by Tony Rath (as originally published on Tony Rath Photography)
I recently returned from an expedition into the tropical forests Belize’s most wild area, the Bladen Nature Reserve. I traveled with rangers from a grass roots organization called Ya’axche Conservation Trust to photograph and document a recently discovered Harpy Eagle’s nest. It had been 2 years since I ventured deep into Belizean jungle – and every day I gave thanks for the past experience I gained in managing camera gear and my body in this difficult environment … I sort of learned all over again what I already knew. Here are 20 things I can pass on should you want to take your expensive camera gear and risk it to document one of the most wild and beautiful habitats on earth.
1. Sturdy, comfortable footwear is probably the most important consideration. Nothing stops you in your tracks faster than blisters and soar feet, especially in a wet environment where breaks in your skin never heal. I found a pair of Danner Longhorn boots that work for me – twelve hours a day of moving over slick sharp limestone, sticky mud and deep rivers without a thought about my feet.
2. Pack light, each ounce counts when carrying gear for extended times. At one point, one of the Mayan Rangers, noticing I was slowing down, offered to carry my 5 lb carbon fiber tripod – I felt like 20 lbs had been lifted from my back.
3. You will be wet all the time – as will your clothes. It is important to maintain a dry set of clothing to change into at camp in the evenings.
4. It gets surprisingly cold at night in the rainforest – the first night I found myself shivering around 3am.
5. Related to #4, while sleeping in your hammock, it is more important what is underneath you than what is on top of you if you want to stay warm. A sleeping pad or a thick layer of anything is a must.
6. As far as logistics go, do not count on someone you do not know or just met … be as self-sufficient as possible if you are dealing with someone for the first time – this means food, transportation and equipment.
7. An experienced Mayan porter/ranger is a must. They are strong, possess incredible stamina, and know how to live in the forest – you can easily get lost or in trouble on your own. The machete is an extension of their bodies, and the forest is a lumberyard; they can construct tables, platforms, rainshades in seconds from forest vegetation. I usually spread out plastic under my hammock to store my camera gear only to find the plastic gets dirty and torn with use. The guides cut a palm frond, slit it at the top down the middle and created a 5 inch high padded platform with 4 forked sticks, two poles and a bunch of split palm as quick as it took me to spread out my plastic.
8. You better like rice – morning, noon and night.
9. Ants are everywhere – I carried a small container of peanut butter, each night screwing the cap on tight. Without fail, each morning the ants found their way inside. And they can bite, watch where you sit!
10. Drink as much as possible … heat and dehydration induced headaches can be incapacitating (Extra Strength Excedrin is a life saver, Aleve at night). And be sure to check on the safety of drinking from tropical rivers and streams, the locals will know.
11. When hiking with a load, short breaks can rejuvenate when tired (10-15 minutes every couple of hours).
12. When the going gets tough, shorten the length of time you think ahead. Instead of thinking you have hours to go, make it to the next 10 minutes, or 5 minutes, or 1 minute – especially when going up hill.
13. If your lenses fog, swing your camera around to move air over the lens surface and then quickly take the photo before it fogs again.
14. Watch where you put your hands – every time – thorns and needles and biting ants are in abundance in places that are natural for your hand to grab.
15. Check for ticks during and after the expedition. They can be tiny; the size of a pin head. I found 8 after my trip…my wife found17 more.
16. Be in shape. The heat combined with constantly having to balance on wet slippery surfaces takes it toll on your endurance, joints and muscles.
17. Late evening and early mornings in the forest are magical; the sounds, the changeover from day to night creatures, the stars over forest breaks and river runs, the mist, all is very other worldly.
18. Keep your skin away from any glass surfaces on your camera gear, the cloud of moisture from your body will fog your lenses and mirrors and LCD screens.
19. Zip-lock bags save the day, all camera gear is packed in these bags.
20. You will have to fight for your photos. The tangled mass of green is overwhelming; the shadows and sunlight contrasty; the wildlife sees, hears and smells you long before you see, hear or smell them; birth, growth, struggle, death and decay are all piled on top of each other and constantly happen all around you – everything is either eating, being eaten, reproducing or dying. The ability to not only exist but to thrive in such an environment should only fill you with wonder at the resiliency and tenacity of life – respect to the natural world.
I am sure there are many more…feel free to comment with your own tips.