I often joke ― or at least I used to joke ― about traveling anywhere for good dirt. Anyone who’s followed my adventures over the past year knows I spend more time on the road than I do at home. Travel was never intentional, but I’ve learned that it’s a requirement to accomplish what I’ve set out to do.
So how far am I really willing to go for dirt? As it turns out, pretty damn far.
Thanks to a direct message via Instagram, I found myself stepping off a plane in Saudi Arabia last week. I’m still shocked in the best of ways.
Zahid Tractor is the Saudi Arabian Cat dealer covering the entire country. Their marketing folks and higher-ups somehow stumbled across my photographs on social media and requested that I pay them a visit. The details checked out, I acquired a business visa, and off I went.
I tried to enter the country with as few expectations as possible. In summary, I was blown away by Saudi Arabia throughout my week there. The culture is beautiful, the people are beautiful, and the country itself is beautiful. It’s so different from the U.S. but in a wonderful way. Since the government hasn’t allowed tourism in Saudi Arabia until this year, the country and culture are still relatively untouched by outside influences.
My trip was exhausting, and I had an extremely busy schedule. I flew in Sunday evening and went to work first thing on Monday morning at Zahid’s Jeddah branch. The shop floors were spotless, their technicians were all in uniforms, and each shop wall was covered in floor-to-ceiling photographs of Zahid machines and people working. I’ve visited a lot of Caterpillar dealer shops, and these were among the best I’ve seen.
After photographing the shops and eating a questionable lunch, we drove to photograph development projects on the outskirts of Jeddah. The scale of development was staggering ― there were dozers, graders, loaders, and trucks humming as far as I could see.
We quickly wrapped up there and then began our five-hour drive to a small town further in the interior of Saudi Arabia. The landscape is even more barren than you’d think, and camels are indeed everywhere. The inn we found was… let’s say that it was less than luxurious.
The next morning, we spent a few more hours driving into the most middle-of-nowhere place I’ve ever been. No other roads, no other cars, no other forms of life. It was sand in every direction until out of nowhere emerged a massive gold mine. Over 25,000 ounces of pure gold rolls out of its razor wire-protected grounds each month!
My first foreign mining experience was a treat. We walked into the maintenance shop to meet with the manager. Apparently, everyone had failed to tell him we were coming, and he wasn’t exactly in the mood to show a photographer around. I had a brief moment of horror because I thought I may have flown halfway around the world and then driven seven hours through the desert for nothing. Time to activate that BuildWitt charm!
Charm I did. Rather, I was genuinely curious. I wanted to know everything about his machines and operation, so as we drove around, I peppered him with every question that entered my mind. After only a few minutes of seeing that I wasn’t some amateur photographer who was here to waste his time, he became a treasure trove of information.
First up? A Caterpillar 6015B excavator which is arguably my favorite machine of all time. The maintenance manager explained that they rotate buckets every 16 days and change the teeth every 70 hours. In the summer, the air is so hot and the rock so abrasive that he said the teeth will even start to glow. That’s nuts!
Next, we descended into an enormous pit that’s only a few years old to check out another 6015B and a Caterpillar 6018 excavator, which I had never seen before. I had a beaming grin the entire time. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was in Saudi Arabia photographing a gold mine. Wow!
Day three brought a trip to the airport to fly to a city called Yanbu. Here, we checked out an expansive limestone mine feeding a cement plant. The limestone, or old seabed, was ripped and pushed into piles by a fleet of 15 D11s ― yes, 15 of them! Once piled, 992Ks loaded the material flawlessly into 777 haul trucks. I’ve seen plenty of limestone mines before, but this was a different scale.
Phew… let’s take a break from all this dirt. My trip to Saudi Arabia was surreal because it was a moment in which I could clearly see how far I’ve come. A company on the other side of the world hired me, of all people on earth, to photograph their customers. It was an honor to be chosen, and I’m humbled to be among the best in my weirdly specific craft of dirt photography.
Alright, back to the dirt ― after all, I can never stay away from it for too long. My final day started off with yet another domestic flight to Gassim, which is right in the middle of the country. After fighting my way through the incredible crowds at the airport and nearly having my phone taken by police, we were off to an aluminum mining operation in, you guessed it, the middle of nowhere. This particular middle-of-nowhere destination was only an hour or two from the Iraq border.
We arrived on site, ate some delicious lunch at the cafeteria, and then started cruising around the mine. First up was a 992K loading 777s with overburden. Next up, a few 345s loading a fleet of 745 trucks. The best part was the last. The equipment wasn’t too crazy or all that big, but there was more iron working in one small area than I had ever seen before. There were two 980 loaders, a 988 loader, 745 trucks, three D9 dozers, and a 16M blade all working feverishly within a stone’s throw of one another. It was incredible! I was running around like a madman trying to capture the action. What a brilliant way to wrap up the trip.
DONE! After traveling over 100 hours in a single week, tired is certainly one word for how I felt. Now that I’ve slept a bit, I’m overjoyed by my trip. The experience was one I’ll never forget and the photos I was able to create are among my best work ever. Part one of “BuildWitt Worldwide” was a success!