Photographic challenge on Africa's Wild Coast

Mogens Johansen
Havacrack team member Janet Musker makes her way carefully through a canyon at night. Picture: Mogens Johansen

Uber fit people wanting to experience the ultimate test of mind and body are signing up for adventure races in remote and challenging locations around the world. Teams, usually of four members, are required to compete in several testing disciplines along the way such as canoeing, hiking, cycling, abseiling and canyoning. Competitors race day and night for several hundred kilometres and, to add to the physical and mental challenges, all with an absolute minimum amount of sleep.

Journalist Angela Pownall and I were privileged to follow the West Australian team Havacrack as they competed in Expedition Africa for an article in this weekend's West Weekend Magazine. The challenge began and finished in the small coastal town of Port Edward in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, but in between competitors faced more than 500km of challenging terrain along the so-called Wild Coast.

To see more of Mogens Johansen's photographs from South Africa, with full descriptive captions about how they were taken, see the gallery HERE.

Covering the race proved quite a challenge both from a photographic and logistical point of view. My main priority was to get some pictures clearly showing the team was competing in Africa, as well as showing them in action during the various disciplines. To be able to do that effectively I had to work fast and with a minimum of gear. I chose to use both of my Canon EOS 1DX cameras, each fitted with a different lens, so I didn't waste time changing lenses. On one camera I usually had a 28-70mm wide-angle zoom so I could show the African landscapes and villages the teams raced through; on the other camera I had a 70-200mm telephoto for tighter action shots.

Finding the team and perfect locations was a constant challenge. Most of the remote areas the teams raced through were not accessible by vehicles so planning where to intercept them proved quite challenging. Luckily each team carried a GPS tracker so the organisers, fans and media could keep track of their progress during the race. That worked well when we had access to the internet but due to the remoteness of the locations we weren't always able to get regular updates. This meant at times we spent long hours waiting at checkpoints for our team to come past. On other occasions we chose a picturesque spot to wait for them only to find out that they had taken a shortcut elsewhere. When we did catch them it was generally only for a short time before they disappeared into the wilderness again, so we had to be ready and prepared to follow them for as long as possible or try to leapfrog them either in the car or by running ahead of them.

Taking pictures of the team in the various transition areas was the easiest part of the assignment. Observing as they attended to minor injuries, changed into fresh clothes, packed food, water and other supplies into their backpacks, and planned the route for the next part of the challenge made for interesting pictures.

The canoeing and cycling legs weren't too difficult either. On the canoeing legs, it was simply a matter of catching the team at various bridges along the way, and during the cycling legs the team spent a reasonable amount of time on dirt roads where we could follow in our four-wheel-drive.

The trekking legs were the most difficult for us to cover because the teams generally went cross-country from checkpoint to checkpoint. Finding road access close to the checkpoints was our best chance of finding them.

On one occasion we battled our way down a horrendous dirt road to a spot we knew was near a checkpoint. Searching in vain for the checkpoint, we were just about to give up when one of the other teams turned up. They, too, were having trouble finding the checkpoint and we were able to sit back and watch them solve the mystery for us. As it turned out we were only a few hundred meters off course, but had wasted many hours getting there, searching and waiting. In the meantime, team Havacrack - obviously much better navigators than the other team and us - had found the checkpoint, passed us by and continued on.

As mentioned, the teams race throughout the day and night, so we had to be on our toes and prepared to get out of a warm bed or sleeping bag to intercept them.

At one stage, team Havacrack had entered a difficult canyon section just on nightfall and our only chance to get pictures of them during that section was at a checkpoint immediately prior to them exiting the canyon. The GPS signal wasn't entirely accurate in the canyon so be certain of catching them we got ourselves into position at 4am. It was pitch black, cold and uncomfortable, and it was going to be difficult to get good pictures of them in the conditions. To avoid ending up with a totally black background, I set up two "slave" flashes in strategic places away from the camera, so I could light up some of the canyon as well as the team when they came through.

While we waited in the dark canyon, I was able to test the setup on a couple of other teams coming through. The first team arrived as a nice tight group from the far side of the canyon; the next team came in pairs from both sides of the canyon. When we finally spotted Havacrack carefully negotiating the slippery rocks in the darkness there was quite a gap between them, so rather than a group shot I ended up with individual pictures of the team members as they climbed out of the dark canyon. Still nice pictures, but not what I had hoped for. I was learning that despite the best laid plans, things weren't always going to go my way.

During one of the cycling legs I had planned to shoot pictures from the tray of our 4WD. The plan was Angela would drive and stay ahead of the team as they passed through the town of Lusikisiki.

I was hoping to get good of pictures as the team cycled down through the busy main street. All was going well until all cars were diverted due to roadwork, while the team was able to go straight through. So I missed the chance of getting shots of the group cycling through the main street, but we did catch up with them on the outskirts of the town and I got some good pictures as they left the town.

Thankfully it wasn't all bad luck stories. We were able to get plenty of shots of the team as they battled their way through the stunning scenery and villages of the Wild Coast. Havacrack was an amazing team to follow and despite some tough times they seemed to be enjoying themselves, waving at locals and high-fiving schoolchildren when they passed them by the side of the road. We also had plenty of opportunities to stop to photograph some of the locals going about their business. African women carrying huge loads of firewood or shopping on their heads were one of my favourite subjects.

We finished a fantastic week by sharing the joyful moments when the team completed the epic challenge back at Port Edward. Our own trials and tribulations paled into insignificance compared with the super-human efforts of team Havacrack and their fellow competitors.

FACT FILE

The West Australian travelled to South Africa courtesy of South African Airlines and South African Tourism.

South African Airways has daily flights from Perth to Johannesburg with direct connections to all major cities in South Africa. Return economy fares from WA to South Africa start from $1759. 1300 435 972 or flysaa.com.au.

For more information on visiting South Africa, see southafrica.net.