On Assignment

 

A bushfire adds to the 50-degree heat as I pedal through the Kimberley, on a lonely highway west of Hall's Creek, Western Australia, Australia - Copyright R. Ian Lloyd

In July of 1996 I left my job at Time Magazine and set off to cycle around Australia, unsupported and on my own, free clear and beholden to no-one. Shortly before I left though, I approached the editors of National Geographic, told them my plans, and after due consideration their story approval committee responded with cautious enthusiasm – a contract to write a small feature on the expedition (how I loved to hear it called that, and by such an august lot as the expeditions committee of the National Geographic Society!) along with a hundred rolls of Fuji Velvia film.

On the chance that the story might actually be better than expected, and that I might actually complete my ambitious 10,000 mile circumnavigation of Australia, they said they’d like to send one of their photographers to join me occasionally on the road for a few days, starting when I reached the Kimberley – or rather if I reached the Kimberley, as I recall the photo editor putting it at the time. I couldn’t blame him for the caution. I was an unknown quantity and the Kimberley was a good 4000 miles from Sydney, where I was starting, and getting there involved crossing some mighty harsh stretches of Outback.

I set off late in July and over the next three months I cycled up Australia’s bustling eastern seaboard, took an experimental 600-mile side-trip into the Queensland outback along the Capricorn Highway, returned to the coast again at Townsville, then pedalled up to Cairns and before turning west and heading into the so-called ‘Gulf Country’, the achingly desolate, blazing hot savannah that skirts the Gulf of Carpentaria. I was in seriously remote territory now, some of the harshest and loneliest scrub in Australia. I survived this baptism of fire and eventually made it to Darwin, arriving there much browner, fitter and leaner, and much, much wiser in the ways of the bush.

The day after I got there I called the photo editor collect from a pay phone on Mitchell Street and told him I was just about ready to start tackling the Kimberley. My stock had risen around the magazine by then. I’d been posting chatty, informal letters back to the manuscripts editor about my life on the road. He’d enjoyed them and passed them around – remember, this was before the age of Broadband, when letters were well thumbed sheets of paper in enveloped with postage stamps on them – and a consensus was building in the august halls of the magazine that this bicycle journey of mine might actually end up being a good story. Certainly the photo editor greeted me in welcoming fashion. When I told him where I was and my plans were he replied ‘just a moment’ and for the next few seconds I could hear the sounds of an atlas being spread open on a desk in an office 12,000 miles away.

“Is there an airport at this place, Kununurra?” he asked after a moment’s silent study. I told him there was. “Okay. We’ll have a photographer meet you there in a couple weeks,” he said, “He’ll follow you along the road to, hmmm, let’s see, how about Broome? Will he be able to get a flight out of there?” I assured him he would. We chatted bit, he wished me luck and we rang off.

I lingered in Darwin a couple more days, and set out for Kununurra, an isolated settlement in the eastern part of the Kimberley, about 600 miles away. When I got there I learned there would be a delay: the photographer they were sending was off on another assignment and couldn’t get here for another couple of weeks. And so I spent a fortnight getting to know Kununurra, where it was 115 degrees every day and sweltering in humidity in the build-up to the rains. I put in the time picking fruit in the irrigated melon fields on the outskirts of town – brutally hot hard work by normal standards, but a doddle compared the long days I’d put in on the bicycle riding out to this place from Darwin.

It was the first week of November by then, time for the running of the Melbourne Cup, the famous Australian horse race that stops the nation. Like everybody else in town I spent the day in the pub, drinking cold beer and investing my fruit-picking earnings in slow-running horses. The good news was, though, at long last, the photographer would be flying in the next morning.

I went out to the airport to meet him, curious and a little apprehensive to see what a National Geographic photographer was like – you hear so many myths and stories. What came out of the plane was a cheerful Canadian guy named Ian Lloyd who lived in Singapore and did specialised in Asia. Aside from magazine work he had a long list of corporate clients, including many of southeast Asia’s grand hotels and five-star resorts. This was his first visit to Kununurra. He glanced around and said: ‘You’re kidding, right?’

We had lunch together in the pub and then he went off to see about renting a Land Cruiser or some such for the 600-mile drive to Broome, and pick up some camping things and supplies so he could stay with me on the road. You can get all kinds of gear in Kununurra, anything from geologist’s hammer to a helicopter. It may be just a lonely dot on the map, but it is also the main service and access town for the big Argyle Diamond Mine, some two hundred miles further out in the desert. Geologists, mine engineers, site surveyors, contractors, you name it, go in and out of here all the time.

While Ian took care of his end of things, I moseyed on back to the seedy backpacker’s hostel in which I’d been staying for the past fortnight, packed my things and gave my bicycle a thorough going-over ahead of the dawn start I proposed to make on the morrow.

The helicopter cometh as I cycle down a lonely outback highway in the Kimberley, Western Australia - copyright R. Ian Lloyd

I’d told Ian I would be leaving at first light, which at that time of year, in that part of Western Australia, is about half past four in the morning. He smiled and shook his head and said he’d catch up with me later, that he had a few things to attend to yet in town, This seemed a little odd to me; all the photographers I’d ever known and worked with in the past were always dead keen to get out there at the crack of dawn and work the morning light for all it was worth. And yet here was this guy, National Geographic no less, going to sleep in. What was this all about?

For the time being though, at least on the gloriously sunny morning when I finally pedalled out of town, I was just grateful to be shaking the dust of Kununurra off my pannier bags, and enjoying the freedom of the open road once more. I’d done my part, said where I’d be and when I’d be going. Presumably this Ian knew what he was doing; if he screwed up, that was his look-out, not mine. Now it just felt good to be up and moving.

I made decent time. I always did this hour of the day. That was the trick to cycling through the deserts out here: put in the work in the relative cool of the mornings, and then, around eleven o’clock or so, when the mercury has soared up over the century mark, pull over make yourself a day-camp in whatever scrap of shade you can find and sit out the worst of the heat, sipping from a water bottle, reading, dozing, listening to the drowsy hum of the insects. Then set off again late afternoon, when a subtle but recognizable shift in the light told you that the day was on the wane and the gentle slide towards evening had begun.

On the subject of light I began looking around as I pedalled along the desolate highway that morning and thinking to myself that perhaps Ian had called the right turn after all; this was a nice time of day for riding, but a bit early yet for the outback colours to have taken on those nice rich tones that photographers so rightly love.

A couple of hours later though, the morning sunlight was as honeyed and sweet as anyone could hope for – the sky had deepened by then to a rich enamel blue and the majestic red rock country of the Kimberley was practically aglow with golden sunrise warmth. It was lovely and getting lovelier by the moment. But still no sign of Ian.

I pulled over on the roadside for a drink and thoughtful look around, wondering where this guy might be, if he’d broken down or gone the wrong way out of town. Wherever he was, he was a long way from where I was. My stretch of road was dead quiet, just a desolate ribbon of bitumen stretching away for miles in both directions and that great primal hush that descends over you when you stand all by yourself along a lonely roadside in the Outback. The horizons on every side were empty. The only thing that was moving anywhere was a distant speck of a helicopter off to the north – somebody doing a bit of cattle mustering, probably. That’s the way they round up their livestock here in the Kimberley, where cattle stations run into the millions of acres: they use helicopters. This time of year, with the rains about to start, the big Kimberley pastoralists are usually busy moving their cattle up onto higher, firmer ground – one of the many chores they need to attend to in the battening down of hatches before the onset of ‘The Wet’, when the homesteads get flooded in, the roads washed out and pretty much everything up here shuts down.

I had about 2000 miles to cover if I was going to get myself far enough south to be out of reach of big tropical rains that were coming. I’d been dawdling these past few weeks, what with one thing or another – taking a well-earned breather in Darwin, revelling in the romance of having ridden my bicycle from Sydney to the Timor Sea, and that fortnight I’d just spent cooling my heels in Kununurra waiting for Ian to show up. We were well into November now, very much time for me to get cracking. I capped my water bottle, mounted up and set off down the highway into the pretty morning light, the buzz of that helicopter growing ever more insistent in my ears.

Ever seen that old Hitchcock movie North by Northwest? You know that scene where Cary Grant is standing all by himself at that impossibly desolate crossroads in South Dakota, looking as lonely as a pin on a map, and watching the crop-duster swooping in the distance? Where the audience feels a gathering sense of unease and menace that Cary Grant’s character doesn’t notice until it is nearly too late? Well, except for the fact that I don’t look a thing like Cary Grant, that could have been me. And like his character, I never saw it coming. I was pedalling blithely along the highway when suddenly there came a deafening roar as the no-longer-distant helicopter zoomed up behind me, shoulder height and frighteningly close, its powerful down-drafts buffeting me across the road. As it whooshed by I noticed Ian leaning out the open hatch with a big motor-driven Canon SLR clapped to his face.

Spinning along through the Kimberley with a Bell Jet Ranger hovering overhead. This photo was taken with a wide-angle lens. Things are much closer than they appear. copyright R. Ian Lloyd

Nose down, the chopper sped up the highway ahead of me, Ian leaning out and shooting back at me like a tail-gunner. As I watched, open-mouthed, the pilot wheeled his craft around in a low, tight turn and came back for another pass.

And so it went. Back and forth, hovering low – and I mean reach-out-and-grab-the-struts low – with Ian shooting close-ups, the pilot smiling and nodded reassurance, and me wrestling the downdrafts, gripping the handlebars like a strangler, flabbergasted, awestruck, and all the while trying to look casual for the camera: a carefree cyclist breezing down an empty desert highway with just the twittering of the birds for company.

The pilot was a genius, his skills honed by years of mustering cattle and dropping off geologists in weird and inaccessible locations. He was easily able to pace me on the bike, occupying the lane beside me, even doing it backwards when Ian wanted to take pictures from the other side of the road. At one point, when they were riding along close beside me, he’d had to haul back on the joystick and jump clear to let a road train barrel through beneath him. A moment later he was back again, hovering beside me, little more than an arm’s length away, as though nothing had happened. I can only imagine what that truck driver must have thought. The spectacle of a cyclist being monstered by a helicopter must have been a little odd even by outback Australian standards.

Road train barrels past me near Turkey Creek, The Kimberley, Western Australia - copyright R. Ian Lloyd

As for me, I’ve been able to play dodge-’ems with the most aggressive of London’s taxis, busses and white-panel-van delivery men with complete equanimity ever since. They are all just pussycats compared with a bush pilot in a Bell Jet Ranger.

After a few more passes they put down on the roadside and the pilot switched off the engine. Silent fell over the desert. I drew up on my bicycle, chuckling to myself with relief and amazement, accepting gratefully the ice-cold bottle of Gatorade Ian thrust into my hands, and the oversized bag of breakfast goodies he’d brought along to go with it. Ian and the pilot and I then stood around gasbagging for a while – for I felt there was much for us to discuss – after which they hopped back in the whirlybird and, all smiles and waves, took off in a roar of engines and swirling dust, back to Kununurra, shooting aerials along the way. And there was me standing by my bicycle in a big empty desert wondering what on earth I’d let myself in for.

We spent the following week together, Ian and I, crossing the Kimberley east to west, all the way to the old pearling port of Broome. No more helicopter chases after that first day, just him driving a rental Land Cruiser packed with camera gear and me working long days in front of the lens, pedalling back and forth as required, jollied on by Ian’s infallible good humour and his assurances that this would all pay off in the end. As indeed it did. Buoyed along by the strength of the images that were shot that week, the story of my ride around Australia grew in National Geographic’s editorial panel’s estimation from the original planned shortish feature to a full three-part series – the first in the magazine’s history.

In fact, one of the shots Ian took that week, of a beleaguered me pedalling past a bush fire not far from Fitzroy Crossing, very nearly became a National Geographic cover, narrowly losing out at the last minute to a more adorable shot of baby leopard cubs (but winning the reader’s choice poll!) To this day whenever I see that shot I can still hear him calling out to me from a safe distance away (thanks to his 300mm lens), as I pedalled across the viewfinder: “Can – you – ride – closer – to – the – flames?” And my plaintive response, a wailed: “Noooooo!”

Ian and I in the Karri forests of Western Australia later on in my journey - Copyright R. Ian Lloyd

Ian was to join me several more times over the course of my journey – in the towering Karri forests and Margaret River wine region south of Perth, and again in Melbourne, in the cold, blustery wilds of Tasmania and one final time at the very end of the trail, at the steps of the Opera House when I finally reached Sydney. I came to look forward to his visits on the trail, a familiar face after weeks of encountering only strangers, and having the opportunity to step outside my traveller’s anonymity and be somebody, a somebody with a name, a background, colleagues, and friends – one of them fast becoming a jaunty Canadian photographer named Ian Lloyd. All these years later we still keep in touch, exchanging the news of our families and children and marvelling at the passage of time.

As for me, I’ve always wanted to write the story of scooting down that lonely desert highway, wide-eyed, with the blades of that Bell Jet Ranger prodding me along – without doubt the weirdest bit of traffic I’ve ever encountered in my cycling career – but writing the photographer into the story just isn’t usually the done thing in the magazine game, not even in a first person account. It just seems too indulgent and anyway there wasn’t space. But what is a blog if not an opportunity for a little writerly indulgence? And so here, fifteen years late, is my helicopter story.

This entry was posted in Touring and tagged , , , , .

5 Comments

  1. bill nevin December 11, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    fantastic can’t wait to read the book

    • Roff Smith December 11, 2011 at 8:25 pm #

      Thanks. That was a really special trip – probably the best thing I have ever done. I hope you enjoy the book.

  2. Pete croft February 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    Just got hold of cold beer and crocs, if it’s as entertaining as your blog, I’m in for a good read :-)

  3. Roff Smith February 16, 2012 at 7:56 pm #

    Thanks. I hope you enjoy it.

  4. OJ May 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    Fantastic and inspiring! (And I’m a fairly cynical chap, not sure I’ve used the i word more than five times in total.)

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