It’s dark. It’s pretty cold. There’s an icy wind from the North West. I can’t see, but I guess there’s low cloud overhead. Maybe even some rain on the way. It’s just past three in the morning and I’m blindly feeling my way around the hotel car park, hoping to find my rented motorbike. I’m in Bao Loc, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam.
There are those who think that travel photography is all about staying in luxurious hotels or romantic resorts; shooting a few frames and then relaxing by the pool while sipping a cocktail… the James Bond school of photography. The reality is very different. I’ve been in Bao Loc for three days. Up at three every morning to capture a mountain sunrise. This is my fourth morning. I still don’t have the shot I want.
By luck rather than design, I find my little rented Honda Cub: I step out into the dark and fall over the damn thing. My fingers search out the ignition (I really can’t see a thing) and I try to slide in the key. It’s the wrong way up. It’s jammed! I’m tired. I don’t need this kind of hassle. A few four letter words and a minute later I give the starter a good kick and the ancient engine splutters into life. I’m off!
Bao Loc is a beautiful little place surrounded by green forested hills and misty rugged mountain peaks, just off highway 20, about six hours North of Saigon. For the last three mornings I’ve headed West into the wild highlands around the famous Dam’bri falls Today, I’m trying something different. To the East of town, on the other side of a deep valley littered with coffee plantations, there’s a solitary mountain with a peak which seems to always rise above the morning cloud. It’s my destination today. Only one little problem… I’m not sure how to get there.
I putter out of town on the road towards Da Lat, the tiny light on the Cub feebly attempting to illuminate the road for a meter or so in front of me. After about two klicks I realize that I must have missed the turn off I’d been looking for and turn around. There it is! If I follow this road the whole way I’ll end up at the beach in about ten hours, but that’s not my plan this time. The road twists and turns as it descends to the valley floor. It’s too dark to see, but I know that just a meter to my right there’s a sheer two hundred meter drop. I go slowly. It’s much colder on the valley floor. My teeth are chattering and my fingers are frozen stiff – god help me if I have brake quickly.
After about 40 minutes I make another turn to the right. Now I’m on a dirt road passing by dark and silent coffee farms. Even the chickens are still asleep and the dogs (more intelligent than me) are warm in their kennels. The only sound is the put-put of my little Honda. The road starts to rise and narrows to a track just wide enough to walk on. The bike is struggling to move upwards in second gear. The overhanging bamboo casts strange ghostly shadows. I’m back in the clouds, icy water runs down my face and soaks my shirt. Still the path winds upwards.
It’s getting harder now: guiding the bike between large stones I can barely see. The Honda slips to the right. The front wheel connects with a small bolder and the handle bars are violently twisted from my grip. Over I go! It’s not a bad fall, as falls go. I’m a little bruised and the skin had been scraped off the knuckles of my left hand. My ‘trigger’ finger if fine, so no real damage done. I upright the bike, kick the starter and climb back on… oops! There’s no light. I try the switch a few times. Nothing. I smack it a few times. No joy. I attempt to feel my way around the wiring to find a broken connection. Nada!
It’s almost five. I’ve been climbing an almost non-existent path in the dark for the past half hour. The bike is propped up against a tree some three hundred meters below me. I know already that there is no way I’m going to get to the top of this little mountain by sunrise. Now I’m looking for some vantage point from where I might at least get a few photos of the valley and distant peaks as the sun gives birth to a new day. Off to the East there’s already a noticeable lightening of the sky: a beautiful deep velvet blue where only minutes ago it was an impenetrable blackness.
The sky is now quite light. I have to find somewhere to shoot soon. Through the misty grey gloom I can see an open area off to the left. I force my way through a thick clump of wet bamboo. My left trouser leg catches on something and I give it a good tug. My soaked khaki pants rip apart from just above the knee to the hem. I tug again, but they’re caught fast. On closer inspection I find they are hooked up on some rusted barbed wire. I can’t be bothered with this now. I reach for my knife and cut off a large patch of cotton. I’m free. Let’s get a move on.
As the light improves I realize that I’m on the forward part of a spur, not yet high enough to see the distant mountain peaks. Now I’m pissed off with myself. Should have planned better. Not that it would have made much difference, anyway. The cloud is so thick there is no sunrise. All I can see is a faint pink glow on the other side of some bamboo and small trees. Well. I’m here, so I’d better photograph something! I unpack the tripod, set up the camera and wait for better light. I wait. And wait. And wait. After almost two hours I have… nothing! No landscape, no interesting subject, no beautiful light. Nothing! I shoot off a few frames anyway, and set off on the long trip back.
Such is another morning in the life of a travel photographer. Sometimes it works… and sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter that much, really. Here in Vietnam there is always tomorrow and somewhere wonderful to go. Even more than that, however, is the joy and excitement of ‘what’s next?’ A morning like this is not a disaster. It’s a great memory. It’s a reminder that I’m alive. It’s all part of what makes up my work and my life. I love it!