ended up using some of the great dry bags we'd gotten from Ortlieb as camera bags, just to protect the gear from the sweat.

5. Did you contract tropical diseases?

PB: No. I've been very lucky. In four Eco-Challenges, I've only been sick once, and that was from a touch of bad food in Morocco.

CR: Only rice poisoning. I have never contracted any serious diseases while traveling, yet I always take home a little bacteria that puts me on the pot for the first few days that I'm back in the United States. This trip was no exception. It is important to build these days into your contract at half of your day rate.

Photo by
TB: Yes, but I'm not totally sure. I think I got Leptosporosis that you get from exposure to animal feces and urine in the water. I came back to the States feeling rough, rougher than normal after 30 days in Borneo. I went to the U.C.S.F. Medical Center and they, as well as a nurse practitioner told me it was all in my head. I called around to find that every tropical disease specialist was on vacation (it doesn't help that the U.S. isn't a tropical country). I finally went to my doctor in San Diego who hooked me up with three weeks of Doxycylcin, and I'm still here.

RH: No. Of course, after doing this four years in a row I've had more than my share of immunizations, and we were all taking malaria medicine as well. There were a lot of stories published afterwards about some of the athletes coming down with leptospirosis, a possibly fatal disease. What the stories didn't explain properly was that everyone was aware of the possibility of getting it, and were watching out for it, and with proper treatment, its not a serious thing. One person on our team did come down with it, but she's fine now.

6. How did your camera gear hold up?

PB: Great. I had three D1's, and one went down. I never learned why. But we were lent 12 cameras, and only one malfunctioned. We also had nine CoolPix 990's. We were very fortunate, but we do take good care of the gear. We can avoid weather, but we can't control it. But we rarely need to stand in driving rain to make a picture!

CR: All I have to say is thank God for camera insurance!!! Just as chain smoking puts years on the human body, shooting in hot, humid and salty wet conditions put years on your equipment. I went to Malaysia with two working Canon DCS 520s, two 550ex's, two 70-200s, two 17-35s, two 16mm lenses and a 400 2.8. I came home with two lists of equipment, the working list and in-need-of-repair list, with half of the equipment on each.

Photo by
TB: I brought two DCS 520s. One never worked once we hit the humidity. So I had one body, which was abused. I fell down a riverbank as Porter watched from the comfort of the bridge. I'm telling you, I'm a hack. I also dropped my only battery in bat shit in the caves. I cleaned it out with my press pass and it worked like a charm. I had two 550ex flashes and neither worked, which is OK because I'm not sure how to use a flash anyway (just kidding!).

RH: You're probably tired of hearing me talk about sweating all over it, but seriously, that was my greatest concern with the gear. We were using D1's, but my experience with them over the last year has been that they're pretty tough cameras. The first three days were spent on the ocean, crashing though waves in open dive boats. Can you say, "saltwater spray?"

Thankfully, we all had great dry bags (by Ortlieb), and were able to protect cameras and lenses very well. After that, we moved into the jungles, where heat and humidity were intense. One researcher I spoke with told me that he had to rotate his camera gear in and out of the research station. If the equipment were there for more than a month, fungus would start growing inside the lenses. Finally, I did a lot of the shooting in the high spots. That sometimes required rappelling off a 300-ft. cliff to tie into a bolt in the rock and wait for teams to come dropping by. Despite trying to protect the camera and lenses, there were the occasional bangs into the rock. Luckily, the Nikon gear was as tough as the rocks, and performed flawlessly.

(Corey Rich, a freelance photographer specializing in outdoor and extreme sports, has traveled the world for magazines and advertising clients.)

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