The Area Boys Of Lagos

Filming sunsets in Lagos

Filming sunsets in Lagos

We cross the Third Mainland Bridge at dusk and ask Okey, our driver, to stop so we can film the sunset. “You got two minutes, make da shot snappy,” he says in Lagosian Patois. Slightly bemused, we jump out and start filming. Angry shouts drift up from the mud flats below. Groups of young men have taken umbrage at our presence, even with the camera pointed away from them and an armed policeman at our side.

Okey, our driver in Lagos

Okey, our driver in Lagos

More men emerge from shacks, thrusting chests, pointing finger-pistols like 90s rappers and stalking menacingly towards the ramps that will bring them up to us. It feels precarious. I have World War Z-style visions of them clambering over the side of the bridge. We finish the shot, jump in the car and roar off before they get any nearer. Thus went our encounters with the Area Boys of Lagos: young, unemployed men who engage in coercion, drug-dealing, odd-jobs and (at the extreme end) robbery, kidnap and murder. Their favourite tactic is surrounding cars that have stopped at night and extorting money to ensure the inhabitants are “safe” (if you don’t pay, you won’t be). Whilst they have a passing resemblance to the racketeers of other cities, they are less organised or influential.

Mark with Elkana, our police escort

Mark with Elkana, our police escort

But these disenfranchised young men might influence the future of a nation. They are cheap labour for the political organisations plastering posters all over Lagos. They also undo the work of their opponents: we see APC boards torn to shreds and PDP banners daubed with black paint. When rival groups meet, it can turn to violence. Military coups have overthrown several civilian governments (and a few military ones) since Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, but civilian rule has survived since 1999. Goodluck Jonathan, of the People’s Democratic Party, is the incumbent President. His opponent, General Buhari, looks a strong bet to win the country’s forthcoming elections. As his title might suggest, Buhari is an ex-Army man, who briefly ruled the country following a coup in 1984. Having converted to democracy, he is the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, a coalition of Jonathan’s opponents tired of perceived nepotism, corruption and squandering of resources.

The LIRS Team

The LIRS Team

Nigeria is federal, so individual states have control over most spending and taxation. Lagos is run by Buhari’s allies, and they have overseen vast Public-Private Investment: roadways thrown across the lagoon, slums cleared and houses built in their place (not always a popular move). At the forefront of this change is the Lagos Internal Revenue Service, LIRS, which claims to have increased tax compliance to 99.5%. Taxation now provides 80% of Lagos State’s revenue, up from 25% in 1999 (the remainder comes from the Federal Oil Fund). We spend a day in Aladea Market with one of LIRS’ “Tax Education & Enlightenment Teams.” Wearing polo shirts emblazoned with “PAY YOUR TAX”, they are the front-line in compliance: teams of three approach traders in a convivial fashion, to explain how taxation works for them. I spot an old woman in a fabric-shack using her laptop to complete an Excel spread sheet of profit & loss.

The vast land reclamation project at Illubiri

The vast land reclamation project at Illubiri

We are taken see the fruits of LIRS’ labours – apartments available for sale with a 30% deposit and a mortgage, backed by the state, at 9.5%. Demand is so high that they are allotted to buyers through a monthly lottery. The scale of construction at a new site in Illubiri, Lagos Island, is phenomenal. 250,000 square metres of former swamp will become a self-contained community of 1500 homes, with its own police station, power station and water treatment plant. Beyond the security fence and freeway is the other side of Lagos: the vast slums of tin-roof shacks that encroach on the Lagoon. Whilst filming back towards the construction site, we are surrounded by a group of young men who request 3000 Naira (15 USD) to “keep us safe” whilst we are filming. They are led by a man whose bare chest displays a scar the length of my forearm. Okey suggests we pay. I agree. The Area Boys smile and return to their task of painting over PDP posters.

Slums of Lagos

Slums of Lagos

The presidential election was scheduled for February 14th, but the Independent National Electoral Commission has delayed the election until March 28th. Security chiefs insist free and fair elections require troops to prevent violence. Troops that are currently taking the fight to Boko Haram. The opposition accuses Jonathan of political scheming – the delay means the APC might run out of campaign funds – but no-one really knows who the delay will favour. Ordinary Nigerians just want it to be over. In the meantime, business and funding decisions will be paralysed, Lagos will be wallpapered, and the Area Boys will be occupied.

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Arsenal fans on Walking The Nile

In February and March of 2014, I joined Lev Wood for the Uganda stretch of his Walking The Nile expedition.  I was writing several articles, and taking photos to go alongside them.  I noticed that lots of the local lads in villages were wearing Arsenal shirts, which I decided to photograph for Andrew Allen.  Andy is my oldest friend (in years I’ve known him, not age!), best mate and an avid Arsenal fan, so he was delighted to see such enthusiastic Arsenal support in Central Africa.

Arsenal fans in Uganda

Arsenal fans in Uganda

So delighted, in fact, that he decided to put them up on Arsenal Collective – a blog for Arsenal fans, by Arsenal fans – complete with an interview about the trip!  You can read the Arsenal Collective feature here, see the Arsenal Collective selection here, and my entire album of Ugandan football photos here.

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Walking The Nile with Levison Wood – Uganda

Ash and Lev - Uganda

Back in February and March of 2013, I joined Levison Wood for three weeks of his Walking The Nile expedition, just before Matt Power tragically lost his life.  I wrote up an article about the experience for BA Highlife, which you can read here.

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Walking The Nile With Levison Wood

In June/July 2014, I joined Levison Wood for the Sudan leg of his Walking The Nile expedition.  Due to security restrictions, we had to cross the Bayuda Desert at the edge of the Sahara.  I wrote the article up for Etihad Inflight Magazine, and you can read it here, complete with my photographs from the expedition.

Bayuda Lizard

Meeting a lizard int he Bayuda Desert, Sudan

Walking The Bayuda Desert with Levison Wood. For Etihad Inflight Magazine

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How To Film An Expedition

Recently, I was asked to give some advice about filming an expedition to Ash Dykes, who’s about to do a solo walk across Mongolia. Having just come back from filming on Walking The Nile with Lev Wood I was well-placed to offer some tips about kit, but most of my knowledge on the practicalities of filming stems from the best-value shooting and directing course I’ve ever done: The Explorers’ Film School.

Three years ago, I wrote an article in Beyond Limits about the film course I did at the EFS, and I thought it was a good time to reprint it here.


How do you tell people about your adventures; and how do you make a career as a professional adventurer? Two questions that many adventurers will hear time and again in their Q &A sessions.

One of the key answers for both of these is video. Social Media has become a powerful tool in the armoury of the professional adventurer, and the easiest and most palatable sharing medium is video. The adventurer can share their videos on Facebook or YouTube so their followers can see what they are doing; they can put links up on websites and online communities; they can send it to sponsors and kit companies to raise funding; and they can even sell DVDs of their adventures, or use the footage to win a commission for a television documentary.

Pen Hadow

But how does one film one’s adventures in the first place? Camera work is a huge field, with masses of terminology and kit to get your head around, let alone thinking about filming a story, constructing a sequence or planning shots. Most adventurers can barely afford their own expeditions, so paying for a camera-man is out of the question. How, then, does a budding explorer-presenter take his first step into the world of media?

I came across an answer to this question during the Adventurists’ Film Festival at the RGS in London, where Andrew Miles of the Explorers’ Film School gave a talk about self-filming for adventurers. Andrew is a professional video cameraman, who has worked extensively with National Geographic, and who specialises in expedition and adventure camera-work. With the Explorers’ Film School, he has established a one-of-a-kind institution to teach people how to self-film their expeditions. He taught Pen Hadow before Hadow completed one of the last great polar challenges – a solo, unsupplied trip to the Geographic North Pole, the footage of which made for compelling television.

During his talk he gave us a few top tips for adventurers who take a video camera with them on an expedition. The key difference between broadcast-able and unbroadcast-able film is how well you communicate through the lens:

• Film with a ratio of 10:1 – for every hour of footage you wish to eventually broadcast, film ten to give you enough material to cut and edit together properly
• Never talk behind the camera
• Don’t babble incessantly – make concise statements and pause to allow for ease of editing
• Never have just unbroken scenery in your film – always have people in it, giving context
• Talk to the camera – that is the medium through which you communicate with the audience at home – and looking at the camera will make them feel more engaged
• Explain what you are thinking/feeling. If you are interviewing other members of the team, ask questions that will draw out how they feel about the trip or event

The Ice Swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh

I then went onto do Andrew’s full 3-days course down in Brighton. It’s a thorough introduction, where you learn all the essentials of self-filming, from camera handling through to sequencing. Andrew’s specialism in filming in extreme environments means he has learned from his own mistakes when it comes to getting great shots. The 3-days were full of information, and my notebook is bursting with bullet points, but here are a few key ideas to set you on your way.

• Do video diaries just to camera – people tend to talk more honestly to a camera than to a camera with an operator
• Walk on ahead and set up the camera to get long shots – if you are on your own this may mean having to do extra walking
• Keep the camera ready to roll at any moment – you never know when something exciting is about to happen
• When reconstructing something in retrospect, use abstract filming to indicate to the viewer that it is not original footage
• Book-end each shot with a few seconds of silence to make for ease of editing

The planning stage is key – if you are operating a camera, you are carrying extra weight, batteries and storage (films or solid state). You will have to make extra time on your journey for filming, particularly if you are setting up long shots and context filming.

Be sure to film this stage – the logistics and preparation – as it gives a great insight into how an expedition comes together, and insights into your thinking and emotion as the expedition approaches. Talk to the camera, or do interviews with other members of the team if you are not going solo.

• Sound is essential for an expedition – more important than images. You can monitor it with something as simple as iPod headphones
• Write out beforehand what you hope to get out of the expedition and what you want to film – reference these notes throughout the trip to make sure you are on track – daily goals and through the whole expedition
• Think about what you will need to film to make up a full, broadcast-able programme: cut-away; landscape; interviews; transient shots; camp-life
• Be efficient with your shots – get a variety each time you set your camera up, such as wide, static and moving, from the same position, to generate “filler” video efficiently

So there’s a few starter points. Andrew’s course is jam-packed with advice and is an extremely worthwhile piece of education if you’re considering filming your expeditions. I started with filming a trip to Italy on my iPhone, and even that was made much better thanks to Andrew’s advice! Head over to his website for more information and some examples of films made by explorers trained by Andrew.

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Preparing My Feet For Walking The Nile


Ahead of Walking The Nile with Lev Wood, I’ve been getting my body ready for the 200-mile assault.  But as much as conditioning, I’ve been learning how to stop things going wrong in the first place.  And central to this, is looking after my feet.

Here’s a little video about what I’ve been doing to get them ready.

How do you prepare and protect your feet for expedition?  Let me know in the comments section.

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Training for Walking The Nile

Walk The Nile

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be joining Levison Wood on his Walking The Nile expedition . He’s aiming to become the first person to walk it’s entire length.  He’s walking over 4000 miles, and it will take him 12 months.  I’m only walking for two weeks, but doing 20 miles a day.

Naturally, I need to prepare for this, somewhat.  Given the limited surroundings, I’m walking everywhere I can in London.  Not only to prepare my body, but to break in my new Altberg desert boots.  Have a look!

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