The three biggest lessons I’ve learned from planning a filming expedition to the Peruvian Amazon so far (plus advice from people who know more than I do) by team member Eilidh Munro.
It’s nearly a year since we started planning a filming expedition to the remote Peruvian Amazon, documenting perspectives on a road being illegally built through the rainforest. Now, we’re less than a week away from our official start date, and I’m simultaneously proud of what our team have achieved and completely horrified by how quickly the time has gone.
However, if I park the existential crises for a moment I can focus on what an amazing learning curve the process of planning this expedition has been. What’s even more exciting is that the expedition itself hasn’t even started - and I can’t wait for all we’re going to discover over the following months.
In the spirit of marking important moments and reflecting on what has passed, I thought it would be useful to write up some tips from our experience of planning an expedition so far. I’ve even roped in help from expeditionaries much more experienced than I, so thanks to Hazel Robertson, Kate Rawles and Luke Robertson for helping out.
1. “If not you, then who? And if not now, then when?”
Unless you’re extremely experienced (or just a little bit of an arse) it’s likely that you’re going to suffer from a dose of self doubt whilst planning an expedition.
Almost a year ago, when teammate Bethan suggested we apply for funding for this project, I honestly didn’t believe we’d get any - so at the time I wasn’t scared at all! However, since successfully finding funding and support from the Scientific Exploration Society (SES), itison.com and TentMeals, and after working tirelessly to plan the project, there have been more times than I’d like to admit that I’ve wondered if I’m up to the task.
But, at some point you have to just get a grip.
I recently read a quote that said, “If not you, then who? And if not now, then when?” - and this really rung true. It’s likely that the road we’re seeking to document will be built this year and as a result Manu - the world’s biodiversity hotspot - will change forever. Our team are passionate about telling this story before it’s too late. Whilst I know we don’t have all the answers, we’re doing all we can to collaborate with people who do and I believe totally in our dedication as a team to making the project the best we can.
However, maybe we should use self-doubt as an enabling process - sort of like a risk assessment; something that challenges you, holds you accountable and makes you stronger, either as an individual or a team.
If you’re feeling incomplete or unprepared, maybe that’s because you are? Think objectively: what exactly is it about yourself that you’re doubting? It might be technical skills, like practicing with the camera you’ll be using; linguistic capabilities; fitness levels; or simply First Aid training. You might never feel totally ready, but if you up-skill, practice and prepare as much as you can, then a big chunk of what is left is just fear. And let’s be honest, if what you’re planning is worth doing then it will probably make you a little bit scared - but that’s not always a bad thing.
2. Collaborate and challenge your thinking
Our expedition planning has been a collaborative process from the start, and we’ve been overwhelmed with the support that so many people have been happy to give us. We’ve had logistical advice from experienced expedition teams like Luke and Hazel Robertson, an extremely collaborative and trusting relationship with our main funders, the SES, and an incredible amount of support from people who are already busy enough. Even the growing online community interacting with us on social media has been a real boon to our confidence.
However, I can’t stress the importance of collaborating in the local area in which your expedition is taking place, particularly if the issue you’re exploring is in any way polarising or complex.
By engaging with people who work in the location or with the topic that you’re researching, and by truly collaborating and being open about your goals, plans and aspirations, you will be pushed to explain your opinions and perspectives in ways you would never challenge yourself to do. Also, by widening the conversation outside of your expedition team, you are forced to really question what you believe rather than talking in circles with people who already agree with you.
I really value the conversations we’ve had with the various academics, anthropologists and people living in Manu who we’ve been incredibly lucky to collaborate with so far; and for the ways they’ve pushed us to reconsider, reframe and evaluate our beliefs.
Therefore, my second piece of advice to you is to find people who know more than you, accept that they know more than you (rather than being ashamed about this), and ask them for feedback about what you’re planning. It will only make your plans stronger.
3. Remember the small things (and how long they take)
When I imagined planning a filming expedition from start to finish, I expected (and hoped) a sizeable amount of my time would be spent storyboarding, planning shot lists and having creative discussions with my teammates. However, one thing I’ve learned - the hard way - throughout this process is just how long the tiniest things can take… and that these things are never what you think they’re going to be!
I’m not referring to tricksy spreadsheet formulas, food planning or budget updates (which I’ve got to admit, I get a bit of a geeky kick out of). It can be as simple as locating an important phone number, finding a reliable driver or getting enough signal to check your inbox (before discovering the emails you’ve been waiting to check and respond to haven’t even been sent).
If your expedition is taking place in a remote location then it’s likely that responses will be slow, that issues will pop up which you never considered, and that things will progress at a slower pace than is comfortable or familiar to you.
Therefore, plan time for the unplannable, know that these tiny things will take up more headspace than you could ever expect or want and accept that they are inevitable. Ultimately, these hurdles will give you an invaluable insight to the challenges facing people who live in the location you’re exploring, and this understanding might be crucial for a successful and respectful expedition.
And now for some advice from the experts:
“When you're on an expedition, you have to do everything yourself. Everything from logistics, safety, maintenance, navigation to cooking, photography, blogging, film making and even being a friend and councellor to your other teammate(s) when things get tough (and they will likely get tough!).
But before you head off to the wilds, while you are still in the planning phase, you have a fantastic chance to be very honest with yourself in your own limitations and skill gaps. And to ask for help from others to help you fill these gaps and give you the best chance of getting to the start line - whether it's asking for advice, getting help with tasks or even getting an expert in to do something you know you can't do yourself (i.e. website design!). Don't be afraid to ask as many people as you can for help!”
The Life Cycle
“What are the aims/goals of your expedition? Are they the best, most worthwhile goals they can be? Does everyone involved with the expedition share them and have they all been involved in developing and deciding these goals? What can you put in place now to make sure you have the best chance of achieving the goals? This is key partly because all expeditions have negative impacts as well as potentially positive ones – it’s the balance of positive goals and aims over negative impacts that will justify the expedition (or not!) It’s a terrible irony that the footprints of expeditions, eg carbon emissions, are damaging the world we love to expedition in and with. Do everything you can to keep your negative environmental and social impacts, local and global, as small as possible. Offset the remainder with a reputable provider. And strengthen the positive impacts and goals as far as you can so this expedition is really worthwhile. Then, make the most of every minute of it!”
“Once you’re on an expedition you want every system you’ve set up to be second nature and intuitive. This means you can focus on concentrating on those unexpected incidents (when they arrive), thinking ahead, and sometimes just being in the moment.
The best way to do this is to spend time beforehand getting to know your equipment and processes by heart. This might include any camping equipment, your stove, tech gear, the whole lot. And crucially, you need to know how to repair it, as well as knowing timings and routines inside out. Having confidence in these aspects frees up headspace on all the other important elements on the expedition.”