selected from shoot diaries spanning three decades

A Remembrance of Times Past

23rd November 2001

Reason for reposting: Across thousands of miles of sand during very early hours


Am in the early stages of a shoot for C4 documentary/adventure series To the Ends of the Earth. This one is about the search for remains of a 58,000 Persian army lost in the Sahara somewhere near what is now Libya, in 500BC. We have gone with two archaeologists to test maverick theory that the army may have died in sands in a different place from that where generations of historians have looked. Plan is to find evidence of broken water pots that may or may not have been sighted recently by an Egyptian engineer.



5: Ein-Amor to Kharga to Dackla

Simon (French, cameraman) and I have made a pact that given the likely difficulties
of working in the midday heat we’ll all get up at 0400 for 0415 breakfast. For
some unfathomable reason as a group we’ve been a bit lacklustre on the early
morning starts. Think the local guys running the expedition are more used to
tourists who want to lie about more.

As it is I can’t sleep much for fear of oversleeping and haven’t yet worked out
the clock on the mobile. Hear (presenter) Gaille McKinnon in the next tent rise
at what must be 0300. Get up and hear how she’s had a dust whirlwind round and
inside her tent all night, having pitched facing south, where the wind started
coming from, across thousands of miles of sand during very early hours.

Journey to the shoot site arduous and with lots of stops for bogging. But compensation
is high-speed racing over sand sheets and up low dunes at the base of the Ein
Amor bluffs. Begin ascent at 0700.

An hour to get up rocky path to the top where the well is a small patch of reeds
and green scrub. We throw a rock in and it sounds deep. Places features the
ruins of a Roman-era wall made from local stone with later additions. Find
graffiti in Time Bold from the nineteenth century.

We shoot; Tom and Gaille wander about looking at fragments of pottery. Am
constantly amazed by the experience of finding objects from antiquity scattered
about the desert floor. Yesterday we stopped in mid-drive to inspect smashed
pots from 5-8k years ago, but none of it of interest to the experts. Also a dead
skeletal camel. Things just lie where they’ve fallen. Tom says if a guy drops
something in Roman times, the chances are in this vast territory, you’re the
next person, 2000 years later, to see it.

Gaille concerned that wearing a T Shirt, her ample bosom will make her the Charlie
Dimmock of archaeology. She has to do a lot of leaning over looking at pottery
shards, and it’s tricky with the light and all, but I manage to compose a
profile shot for her PTC that keeps her happy. Interview Tom by the well for a
PTC about his lifelong obsession with the fate of King Cambysees’ army. He’s a
academic, bless him, but he’s a bit dry and I’m afraid it’ll be hard to get a C4 type performance out of him.

At the bottom of the hill, in contrast, Waleed (Ramadan, the guide) does an
impromptu piece about the danger of snake bite. He’s relaxed and a natural and
v funny. This early on in the shoot I’m going to get more with him in case Tom
dries completely and I need to pad the film with Waleed as a secondary but
vital character.

Departure from the oasis slightly delayed when at last minute Gaille finds human remains
- a scapula, femurs and skull pieces and then a hip ball and socket joint. We
leave a note with them so that the next visitors in 2k years time don’t think
we were murderers. Of the Persians themselves.

They’re not from our vanished army however, she thinks, but from a grave hearabouts
robbed years ago. I wish she would think that sort of thing. This whole story
is a bit on the edge and to have a scientist being so bloody scientific,
instead of romantically toeing the script line I’m after is painful.

This evidence leaving and note taking seems to be a very important forensic type
thing for Gaille. She’s noted the bits and pieces we’ve poked about, which
includes the remains of a Roman perfume amphora, just in case.

At base of hill begin to feel what Waleed describes as heat exhaustion, because I
haven’t followed orders and drunk a litre of water every hour. Feel nausea,
trembles and sleepiness. Waleed sticks his hand in a dune and pours the cold
sand into a water bottle and forces me to drink it. Tastes like a fish tank,
but it seems the minerals in the sand will replace the electrolytes I’m losing
fast. Am not a big sweaty type, but that doesn’t make a difference he says.
It’s 41 degrees C.

Race back to camp where a speedy meal of the usual goat awaits. Then have to fret
while it takes 90 mins to pack the camp up. Furious. Simon takes me to shoot
GVs of sand to calm me down. Sound department tinkers with radio mikes and then
we’re off. Must enforce more discipline. Why couldn’t they have packed up while
we were away etc.

To reach Ein Dackla we have to drive back almost to Kharga but then there’s a
fast, straight tarmac road for three hours. I ride with the crew in the film
car. Chris (Assistant Prod) takes the production car to grill Waleed about
desert facts but I can’t take much more of that stuff am more worried about the
shape of the narrative.

Arrive at hotel feeling very dodgy and weak with the shits as well. Straight to bed
but it’s boiling and oasis humid and there’s no breeze. Want to call Caryn
about homeopathic remedies but I haven’t got the satellite phone instructions
in my room. No mobile signal in this place. It's still 41 degrees C.

Heat and more Heat
Heat and more Heat

Related Film To the Ends of the Earth the lost Army of King Cambyses (C4 Science) awaiting upload.