the dan milner photography blog: tales of an adventuring photo chimp

May 15, 2015

From Afghanistan to London without passing ‘Go’

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — danmilner @ 5:59 am

It’s a weird thing being an ‘adventurer’. Expeditions to remote, far-flung places can take months or more of planning but too often once I’m home again, washed my filthy clothes and (just about) got my digestive system back on track my attention turns to planning the next, without giving enough time to reflect on what we just achieved or on the experiences of what just happened. It’s like pulling a “Go straight to next adventure, and do not pass go, and certainly do not collect £200” card in Monopoly. Often I only revisit those experiences when I edit my images from a trip, or am invited to deliver a slideshow or talk on my adventures. This latter is one of the most enjoyable sides to my niche job – getting the chance to really share the experiences of pushing bikes over snowy 5000m passes or huddling in a tent through days of Alaskan blizzards, and doing it in the luxurious comfort of a warm auditorium.

Next week I’ll be one of the 4 adventurers sitting on a unique Q&A panel at a London screening of the mighty best of Kendal Mountain Film Festival. You can get tickets here, and the money goes to charity.

The kids of Robot settlement, Afghanistan try riding bikes, for the first time. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f3.5

The kids of Robot settlement, Afghanistan try riding bikes, for the first time. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f3.5

Last November I was back at the Kendal Mountain festival, to introduce Anthill’s new film edit from our Afghanistan MTB expedition at the festival’s dedicated Bike night, and then next day to do a 45 minute slideshow talk on the same trip at the KMFF Adventure and Exploration session. My talk balanced nicely with one from ‘micro-adventurer’ Al Humphreys, who will be chairing the Q&A next week.

New experiences are what drives me to head to new places. Adventure is just a tag to the experiences that arise. Of course I know that my kind of adventures sit off the radar for most people, but public speaking events like these are a real way to give people a vicarious taste of what is involved in hauling bikes through places that have never been touched by a bike tyre before, in that first person way that magazine articles and films can’t. Hearing about tough trips is compelling, but I also like to add a little ‘really, you could do this too’ empowerment and aspiration for the audience.

So come and ask awkward questions about photographing awkwardly ambitious bike trips in awkward places to travel and do it from a comfortable, warm seat with a low-fat soy chai latte in your hand. London May 21st.

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September 1, 2014

I went mountain biking in Afghanistan and all you got was this lousy video

Filed under: bike, video — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 12:47 pm

Here’s my moving image take on the Bikemag trip I photographed.  For your enjoyment. Or maybe mine. Click on image to watch on EpicTV.

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December 5, 2013

Story behind – Afghanistan #4

Filed under: bike, photography, story telling — Tags: , , , , — danmilner @ 7:15 am
Nikon D600, 50mm 1.4, 1/800, f5.6

Nikon D600, 50mm 1.4, 1/800, f5.6

 

Altitude sickness, fatigue, cold and sunburn are the kind of things we calculated for on our recent pioneering Wakhan mountain bike expedition. But the many river crossings passed us by. Not for a minute did we think these would be so formidable. It’s arid Afghanistan after all right?However, the thundering torrents of brown meltwater became the great leveler among our group, with their distant sound causing the hairs to stand up on the backs of all our necks as we rode our trail towards another inevitable shoe-dunking. June is full meltwater season, and the many glaciers and snow-covered peaks around us teamed up with the steep, ravine-streaked terrain to remind us of this this at every opportunity.

Dark, churning icy waters gave no indication of depth and the roar of meltwater was kept in rhythm by a metronome clatter of rocks being rolled along the riverbed. Wading became a game of human 10-pin bowling, carrying our bikes across a very real game of chance. Some were steep and narrow, others a good 50m wide, but all were swift and cold. One slip from numb feet and a bike could be lost, or worse. Add the shouts and wild gesturing of our anxious Afghan support team to which we tried to pass bikes and you have a recipe for chaos. The above shot was our third river crossing on day one. We would have more than a dozen more during our 12 day expedition. Only two of them would have bridges.

Catch my full feature in MBUK, Bike Germany, Revolution Australia, Friflyt Scandinavia and online on Italy’s MTB-forum.com later this month.

 

November 28, 2013

Afghanistan by bike – from the horses mouth

Filed under: bike, photography, story telling — Tags: , — danmilner @ 6:30 pm

If you’re anywhere near Chamonix on Sat 7th December and want to appreciate the pain of our June Afghanistan bike trip first hand, then drop by the Vert Hotel bar at 8.30 pm for the next of the now-legendary (and free) Milner slide/film shows. Expect the usual abuse and heckling (from me) while being bombarded with plenty of pics that will instigate “ooohs” (from you) and a couple of pics that will make you glad you weren’t on the trip.

afghan poster

October 5, 2013

Story behind – The Bikemag Afghanistan cover shot

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 2:05 pm

Matt Hunter, Afghanistan

If you haven’t caught it yet, the Nov issue of Bike is out now, with the full 16 page Afghanistan story and cover shot. Here’s the backstory behind my image that graces the cover.

Nov

14 hours is a long time to cover a mere 150Km, especially in an old Toyota Hiace with 4 bald tyres. But that’s what it took to travel the last day along a rough Afghan road to our ride starting point, Sarhad. And that came after 3 other days on the road. So you can imagine how good it felt to finally be out on the bikes. A lot of people think that as a photographer you’ll come back from expeditions with hundreds of cover-possibilites, after all the opportunities must arise each and every half hour. But the truth is that on trips like this, with distances to cover, rivers to ford, passes to climb each day, making the call on whether to stop and set up a shot is a gamble. It interrupts the flow, and sucks up time. Stop every time a possible shot comes up, and you don’t make it to camp and end up sleeping with the goats on a remote hillside with no supper (but at least you have a sheep to keep you warm). With absolutely no idea what scenery or what kind of trail or action potential you’re going to happen on later in the trip, you start out eyeing every corner, every backdrop, every rock as a possible shot. But inevitably, you have to (begrudgingly) pass some by.

So it’s kind of funny that the shot that is gracing Bikemag’s cover this month was the first action shot of our whole 3 week, 12 day ride trip to Afghanistan. Riding out of Sarhad village (down on the valley floor in the background) we climbed 600m/2000ft straight up to this first pass, wheezing in the thin air, and knowing this was just a taste of what lay ahead. And in this one scene, with its braided river and snowy peaks, its dusty trail and steep rocky pass, summed up the landscape we were to live in for 12 days. And not an AK47 to be seen.

September 28, 2013

Story Behind -Afghanistan #2

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 8:52 am

No.2 Hey, Nobody said it would be easy.

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Matt Hunter starts the long walk into the unknown. Again. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5

Yaks are the ultimate 4×4 in a place like Afghanistan. They go through anything. Unfortunately we had horses and donkeys instead to carry our expedition camping gear for our 12 day haul. And after 3 days of alternating blizzards and sunny spells, they just couldn’t make it over second 16,000 ft pass we climbed on day 6, the snow was too deep. Our choice was either to try to swap our horses for yaks and re-attempt the pass next day, or go the long way round, a 30 mile down valley and up the next route that was too exposed and technical for horses. At least that’s what we’d been told by the local Afghan horsemen not wishing to lose their earnings to yak-herders, as the reason why we attempted the pass.

Beaten back by deep snow, we took the alternative route, one that proved just as hard as the 16,000ft pass we’d retreated from the day before. A morning of flowing, fun riding ended at this deep canyon, and along with it any resemblance of ridable trail. Steep, loose and bottoming out in a raging snow-melt  river we had no option but to descend into the abyss, wade the river and shoulder our bikes, again. It took us another 7 hours of soaking wet, freezing cold bike pushing through more blizzards to reach our final destination that day, a camp spot at 14,000 ft perched beneath a mighty glacier. Arriving a mere half hour before nightfall, no-one had the energy left to appreciate our surroundings, but we’d found a way round. And still had the horses in tow. Afghans are a resourceful people.

August 22, 2013

The Story Behind- Afghanistan #1

A photo is worth a thousand words. Apparently. But sometimes there’s more behind an image than can be seen. An image conveys its own story, conjures up a feeling, stirs an emotion. But what of the story behind shooting it?  Over the next couple of months I’ll endeavour to bring you a few of the images that are currently showcased on bikemag.com from the recent Afghanistan mountain bike trip I shot in June with Anthill films and pro rider Matt Hunter. It’ll tied you over until the print stories come out in the mags through October and November.

No. 1: Nearly missing dinner.

Milner_Afgn013_0979

The story: Half way through our 12 day loop and we still hadn’t a clue what to expect. It’s hard to know how much energy and time to exert shooting when you have no idea what’s coming up later, what scenes will offer themselves up, or how far it is still to go before catching up with our horsemen and overnight gear. An  early start and a long day in the saddle didn’t stop us working a dusty ridge top until the sun was low, giving us the golden hour of perfect light to shoot. After all, the Kyrgyz herders’ yurt village was in view, or almost, just over the ridge, down towards the river. We shot, and shot, and shot more, Hunter doing his thing and delivering  A-roll material without fail.

And then we began the descent and realised we hadn’t a clue where we were heading. In the distance was not one, but several different plumes of fire smoke, each representing a different Kyrgyz yurt settlement. Our Afghan support and our gear could have been at any. We had no idea and darkness was 20 minutes away, and with it freezing temperatures.  I rode off towards the river valley, towards one smoke plume, the others veered left towards another distant settlement, each of us scouring the landscape for any evidence of our support team. And that’s when this pic happened., Matt and Brice silhouetted against the glow of the mountains we’d just descended. Chance favours a prepared mind. All I had to do was work out if stopping for the shot would mean getting left behind, to bivi out the night alone clad only in my riding gear. I took the risk. Nikon D600. 40-200 f4.

August 9, 2013

Shooting Afghanistan without war

Superlatives are easy. But sometimes they are justified. Finally, the dust has settled on our June mountain bike expedition to Afghanistan, and the first glimpse at some of my shots in a 50 page online Flipbook magazine along with Anthill’s first incredible film from the trip are online now. You can see both here, at Bikemag.

First day, last descent. Off camber, loose and 600m of vertical into a raging river doesn't mean we're not going to ride it. Tough day. Great finish.

First day, last descent. Off camber, loose and 600m of vertical into a raging river doesn’t mean we’re not going to ride it. Tough day. Great finish.

In reality it has taken this long for the dust to settle, for my mind to process what we have achieved. Superlatives or not, this did prove to be the most ‘out there’ MTB trip I have ever undertaken, and shot. And those that know me, know that I am not shy of having tucked more than a few ‘out there’ MTB trips under my belt before. This one, the first ever MTB traverse of the Little and Big Pamirs of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, was ambitious to say the least. I knew it was before we went, and I knew it was when, after 5 days of rough and scary travelling, we reached our ride-start point and our guide pointed out a series of geographical features on the map, each of which could spell a retreat: raging glacial rivers swollen by snowmelt, 5000m passes buried under snow too deep to traverse.

Bikes are nothing here, but it doesn't stop everyone wanting a go on one.

Bikes are nothing here, but it doesn’t stop everyone wanting a go on one.

Our 12 day ride-hike-camp was punctuated by challenges -including one retreat- and proved physically and mentally taxing at every stage. There is nothing easy about Afghanistan it seems. It’s perhaps what makes the people so incredibly tough. And without them we would have got nowhere. Away from the ugly war that tears the country apart only a few hours to the south, the people in the Wakhan were the most friendly, helpful and welcoming I have ever met. And the beauty of digital photography is being able to share the photo experience with subjects like this, right there and then.

Afghanistan: possibly the toughest place on earth?

Afghanistan: possibly the toughest place on earth?

But being immersed in such trips with their incessant demands on energy reserves sometimes means not quite realising what you are doing, while you are doing it. And that’s what I mean about the dust settling. Sometimes such expeditions are such a sensory overload that it’s only later, when the film and images start to emerge, and you can stand back and look again, that you realise what you have achieved. As a photographer, a mountain biker and as a regular person with a piqued desire to see parts of the world that are deemed ‘off limits’ and engage with the people there, fills me with immense pride. I’ve had the same experience shooting snow expeditions in Deeper and Further with Jeremy Jones/TGR.

Of course, it won’t be long before the niggling urge to kick up the dust once more grows into a nagging compulsion to travel again But in the meantime, if the flipbook images on bikemag.com spike your intertest, then look out for the complete print story, with fresh photos, out in several mags October onwards.

Matt Hunter engages with a local Kyrgyz kid. Wheels are nto seen here. Yaks and horses are the means of transport for everything.

Matt Hunter engages with a local Kyrgyz kid. Wheels are not seen here. Yaks and horses are the means of transport for everything.

Choosing the right kit for trips like this can be testing. For the gear geeks, I used the Nikon D600 (very portable and did well in the dusty/cold/snowy/hot environment) with Nikon 70-200 f4, Nikon 50 f1.4 and Zeiss 18 f3.5 glass for the action, and my Leica M9 with Zeiss 18, 28, 50 and 90 glass for the travel. Lifeventure drybags kept my mind at ease during the many raging river crossings. Osprey Escapist 30 carried it all on my back. Mountain Equipment outerwear kept me dry and warm in the blizzards, and Mavic ride clothing kept me comfy and dealt with the odours of 12 days out without a bath. Mavic Alpine XL shoes are my go-to shoe for hike-a-bike missions. My Yeti 575 was the perfect bike. Again.

4900m up and there is only one way ahead: down.

4900m up and there is only one way ahead: down.

July 8, 2014

This Life Aquatic – hauling bikes on boats in Scotland

Filed under: bike, photography, video — Tags: , , , , , , , — danmilner @ 6:45 am

Sometimes ideas for features take a while to come to fruition; like my Argentina railway bike epic in March, and like this slightly out there adventure I shot in Scotland in May. The idea: take some sea-kayaks, pack with overnight camping gear and throw our bikes onto inflatable dinghies towed behind.

Putting new meaning to the word 'floater'. Shot with GoPro HD3+

Putting new meaning to the word ‘floater’. Shot with GoPro HD3+

Combining bikes and kayaks like this might seem a bit like mixing water with electricity, but there was an inner voice that nagged me over the last couple of years to try it (the same voice that leads me to places like Afghanistan to shoot bike features it seems). After all what can go wrong?

Sea kayaks are great for covering distance on water. Sleek, fast, efficient. Add a floating ‘trailer’ of an inflatable dinghy with the displacement dynamics of a barge, load it with bikes and the equation gets interesting. Especially if the wind is against you. And finding a suitable stretch of water to try this 2 day, 2 night escapade presented another challenge. So we teamed up with Go-Where Scotland to help with location logistics and Sea-Kayak Highlands to provide the boats and then we hit the deepest loch in Scotland, Loch Morar, a loch with its own legendary monster. Apparently.

Dont stray form the paths lads. Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4

Dont stray from the paths lads. Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4

So armed with the Pelican-case packable Leica M9 and a couple of GoPro HD3+ cameras our idea finally came to fruition. No it wasn’t quite the miles-from-anywhere-Alaskan-wrestle-bears-for-your-dinner insanity that many now come to expect from me, but it was an authentic little adventure, right there on our doorstep with its own set of challenges and rich rewards. It shows that sometimes you don’t need to travel too far to put the ‘escape’ into escapade. You just have to be willing to get out there, ride some bikes and paddle 20+ miles in whatever weather nature throws at you, and do it with a dinghy in tow.

The feature will rear its monster head in MBUK and other bike mags around the world in the next few months, but in the meantime, here’s the EpicTV episode from the trip. It’s a little… err, different. Click image below to watch.

Click to watch film episode

Click pic to watch film episode

 

April 10, 2014

Crossing the Line – softening the definition of trail riding

How do you get the world’s most famous trials mountain biker and an ex-pro downhiller to go cycle touring? Disguise it as a ride along an old disused railway line in Northern Argentina, that’s how.

Lost in translation - is this what my riders were expecting? Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f5

Lost in translation – is this what my riders were expecting from an MTB trip? Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f5

And so that’s how I found myself along with MTB legend Hans Rey, Canyon bikes pro-rider Tibor Simai and TV cameraman Rob Summers, pedaling along a 100-year old Argentinian railway at 3000+ meters last month. It was one of the most original stories I’ve ever shot, and it wasn’t without its own unique set of challenges (hey, would you expect anything less from me?)

 "C'mon Rob you can make it!" A warm up to the big bridges to come. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/1000, f4.


“C’mon Rob you can make it!” A warm up to the big bridges to come. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/1000, f4.

The idea to ride along this old railway came to me a few years ago when I saw it, admittedly from the comfort of a tiny rental car, during another MTB trip to the area. GoogleEarthing the line and researching its history (built by the Brits in 1903, abandoned in 1992) I thought how great it would be to try to ride the railway line south from the Bolivian border at La Quiaca all the way to Salta, a distance of about 400Km. I’d ride it solo, equipped with sleeping bag and bivi sac, eat wherever I came across a settlement, and photograph every person I met along the line.

But it didn’t turn out like that.

My concept swayed to the pressure of seeking financial rewards from my efforts, and evolved into more of an adventure story pitch. At one point it even included hauling a 3lb inflatable raft along to cross the many rivers wherever the bridges might be down (remember this railway hasn’t been maintained for 30 years). I pitched the story and re-pitched and this year, thought f*ck it, lets do it anyway. Finally after years of sitting on the backburner the idea came to fruition.

Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/2000, f4.

Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/2000, f4.

The outcome is one of the most unique stories I have ever shot, combining real mountain biking with a photographic record of how this once mighty transport lifeline has been left to decay (there is now a highway to La Quiaca) and slowly be consumed by the environment  – bushes grow from the tracks, sand buries the sleepers, 100-year old railway stations have become ghost-town buildings.

Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/3200, f1.8

Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/3200, f1.8

No the railway isn’t the most remote, or the highest altitude, or the most challenging ride in the world (I’ll leave that accolade to our Afghanistan trip). But it threw up its own challenges: skin-blistering sun with no shade, steady hillclimbs at 3000m+, an absence of potable water sources and many crumbling iron bridges to cross, some suspended 20m high above gaping canyons.

Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/4000, f2.2

Early start in La Quiaca. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/4000, f2.2

With the pressures of needing to work two features from the same 2-week trip we rode only 100Km of the line, over 3 days -a mere teaser of what the entire railway could offer, but it was a tough 100 Km through the region’s most incredible scenery, and 100 Km of railway that I’m pretty sure no-one has mountain biked before.

Weaver birds re-claim the line's telegraph poles. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f2.2

Weaver birds re-claim the line’s telegraph poles. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f2.2

Sometimes ideas have to evolve. And luckily this one did, or it may never have found light of day. And anyway the book I would have produced from my original idea would have been slim -we never passed another person on the line. Read the feature from this crazy idea in MBUK mag and others in a couple of months time and the EpicTV video episode here in a couple of weeks.

Local canine shows no appreciation of what the team has achieved at our finish point in Humahuaca. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/40, f13.

Local canine shows no appreciation of what the team has achieved at our finish point in Humahuaca. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/40, f13.

For the photo geeks, I used my Nikon D600, Nikkor 70-200 f4, Zeiss 18 3.5 and a Nikkor 50 1.4, and the new F-Stop Loka Ultralight backpack.

 

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