Australian TV presenter and filmmaker Hayden Turner embarked on a three-month project to make a TV wildlife programme called ‘Video Postcards South Africa’. He used Canon camcorders and has sent regular blogs from the bush to CPN. Here’s Hayden’s final blog from the bush.
Blog 4: A close encounter with lions and farewell to Timbavati - August 2008
I just read over my last blog and so much has happened since I wrote it, I couldn’t remember where I finished. I should tell you what happened…
The following morning we went out early and picked up the tracks of the lion pride – this is the same pride that we came across tracks of weeks back (so I’m told by the experts - they just looked like a heap of lions to me!). It wasn’t as hard as I thought, but then I again I was with two of the best bushmen in the business and they make it look easy.
Prides take up territories and will defend them fiercely against nomadic lions and other prides - this is done by the dominant male or males by patrolling and scent marking to warn others of their presence.
We followed the tracks for about an hour until Isaac knew we were close, but the grass was just too long to see them – it was about 7.15am by then and it was warming up in the Timbavati. There was a good chance that they were resting up in some shade somewhere and stumbling upon a pride of about 15 lions and catching them unawares, whilst on foot, isn’t on my priority list of ‘things to do before I die’.
Marius and Isaac looked cautious for obvious reason and again, pulled backed to tell me it was just getting too dangerous for us to go on. Everything was in the lions’ favour – long grass, swirling winds and superb eyesight made it Lions 3 Humans 0!
We knew that they were there though, as we had nearly walked in a full circle, and Isaac explained to me all the tracks that we saw were going into this area and there were none coming out.
I really wanted to see this pride, after all of the tracking and work, so we agreed we would go back and get my vehicle and drive in along an old road that traversed the area. There was a good chance we would see them from the pickup.
As we drove in Marius explained to me that approaching lions in a car is a very tricky business – you want to get close enough for a good sighting, but at no point do you want to harass them, scare them or make the run off. It’s all about going slowly, slowly and watching the animals’ behaviour.
We came around a slight bend and I was just letting the car idle along when Isaac, with his raptor-like vision, said “stop”. One of the lionesses had just raised her head (probably the mother of the cubs) and stared at us – we stopped the car, cut the engine and got out the binoculars – there they were. As we counted 10, 11, more cubs just kept popping their heads up… they were impossible to take images of, the grass was just too long. We waited for a while so they would get use to us being there and start to reduce our threat status. We were patient and it paid off! One of the lionesses came out across the front of us with a look in her eye like she had seen an opportunity!
Lionesses do the majority of the hunting for their pride, being smaller, swifter and more agile than the males, and without the burden of that heavy and conspicuous mane, which causes overheating during exertion. They act as a co-ordinated group in order to successfully stalk and bring down the prey. However, males have a tendency to dominate the kill once the lionesses have succeeded (sounds like another species we all know and love!). Lions have a magnificent posture when they spot something of interest, it’s my best lion action/position to take shots of them – she had some blood on her right foreleg, possibly from the last night’s kill. I thought it was an injury at first, but after further examination, she seemed to be walking normally and in excellent condition.
Then, about 30 seconds later, we were given a real treat! It was the best of the best, a big male appeared out of nowhere and was looking at the same thing as the lioness – a magnificent creature with spectacular mane - the presence/absence, colour, and size of the mane is associated with genetics, sexual maturity, climate and testosterone production; the rule of thumb is the darker and fuller the mane, the healthier the lion – so this boy looked like a 10 out of 10!
From where we were parked we couldn’t see what they could and there was no way I was going to start the car - it was just too good to be in the presence of these two. We had been there long enough that the lions had, well, not forgotten us, but accepted we were not a huge threat. This is what its all about – it felt good AND, a meal opportunity had presented itself, thankfully not us!
We watched them for another 10 minutes, and then they were gone – they had moved off into the longer grass again and that was a beautiful sight – truly amazing.
My time in Timbavati has come to an end this time and I have to say that it has really touched my soul – it’s a spectacular place that I will be back to without a doubt. Walking and driving is the ultimate combination of a safari if you really want to touch the wild – and for us photographers, videographers and the like, it’s just the ultimate!
The cameras have performed wonderfully – the XH A1 has been easy to use and portable enough for me to keep all my limbs and not get caught in a bush with an elephant boring down on me. I very rarely have the luxury of setting up the shot, manually focusing or adjusting settings as I am normally potential food for an animal or, standing or hiding/crouching/quivering within striking distance of a large land mammal up to 3500kgs. These cameras - the Canon XH-A1 and HV30 camcorders and, of course, the EOS 5D digital SLR - have truly been a pleasure to use and I'm looking forward to heading off again with them.
It’s part of my life being in the bush and as one gets older, one can start to not get out there as much as before. That being said every time that I go back to Africa - to film, to lead one of my safaris, or simply to go on holiday - it feels like coming back home to me. My memories of this vast continent are immense and it seems to be all I have ever done – the emotion that this continent evokes is like no other I have had the privilege to travel.
It may be a close encounter with and elephant herd, billions of stars over sky each night or the people of Africa that touch you – whatever it is, once you come here, you will come back again and again and again.
Thanks for reading my blogs and I hope they have inspired you to get out there.
Cheers for now!
Blog 3: Danger on the wrong side of the tracks - July 2008
There is something that's rather unnerving about tracking the more dangerous species - lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, rhino etc - as they move so silently and us humans (well, me anyway) are so noisy in comparison to them.
Only yesterday, Isaac (a man who, in my opinion, can track fish through water, he is so good!) was showing me some ‘spoor’ (tracks) of black rhino on the dirt road – we were crouched down looking at these beautiful footprints of one of my favourite animals on the planet, when Marius alerted us of a massive Bull elephant, approaching us on the dirt track.
He was moving in our direction with such purpose, yet his massive frame was so silent in every step – an elephant’s foot is designed in such a way that its toes are essentially supported on a thick pad of cartilage which acts as a spongy ‘shock absorber’ which helps an elephant to move silently. The sole of the foot is ridged and pitted; this contributes to the sure-footedness of the elephant when travelling over a large variety of terrain.
There is something even more unnerving when you come across your own tracks from earlier in the day, and then have the tracks of a pride of lion over yours!
That’s exactly what happened today – we went out early in the morning, about 05:30hrs and we were looking for fresh tracks of anything – we saw some beautiful creatures, the small things that if you don’t pay attention, you will miss in the blink of an eye
We came across a superb leopard tortoise, a great specimen albeit just a baby. Leopard tortoises are the largest endemic tortoise specie in South Africa and they grow to quite a large size, with most adults reaching 16-18 inches (40-50 cm) and 40 pounds (18 kg). Large examples may be 60-80 centimetres (over two feet) long and weigh about 80-120 pounds. It is a large and beautifully marked tortoise. The carapace, or shell, is high and domed and pyramid shaped scutes are not uncommon. The skin and background colour is cream to yellow, and the carapace is marked with black blotches, spots or even dashes or stripes. Each individual is marked uniquely.
As we moved on there was so much more, a visual feast of colour and sky and change – so many beautiful birds including European Roller, Ground and Yellow-billed Hornbill, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Red-crested Korhaan and White-fronted Bee-eater. Also, Spotted Eagle Owl, Swainson’s Francolin, White-faced Scops Owl, Bateleur Eagle and the Dark Chanting Goshawk.
We walked along a dirt track road and it was perfect conditions for leaving great tracks – a little bit of rain last night, not too much. The ground was moist and anything that touched it would leave a sign of its presence. It may sound strange but after a while, you start to get quite critical over the quality – “oh, now that’s a nice print!” one of us would say, like we were judges at an art contest.
The best time to photograph tracks is early morning in that beautiful low angled light – it gives great contrast to the track and the shadowing is a delight.
We were as much ‘art judges’ as we were, going unnoticed in the wilds of Timbavati. Sometimes you just feel like you are being watched – this was one of those times – a strange feeling, and rather hard to put into words… just an overwhelming feeling of being ‘prey’.
Anyway, we moved on and continued along this dirt road – a great place to learn about what has crossed from one side of the road to the other. It’s a great ways to pick up fresh spoor and follow specie – to the untrained eye; you could see lots of species and start following, only to find that you never actually find anything, as they were tracks from yesterday. However, if you are with professional walking guides and trackers (I just so happened to be with some of the best in the business) then that situation never occurs.
Marius and Isaac can use their experience and ‘forensic-like’ tracking skills to choose the freshest or latest tracks – what direction they are going, how many animals, their age… the list goes on. I feel like the ‘crime scene’ photographer at times and it’s an absolute honour to be walking with them. I have been working with animals in captivity and in the wild since I was a child – I like to think of myself as ‘generalist’ – these guys are ‘specialists’. You really see how their love and passion for the bush ignites when they get a ‘whiff’ of fresh tracks – they are like bloodhounds. They start to get more and more enthusiastic and then before you know it, we are on the trail of some really big Africa mammal (with sharp bits!) – it’s an infectious feeling and you definitely feed off one another’s energy.
We tracked an elephant bull for about an hour plus and, as I have mentioned before, they may seem slow as they use their well trodden highways through the bush, however they are just that little bit faster than us on average. If that animal is about 20 minutes ahead of you, you really have to motor along to find him sometimes – you only have to have a change of wind direction and he will be off, much faster than you can keep up
We were losing light and, as is always the case, had to make a decision when to return to camp. For me it’s always interesting to go back the same way you came and see what’s crossed your path – this time was a real eye-opener for me.
There we were, back on our road, heads down, looking at tracks, heads up, looking for danger, heads down looking for tracks and so on as one does on foot and what we saw next was an eerie feeling – right where we all agreed there was a sense of silence and feeling of being watched this morning, there was a whole pride’s tracks, about 13 to 15 lions, over the top of ours! It was a fair few hours back, but we decided to follow...
Tracking lions on foot also has its specialities – many times, due to their great camouflage, you can walk right on top of them before you see them and on foot, that spells ‘break out the medical kit’ – and I hate breaking out the medical kit, it’s not fun for anyone really. Also, if the light is getting low, you are in more danger as predators like lions have such acute senses compared to ours - we are basically ‘home delivery’ for them!
My heart is racing and we are on the tracks of a pride of 15 lions – this is what I was here for – secretly, I was dreaming of the soft and comfortable seats in my Mitsubishi 4X4 like you wouldn’t believe, but at the same time, had adrenalin flowing through me at such a rate, the bush seemed to be saying “come on, you can do this”. I know that sounds weird, but it was what I had come for and ‘mother nature’ was about to serve it up
The light was getting lower and we had only about ten minutes before we had to turn back, when we heard a massive herd of buffalo about 500 metres away – we were in a dangerous spot – a pride of lions, a massive buffalo herd and low light – time to bail out! That’s exactly what we did – it’s just too dangerous, or should I say stupid and irresponsible – there are no heroes in the bush, and being a ‘cowboy’ can make your time on this planet short. Marius is one of the most professional guides that I work with and we want to do this again tomorrow - that we will do! We will find this pride! Time for something cold…
Blog 2: Amongst the elephants - May 2008
Somebody wrote wanting to know a little more on the elephants we saw in my last blog, so here’s a little more. We started out tracking a solitary bull, but as things turned out, he had met a breeding herd at the same water hole - breeding herds are not normally tracked as they are more dangerous than most bulls. Experienced guides will prefer to show you a bachelor or a bachelor herd. Marius placed us in a perfect location showing extreme caution and his vast experience in this situation. We were on a little ridge, with a gully in front of us and downwind from the breeding herd of about 30 elephants - we couldn't have been in a better spot. As we got close to the fresh tracks (commonly known as "spoor") we started to hear sounds of the herd feeding and enjoying some family time - they seemed to be stationary and were near a water source that Marius and the guide Isaac knew was a favourite spot for them at this time of the day.
When you are walking through the bush in Africa, it’s essential that you are accompanied by a professional trails guide - there are a lot of them around, but be sure to check credentials and experience before you set out - wild animals are not to be played with, misunderstood or taunted - the whole aim of the game is for you to have an†incredible†experience and get footage and photos that have that experience accompany those shots - you will have a very different feeling wash over you from being in a car I assure you. If this is something that appeals to you, I have no hesitation in recommending the best trail guides in the business (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sometimes there are situations that occur that nobody can predict and when you are with a professional, they will know what to do and when to do it - the second most important thing is listening to your guide’s judgment and knowing something about the behaviour of the species that you are observing. The more that you know, the more you will get from the experience.
Breeding herds are made up of related females and their young, directed by the eldest female, called the matriarch. Infrequently, an adult male goes with them, but those usually leave the herd when reaching adolescence to form bachelor herds with other elephants of the same age. Later, they spread out, living a lonely life, approaching the female herds only during the mating season. Nevertheless, elephants do not go too far from their families and recognise them when re-encountered. Sometimes, several female herds can blend for a period of time, reaching up to hundreds of individuals.
The matriarch is the one who decides the route and shows to each other member of the herd all the water sources she knows, which the rest will memorise in the future. The relations among the members of the herd is very tight; when a female gives birth to a baby the rest of the herd will go to acknowledge it touching her with the trunk; and when an old elephant dies the rest of the herd will stay by the corpse.
Anyway, we were observing them for about 15 minutes when I heard a noise, not thunderous, but enough to know that something was coming up from behind us. I notified Marius with a whisper and he simply said: "stay absolutely motionless." I couldn't see what he could see from where I was sitting, but another breeding herd was approaching from behind us and we were in a most precarious position now - this is where we had to stay calm, use our skills and say a little prayer to Mother Nature that we were good humans. The matriarch was leading them and she could smell us so we didn't actually startle her, but she was slightly anxious as she saw us stood literally 10 metres away. My heart rate went through the roof, but we had to ensure we stayed still and on our haunches (this was a key to the success of survival here). Staying on our haunches and motionless didn't make us 'obvious human' upright figures and she couldn't quite make up her mind whether to dispose of us, or to just simply walk on.
The plot thickened because a two-month-old calf walked under the mother’s belly and that’s when I thought "its lights out for all of us here". Female elephants with calves (even moreso the matriarch with her calf!) are the most protective members of the herd and should be given a very wide berth - they will have little hesitation if push comes to shove, to eliminate the threat - I was hoping that my little prayer to mother nature was not being delivered by post and the it was received minutes ago! She shook her head at us and walked on, giving the rest of the herd the go-ahead that the coast was clear and the danger was not life threatening (to them anyway).
They moved on, our heart rates started to drop, smiles began appearing on our faces and then a feeling of surrealism washed over me like I have never had since a nearly died when a Black rhinoceros charged me in Zimbabwe in 1994 - I said that same prayer to mother nature that time too! I’m hoping that she knows that my work is protecting and educating humans about wildlife and the environment, and let’s just those little prayers get through to her somehow in my times of need in the future too or I will be one flattened old man!
It’s insanity to walk at night in the bush for obvious reasons so we chose to drive my car to the waterhole late this afternoon. We parked up at sundown with enough camera equipment to cover all bases – we had the Canon XH A1, HV30, an EOS 5D with an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens, and an EOS 400D with the same lens and some other bits and bobs. We were well stocked with enough supplies to get us through till the early hours should something incredible occur.
One of the things that I was worried about with going out solo again was the weight of the newer cameras - I often hold the camera in front of me, single-handed and do a 'piece to camera'. The XH A1, at just over 2kgs, is considerably lighter than its competitors and that’s a big plus for me in the field - I’m often shaking from fear and adrenaline, so I don’t need the camera shake added from something too heavy. It was a pleasant surprise that the old 'muscle memory' came back and all those fibres (10 years older they may be!) still came back into recruitment with no problems due to it being surprisingly light for what it offers!
"Why dont you use a monopod"? I hear you say. Well I do, but you can’t always have the luxury of it touching the ground when you’re out tracking big mammals on foot. We are constantly on the move - for example, elephants cover distance much quicker than you think: just over 7kmph compared to us humans at 4-5kmph. A small a difference as that is, you really have to move with speed, and as quietly as one can be. So, its lightness and the exceptional Optical Image Stabiliser make the XH A1 a real performer. I’m often surprised when looking back over the footage at how little camera shake there is, even when the camera is being handheld at the extremes of zoom. Another thing that struck me is that all the buttons are in logical places, grouped roughly by function - all the divots and bumps on them allow the user to operate the camera without looking at it, and that’s important in many of the situations I’m in. When we were seeing our lives flash before us with the matriarch and her calf last week, any small movement could have been fatal. I was hesitant to look at the camera, but I got it operating and everything in shot with minimal movement.
As dusk fell over this sought after water point, Marius and I could hear elephants feeding en route towards us. With the crashing of trees, breaking of branches and superb vocalisations they arrived at the waterhole from all directions… there were obvious matriarchs, other adult females and sub-adults and calves of both sexes. Occasionally a big adult bull would arrive and make himself known. There were several breeding herds, one after the other – it was hard to count them all due to low light but a modest guess would have been around 80 to 100 animals. A beautiful experience and hard to describe other than humbling. It’s dark, the largest land mammal on the planet is surrounding you in vast numbers and you are privileged to be in their company.
After several hours of being surrounded by herds and herds of elephant and enjoying all the excitement and moments that go with it, we decided to call it quits for the night and return to camp. As I was manoeuvring the car into a position to drive off, a male leopard was lying, 50 metres from us waiting to drink! It was a sight to behold! I could see the joy in Marius’s face! Leopards are the ‘Rolls Royce of the big cats’ and to see one like this, unexpectedly, makes you feel like you have won the lottery (not that I know that feeling, but I can imagine). He was being patient as the elephant ‘owned’ the hole for the moment and he dare not risk and encounter with the bull that was just below him drinking.
We spent over an hour with that leopard, observing him as he went about his business – drinking, sampling the scent of a female that had passed through his territory and parading around in front of us like a catwalk model. Individual leopards have a home range that overlaps with their neighbours; the male's range is much larger and generally overlaps with those of several females. Leopards are solitary mammals and predominately nocturnal. Their ranges are marked with urine and claw marks and they announce their presence to other leopards with a rasping cough. This was a magnificent creature and then he took one last look at us and slipped away into the night as silently as he arrived…
It was a great privilege and experience I will never forget, but I think the most wonderful aspect of it all was that we were watching him he was watching us. There was no need for us to get closer and change his behaviour just to “get the shot” – we were on his turf and he was okay with that. That was the best feeling for me, not chasing him, not harassing him, just observing him and letting him choose when to leave… that’s what viewing wildlife is all about.
It’s not hard to take photos or video in Africa, but I tell you, when you have a rare encounter for that long with one of mother nature’s finest, you feel very fortunate to be alive! I can hear lions roaring in the distance, time for bed and the sounds of Timbavati to put me to sleep! Night.
Blog 1: Dispatches from Kruger's Camp - April 2008
I have just completed a marathon journey of 1,946km from Pletttenberg Bay in the Western Cape of South Africa to the Timbavati private game reserve on the Kruger National Park border in the country’s north-east corner. A great mate here, Marius Swart, has been offering me an incredible opportunity for the past few years that’s never fitted in with my work plans, but at last it has. It’s a chance to photograph, video and get up very close to buffalo, elephant, lion, rhino and other wildlife – on foot!
Our camp is called Kruger’s Camp, owned by another great friend, Ian Kruger, who has kindly given me one of his tents to base myself in during my filming and it’s from here that I’m typing this blog.
It’s 11pm and the hyenas are vocalising not far from here. The night is alive with a cacophony of crickets and I’m trying to shot list my tapes from today. We have just put the campfire out and Marius has gone to his tent as we have a 5am start in the morning. Our aim is to pick up where we left off from this afternoon – tracking 15 lions on foot. We were so close but we lost the light and it was getting too dangerous to continue so we called it quits and are going back to follow their tracks in the morning. We suspect they will take out a buffalo tonight as they were following a 200-plus strong breeding herd of buffalo – a food high on the menu for a pride that big.
We have also been so close to elephant today. I will never forget it and shot some great stills and video – a breeding herd and the matriarch with a calf only about two months old. She tolerated us so wonderfully and the whole aim of the documentary I’m making is about that, and many other facets of watching and photographing wildlife. Do it safely, responsibly and with credited professionals if you are choosing to walk in the wild.
I can’t keep my eyes open. Night.
Hayden Turner's equipment
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
VL10Li II Video Light
TA-100 Tripod Adapter
CB920 Car Battery Charger
ZR2000 Remote Zoom Controller
DM50 Directional Microphone for the HV30
CBC-NB2 Car Battery Charger for the HV30
To find out more about the Canon video products mentioned in this article or to try out or purchase Canon video products, contact your nearest Canon video dealer. For contact details just click here.