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

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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