JIMMY CHIN AND TIM KEMPLE’S Towers of the Ennedi managed to simultaneously make rock climbing look more safe, and traveling to Chad less so. Matador spoke to them about the realities of shooting in such a hostile environment.
MN: How did your experiences in Chad match up to your expectations? Did you know much about the country before you arrived, or was it a process of adapting day by day?
JC: I was on a run of back to back expeditions the year I went to Chad, so I had done less research on it than normal for me. I did some basic reading and knew that people did not like to be photographed there. That turned out to be very true. It’s a challenging place to shoot. Culturally, it is a very interesting country and the history is fascinating. Some of the camel caravans were straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. And of course, living in the Sahara is not an easy task. You can die in a very short time out there. There was definitely a lot of adapting going on throughout the trip.
TK: I had a good idea of what the landscape of Chad and the Ennedi would look like before going — just by looking at pictures on the internet. What’s always hard is trying to figure out how it’s going to feel once you’re on the ground. What’s the vibe of the people and the culture, you know? For example, traveling in Nepal is much different than say, India, even though they are right next to each other. What did surprise me was the amount of driving we did off roads or even dirt track. Just plug a coordinate into the GPS and drive — pretty fun!
Chad and central Africa have a reputation as being unsafe. Did you guys take any particular precautions, and do you feel the journey to Ennedi was a risky one?
JC: Our biggest precaution was to hire a very reputable guide by the name of Piero Rava who had many years of experience in the area. Between himself and his team of local guides, we were able to navigate safely through the desert. We were only threatened at knife point and almost robbed once during the trip.
TK: We traveled with a guide who was experienced in the area. We never felt unsafe, but we also didn’t spend weeks in any one area. In my experience that’s when you start to feel like a target. We did get confronted by some knife wielding teenagers one day who wanted our camera gear, but there were more of us and we were bigger so that confrontation didn’t last long.
Are there any particular stories from your time there that stand out, and why?
JC: Chad is a huge country with hardly any roads on it. Getting to the Ennedi Desert was a totally wild ride. We were only on roads for about 4 hours in a 4-week trip. Once you get out of N’Djamena, you literally turn right off the road and drive for 4 days across the desert to get to the Ennedi. We’d run into random guys on camels in the middle of nowhere and just look at each other and think — Where the F?#$ did you come from?
TK: The entire experience was really one big story. I think what I remember the most was laying out in the open desert at night, looking up at the crystal clear view of the stars and out at the dark silhouetted shadows of the rock formations at night.
When deciding on the gear you wanted to bring on the shoot, how did you manage a balance between what you would like to have, and what was practical? Is there anything you didn’t bring that you wished you’d had? Or brought and wished you’d left behind?
JC: We are fairly good about balancing what equipment we bring on expeditions. We had a lot of camera gear on this trip. The biggest challenge was keeping it all functioning in the extremely sandy and dusty environments. Trying to keep camera equipment clean in the Sahara and while you are climbing in sandstorms is nearly impossible. We destroyed a few cameras on the shoot. We used every piece of equipment we brought. That is usually a good sign for us.
The only things we wished we had left behind were the Goal Zero batteries and solar systems. We had multiple backup Goal Zero setups in case one system failed. We paid a lot of excess baggage to bring them all over. Unfortunately, they all failed one by one and turned out to be completely worthless. We have tried their systems on a number of trips now because we were getting gear from them for free. We are about 0 and 5 now. Their equipment has cost us a lot in terms of the amount of time we’ve had to deal with trying to find alternative power sources in remote locations.
TK: We traveled in three vehicles across the desert. There were the essentials: food, water, gas, extra car parts (we carried an extra axle among other things). And then there was the climbing gear and camera gear. So we had a ton of stuff and probably had more than we needed. I shot stills on a combination of Hasselblad and Canon equipment and we shot all of the motion on Canon 5d’s. So relatively speaking we were light for a ‘film crew,’ but when every pound counts I don’t think we could have carried much more without having to fly gear in.
The GoalZero solar generators you brought look like an amazing piece of tech. What was your experience in using them?
TK: The Goal Zero Panels and Lithium Batteries are top notch. We used them to charge everything in the Ennedi. The cigarette plugs in our Land Rovers didn’t function, so we would strap panels to the windows as we drove along and to our tents as we explored during the day. We also ran our motion control for timelapse and dolly moves off the Goal Zero batteries. So yeah, good stuff.
JC: See my answer above.
Any final thoughts?
JC: The Ennedi Desert was one of the most captivating landscapes I have ever been in. If you are looking for a wild adventure, it’s worth looking into.
TK: Just that I love these adventures and love bringing home stories to share with friends, family, and others. I’m not sure if I will go back to the Ennedi anytime soon, but if the opportunity presented itself I’d have a hard time saying no.
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Richard lives and works in South Africa, exploring as often as possible the strange and unknown places that his continent is so rich in. What stories of far flung places and mischief he is able to trap and bring home are mounted on his blog. Where the Road Goes.