Planet Desert: Life Through the Lens with Photographer-Adventurer Michael Martin
If you’re looking for someone who truly makes their life a ride, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than motorcycle adventurer, photographer and producer Michael Martin. With more than 100 expeditions under his belt to some of the most remote places on earth, the desert expert uses a BMW GS motorcycle to transport him and his equipment close to spectacular natural landscapes and people living life on the edges of existence. With another mammoth project – Planet Desert – in the final stages of completion, Michael explains why a life on the road is the only life for him.
If you had to choose one place from the Planet Desert project as your favourite, where would it be?
One place? That’s easy. Antarctica. There are no people — it’s quite an experience to fly in with a scientific expedition from Cape Town, to Maudland. I’ve been at the South Pole, but it was amazing to see east Antarctica. In the remote areas, it’s absolutely untouched by mankind and like a paradise. It’s not how people imagine it. At the Antarctic Peninsula, you don’t get the same feeling of remoteness because there are a lot of ships and life and people. You have to go to the east—it’s just wilderness, the last true wilderness on earth.
You’ve travelled around the world many times and your presentations allow others to experience the journey with you. But after seeing so many amazing places, can you still be inspired by new discoveries?
Oh yes, I’m always curious to see new places on earth and because I did so many travels in hot deserts, it was also great to experience the frozen deserts on this latest project. It was my first time in Greenland, my first time in northern Canada, my first time in Antarctica and it was all really exciting, which I hope comes across when I’m presenting live on-stage to an audience. And even in the hot deserts I visited new places. After 25 years I managed to get to Saudi Arabia, to Tajikistan, to Iran and all the places that were “closed” to me before.
You’ve spent the last few years travelling and exploring on two wheels, crossing ice deserts, volcanic deserts and dry deserts on your motorcycle. You must have amassed a serious amount of material?
Yes, the last five years I’ve taken around 40 journeys all over the world, from the North Pole to the South Pole, 15 times in the Arctic, five times in the Antarctic, and lots of times in the hot deserts of course. Since March I’ve been sorting through all the images, editing films, writing the book and preparing everything for distribution. The plan is for a nine-hour DVD documentary box-set that will be available across the world next year. The new book will be released in German, English and French. It’s packed with lots of geography and stacks of images.
You’ve used many forms of transport to reach the remote locations you’ve visited, such as dog sleds, camels, helicopters and skis, but it’s a BMW GS Adventure motorcycle you’ve relied on most recently. What is it like to travel by motorcycle?
Yes, I’ve ridden just about every GS in some of the harshest environments known to man but the new version is just the best—even stronger than its predecessor, and I didn’t think that would be possible. Even the riding is easier than before. Compared with the R 100 GS I used to ride in 1991, the latest version is wildly different. It has a lot of electronics but it all works perfectly. The “weak point” is me. I have to endure the hot and the cold temperatures but the bike is always OK. The weather in northern Canada or Mongolia in wintertime is tough on my body and I’m the one that needs heated underclothes and heated handlebar grips to deal with the freezing temperatures. It’s not much fun but the bike can deal with it all!
How about the actual equipment you use these days? Has the digital era changed the way you travel with your gear?
It’s much easier nowadays. In former times I had different medium format and small format cameras. Now there’s only one format and I just take three lenses with me. Zoom lenses are so much better now too. I can also change the sensitivity of sensors, and I no longer have problems with x-ray machines at airports (photographers always lived in fear of x-rays damaging their films). Thieves were a worry, too. In the past I would be “guarding” 200 films close to my body—this was my life’s work I needed to protect—but with memory cards these days it’s so much easier. My equipment today is really reliable, it’s great. I use the cameras from minus 50 degrees Celsius to plus 50 and I’ve never had any real problems. The only problem I encountered was in Mongolia when it was minus 48 and the grease in the camera motor was affected, but after a few minutes in my hands it warmed up and was OK again.
Honestly I don’t know, I never plan too far in advance. I’ve spent the last five years travelling, now I’m focusing the next four or five years presenting. Perhaps I’ll look into other areas such as rainforests because I love contrasts in my life. I love my life in the desert and I love my life at home with kids, or at the office, but I also love life on stage presenting—every day another town. The balance is good right now, but that’s probably because I never stop travelling, moving and learning!
Find out more about Planet Desert here.