Posted on August 30, 2019 By


Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph 


I penned this commentary after hearing a friend tell of a gutsy world-traveled and very rich 70-yr old woman in Spain who still loves to go camping in the wild while taking long vacations on her luxurious state-room-equipped sailing vessel.

Not that I believed it, but it did get me thinking about some of my own travel experiences as a photojournalist and why now, in my 73rd year, I only do cushy hotels, preferrably Ritz Carltons.


I had many rugged private camping experiences for 4+ months in Suriname and Guyana (South America) where hired non-English-speaking guides accompanied us and managed our private camps in those remote jungles (thank god).

It is hot in South American jungles. We washed our nightly camp dishes in flesh-eating piranha-infested rivers, staved off mosquitoes and red ants by the thousands, fought off fist-sized spiders & bats when visiting hastily constructed tree-trunk latrines, and slept in uncomfortable single-man zippered hammocks that attracted flying denizens of the night that demanded  entry into my otherwise safe sleeping cocoon.

I learned early on in the jungle to cease drinking water by 4pm every day so that I could (hopefully, possibly) manage to get through the night without having to rise and pee before dawn.

While working on a river otter project, we had use of native’s ancient outboard motors on dumpy rowboats to get ourselves from village to village, or to travel deeply into over-grown remote river systems in search of otters to document and photograph.

At times on those rivers we had to use my long boot laces to re-start those outboard motors when the original starter cords broke. We also had to constantly duck under fallen trees that criss-crossed deep narrow rivers, many of which, in fact, rested barely three feet off the water when entombed in tangled underbrush. Since these excursions were in the piranha’s private underwater world, the prospect of falling into the river was an imminent threat in the face of a sudden wrong.

You know, like taking photographs


I had a great many experiences over the course of a year-long project in remote areas of the Australian OUTBACK where my lone colleague and I often had to sleep in a cramped pop-up tent atop the Land Rover Defender when no other options were available. In the first place, it was hard to get up to that pop-up tent on top of our huge Rover and, once there, it was insufferably hot and humid. This was, of course,  necessary in order to keep inquisitive crocodiles at bay. I could see the crocs’ reflective eyes swimming around at night in the river – hundreds of them – who watched our campfire and lusted for us whenever I aimed my RI Illumintor flashlight their way.

A Midnight Chorus of Crocs

On our remote Outback escapades we only had amenities that we could carry in our jam-packed vehicle that otherwise was loaded with photographic gear. Imagine traveling for days without encountering anyone except native-speaking aboriginals and also interesting wildlife that included 8 of 10 of the world’s most venomous snakes. Often during these remote treks our vehicle would slip and slid into massive mudholes and deep trenches along narrow tracks from hell, which is why we carried an electric winch on board that allowed us to pull ourselves out (and occasional fellow travelers, as well.) The trick was to move forward slowly at first, then gradually build up momentum so as to not slip/ride the clutch and risk loosing control of the vehicle.

We could not have made it through a great many of those roads less traveled without four-wheel drive and the Land Rover Defender’s monstrous tires. See this common  river experience, which we enjoyed (?) countless times crossing countless rivers to nowhere, often times as many as 18 to 20 crossings per day:


There are no bridges on any of these roads less traveled in the Outback, just unpredictably deep water filled with crocs hiding in the weeds. You’re on your own there, as can be seen by the many abandoned vehicles found at these crossings that died in watery and/or mud-filled graves.

Occasionally we were flooded out by multi-day seasonal rains that plagued large swaths of otherwise bone-dry earth, whereupon we sought refuge in tiny outback towns with old musty hotels and big bars. No matter, those days were a hoot and I often met up with amazing people. For example, once we were marooned with members of a helicopter research team that was in the area to survey Locusts. They took me up at all times of day to take pictures (what else was there do for 5 water-logged days in the middle of nowhere?) And afterwards we sipped Jack Daniels and hungrily devoured bad french fries and hamburgers to while away otherwise dreary nights.

The stories I could tell

 Even when we were in flight, 3-to-4-inch Locusts would find their way down inside my jacket and even down into my jacket sleeves, not to mention an occasional gaping mouth. On the ground the Locusts were more like a live snowstorm of fluttering wings and legs.

Watch what a LOCUST SWARM looks like on YouTube!


I had very primitive housing in Ecuador where I traveled extensively with four middle-aged male photographers. We each had a one-person room without electricity that had a tiny bed and shower. The entire room was barely big enough to slip by the bed to pee or to dress. It was also very cold at those 20,000 ft elevations, so our rooms came equipped with thick soiled second-and-third-hand alpaca blankets that felt like a ton of bricks.

However, the older kindly owner of an Ecudorian Zoo (which we used as base camp) was great; he plied us with good food and sent strong young male guides out with us to take us into remote corners of the Ecuadorian hinterland. The guides carried my heavy tripod for me even though I still always had a hefty backpack of camera gear to deal with on my own. You think I trusted them with my Nikons??

The zoo owner made his own whiskey and came by every night after dinner to deliver a nightcap to me. He only spoke Spanish but I was a moderately fluent Spanish-speaking drinking buddy which helped. That said, I had to be careful to limit myself to one small nightly glass of his home-brew since it was not only very potent, but alcohol has a real whollop at 20,000 ft elevation!

Mountainous roads up in the Ecuadorian stratosphere were shockingly narrow and devoid of any roadside safety barriers. I guess they did that so vehicles could pass when encountering someone from the opposite direction, although I didn’t really want to know the answer to such “what ifs.” I also found that looking out an open window down at the skimpy 4-inch swath of visible road on my downhill (death-defying) side of the bus was not an astute thing to do.


South Africa and Namibia were desert camping nightmares in their own right. We most often stayed as invited guests of various national wildlife parks where we slept and used as base camps. At least they kept the lions and baboons at bay during the night! That said, nearly every morning we’d hear animated stories about locals being attacked and devoured by Lions when they were either walking about alone or sleeping in flimsy tents outside of the safety of the national parks. That, said this psychologist, was a true intelligence test!

Being in Africa entailed months of rugged photography conditions in very uncomfortable living environs but it was absolutely thrilling, as well. Imagine watching a pride of Lions sleeping in the shade in front our vehicle for hours on end
(YAWN) while we were, of course, tucked safely inside the Landy. All of a sudden the entire pride would jump to attention and engage in a grand chase, heading straight to and often within inches of our vehicle in the process. Note: Lions do not perceive what’s INSIDE a vehicle, they only take in the totality of the vehicle, that is unless someone unsmartly steps out of their vehicle…

Hyenas and Africa’s vicious wild dogs also kept us constantly in alert mode.

We photographed SOUTH AFRICA’S BIG FIVE on many occasions. These five animals were originally termed ‘the Big Five’ by game hunters who found them to be the most difficult and dangerous African animals to hunt on foot. We went in on foot, too, to see White Rhinos, although we always had Rangers with powerful rifles in tow. One day we were watching a large group of White Rhinos in very close proximity behind trees when a whispering Ranger urgently advised me to STOP CLICKING THE SHUTTER ON MY NIKON CAMERA. They have very poor vision but excellent hearing, he said. Sh-hhhhh

Let me tell you, that was some walkabout: it turned out to be grueling 5-mile one-way walk in unrelenting sun while carrying a backpack and a tripod, plus a return trip out.

Later we encountered Black Rhinos from the relative safety of a safari vehicle. This Rhino group was large and restless, which we hunkered down to watch from a safe distance. Adult males weight up to 1,350kg and females up to 900kg. But suddenly our driver shifted into reverse gear and drove backwards at a harrowing speed as the Rhinos charged us. We hung on with white knuckles until he could find a place to quickly turn around, at which point we left the advancing hooves in the dust.

Parts of South Africa have treacherous mountain roads of its own, some that we had to literally inch our way down in the lowest possible four-wheel drive gear until we got to the bottom (20 or 30 kilometers away or more!).

While we were in Namibia we had an opportunity to ride an elevator a ½-mile down into the bowels of a huge diamond mine. We donned special jumpsuits with filtered head gear and portable oxygen (and our cameras) to watch men in large vehicles unearth vast open spaces for exploration. It was mind-bloggling to witness but also a scary place to be: the day before we got there, in fact, a massive bulldozer got too close to the edge of an abyss and tumbled down hundreds of feet into the abyss, crushing the vehicle and driver in billowing dust and debris. The morning sunshine back on top of the mine looked mighty good.


Mexico has had its own perils for me as a photographer. I have been to Mexico quite often over the years, but my first official night there on a 3-month project was a real shocker after an exhausting day of international travel. I was staying at the home of a university professor and his wife when the couple rushed into my bedroom to suddenly jerk the sheets and blankets off my bed. Why in the world??

Well, there were dozens of COCKROACHES hiding under that bedding which they  promised wouldn’t come back once I was in the bed. RIGHT-TTTTTTT…(you think I was snug as a bug after that?)

Also, imagine my horror when on one of those first nights I got up to look for a late-night snack in the professor’s kitchen and found ugly creepy crawlie cockroaches everywhere – on the big open dish of butter on the counter, inside cupboards and all over the floor and walls.

The Mexican food, though, was fabulous…well, except for a few things…


I was once in beautiful Costa Rica doing tourism photography for the Costa Rican government. That was a very fun project but it was also treacherous at times. An experienced guide accompanied me on many interesting venues, including taking me whitewater rafting down CLASS V whitewater rivers so that I could photograph those adrenaline-pumping moments.

Yes, I feared every minute for myself and my Nikons!

Other adventures also included traversing ZIPLINES high up in the jungle canopy with my Nikons in tow, flying in helicopters over simmering but active and unpredictable volcanoes…oh, and meeting up with snakes coiled two feet in front off me in dense undergrowth.

Class V whitewater rivers and Nikons do not (I repeat) do not go together
like love and marriage…