Matty Hannon recounts his favourite parts of a two-year adventure surfing along the Pacific coast of the Americas making a documentary film.
Matty Hannon | AUSTRALIA
I met Matty Hannon at Bayou Film lab in Byron last year. Dan Marsh who develops all of the Urth Twelve Frames rolls had been telling me about his friend who had just finished this epic two-year surf trip on motorbike and horseback from Alaska to Patagonia. Matty was moving to Byron Bay with intentions to settle for a while and edit the film he had been making on the trip. As a motorbike rider and having juat returned from a small trip through Laos I was keen to hear all about his experiences on this mammoth adventure. Matty recently had some free moments in between shooting, editing and enjoying his new home to answer some questions about his experiences filming, riding, surfing and camping with the bears of Alaska.
Urth: How are you Matty? Where are you writing me from and what’s happening in your world right now?
Matty Hannon: Doing fine thanks mate, I’m writing from a little farm that I live on in Byron Bay. It’s a beautiful day outside and I’d prefer to be off the computer, but I’ve spent the last week just surfing, diving and camping — so figured I’d better get a few things done!
What gets you up in the morning and what is the first thing you do?
The sun rises at a pretty friendly hour this time of year, so I usually get up with that and depending on the conditions I’ll go for a surf or a dive. Afterwards, I usually start a bit of work.
“I questioned if I’d totally messed up. Y’know, maybe I should’ve bought a house or some sort of smarter financial investment, instead of a one-way ticket to Alaska and motorcycle…”
I’ve got to ask straight up, tell us about your recent trip from Northern Alaska to Patagonia?
Ha… a little hard to fit into a sentence, but for the most part, I’d say it was a challenging and enjoyable way of living and exploring for a few years.
You hitched a ride in a fifty-year-old VW, which rolled down an embankment, only to start again shortly after, but then later caught on fire, that didn’t kill it though and you still made it to your destination. How many times did you think about pulling the plug on yourself during the trip?
There were a couple of moments that were tough, another time was when my bike was stolen and I Iost most of my stuff. Love also made things tricky at different points too. I think the worst I felt about the journey was at the very start of the trip when I unloaded my bike and self into a very remote part of Alaska and camped among the bears for a few months. It was a big culture shock, coming from Brunswick in Melbourne to Alaska alone, the spot had the densest grizzly bear population in the world, and on top of spending most nights lying awake terrified of the bears, I also questioned if I’d totally messed up. Y’know, maybe I should’ve bought a house or some sort of smarter financial investment, instead of a one-way ticket to Alaska and motorcycle… I had a lot of doubts and hangovers from how we are expected to live our lives, and it took a while for them to fade.
I’ve done a little time travelling by motorbike, it’s an incredible experience. My travelling partners and I spoke of how travelling by horse, would be the only way to reach places a motorbike couldn’t, without walking of course. Did you experience that freedom whilst on horseback, no lands that couldn’t be traversed, if it felt right?
It’s funny, the notion of horses is beautiful and nostalgic, perhaps it deserves to be. There’s definitely something about being connected to another breathing animal, sharing the same highs and lows and looking out for each other. But in a modern context horse-travel goes hand in hand with cars, towns and a million miles of fences — even in Patagonia. We struggled with the fences and Private Property signs, both physically and figuratively. It makes you realise that even when living in a ‘free’ country, you’re still expected to stick to this little strip of bitumen, and not cross the fences to the land either side of you — because someone ‘owns’ the land there. Being on a horse made me question the idea of ‘freedom of the road’.
Having said that, freedom is still out there beckoning, little babbling brooks or towering mountains. And the ocean. The beaches were our saviour — no one owns the beach — it makes you realise how freedom’s still worth fighting for, how we’ve gotta fight for it.
“If you’re not breaking gear you’re probably not getting close enough to the action.”
How did you find the balance of storing your photography gear safely, but still easily accessible enough to snap a few frames on a quick stop? Any tips for the two-wheeling photographing adventurers out there?
My number one piece of advice to any future adventure photographers or filmmakers (during adventures where you’re really putting yourself in the thick of it), is to scale back everything you thought was important with your gear. I learned this the hard way. There’s no point in lugging around a computerised time-lapse slider or having 8 prime lenses if it all becomes too hard to use. Real adventure is hard, or at the minimum, it should be testing — keeping your gear in a place where you can pull it out at a moments notice and document whatever crazy thing is happening is way more important than whether you’re shooting on a zoom or a prime.
Also, I think camera gear is always going to get trashed and abused with this type of stuff — so take that into account and budget for it. If you’re not breaking gear you’re probably not getting close enough to the action. Ha…
Can you give a list of your must-have photo and video gear for a journey like yours? Anything that you didn’t think you would use all the time and found invaluable?
I think every project is different and requires different gear and whether you’re shooting on digital, film, a RED or a glorified telephone doesn’t really matter if you’re shooting in context. A good thing for adventure is keeping small, light and versatile, see if you can fit it all in one backpack!
“I don’t think that a motorbike is inherently better than a van or whatever, both have ups and downs, and at the end of the day, the people you meet and the friendships you forge are going to depend on your attitude to the world”
You met some amazing characters on your travels, experienced some genuine kindness and stumbled on the love of your life; Would you say that riding and not driving in a big steel box greatly increased the openness and hospitality of the people you met?
To a certain extent yeah, there’s no doubt that being more exposed and open to your surroundings leads to more connection and interaction with it — you can’t wind up the window and turn the music up, you can’t crawl in the back for a nap and close the world off. But at the same time, I don’t think that a motorbike is inherently better than a van or whatever, both have ups and downs, and at the end of the day, the people you meet and the friendships you forge are going to depend on your attitude to the world.
Travelling by horse was pretty insane though, people would just run up to us and give us things, or invite us into their homes — it got to the point where we had to start refusing some of the offers because we weren’t making enough distance.
I was re-reading parts of the travel journal on your website and it gave me on goosebumps and adrenaline belly, your writing is simple and incredibly emotive. How did you get into travel writing and what recipe do you use for the bump-inducing storytelling?
Thanks mate, that’s kind of ya. I’ve liked writing since I was a kid and have kept a few journals on previous travels, so I guess that’s where I started. The first piece of writing I did for a publication was a report after a big earthquake hit Sumatra, a few friends of mine passed and there was so much tragedy everywhere you looked — but I found it incredibly soothing to put those words to paper. I love how simple, but also how infuriatingly challenging writing can be. I’m not sure I have a recipe, but I guess most of the things I write are first-person experiences, and so I just try to be honest and passionate.
I do have an idea for a short novel that I hope to write one day…
I found myself imaging John Grady Cole (from All The Pretty Horses), Heather and yourself riding around on beautiful steeds, slowly deciphering lives wondrous mysteries. That Cormac McCarthy Novel truly made me think about horses in a different way. Like John, you have shared such an important time of your life with horses, what did you learn from them about yourself?
I think we have a lot to learn from horses, from the animal kingdom as a whole. I loved that after switching from motorbikes to horses we were suddenly in search of clear streams and fresh grass instead of gas stations and parking lots. It changed everything, it forced us to totally re-evaluate what was important to live, and what we were in search of spiritually. Both Heather and I laughed and shed many tears with those horses. So much of it was just about feeling and about trusting.
I’m really glad we found a good home for them after the journey was done — they’re now living in an idyllic, big property in the mountains doing heart to heart meditation work with the local community. I guess that’s how it felt to us, a little bit heart to heart y’know. I love those horses.
You’re calling the Byron hinterlands home for now, how are you finding life being settled in one place after such a long, and epic, journey? Do you find yourself silently grateful for the smaller pleasures of life in a house?
Yes. Ha… I have a new appreciation for the concept of home. But the journey definitely affected how we want our home to look — that’s why we live on a farm.
Do you think you’ll be settled (settled in place anyway..) for some time now? Or have you already got your eyes on the next coastline to cover?
I know I’ll always travel, but I don’t have any strong desires to see distant shores any more, I’m not saying that won’t happen, but I’m more interested in making my world smaller and more local at the moment. There’s so much to learn in the details of a place, like the way different fishes visit a particular reef over the course of a year, and when are they spawning, how the moon or wind affects that, and which might be the right ones to spear without damaging the reef’s ecology.
Your work is entwined with the natural environment, and helping to sustain its beauty. Can you tell me how you first got into conservation work?
My undergraduate degree majored in Ecology, and from there I worked with several NGO’s around Indonesia, but I was never very good writing all the reports and doing budgets and all that stuff. At one point I was working for an organisation called Surfaid International and they asked me to make 3 short films for the community, I had no idea what I was doing but the process was unreal and fun, and I guess that’s what made me switch over to media based work.
“In today’s world where most people don’t have time to sit under a tree and contemplate things, I think art or music, or whatever it might be, is going to be the only thing that will instigate change or social upheaval.”
Do you believe film and photography hold an integral and important role in environmental conservation?
Definitely — in today’s world where most people don’t have time to sit under a tree and contemplate things, I think art or music, or whatever it might be, is going to be the only thing that will instigate change or social upheaval. Look at the 60’s and how much the music, art, writing influenced the world we live in today.
Your question just made me think about when I watched the surf movie Endless Summer 2 at my tenth birthday party — I had a sleepover with my mates from school. We were all so in awe of it, and I remember deciding right then and there that’s what I would do with my life… That I’d become a surfer and travel around the world. Its a weird realisation for me right now, because that’s exactly what I’ve done with my life so far — even though I’ve never seen the film since I was 10.
Where’s your film at now and when can we expect to have some viewing time?
I’m in post-production now, how long that will be is anyone’s guess — it’s challenging to say the least!
Can you share some of your inspirations? Travel writers, photographers, film-makers, journeywoman, anybody that stokes your creative fire.
Tom Robbins is one of my favourite writers, I like a lot of the American classical writers for some reason, guys like Edward Abbey or Henry Thoreau. I’m reading Four Fires for a second time right now by Bryce Courtenay, a great book about rural Australian culture and landscape.
Favourite living artists would be people like Gregory Colbert or Nick Cave. Favourite dead artists would be anyone from Hieronymous Bosch to Ansel Adams. Jane Goodall and the legends like her, the fighters and renegades… There are so many inspiring people and things around the world! I dunno, the desert sky on a new moon night?
Thanks for your time and thoughts Matty Hannon, eagerly waiting to see some footage from this epic adventure.
Hometown & neighbourhood: Currently Byron Bay