Camera in the clouds

2008-02-02 00:00

At the end of last year, a spectacular book was published — Encounters with the Dragon by John Hone. Subtitled A Photographer’s Passion for the Drakensberg, it contains photographs taken by Hone over more than 30 years, showing the mountains in all their moods and seasons, colours and light effects. And linking the photographs is Hone’s text, telling stories of the mountains — how they came to be, their early history, tales of the pioneering climbers, near disasters and real tragedies and descriptions of how Hone came to capture his unique shots.

“I’m not a writer,” says Hone. “I struggle more with the writing than with the pictures.” But he has been thrilled with the reaction of readers, not just to his images, but to the stories as well. Coming clearly through is Hone’s sense of the Drakensberg as an entity in its own right and as a place with a deep personal connection to the author.

Part of this comes from the perfectionist Hone having taken his photographs the hard way — climbing up the mountains with as much as 30 kg of heavy Hasselblad camera kit and tripod in his backpack, waiting for hours for the right light effect, braving temperatures as low as minus nine degrees Celsius in winter or extreme summer heat and, above all, knowing the mountains well enough to be in the right place for the magic moment.

He is scathing about photographers who fly to the top of the escarpment in helicopters, get their shot and fly out again. “My pictures are nearly all the result of hard work, planning and being prepared to put up with the difficulties,” he says. And his method gives him the stories to tell, too.

But the triumph of the book has been countered by personal tragedy. Three weeks after copies of Encounters with the Dragon were delivered to Art Publishers, of which Hone is also the Managing Director, he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. Planned talks and promotions had to be cancelled, and Hone found himself facing a very different kind of challenge.

When his bone marrow test came back positive last October, Hone was told to get his affairs in order and prepare to begin undergoing chemotherapy. Characteristically, he is facing his situation head on — and talks about it in Drakensberg terms. “It’s like climbing a mountain; some big foothills to start with. I’ve mapped it out in my mind — bad news is like hiking when there’s a flood and you reach a river and can’t cross,” he says. Having had three chemo treatments, he now hopes that he is going into remission, and, so far, says he has been fortunate. The side effects have been minimal.

“In Drakensberg terms, I’m above Corner Pass now,” he tells me. In his book, he describes a hike up to the top of the escarpment by this route — a long slog followed by a steep and challenging ascent up what he calls “a narrow, almost vertical crack in the mountain”.

As meticulous in this as in his photography, Hone has researched his illness, and knows what he is facing. He needs to find a bone marrow donor, and has already told the Sunflower Fund, who co-ordinate South Africa’s bone marrow registry, that, if he is cured, he’ll arrange a publicity and fundraising campaign for them, getting a whole lot of people up the mountains with him.

And in the meantime, enthusiastic reaction to Encounters with the Dragon have helped him to stay positive. “It’s a good feeling to know people enjoy it, says Hone. “That’s worth more than any money you get out of it.”

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