Embracing the wheel


Filming Samburu blacksmiths in northern Kenya.For years and years I refused to use rolling luggage for airline travel. My personal creed went something like, If I can’t carry it, I’m carrying too much. I made month-long-plus trips for magazine assignments carrying nothing but a medium Filson duffel, a rucksack, and a Lowepro Omni Pro Extreme camera case inside a Pelican 1500. I looked down with arch superiority on tourists pulling wheeled suitcases the size of hide-a-beds, and rolled my eyes when dodging rolling carry-ons on the way to the gate. It was satisfyingly stylish . . . usually. I remember one jog to catch a flight in the full-summer-humidity of Miami when I arrived at the ticket counter unstylishly drenched in sweat, while a Hawaiian-shirted bloke almost totally hidden by his full-suspension Samsonite looked on in bemusement. 

In the last couple of years, however, several things have changed about the way I travel and what I need to take on extended overseas journeys. On the carry-on side, my camera equipment has expanded, and I’ve had to add the impedimenta required to fully exploit the Canon 5D MkII for video work—electronic eyepiece, shotgun mike, etc. A laptop is now de riguer for writing, staying in touch, and updating websites. (Random confession: I’ve also become helplessly attached to the Bose noise-canceling headphones I got as a birthday present.) And while I’ve kept my personal checked baggage under control, the increasing number of projects and friends Roseann and I have in East Africa means we often take on the roles of diplomatic couriers, except without the immunity part. For example, on the trip during which I’m writing this, we’re carrying 125 books documenting a recent project (and weighing a pound each) to a Maasai community in the South Rift Valley; plus 36 syringes of equine de-worming medicine, a set of four rubber Cavallo hoof boots, an anti-wind-sucking collar (another equine device; too arcane to explain here), and two 12-volt spotlights, all for friends in Nanyuki who are starting a horseback safari business. (Apparently, in distinct contrast to human medications, veterinary drugs are vastly cheaper in the U.S. than in the developing world.)

The 1510 makes a fine impromptu desk for downloading images to the Mac Air at day's end.

So something had to give. Since the camera equipment was inching toward 30 pounds on its own, and was unthinkable as checked baggage, it was the sensible choice to go wheeled. But I had further criteria. Given the value of the lot, maximum protection was necessary from those people who will cram their own baggage against whatever is already in the overhead bin. I also wanted something fully dust- and waterproof for more remote flights off dirt strips, and for use as a vehicle-based case in the bush. Okay, let’s be frank: I also desperately wanted something that didn’t look like a normal rolling carry-on. Pathetic.

Thus I regretfully consigned my superb but wheel-free Billingham 550 camera bag to more local duty (carrying it was beginning to give me a gait even more like Quasimodo than my usual off-kilter walk), and ordered the obvious solution: A Pelican 1510 carry-on. Wheels, extendable handle, check (sigh). Crush, dust, and water-proof, check. Über-cool look, check—and of course the very first time I stood in line with it, the guy behind me remarked favorably, then asked, “Camera equipment?” So I suppose you could also call it an über “steal me” look—but then that’s half the point of carrying it on, right? The other being to spare it from the care of baggage handlers—although if I’m forced to check it on some overbooked flight, the contents now stand a way-better-than-average chance of surviving.

The 1510 is comfortably under the size of so many carry-ons I see these days, which barely fit into an empty overhead bin, much less one already occupied. It fit end-on into the bin over our seats on the 767 that took us from D.C. to Brussels; in fact, two of them fit side by side with room left for other passengers’ items.

Two? Yes—after seeing how well the 1510 worked for camera equipment, Roseann ordered another while we were in D.C. (one-day delivery via the brilliant and facilitative Amazon Prime) to use as her regular carry-on. All the same characteristics that worked for cameras worked just as well for her laptop, iPad, backup hard drives, journal, GoPro, and spare clothes.

Wheels are sturdy, but noisier than some. Since Roseann might be the consummate connoisseur of carry-on bags—she’s been through . . . six? eight? . . . looking for the perfect model—I can give the Pelican 1510 no higher praise than to note her nod of approval. 

I found the case’s extendable handle to be very quick to deploy or stow; however, the grip is strangely squared-off and less than comfortable—no big deal, as I’ll simply fire up the Dremel when we get home and round it off a bit. The newer Pelican latches are much easier to use than their originals, although still not quite as effortless as those on the old Hardigg Storm cases (since Hardigg was bought by Pelican; why not just copy them?). The over-center hinges easily hold the lid open even on a bouncy road.

Handle is uncomfortably square - but hackable.

As I write this, we’re in Isiolo, near Samburu country in the north of Kenya. The 1510 and its TrekPak divider system (see below) have been performing superbly as a vehicle-based camera case. It’s been riding on the rear bench in the Land Rover, and I strapped it to the back of a Boda Boda taxi (the ubiquitous Chinese motorcycles that carry people everywhere in East Africa) for a spine-jarring cross-country ride to a hill where we wanted to do some filming. When the exterior gets dusty we either brush it off or douse it with a bucket of water. The contents are nearly as easy to access as they were from the Billingham, although in the configuration as I have it now I can’t store a body with lens attached inside, as I could with the soft bag. It would be possible with less equipment, but the trade-off has been worth it.

Strapped in the back seat of the Defender. We’re also near enough to Somali bandit country that the first thing I spotted (and, er, bought) in town was a long-bladed stabbing weapon known locally as a “Somali sword.” If by some remote chance we need to flee from a dodgy looking roadblock in the bush farther north, I can be sure our camera gear will shrug off all the dust and banging around and vertical G-forces one experiences inside a Defender with its 300 Tdi at redline on a corrugated Kenyan two-track.

Two-piece latches are much easier to operate than Pelican's originals. Steel padlock insert is another improvement.