Postcards from the Edge – Investigate Australia Apr 05

If Geoff Mackley were a cat, he’d almost surely have used up his quota of lives by now. As the world’s ultimate storm-chaser and subject of the Discovery Channel’s Dangerman series, Mackley is little short of a survival miracle…the kind of guy you’d stand next to in an electrical storm. Our CLARE SWINNEY caught up with the man whose images of natural disaster are spawning a new breed of reality media

He carries a video camera, a digital still camera, a satellite phone and a flame-proof suit. He has been pursued by Army helicopters; almost blasted off a mountaintop; and dangled over gaping chasms.
Little wonder, perhaps, that they call Geoff Mackley ‘Rambocam’. It began as a childhood hobby of taking photos of natural phenomena, and developed into an extraordinary career with a worldwide reputation of going where others fear to tread. Photographer, cameraman and reporter all rolled into one, Geoff Mackley carts his cameras and satellite phone virtually anywhere where a tsunami has struck, where a cyclone is perilously hovering, where a volcano is erupting, and he’ll often be the first one there. His priceless pictures, which appear in science books, newspapers, on TV and in magazines, have come to define how people throughout the world perceive natural disasters.

Not surprisingly, the activities of this intrepid photographer have been the focus of a mass of media attention. The Discovery Channel featured a series about him named Dangerman and he’s appeared in seventeen other TV shows. He has also been interviewed hundreds of times in the past for newspapers and questioned at length for his soon-to-be-released autobiography.

While making it clear he could never even conceive of tiring of his work, which is now all-consuming, he confesses to being pig-sick of being interviewed.

When we first contacted him on the 11th of February, he’d arrived home , half-an-hour earlier from Rarotonga, where he’d been taking photographs of damage to waterfront buildings caused by a 14-metre storm surge driven by Cyclone Meena. He suggests I call back that evening to enable him to have time to update his website,, amongst other things. Yet when I contact him at 8pm he sayshe is unavailable as he is monitoring emergency channels and intends to maintain this vigil over most of Saturday and Sunday.
“Try Valentine’s Day, 10am,” he offers.

But the 14th, at 10am, proves similarly fruitless; two menacing-looking cyclones, Olaf and Nancy, are brewing in the South Pacific region and Mackley is furiously poring over weather reports, trying to decide if he should go to Samoa, where one of the fierce storms is predicted to hit. Later in the day, I finally hit paydirt, nailing the elusive Mackley to the end of a landline, albeit that the interview becomes punctuated by the crackle of police scanners and emergency vehicle sirens in the background. You can’t, it seems, keep
Mackley down.

Mackley, 41, was born and raised in Christchurch; his mother a high school librarian and his father employed by a customs broker. It was his dad who first kindled Mackley’s interest in photographing
natural phenomena.

“Dad used to take me and my two younger brothers, Richard and Steven, on trips to take pictures of freak conditions, such as snowstorms and flooding. We were brought up with an interest in
nature. I started doing what I’m doing because I’m interested in nature and it evolved to what’s happening now. I never really expected that to happen. I never thought for a moment I’d be doing this,” he ruminates.

erta03 073.jpgIn the late 1980’s Mackley attended the University of Canterbury to study psychology, because it was “very interesting,” then dropped out after one-and-a-half years because he didn’t think it was going to be a meal ticket. Mackley had other ideas. Armed with predictions of bad weather, he would pack photographic gear into an old Land Rover and go to where a flood was anticipated, shooting it as it happened.

“Nobody was doing that then, as far as the media goes. It still amazes me that to a large extent the media don’t even do that now. You’d think that if a news event is about to happen, go there before it starts!”

In spite of a lack of formal training in photography and broadcasting (or arguably perhaps because of it), Mackley began working for Channel 10’s New Zealand affiliate news team in 1990, just after the new network’s establishment. He took pictures of natural disasters around the country for the six o’clock news and has been in the game ever since.

In September 1995 he got his first big international break. Majestic Mount Ruapehu was predicted to erupt again and he was waiting patiently nearby with his camera equipment. When the grey ash shot into the troposphere, his career as it is today was launched.

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Mackley’s pictures began appearing on TV news shows, in newspapers and in magazines throughout the world. The words “meal ticket” began flashing in his mind, and pretty soon Mackley was taking pictures of volcanos erupting overseas and selling them to a wide range of media. His humble intention in 1995 was to generate sufficient income in order to recover the cost of the trip and be able to go on another trip and then another…

Mackley is coy about how much he makes. He says he doesn’t want to boast.

“Two hundred thousand?” we press.

“It’s a bit more than that,” he defers – which in translation means it’s notably more. Almost as an apology for this bounty, Mackley seems keen to impress that he works very hard for what he earns. He evidently does. He seems completely focused. There’s no room in his life for marriage or children. He allocates much of his time off work to maintaining a high level of fitness. His 178-centimetre tall, 76-kilogram muscular form is probably in far better shape than bodies half his age. “I feel the same I did when I was twenty. I exercise everyday. If I go for a run, it’ll be for about three hours. I spend a lot of time running in the bush, I work out, do weights and martial arts,” he asserts. As his broadcast camera alone weighs seven kilograms and climbing mountainous terrain at any time is a possibility, being unwaveringly fit is an essential part of his life.
“I’m also careful to eat well. I don’t eat crap. If you put bad fuel in a car it doesn’t work properly. Well the body’s the same. It’s common sense,” says Mackley.

Currently about 90 percent of his time at work is spent monitoring what’s going on locally and around the world. He uses the Internet and radio for this. “That’s the key thing – that it’s 90 percent gathering information and 10 percent going out and after something,” he maintains.

Naturally, he’s amassed an extensive knowledge of the world’s weather patterns and now knows what’s likely to happen where and at any given time of the year. He says there’s no busiest time of year. It is invariably busy, as Mother Nature has different seasons around the world. The cyclone season is from November to April. Tornado season is in May and June. August through to November is
typhoon and hurricane season in the US and volcanoes may erupt at any time.

He says the Internet has been an invaluable source for information about weather and volcanic activity, enabling his career to flourish. He asserts: “The Internet is the beginning and end of everything! Because the Internet is completely free of boundaries. It’s instant. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing now, ten years ago.”
The meteorology services worldwide put data on the Internet for everybody to see instantaneously. In addition, there’s an aviation website that provides updates immediately a volcano begins to erupt which Mackley watches “constantly,” so if a crater blows, he’ll be one of the first people to know about it. One can find links to his sources on his website.

The total cost of his equipment is in the vicinity of $100,000. He says that although it’s expensive, he expects it to last for years. He uses a satellite phone at disaster scenes, which is a necessary requirement in regions lacking a functioning infrastructure. This is used to transmit photos to a few news services, but at $16 a minute, it is uneconomical to send shots around like confetti.

Consequently, he prefers to put high-resolution versions of photographs on his website for newspapers and magazines to download – although this mode of dissemination comes at a cost too. He says that although the majority of media outlets publishing his work remunerate him without having to be prompted, there’s invariably a percentage which don’t. “It’s a pain in the backside really, because when you’re trying to sell still photos, many outfits will avoid paying for them if possible. You’ve always got to track down whether or not they’ve used it or not. Half the time they won’t bother to tell you and it’s not worth chasing up twenty or thirty newspapers just for $100 or whatever,” he complains.

An assortment of his best images can be viewed on his website. He uses a Nikon F90 digital camera for his still photos and says a good photo, as any news editor will tell you, has to tell a story in one shot, ideally with people in it or an object to give it scale.
He believes an image can be a wonderfully powerful tool to help people in need of aid. And one of the best moments of his 20-year career was being able to bring aid to the small island of Tikopia following the strongest cyclone ever in the South Pacific, a cyclone which thrashed villages with 350 kilometre per hour winds, completely destroying everything. His was an extraordinary story.

Cyclone Zoe, as it was named, hit Tikopia in the Solomon Islands in late December 2002, bringing gigantic waves with it.

“I’m not an expert, but I can see from a satellite map when an island is being hammered and it’d be common sense to go and see what’s happened to these people [about 1,200] who no one has heard from for four or five days,” he says. But the airforce and military, in both New Zealand and Australia, did nothing. So he decided to fly to Tikopia in a Cessna and discovered an island completely wrecked. Mackley, who was freelancing, photographed the devastation from the air only because it was impossible to land. This story was on the news that night and broadcast all around the world. He reported that the place looked as if it had been hit by an atomic bomb. He says matter-of-factly: “I suspect if I hadn’t gone there and brought it to everyone’s attention, it’s quite possible nothing would’ve been done. The New Zealand Airforce claimed that it was impossible to get there and then I got there in a Cessna.”

The day after his first report, someone from a French newspaper contacted him and asked him to get on the island anyway he could, at their cost.

Accordingly, he chartered a helicopter from Vanuatu. He filled it with packets of noodles and arrived on Tikopia to be the first outsider there since the cyclone hit and four to five days ahead of any official rescue mission. “I thought it was extraordinary,
because I wasn’t doing anything that I considered to be that out of the ordinary. I just went to the airport and asked ‘Who owns that Cessna? Is it possible to fly to Tikopia?’…‘Yes’…‘So let’s do it.’ And it was the same with the helicopter,” he asserts. Fortunately, there were no casualties, as the Tikopians were accustomed to cyclones and were sheltering in caves in their highlands.

Indeed, the camera is a very powerful tool when used correctly. Bringing images of chaos and destruction to the world is the direct cause of aid arriving – a prime example the aftermath of the tsunami. Mackley believes the amount of aid donated is directly related to the TV coverage – the two being very closely linked. “I don’t feel so bad filming misery and destruction if I know it’s going to bring some good. There are a number of Pacific Islands that are not that well off and they know full well who I am and they welcome me when a cyclone’s coming – because they know that film of the event getting on the news greatly enhances their prospects of getting aid,” he offers, seeming grateful to be of help.

Unfortunately, however, Mackley has found that providing images of destruction can be a two-edged sword. While he regards the camera as a means to elicit donations, sadly, time and time again, he witnesses huge damage being inflicted upon Pacific Island nations by grossly unbalanced news stories. The media, he accuses, ham up the bad part of an event, with little apparent thought of the consequences. He has seen all facets of the media exaggerate the devastation caused by storms; and resultant negative publicity has dissuaded hordes of tourists from journeying there.

“People believe what they see on the news – and they shouldn’t. A cyclone hits a small Pacific Island, [for instance Tonga]. It is highly reliant upon tourism and although the residents clean up the damage in a few days, because a few selective shots of flattened buildings are shown in the news, making it look as if everywhere is decimated and no mention is made that it was all cleaned up in a few days – because that’s a boring story, I’ve seen huge economic damage
being caused for 6 to 8 months,” he says, sounding annoyed. “Sure, there were a few damaged buildings, but that’s not indicative of what the whole country looks like. Often that’s how the media portray it. If there’s widespread destruction, I’m certainly going to say that, but if there isn’t, I don’t,” he says.

In addition, he says that the amount of misreporting about the Tikopian disaster was “incredible.” For the first four to five days, all the information that emanated from the island came only from Mackley. He was guarded about what he said, because he didn’t know if anyone had been killed or not. Thus, he reported that the damage was very bad and it would be amazing if there weren’t many casualties. Then to his shock, he heard stories from outfits such as CNN and the BBC about thousands of people being killed and the island being hit by tornadoes and tsunamis – events that in fact had not occurred. He contends: “It beggars belief where they get those things from in the first place, considering no one else was giving them information except me! So you can see why one would be cynical about the media.”

Although he rarely writes news stories that accompany his images, he’s occasionally a target for caustic reac-tions to them. “I’ve had people from airlines phone me and say: ‘Your story just cost us millions of dollars worth of business because hundreds of people cancelled their airfares minutes after your story went on,’” he offers.
The title ‘Dangerman,’ for the 2004 TV series made for the Discovery Channel about his activities, was a misnomer. His work is perfectly safe, he says. “I’m no closer than anyone else who drives a car to danger. When people drive down any two-lane stretch of rural road, they’re passing within half-a-metre of every other car, going at 80-100 kilometres an hour. I don’t have car-size rocks landing that close to me at volcanoes, ever! Yet people take it for granted that driving is not a risk, when in fact, it is. It’s more of a risk than what I do,” he offers, adding than when he climbs a volcano he’s in complete control of how close he gets “to the action” – unless of course the action gets close to him.

He has had close calls however, one in Mexico during a hurricane. “A building fell. I was underneath the balcony of the building and all the debris – about 50 tonnes of concrete – cascaded down about a metre away from me,” he says. Luckily, he was uninjured.

Another reminder of his mortality occurred in Indonesia. His taxi driver got lost en route to the railway station, so he missed the train he intended to catch, which subsequently collided head on with another train, which was then ploughed into by another train. He’d be dead had it not been for the taxi driver’s incompetence. Indeed, transport he says is his biggest risk, because every time he’s on a train, a bus or in a car, there’s a potential for serious injury, which is out of his control, but so far, injuries have not yet put him hospital: “In this job, you’re either alive or dead!” crows Mackley.

The name Mackley wanted to use for the Dangerman show was his nickname, Rambocam, but as copyright laws protect ‘Rambo’, it was not an option. So how did he acquire the wonderful nickname Rambocam?
This is another interesting story, demonstrating the extraordinary lengths Geoff Mackley will go to “get the shot”. It was in the mid-1990s, down on army land on New Zealand’s central North Island. The Department of Conservation was supposed to round up the region’s wild horses and attempt to sell them before killing the remainder. However, Mackley had become privy to information that a number of horses had already been killed and dumped in a big pit on army land, with no effort having been made to sell them.

“Of course, the army personnel wouldn’t let us in there. Several reporters and newspaper cameramen found out the location of this pit, and we decided we were going to storm in on army land and get pictures of the dead horses, come what may.”

heta1 040.jpgHe had a 4-wheel drive vehicle, while the others had cars. The cars became stuck in the mud, by which time the army was chasing them in a helicopter. Consequently, everyone piled into Mackley’s
all-terrain vehicle and he pressed on the accelerator in hot pursuit of the horse pit. Meanwhile, the army landed a helicopter on the road in front of them in an attempt to stall their progress, but ineffectually so.

“It was like a scene from a Die Hard movie.”

Later, Mackley’s vehicle became stuck in the ground, so all the journalists piled out and began running up the hill to the pit.
Because it was a steep hill, the army couldn’t land the helicopter and so hovered above, yelling for the group to stop – but this was falling on deaf ears, as this media mob knew the army didn’t have authority over them. The army then landed the chopper at the base of the hill and some personnel got out and ran up the hill, only to get back in the helicopter again.

“It was really quite comical. And then, in the end, another helicopter appeared with the police in it, and we did listen to them. We knew that while the army didn’t have any authority over us, the police did. So we left, but nothing happened to us. The police thought it was quite amusing that a group of reporters had managed to evade the army for 3 or 4 hours,” says Mackley, chuckling. From this point on, cameramen and reporters from TV3 and TVNZ called him “Rambocam” and the name stuck.

One of the best facets of being Mackley is that everyday is a new day.

“I don’t have the day-to-day pressures that everyone else has – just sitting in a traffic jam and doing the same boring job for years and they are sitting in the same traffic jam and haven’t really moved forward or achieved anything, and know full well what they’re doing tomorrow or the day after,” he says. In contrast, Geoff Mackley doesn’t know what he’s going to be doing from one day to the next. He could be on the other side of the world the next day, facing a volcano that’s erupting or standing in a region devastated by a tsunami. He doesn’t know, and that’s part of why he regards his life as so exceptional. On his website is the phrase: ‘Life is an incredible adventure or it’s nothing at all.’ He really believes it. “I live for each day. I intend to be doing this for as long as I can. I probably won’t be able to climb volcanoes forever, but I can certainly fly to the other side of the world, get in a rental car and drive to a hurricane, until I’m…who knows…there are people running marathons in their 80’s,” he says.

He has a reputation as one of the top photographers of natural disasters in the world – if not the top. Yet as the sirens on the police scanner in the background grow in their intensity, you can almost see Mackley beginning to twitch down the end of the phone. Always, there’s another story just around the corner, another mountain to climb. He wouldn’t have it any other way.