Riding your bike all across Australia sounds like a really cool and challenging idea for a trip. What might make it even more glorious? Taking some analogue cameras and films with you to capture the whole thing! That’s exactly what René Rusch did. Read all about his trip and the special care he had to take of his films so the Australian sun would not destroy his photos in our interview!
First of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What do you do for a living and what kind of things do you do for fun?
I work at the ORF Landesstudio Wien as director and graphic-designer for “Wien Heute” (a daily, local newscast). Beyond that I sporadically work as Anti-Racism-Trainer. The things I do for fun have changed dramatically since me and my wife became parents two years ago: I used to go Mountain biking, rock climbing and running. Nowadays it’s playing Lego with my daughter.
You took seven weeks to travel through Australia with a bike. How did that idea come about?
The idea to cross Australia by bike kind of happened to me. At that time my sister lived in the north of Australia and I wanted to visit her. Since it’s a long and expensive flight, it appeared logical to me to combine the visit with a longer trip and take my bicycle with me. Which route to take wasn’t something to meditate on: To cycle from coast to coast just seemed the most plausible route. Furthermore I LOVE deserts – consequently I had to cycle through the center.
No one has traveled the route you took with a bike before. How come?
I don’t think, that I was the first to cycle on the Old Andado-Track. I guess, there have been cyclists on this most difficult part of my route. It’s just that during my research I didn’t come across anyone, who had cycled there without backup – so I had to find out for myself, how ridable those desert-tracks are for a cyclist. I guess the plain reason why I didn’t come across other cyclists is that it’s not a good idea to cycle there. The Old Andado-Track meanders along the Simpson Desert and is very, very sandy.
How did you prepare for the trip and what kind of research did you do?
I prepared myself as thoroughly as I could. Foremost, I had to get in shape: I did a lot of mountain-running and cycling. Then I had to find out where to get water along my route and gather information about the dirt-roads I wanted to take. During the preparations for previous (bike-)trips the Lonely Planet-Thorn Tree-Forum turned out to be a reliable source of information. This time was different: The guys in the forum couldn’t help me at all; actually some of them considered me a “nutter” and the like. So I tried to get in contact with people from the area. In the end at least I knew exactly where to get water.
Part of the things you took along with you was analogue cameras and films. How come you decided on film photography for documenting that trip?
I love analog photography. Each picture seems to weigh more. Unlike with a digital camera you can’t just take a dozen pictures of the same scene and decide at home which one is the best. You also don’t have all those easy manipulation options in post production. With analog equipment you have to do the job in the very moment.
And then there’s the appearance of analog films. I really like the look of film grain and it fit perfectly to a book about a journey through a dry, gritty continent. So much for my sentimental answer. My unemotional answer: I didn’t have the money for a proper full-frame digital SLR.
What were the cameras and films you brought with you?
I used a basic Canon SLR, the 300V. I brought two lenses with me: a Tamron 28-200 and a Canon 17-40. With the latter I shot most of my pictures and it’s still my favorite lens. I used Fuji Superia 100 films.
Do you have a background in film photography or was that the first time you used film?
Actually my only background was film photography. I started taking photos on journeys abroad; first I more or less pro forma brought a camera with me. At that (long gone) time the camera was naturally an analog camera, in my case a Olympus µ-1. While traveling I kind of “discovered” photography for myself. With each trip the equipment got better. On the Australian trip I made it my goal for the first time to come back with decent pictures.
Can you tell us one of the funniest or weirdest encounters or stories from your trip?
Actually there were quite a few funny and weird things that happened to me. The whole Outback is a weird place. A very funny encounter took place in William Creek in Southern Australia: There I met Robert, a very entertaining guy. We got drunk together and the whole evening he gave me “survival-tips” like: If you run short of food supplies, put a piece of cheese on a fish hook, trail it a few meters behind you and eat the mouse that you catch with the hook. Or: If you want to keep hungry dingos away from your tent at night: Piss around it!
The photos in your book seem to tell stories of solitude on the one hand and encounters on the other. Is that a correct impression? Are there any people you met on the trip you have since seen again or were all the encounters short-lasting?
I feel that’s a correct impression. Unfortunately I haven’t seen any of the people I met in Australia again. So the encounters were short-lasting. But then “short-lasting” doesn’t seem to be an appropriate term for those encounters: I made a book in which some of them appear and in my slide-show I tell stories about them. So in some sense they are quite long-lasting.
Did you have any routines you resorted to during the trip? How did you deal with traveling alone?
To travel alone through the outback was quite a challenge. Especially in the beginning, when I cycled along these remote, nearly empty gibber plains, my loneliness was tough to bear. But the longer I cycled, the more I got used it.
How many rolls of film did you take with you and how many photos did you end up taking?
I can’t remember how many rolls of film I had taken with me. But I know that I took about 2.000 photos in those 48 days of my Australia-crossing.
Did you have to take any kind of special care of your films while traveling?
Absolutely. While the heat wasn’t an issue during the first part of my trip, it got hotter and hotter the further north I came. I carried the film-rolls in one of my rear panniers and remember putting the “film-roll pannier” always on that side of the bicycle that wasn’t hit by the sun. Since I camped I also didn’t know where to put my film-rolls on a day of rest: It gets extremely hot in a tent that is hit by the sun all day; and carrying the film rolls with me wasn’t an option because they filled a whole corn flakes-box – family size!
The heat increasingly worried me and in Katherine I went to a bank and asked if they had safe deposit boxes. I had planned to return to the area with my sister after finishing my cycle-trip anyway so the idea was to leave my film-rolls in the bank and retrieve them a few weeks later. Unfortunately the bank assistant told me that they didn’t have safe deposit boxes or something similar where I could leave my film-rolls. I already imagined my photos melting in the Australian sun when the bank assistant – her name was Jo – said that she could take my film-rolls home and put them in her fridge. I left the bank, went into the next Woolworths, bought a bottle of red wine, went back, said something like “I give you my life!” to Jo and handed her the red wine and the corn flakes-box. Five weeks later I returned with my sister to Katherine and Jo gave me back my film-rolls. Thanks Jo!
You put the experience of the trip and the photos you took in a book. Was that always part of your plan?
Yes and no. When I started my trip I vaguely had in mind to “do something” with the results. Maybe a photo-essay in some magazine, maybe a slide-show. To publish a book appeared too far away to even dream of it.
When I came home it turned out that I had taken quite a few nice shots, but it appeared to me as if I had no story to tell. I didn’t get lost in the desert, I didn’t get bitten by a snake, I didn’t get run over by a road-train. I just had cycled through Australia. Until a few months later – out of nowhere – the concept of a “Roadmovie in Standbildern” (roadmovie in stills) came to my mind. And at once the stories started forming.
Do you already have new projects planned?
Yes, but that’s got nothing to do with photography nor cycling: the birth of our second child in September, in schā’a llāh.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to do a similar trip?
As long as one doesn’t cycle through extremely remote areas and is staying on tarmac, he or she doesn’t need much of advice. I’d just say: Go for it. There’s no better way of traveling and you’ll have a great time!
If the trip takes its course along deserted dirt tracks, my advice is: prepare yourself as well as you can. For certain you need to be very fit and you have to be certain about where to get water and other supplies. Cross-check the hints you get, don’t rely on single pieces of information. You don’t want to be one of those miserable fellows, who need a search-party to be rescued.
You can learn all about René’s book featuring photos from his time in Australia on his official page. (German)