Each month we feature one of our most valuable Explorers, the lifeblood of the We Are Explorers community. This month we’ve chosen Joel Johnsson; one of the most committed and talented contributors in WAE to date. If you enjoy elegant, velvety-smooth prose, a sense of humour and adventure knowledge that cannot be rivalled, you need to check this out…
What’s your day job?
I’m a climate change and sustainability consultant, which has taken me all over Australia in the past and will hopefully take me all over the Asia-Pacific in the future. Yes, Captain Planet was my childhood hero, and yes, the spandex comes standard with the job.
What got you involved/ inspired in the outdoors in the first place?
I’m not sure if the passion for photography or wilderness came first, but it was a bit of chicken-and-egg – each feeds the other.
What continues to get you out the door to explore?
There’s a far shorter list of things that keep me back! I’m a massive neophile, I’m fascinated by new places and new experiences, so I’m always driven to see some new canyon, waterfall, beach or trail. We’re pretty blessed living in a capital city where you can be in proper wilderness in just 2 hours.
Being outdoors brings me back towards who I really am, behind the wall of noise. All these things which seem so pressing when you’re being swept along in the flow of life just melt away, and there’s a stillness, a quiet that replaces it. It’s a sense of presence, a feeling of connectedness and being in control of your time and your path. And you never know when it’s all going to come together – when the skies are going to open up and that incredible light pours in all around you, or when you’re going to take a turn off the path and discover some secret waterfall flowing softly through a moss-covered forest. It’s not like you can plan for that to happen, you just need to be out there, to be in it, and eventually it seems to find you.
Describe your average pack when you go adventuring…
What is your essential piece of outdoor gear you never adventure without?
Where’s your favourite place to microadventure in Australia or NZ?
Anywhere I haven’t been yet! Tasmania is incredible – the uni students have a challenge of driving all the way round the island in 24 hours, but I spent three months there roadtripping and backcountry hiking and still didn’t see anywhere near all of it. Closer to home, the Budawangs down south or the Blue Mountains are perfect for microadventures and I’m still discovering new things every day. Last weekend I was out in the Capertee Valley for the first time and was just blown away – it’s one of the widest canyons in the world, with sandstone cliffs enclosing you for 360 degrees, cinder cones peeking up over the horizon, and the monolithic Pantoney’s Crown rising at its centre. Magic.
But adventure is wherever you find it! Last season we built these rickety wind-powered racers from junkyard scrap and raced them across a dry lakebed between Canberra and Sydney, climbed the ten highest peaks in Australia in a long weekend up in the NSW Alps, and found populations of fireflies in fern gullies only an hour from the city.
This week I’m heading out to photograph Omphalotus nidiformis, glow-in-the-dark ‘ghost mushrooms’, in one of the parks right on Sydney Harbour. You don’t have to look far to be completely swept away.
Do you prefer solo or with friends? Why?
Being an only child, I’m pretty comfortable in my own company and often head out the door solo. It’s certainly convenient – you can go at a moment’s notice, and with work and relationships and the pace of life, it’s pretty hard to get everyone together to do something. But when I have the choice, I always prefer to drag people along with me. As someone who always tends toward new things, it’s super rewarding to take other people back to those really special places – you might not be able to recapture that feeling when you first discovered it, but you get to experience that wonder through the eyes of someone else, over and over again.
But it’s more than that. Lifelong friendships are forged from single, shining moments of shared experience – they are the only real markers of time well-spent. I will always remember lying in the web of hammocks at coast house at the end of every summer. The incredible weight of the light as we paddled out on the last morning on the Shoalhaven River. Watching the great cloud oceans wash over the valleys in the Budawangs and crash on the cliffs at our feet. Diving into liquid light in Jervis Bay, with phosphorescence showering off our arms and bursting off our fingertips like fireworks.
All of those memories combine to define me, and when I think back, my friends are the common threads which tie all those experiences together – each one inexorably shaped by their presence. In the end, all we are is memories, a ragged collection of half-remembered experiences. Far better to be able to relive them with the ones who were there with you, over a cold beer, after the years have stretched the tales and erased the hardships.
What camera gear do you use?
A Canon 5D mkII, with a 24-105mm or a 17-40mm strapped to the front and a good circular polariser. But I think people get too caught up with the technology, which really isn’t a limitation to taking great photographs anymore. I was at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards recently and the winning shot of an orang-utan was taken with a GoPro! Just buy the gear you can afford and then focus on improving your eye and your own abilities, that’s far more important in creating engaging images.
Have you had any disasters on any of your trips? What happened?
We were in Tonga, swimming with the Humpback Whales who had travelled up to calve in the warm waters. I can vividly recall floating face down, right out in the deep ocean, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the shadowy world below the surface. If you’ve ever stared down into the deep blue, it feels a bit like stepping out into space – you feel this immense void beneath you. We had jumped in near where two whales had surfaced, and the boat had floated away in the current. And as my eyes adjust, I can see something swimming straight up towards us from the depths… but it’s not swimming like a whale.
So I came face-to-face with a Great White which was approximately twice the length of me. It swam purposefully up to about 20m below us and started to circle inquisitively. As I tried to keep an eye on the shark, the guide waved frantically to the skipper on the boat – who cheerfully waved back, supposing we were having a great time (there are reputedly no sharks in Tonga, but big ones follow the whales in).
We spent almost 10 minutes in the water with one of the most incredible animals I’ve been fortunate enough to swim with – but was very glad to get away from. It was a crushingly humbling experience to be this little two-dimensional being, flailing around on the surface in the presence of a very three-dimensional predator.
Why did you get involved in the Explorer Project?
It’s a really supportive community of awesome people that suddenly have a voice and a creative outlet… and it’s kind of a beautiful thing to see, and to be a part of.
What are you most digging about the Explorer Project?
I love the motivation it gives you to get out the door, because there’s always someone doing something awesome that you’ve never thought of before, or thought was completely beyond you. Everyday inspiration.
“In the end, all we are is memories, a ragged collection of half-remembered experiences. Far better to be able to relive them with the ones who were there with you, over a cold beer, after the years have stretched the tales and erased the hardships.”
So you have to be stranded in a tent with 2 people for 2 days – who would you choose and why?
My beautiful girlfriend, because she works weekends and doesn’t always get to come out on adventures with me. And Wade Davis, one of the great lyrical scientists, an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author, photographer, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and named as one of the Explorers for the Millennium… basically everything I want to be!
What Australian native animal were you in a past life?
Monkey. I know it’s not Australian, but I feel very strongly about this.
Check out some of our favourite pieces by Joel…