Call of the Wild: In Conversation with Ross Garrett
Photographer and director Ross Garrett has many interests, most of which remind us of simpler times; fly fishing, Vespas, Land Rovers, vintage bicycles and beer.
Known for creating elegant and perfectly crafted imagery, Ross has applied the same considered and thorough approach to his various pursuits—like spending his honeymoon driving across Africa to Lake Malawi, and enduring 850kms in the saddle during his first Tour of Ara, last year.
We caught up with Ross to talk about the call of the open road.
Traffic Magazine: You’ve had your Land Rover Defender for a while. When did the bug bite?
Ross Garrett: The Defender has always been my dream car. When I was a student, I was lucky enough to go on a couple trips into Africa in a Series 3 R6. We had our fair share of technical difficulties, but managed to fix her with a couple of cigarette butts and a piece of wire!
I think that sparked my interest, I’ve wanted one ever since. Eventually, I was able to buy myself one a couple years ago. It’s a silver 2006 TD5 Defender 90.
You’ve been on a few trips with it—is it a worthy travelling companion?
Ross: My wife and I went on honeymoon to Lake Malawi in ‘Uncle Popo.’ We covered nearly seven thousand of the most beautiful kilometres in it. We drove from sunrise to sunset and on many days, my eyes never left the road.
Sometimes it was too noisy to talk to my wife, so we would start conversing over a drink at the end of the day. We slept on her roof and packed her up every morning. She drove through sand, mud, rutted tar and stoney dirt roads. After a while, it gets into your blood, she becomes more than just a car.
I’ve heard rumours of you owning a Vespa at some point too…
Ross: I still own two, in fact. My first was a 1979 Primavera. My other is a 1969 Rally 180. I love them dearly. I don’t ride them as often as I’d like, but they still receive a gentle caress from a chamois fairly regularly.
A Defender is a simple beast, pure of purpose, which echoes the vintage bicycle experience. How did you get into riding—particularly on steel framed bikes?
Ross: My best friend had been trying to convince me to ride with him for years. Eventually, I bought a mountain bike and started riding. I fell off more than I stayed on, but soon a love affair developed.
I was obsessed with steel framed racing bikes as a kid, but I think reading about Tour Of Ara reignited the flame. The brands from the 80’s that I used to long for were kinda brought to the fore again—Alpina, Hansom, Le Jeune, etc.
I think the notion and the nostalgia is what interested me at first.
What are you riding now… does the bike have particular provenance?
Ross: I ride a variety of bikes. My steel frame is an early 90s Alpina, which I ride on the road fairly regularly. I have a carbon road bike and MTB that end up being my go-to bikes on a daily basis.
There is an immediacy to my old steel framed bike that I particularly enjoy. I also love the process of down-tube shifting. I do love each bike for different reasons. I think you definitely form a very special relationship with your machine, that can only be described as a feeling.
The Tour of Ara; I have this romantic notion of riding bikes and drinking red wine while smoking Gauloises—but we’ve seen the images and heard the stories. What inspired you to tackle the Karoo on a bike older than Chris Froome?
Ross: Ha ha! If Tour of Ara Soigneur, Mishaq Diesel had anything to do with it, it would be exactly like that! I think the images and the stories are exactly what inspired me to take part in the Tour. That, and the notion of the early Giro and Tour de France races.
It is a truly incredible experience. Somewhat profound, in fact. It’s incredibly tough and incredibly beautiful. You literally feel every tiny bit of character the road produces, from the smallest stone, to the softest sand, to the most horrendously corrugated hard packed gravel. There is nowhere to hide. When it is good, it’s incredible. When it’s bad, you find yourself delving into a very dark place in your soul!
I’d do it again in an instant.
What kind of things go through your mind when you’re alone in the saddle for so long?
Ross: Sometimes nothing at all. The cathartic rhythm removes every thought of anything but that at hand. Sometimes, a longing for the pain to end. Sometimes some very dark conversations with yourself!
How did you prepare for the race, and how do you feel about the outcome?
Ross: By the time the Tour of Ara took place last year, I had only been riding for about a year. I knew I had many base miles and muscle memory to build up, so I rode a lot. I probably completed about 8000km in preparation.
I trained with a friend, Melvin, who rode with me in the race. We completed a 210km training ride on some of the worst roads the North West Province could produce on our steel frame bikes as preparation. We did a couple of 100km rides on dirt up Breedts Nek, and then a whole bunch of base training at places like Suikerbos.
I finished the Tour 7th overall, but for me, it’s not just about racing. What I love about the Tour is the incredible people that ride. It fills the Karoo with so much character. Some do it to win, some to compete, some to eat cheese and drink wine, some to tell stories, some just to finish and some to have a shot of tequila at the top of each climb.
Then there’s the Festive 500; while everyone else was smashing turkey leftovers you spent a week in the saddle between Xmas and New Year. How did the concept come about?
Ross: Graeme Raeburn, the lead designer at Rapha decided to take on his own challenge of cycling 1000km between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve one year. The challenge was met with incredibly adverse conditions and became somewhat insurmountable. So, the following year, he decided to make it 500km.
Together with Strava, Rapha host the Festive 500 where riders are challenged to cycle 500km over the eight days between the two eves. We had just had a little baby and I wasn’t riding as much as I had been, so I decided to take on the Challenge. That way, you can still go back for a third helping of gammon!
And you had a riding partner?
Ross: Yeah, I rode with a friend of mine, Callum. He’s also expecting a baby soon and was in Joburg over December, so we planned some routes and hit the road. It’s far easier to get up in the morning if you have someone waiting for you!
With an infant son at home it’s harder to spend time away—but the open road must be calling. Are there any other races you’re considering?
Ross: I’m going to ride the first South African version of L’etape in April in the Midlands. It’s about a 160km loop from the Nelson Mandela Memorial up into the Kamberg. Then, I’ll definitely do Tour of Ara again later in the year. I would love to ride the Swartberg 100, but I think I’ll save that for next year, and perhaps a couple of MTB races as well.
All images by Ross Garrett (except those with Ross in them).