Getting onto an aircraft without being in possession of a visa for your destination country is not a good idea. Not in a first world country, and most certainly not in a third world one. Now if that country is war-torn Sudan, you gotta ask yourself some serious questions about your sanity.
Which is how we found ourselves “stranded” in Dubai on a recent transfer to Sudan, waiting for our visas before boarding the plane to Khartoum. Myself and business associate Johan Winterbach had been drafted in to accompany a client to the country for a fact-finding mission to a new oil field in the south of the country, and to collect video and stills material for a production aimed at shareholders.
In Dubai, we had to lay over as we had missed our first booked flight to Khartoum due to the non-appearance of our visas. To compound matters, we had no real idea of what we would encounter. And I’m not talking political upheaval. We had no idea what we would be shooting, and could not plan accordingly. Due to space issues, I could only pack one stills camera and a few lenses, or one video camera and tripod. Lugging a heavy Manfrotto video tripod over desert terrain however clinched it, so the Nikon D4 and a lightweight Manfrotto tripod went into the bag.
The Burj Khalifa, Dubai: the world’s tallest building.
But back to Dubai, where we were stationed in hotel close to the famous Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall. We took full advantage of this opportunity to see as much of the city as we could, and I even found a rare Nikkor 105mm DC lens in a shop, which miraculously found space in my crowded camera bag.
Twenty four hours later, however, we were at the airport, anxiously watching an email inbox for the long-awaited visas, and literally five minutes before the gates closed, we showed the laptop screen to the airport officials to verify our visas had been issued, and we were allowed through the gates!
We arrived at Khartoum, a flat, sprawling city on the confluence of the White and Blue Nile Rivers, shortly before sunset. Around it, flat Sahara landscape, nothing else, with the low sun casting long shadows from the flat-roofed buildings across dusty streets. It was exactly as I had imagined it would be, and I could feel my trigger finger starting to itch. The trouble was, I had read that taking pictures without official permission was strictly forbidden. Due to the short notice period before our departure from South Africa, though, there was no time to organise anything.
Members of a Khartoum mosque welcoming a returning imam at the city airport
On landing, however, my perception of this desert city and country changed completely. To start with, it was VIP treatment the whole way. I was just getting used to flying flying business class. But to be picked up ON the runway by a black van with flashing blue lights was a new experience. Whisked off to a VIP lounge, our passports were taken away and all immigration admin taken care of while we sipped water and coffee. At some point I meandered out of the airport lounge to see what was causing a bit of a commotion outside. It was a large gathering of Muslim clerics forming a welcoming party for an imam returning from Mecca. Lots of singing and dancing in a big circle. Great photo opp, but damn, I was not going to haul out the Nikon. Until one of our receiving party encourage me to take pictures. You sure? Yes of course! It is a great occasion, please do, he said.
I pulled out the D4 and tentatively started shooting some images, and was abruptly pushed in the centre of the circle by the dancing masses to get a better viewpoint. Well, OK then! I blasted away happily after that, receiving only big smiles in return. Somebody’s got to speak to Sudan’s PR people about its image …
The next morning work started and were back at the airport, boarding a chartered twin prop aircraft to Abeela, an old airport in the south of Sudan, some 400km north of the border with South Sudan. From this dusty airfield, we were taken to the airfield by very dubious means – an old Russian MI8 flown by two pilots and a flight engineer squeezing into a small cockpit. The inside panelling of the fuselage was cracked and I had to hold the door to the pilots’ cabin closed with my foot. On top of which, the MI8 had to be jumpstarted. Kid you not.
How many pilots does it take to fly a MI8?
An altimeter just above the door showed that we never went above 200 foot, and being ex-Air Force, I was probably the only one other than the flight crew who knew that from that altitude an engine-out would give us half a chance of landing in auto-rotation mode before things spiralled out of control. Grim thought. Fortunately it was a short flight to the new oil field, situated on the Muglad Basin.
Johan Winterbach inspects the local hardware.
We landed in a cloud of dust, surrounded by four Toyota Land Cruisers with 20mm cannons mounted on the backs. Soldiers with AK47s were everywhere. I did not know whether to feel very safe or very scared. All this doubt however disappeared as I realised what the job was going to be – it became apparent that the client needed both video and stills, but mostly video. Now this is a problem. Unless you pimp a DSLR camera to death with follow focus and LED viewfinders, all mounted on heavy rails, it is all but impossible to shoot a decent video shot with the camera on its own. You can’t see properly on the LCD screen, which makes focus exceptionally difficult. The short depth of field of the full frame sensor worsens this – any focusing error is magnified. I knew I was just about toast. However, the old saying that the best camera for the job is the one you have with you held true. So I set about to make the most of it, mounting the D4 on the flimsy Manfrotto to at least get steady shots.
A “Christmas Tree” – a capped oil well point
The oil field in the Muglad Basin
Fear of the hardware around us dissipated quickly. The locals are quite friendly – the Miseriya tribe members in the area are not in favour of the succession from
South Sudan, so they support the government’s policies. Everything is quite peaceful and everyone gets on with the business of establishing the oil field, building the compound for oil workers and pumping the black stuff via a central pipeline north to Port Sudan.
It was a hard day. Our delayed start in Khartoum meant a rushed tour of the facilities, shooting off the hip, both stills and video, and trying to keep track (with a view to writing a video script later) of the oil extraction and processing sequence.
We had to finish the tour and get back to the Abeela airport in order to make the flight back to Khartoum before sunset.
Framing another video shot
Everything was done at a mad gallop, something that did my nerves no favours – I had no chance to review the footage, to check that everything was good, that the recordings were fine and properly exposed (all shot on manual). Fortunately, despite my best efforts to screw up the material, it all turned out fine. By 4pm, we were back at the airfield and boarding the twin prop again, relieved that all went well, and just about passing out with fatigue. I must mention at this point that a beer would have been great. But being a Muslim country, that would have to wait. A long time.
Traditional coffee served on a sweltering hotel stoep
That evening, we got to sample the local fare, something I had been looking forward to. Goat meat, Arab dishes, even Coke in Arabic script, all fully accounted for at our hotel. But my eyes were on the sticky stuff – the dessert table, where a mountain of sweets were being displayed. Of course, everything had to be sampled.
Sweet, sticky temptation
Over breakfast the next morning, I learnt that we had to shoot two interviews with the general manager and president of the local oil company. OK, I said, I won’t panic, seeing that I had no audio equipment with me, and that the D4′s onboard sound is shitty, to say the least. I also had no lights. Not a problem – I took over the client’s hotel suite, drew the heavy drapes to reduce the amount of light coming into the room, and placed a standard lamp on the other side of where the person interviewed would sit to act as key light, with the sliver of light coming in through the curtain would give a bit of 3D depth to my lighting setup.
I then borrowed a dictaphone from the client, and hid it just out of shot on a pillow next to the sitter. And so the interviews started. With the air conditioning turned off to reduce background noise, it was hot work, but an hour later, we had the interviews in the bag. I would not know until two weeks later what the sound quality was like, as I only received the audio tracks shortly before we started editing the production. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On our last day in Khartoum, I still had not shot establishing shots of the city skyline for the production, and could not get permission from the hotel to access the roof for that. There are very strict rules in
the country regarding shooting on the streets, I was told, and the hotel wanted to get me a permit first from the Government before allowing me on the roof. Well, Arab efficiency being what it is, this permit never arrived.
However, we were invited for a lunch at a restaurant at the highest building in town, and during lunch I snuck off and made my way through various stairways to the airconditioning ducting room right at the top of the building, which fortunately was unlocked due to window washers accessing the outside of the glass-enclosed building. They were happy for me to take footage of the city and the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers, as long as I took pictures of them. Done.
On top of the roof, Khartoum
An absolutely unforgettable experience. Sudan was fantastic, friendly and helpful. The place works and seems to be fast coming out of the middle ages. Everyone has cell phones and uses them all the time. There’s hardly a beggar to be seen, and the city of Khartoum is relatively clean. Being a majority Muslim country, things are stricter than what we’re used to, but not overtly repressive.
There is no alcohol to be had in the country, but they make up for this indiscretion with food. Lots of it. I ate so much, trying to sample every exotic taste, that I developed a very serious stomach condition which had me in bed an entire day on our return via Dubai. Let me put it this way – I came back much lighter.
Back in South Africa, we edited the program in record time, with a voice over recorded by ex-KFM presenter Allan Barnard. The audio turned out to be fine, although we initially struggled to synchronise the audio to the pictures. In the end, we reduced the playback speed of the footage on the timeline to match the audio as it turned out to be easier than to match the audio to the video. The D4 came through for me. Although not perfect, it does a reasonable job in video. Enough to complete a run-and-gun production in an emergency.
Another behind-the-scenes post from Wordsource Productions. Find images such as these on iStockphoto.com
20-year old MI8. The pilot spoke broken English. Two words you don’t want to mention in the same sentence as flying.