You Must Have a Strategy

Many years ago I went on a photo safari with a group of people who claimed they were photographers. Our journey, to last eight weeks, commenced in Sydney and was to go to Darwin via Cameron’s Corner, up the Birdsville Track, along sundry, obscure scars on the landscape that were called roads, into Boulia, down the Plenty Highway, up the Stuart Highway and then along the Carpentaria Highway, one of the most boring roads on this planet. We were headed towards Borroloola, a small settlement on the edge of the vast swamps that bordered the Gulf, and a ‘back’ way into Kakadu.  This little settlement was not that far from where Burke and Wills reached the coast on their fateful journey across the continent.

Our journey across the continent was fateful too but conducted with greater comfort and safety.  As you are about to read, the fateful nature of the trip surfaced on the road north across the Barkely Tableland.

As we turned northeast onto the Carpentaria Highway, little did I realise this was to become a life changing and sight-changing event. It was soon clear that the Barkly Tableland was having a good season. The landscape consisted of bright yellow grassland, natural pasture that was in most places a metre high and quite uniform in appearance as it spread as far as the eye could see. This bright, yellow grass seemed unending and spoke to the vastness of the cattle country of the Northern Territory.  However, this flush of growth was misleading. Not for many years had the feed for cattle been as plentiful as we were to see that day. The landscape was an eloquent statement to the potential this country had for cattle if water could be regulated and available year in and year out.

These were questions/issues to ponder as our bus and its intrepid crew of Nikons and Canons trawled north in the company of two four-wheel drive support units.

It was hot for August. The sky was blue, bright blue. No clouds. Our bus suddenly became quite small, lost in a sea of yellow crowned by a blue that dazzled the eye and dulled the senses. Every now and again a small cluster of black cattle punctuated the monotony of the yellow grass, their heads looking up and over the feed to see what it was that broke their reverie. The cattle showed little expression; they just ate. Vivid yellow, black and blue with only the grey-brown of the road to break the array of saturation rampant.

The road was straight and flat and the slight undulations set up a rhythmic beat that was both hypnotic and gentle. At times it seemed the bus just floated. I feared for the driver’s capacity to concentrate, to keep alert in this setting designed to make the mind wander, the eyes glaze, the breathing to slow down to slumber. After all, just how many kilometres of blue sky, yellow grass and an occasional cow one take in a day that commenced six hours ago and with at least four more to go before we reached the next camp site. The bus’s occupants soon fell into their own hypnotic state having attempted to find a image or two from the bus during the first half of the journey, only to come to the numbing realisation there weren’t any to be found. The landscape was empty, not a tree, not an anthill – nothing punctuated the horizon. We had reached the middle of flat earth.

Our bus had become a travel capsule hurtling at speed across a landscape that spoke of myth, of country, of timelessness. Travel gear, camera bags and sundry clothing strewn across the backs of seats and on top of the luggage stored in the back surrounded the dozen of us. It was clear we were all lost in our thoughts. Silence prevailed.

It was about then that I realised an emergency was surfacing. The day was already long, it was hot, the glare from the sun in the middle of this day was blinding, the stillness of the passing landscape had become a blur, and we had not stopped for four numbing hours. We did not look like stopping as the driver (dear friend) once behind a wheel, would not, could not stop. He liked to drive to the end of the earth. I needed a pee.

I looked at my fellow photographers. None looked the slightest bit interested in a pee. In any event there was not a tree to offer privacy to be seen. Most of the bus were in a trance. Even the Nikon owners.

What was needed was a strategy. I had to get this bus to stop and to stop, now!

“ I can see a photo,” I cried out.

This strangled and plaintive claim sent a charge of electricity through the vehicle. People sat bolt upright and glanced out the window to the side, to the front and within. It was clear by the expressions on their faces that they saw nothing they had not seen for the last four hours or so. Looks of surprise changed to querulousness and then to cries of protest hurled at me for breaking into their Zen-like state.

The driver was engaged in a curious pantomime of simultaneously changing gears, putting on the brake, talking on the CB radio to the escort vehicles whilst at the same time staring into the rear view mirror to see what was the cause of my demented wail. The bus slowly came to a halt. As it did I grabbed some of the clothes set out to dry. A pair of jeans, a bright hat, a red top.

“ Quick,” I cried, “grab your cameras,” and leapt from the bus onto the gravel edge of the road. I raced to the back of the bus ahead of the crowd.

I set about spreading the clothes onto the baking surface of the road that stretched in a straight line, in either direction for miles towards the hazy horizon.

“Here is a prize winning shot,” I claimed pointing to the flattened shrunken, human like figure I had constructed in my pee-filled state.  It was clear folk were delighted at the thought of a gong in the next competition as they blazed away shooting this figure set out on the road and just beyond the shadow of the bus. Quickly, I grabbed my camera (a Nikon) and went to the front of the bus. I was alone. I was sheltered. I had one of the best pees in my life. It was a noteworthy record – making epic of an effort. It was worth a gong, itself.



I returned to the rear of the bus with my smile returned.

“Right,” I continued, “let me make some images too now that you have all finished. And, by the way, this image is copyright and I own it.”

The comments, even Nikon owners made, do not bear repetition here.

It was a great strategy intended to get a pee but, it was one of the early lessons in the importance of ‘making’ an image rather than merely ‘taking’ what the camera might see.

Imagine my dilemma when, for months later, I would go to camera clubs to judge their competitions only to find the image I had constructed, out of tired clothing so I could have a pee, was one of the entries. They always got a gong!

We all have strategies.