How do I get all my gear to the Middle East and back in one piece?!  That was the first thing that crossed my mind in November 2017 when my Saudi corporate project got confirmed. Indeed, how do I fly two full camera kits with audio and lighting to the Kingdom and back? It turned out to be a two-part challenge: one part being customs documentation and the other being airline weight and size restrictions. Although flying everything cargo like the broadcasters probably do would have been nice, it was luxury our little project budget would not allow. 

"May I see your documentation please?"

The solution to the paperwork issue turned out to be one of sheer impressive volume - by the third trip to Saudi Arabia I had a whole folder full of letters, customs declaration lists and insurance documents I could pull out the moment my cases went into the x-ray scanner. Apparently this approach works for remote border posts in Africa as well - pull out a dazzling pile of documentation every time a border guard stops you and you'll be cleared to pass most of the time because the guy simply does not want to go through all the hassles of checking everything! (Or so I've heard...I haven't tested this myself so proceed with caution)

To their credit the customs officials in both Saudi Arabia and Dubai were extremely polite and professional at all times. Actually the only signs of frustration and passenger rudeness I saw during the whole experience was at OR Tambo airport in seems we South Africans just enjoy having a good argument over petty issues when there is an opportunity! However arriving with cases full of pro camera gear in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will require some explanation and I started carrying letters from both my South African and Saudi clients explaining the reason for my visit and the nature of the work I would be doing during my stay. It was checked every time I went through King Khalid International Airport. Keep in mind that Saudi officials will insist on letters in Arabic, so make sure you carry those if you're ever headed in that direction.

Once back in South Africa the customs folks will want to know what the origin of all your expensive gear is, so make sure you fill in a detailed list of items with their serial numbers and have it stamped at Customs Declarations before you leave Johannesburg for the Middle East. 

Travel inconspicuously

Midway through the project I stumbled across this article on and honestly there is a lot of truth in it. When traveling with pro camera gear through remote airports do so as inconspicuously as possible. Your shiny metal equipment cases and Pelicans might look super cool back home but it is guaranteed to attract the attention of every single customs official, security guard and petty thief at a foreign airport and that is the last thing you want. So stick to luggage that looks "touristy" - be the gray man.

Emirates Business Class allows a very generous baggage allowance of two 32kg pieces as well as two carry-on pieces. This sounds like plenty but if you put together two full camera kits with tripods, audio, on-camera monitors, batteries and chargers you quickly realize that it is barely enough. I ended up cutting my equipment list down to the bare basics and going as far as removing accessory rods and camera plates from my rigs to save space and weight.

Above: the cavernous interior of a North Face Rolling Thunder 36 roller bag swallowed the heavier items like tripods and batteries and made for a great transit bag from the hotel to the filming location every day.
Check-in baggage consisted of two Miller Air tripods in their carry bags as well as a Pelican 1500 case with smaller items like my Sony X70, microphones and other odds and ends. My Sony lapel mics and receivers traveled in a smaller Pelican 1120 case. This all went into a giant North Face Rolling Thunder 36 wheeled bag. I'm a huge fan of The North Face. I own one of their mountaineering tents and a Gore-Tex mountain jacket and both are simply awesome pieces of gear that will last years (my tent is 10 years old and still going strong!). This sturdy bag is of the same quality. My reasoning was that even though my gear would be in a bag instead of a hard case the Pelicans and protective bags would protect my gear against rough baggage handlers. I also security wrapped the huge North Face roller bag before every flight and I'm happy to report that I had no damage or lost equipment as a result. The North Face bag looks like something you would use for sporting equipment and doesn't shout "TV media" like a bare Pelican case would. As I worked alone on this project it was also a handy transit bag to move my equipment from the hotel to the filming location every day.

The other piece of good advice I stumbled across was to fly all my mission-critical equipment like my primary camera, audio recorder, on-camera monitor, hard drives and editing laptop as carry-on baggage. For this I chose a LowePro Pro Roller X200 bag.


Above: to fit my laptop inside this case I pulled out the supplied padded partitions and made my own from Peli case foam. This actually survived multiple trips to the Middle East and back. My Sony A7SII and lenses have now moved into this case permanently with the original partitions.

Like all LowePro gear (again I'm a fan and I have plenty of LowePro bags and pouches) it is well-designed and functional bag. It also falls within airline size limits for carry-on luggage so the cabin crew will allow you to bring this onboard.

My only gripe with this roller bag is the handle - compared to the solid handles on the North Face roller bags this one is extremely flimsy! Perhaps something to address in future updates, LowePro.

Guard your footage!

It is no use to fly to a foreign location, film stuff and then come back only to lose your precious data somewhere at an airport or at the hotel. Next to your passport and camera gear your SD cards and backup hard drives are the most important items you carry. This project required me to move SD cards between my cameras in one room to my laptop in another room many times a day. Here's a tip: DON'T PUT IT IN YOUR POCKET! Seriously, that is irreplaceble footage stored on a little plastic and metal and you need to take care of it. I carried mine around in a Pelican SD card holder, even when just walking from one room to the next. The card holder also carried a few spare cards and I did actually burn through two SD cards during this project, fortunately without any data loss.


Also, backup EVERYTHING! Never assume it will all be there the next day when you switch the camera back on. Backup those cards tonight the moment you get to the hotel, not only after a shower and dinner.

I made data backups from my SD cards to 1TB LaCie Rugged drives at every opportunity I had. The LaCie drives are almost bulletproof and traveled in the LowePro roller bag along with my laptop and Sony A7SII. The peace of mind this provides is great - one less thing to worry about during a hectic, time-critical project. Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky but nothing annoys me as much as seeing sloppy data management habits among video people. Making proper backups after a shoot or project is simply not a priority to any of the younger generation of videographers I've dealt with recently.

That concludes my travel writeup. Now get off my lawn!