Crew Christmas Party

In order to record the proceedings we first had to show Fiona how to use a camera, she then told rude jokes to  Nad├ęge, Tom and Steve - the only publishable group shot can be seen on our home page


Sad News

The last week has been pretty frantic, getting all the material ready for the edit (editor starts today) as well as getting ready for a trip to Washington DC to account for our time in the Mara.

We hear that the rain hasn’t stopped there yet, which means we got out in the nick of time. Black cotton soil can swallow cars whole if it’s wet enough.

Sad news about the ‘Lazy Girls’ though. These are the two lioness and three cubs we filmed at crucial times for our film. We called them the Lazy Girls not because they seemed in any way lazy, but because of their presumed association with the Lazy Boys (who truly are lazy). The first night we met the Lazy Girls, they were trapped in a lugga with their cubs surrounded by hyenas. They roared repeatedly for support, and the Lazy Boys roared back – but didn’t come and help.

Last week we heard that that the smallest of the three Lazy Girl cubs has been killed, and her mother is pretty beaten up – either by the Motorogi females who are not happy with the Lazy Girls trying to raise cubs in such close proximity to their own families – or by hyenas. Either way, the Lazy Boys failed to be there to prevent this loss. Let’s hope the last two cubs make it through. The Mara needs them.


Mara Plains staff

Roughing It!

Filming wildlife often involves long haul flights on uninsurable airlines to far flung unheard of destinations at least 50km from the nearest Golden Arches fast food restaurant. Obviously that’s not all bad but in Africa you often have to put up with bugs, bats, malaria and waterborne diseases in your coffee. I say ‘often’, as on this occasion our accommodation could not have been further removed from the traditional natural history filming experience. Mara Plains is one of the best camps in the Mara. But honestly we stayed there because of the location and 24 hour electricity, not because of the amazing food, good company or stunning tents.

We would like to thank Richard, Juma, Moses, Dominic, Adam, Kelvin, Tyler, Susan, Ella, Ping, Philip and everyone else at Mara Plains Camp (http://www.maraplains.com) who helped to make our trip so memorable (in a successful sort of way). We were extremely lucky to find such a fantastic location to use as a base camp and even more fortunate to have been looked after so well. A special thank you to Sean ‘Boy Scout’ Hartley for all of his help in accommodating us, spotting the lions and keeping the generators running despite the sleep deprivation this must have caused.

And special thanks too to:
Richard ‘Marmalade’ Jones for learning to love the Starlight camera
Tom ‘Cakeboy’ Stephens for getting to grips with the thermal camera alongside general creative input AND dealing with much of the digital file management
Stanley ‘Houdini’ Kinyolo, for some expert car magic in the Mara mud
Jean Hartley of Viewfinders http://www.viewfindersltd.com/ for getting us in and out of the country with no problems whatsoever, and supplying Snickers bars at a time of need.

We have now returned to the office in the UK with all of our kit intact (if a few kilos heavier from the sand (read blood sweat and tears) it has collected to start the preparation for the edit at the end of the month. Thank you to everyone back in Kenya who helped us with this trip and made it such a success.

The Ammonite Team


Friday the 13th - Unlucky for some

Friday, the last filming day of the trip, started badly. The brand new generator broke down. It had been bought hurriedly to stand in for the main generatator which broke down a few days earlier. We just had to hope that we had enough battery power left for filming that night.

Later in the day, storm clouds started to gather on the horizon. The ground was already getting slushy from rain on the previous few days, and damp black cotton soil can become like ice if it gets another wetting. We were dreading having to follow the lions through thorn scrub and flooded luggas in the pitch dark, so we added Sean ‘Boy Scout’ Hartley to the team for his intricate knowledge of the area.

After setting off, we soon found the two Lazy Girls, with their three cubs larking about in puddles. At that point bit of a roar-off ensued when some of the Motorogi females turned up with the Lazy Boys - who are probably the fathers of the cubs of both prides. The Lazy Boys got a slapping from the Motorogi girls while the Lazy Girls ran back south with their cubs to their favourite lugga. Pretty lucky for us as it happens, but not so good for the Lazy Boys who seem to have been found out for two timing.

And then our worst weather fears were realised. The heavens truly opened, dumping 50 (much needed) mm in just an hour. The usual drizzle that follows made filming and following the Lazy Girls even more of an ordeal than it might have been.

With no moon, and a thick layer of cloud, this was about as dark as it ever gets on the plains. The Lazy Girls walked confidently forward despite the fact that we knew they couldn’t see anything that wasn’t silhouetted against the sky. Tommies ran from the unmistakable sound of approaching lion footfalls with their heads held low to see where they were going. The lioness with a missing tail tuft suddenly strode off on her own, leaving the other lioness and the cubs alone in the middle of the plain. The tuftless lioness immediately headed off towards the flooding lugga as we struggled to reposition the car in the rain and pitch dark to see what she might be heading for. The thermal camera quickly revealed she was looking towards a grazing herd of zebras.

Stalking silently through the bushes the lioness crept ever closer to the unsuspecting zebras. Inching forward she stalked to within 10m of the herd.As always seems to happen with lion hunts, we had to make a quick descision to reposition the car in preperation for where we hoped the chase would take place. Filming between dense thorn bushes, flooded luggas and manouvering over rocks, we decided to reposition the car for a better shot before she made her run.

No sooner had we repositioned than the tuftless lioness ran to a zebra and a mad chase began - away from us. The move was starting to look like a catastrophic error when the zebra turned back on itself and Tuftless Lazy Girl didn’t give up. Just as they were coming out from behind a bush, Tuftless leapt at the Zebra. Somehow she missjudged, or the zebra made an evasive move - and Tuftless shot straight over the zebra, landed on her head and cartwheeled a few times before bouncing back onto her four feet. This was obviously very lucky for us and the zebra. At that moment, we saw a bright shape on the thermal camera shooting past the front of the car. It was the other lioness, previously unseen to us and our ever vigilant ‘Boy Scout’ spotter, darting from the darkness and intercepting the zebra. (A bit unlucky for us). By the time we got the car turned around, Tufty Lazy Girl had the zebra standing, but still needed help from slightly limping Tuftless to bring it down. It was a strong and healthy stallion.

The question is, whether or not this apparently fine stallion was selected by the lions for being somehow unfit ( as suggested by ‘survival of the fittest’ evolutionary theory). Or whether this zebra was just plain unlucky (as suggested by some more recent evolutionary ideas). In this case, it appeared that the lions simply took the closest zebra, and were lucky enough to have the strength to bring down all 400 kilos of him. And we were very lucky to be there and pointing in the right direction on the darkest, wettest night of the trip.


Mara Storm

101 reasons why timelapses fail

(Well there are at least 101 reasons but there isn't space to list them all.)

Timelapse photography has become much more common recently, owing mainly to the arrival of digital still cameras which offer a relatively cheap and simple way of recording events and processes invisible to the naked eye. But it’s one of those ‘minute to learn, lifetime to master’ things. Here’s a small selection of what has gone wrong in the past and what will definitely happen again to those unable to connect with their inner Zen.

1, What looked to be interesting sped up is in fact really boring - a very common fault - hopefully you’ll learn from that experience

2, A shot which started off in a really interesting way soon fizzled out and became very dull - you should have been there earlier

3, Lens cap - it has happened

4, Forgetting to turn the camera on - yep that’s happened too.

5, Rain on the lens - at least it shows you’re taking it to the limit.

6, Not winding up the (clockwork) camera before starting - up til very recently, clockwork Bolex cameras were used for timelapse photography.

7, Forgetting to format the CF card - a modern affliction that plagues users of digital still cameras for timelapse

8, Too few frames - always think of a number and double it

9, Impossibly variable exposure - you can be lucky with auto exposure - but usually not.

10, Leaving the camera on autofocus - another modern curse - it creates an interesting but more or less useless wobble board effect.

11, Using auto exposure - arthouse maybe, but often pretty hard to watch.

12, Running out of battery - either the timer, the camera, or any motion conrol devices could stop at any time.

13, Passers by stopping in front of the camera and having a good old look down the lens -

14, Sombody setting up a tripod in front of your timelapse to take photos of whatever you are taking photos of.

15, Monkeys pulling wires out.

16, Plants which should be blossoming, wilting in shot.

17, Plants which should be growing through the middle of the frame managing to grow neatly around the border.

18, Turning the camera off too soon - be patient - make sure it’s over.

19, Drooping camera - this has created some potentially interesting but mostly quite dull movies of the ground

20, Focus - almost all lenses have a depth of field scale on the top - try it.

21, Camera falling off front of car - what can I say?

22, Condensation - clear starry nights usually mist up the lens just as it’s getting good - a difficult problem to solve.

23, Missed frames - very hard to cure- make sure the camera is actually doing what you think it is.

24, Food, insects and other objects on the lens - always worth a check before you press go.

25, Hot air balloon rotating - don’t bother trying timelapse from a hot air balloon.

26, Camera shadow - the sun moves, so does the camera shadow - more than likely into your shot.

etc etc

OK I’ll admit to at least a few of these errors over the last few days while trying to capture the incredible storms that have been marching over the Mara from the East. The drought is over, the black cotton soil is eyeing up its first unwary car victims of the season - and we have just a couple of days left before returning home.


Brian's Hooligans

Brian (the lion)* is the coolest cat on the plains. He’s one of the mature males of the Bilashaka pride and under the thumb/paws of his cubs. His laid back 'love and peace' attitude seems a bit out of place for a large male but perhaps due to his two most ferocious adult females, the mothers to his offspring, the youngsters love having him around.

Following Brian and his large group of boisterous over-grown cubs have given us the most exciting and entertaining nights of our trip so far. Brian’s cubs are around 18 months to two years old and have the stature of nearly full-grown lions but none of the prowess! Their mothers seem to despair and abandon them at dark, opting to catch their own food and leave their kids to their own devices.

For the last few days the moon has risen an hour or two after sunset, which in combination with cloudy skies creates a period of total darkness, the perfect conditions for our lions to head out and terrify the neighbourhood.

The gang consists of five young males and four girls, the smaller of which we call Kit Kat. She is an amazing lioness and the driving force behind the groups hunting efforts. Most lions may hunt once or twice a night before crashing out to sleep but Kit Kat just keeps on chasing and chasing anything that moves. We're exhausted. Her hunting 'technique’ is not so much to stalk an animal but to simply run it down! This method can work on dark nights, but not in daylight. We’ve repeatedly filmed her both day and night run over 100m flat out just to reach where her prey was standing before giving chase. Most adult lions employ some sort of stealth and patience but Kit Kat just relies on endless enthusiasm.

Kit Kat's insatiable appetite for hunting has led her to chase topi, zebra, Impala, and she even gets the odd fawn which her brothers promptly steal. But she and the rest of the gang seem to enjoy 'hippo surfing’ the most. On three separate occasions we have seen this pride of hooligans cling with their front paws onto the bottoms of the terrified running hippos, the lion's back legs bouncing like Pogo sticks behind them. The poor hippos run into a lugga and the lions give up. What has become clear is that these youngsters have yet to learn how to hunt for themselves. Perhaps chasing hippos is a good if rather dangerous way of learning their limitations.

This post written by Tom 'Cakeboy’ Stephens

*Brian is our name for him - he may also have another name


Cattle crisis

Being new to the Mara has been an interesting experience for me in observing the high levels of cattle grazing the plains. Having previously worked in more central Kenya I’m used to seeing livestock and wildlife mixed together but the levels here are quite concerning. Not just because cattle compete with wildlife for grazing but because of the many factors that accompany high levels of livestock. Whether this grazing is the result of the recent drought or whether it is more entrenched is hard to say.

Stray dogs have come past our camp, presumably distantly accompanying a herdsman and his livestock. The dogs may be harmless enough but they can carry diseases such as canine distemper and rabies, which in the past have already wiped out the Mara’s wild hunting dog population and caused a crash in the lion numbers. Diseases carried by domestic animals are a direct threat to all wildlife in the Mara, and threaten the entire ecosystem (and therefore income from tourism).
We’ve seen large herds of cattle inside the reserve both day and night but what we saw last night was most depressing. On our way out filming for the evening we noticed 3 starving and emaciated young cows that clearly abandoned near our camp. When we returned 12 hours later, we made a grisly discovery of around 20 hyenas feeding on all 3 of them. One calf was still alive for a few minutes so there could be no doubt that hyenas had made the kills. But what were the cows doing there? This is not the role hyenas are meant to play in the ecosystem; they should be maintaining the plains game population levels, keeping the fit animals fit with their chasing, as well as taking out sick and diseased animals. There aren’t enough hyenas to do that as well as deal with the inevitable fallout of drought combined with massive overstocking of cattle, sheep and goats.
We’ve come to the Mara to film romping lions and hyenas in their natural environment, let us just hope that this behaviour doesn’t become a common occurrence.

post written by Tom ‘Cakeboy’ Stephens


Days off Nights

Cameraman Richard ‘Marmalade’ Jones arrived a couple of days ago, so it seemed a good time to take a break from nights and try and get some daytime hunting behaviour. Richard’s first assignment was to sit with the two ‘Lazy Girls’ and their three cubs, as they had been living in the same lugga for weeks now and killing only in the heat of the day when animals came to drink.

Then it rained, the Lazy Girls caught a wildebeest at night and it seemed the only thing to do was to go back to nights (3pm to 3am).

Richard’s 1st night was a disappointment. We went to look for the Motorogi group who had been spotted nearby - but they had moved - and we found the Monico* pride youth group who were so fat they couldn’t move. At least this was a good time for Richard to get the hang of working the Starlight camera

Last night we were a bit more adventurous, going to the recently rained on slopes of Rhino Ridge where we found the Western arm of the sprawling Bila Shaka pride (sometimes called the Marsh Pride). It was the usual youth group arrangement, a couple of mums and in this case 6 almost full grown but otherwise useless offspring. They didn’t disappoint. The two mums were setting up a good zebra ambush joined by possibly the stupider of their two daughters - who started a run way too soon. She ran and ran and ran after the only zebra foal in the group. Every zebra within a mile saw this and they all too ran after the escapees. Mum lion was not impressed and seemed in a particularly bad mood.

After dark, they managed to lose us a couple of times, but we found them again just as they had surrounded a hippo.

This was a spectacular battle with the four young males vying to be the bravest (for brave read stupid) by trying to climb on the hippo’s back. After much spinning, running and charging, the hippo ran into a lugga and the lions eventually lost interest.

Well done Richard Jones for getting some unforgettable starlight images, Tom Stephens for finding the lions again and filming some incredible thermal action, and, at the wheel, Stanley ‘Houdini’ Kinyolo for conjuring some very narrow escapes with deep black cotton soil mud.

* Monico pride named after Monico hill where they live, named after a Maasai warrior who went there to kill a lion - but it killed him.

Working By Starlight

Tom Stephens at work


Life In The Car

Every night we pack our night filming car to the gunnels with 6 cases, 4 car batteries, 2 inverters, 2 desktop computers, 2 custom-built cameras, gallons of tea and a packed dinner that we just about squeeze 3 or 4 people around. Not so much a filming car but a mobile filming office. As you can imagine, now the rains have started, that we’re increasingly anxious about the water-tightness of the car. So far so good however with just one exploded inverter. The rain has become a welcome relief from the dust bath we are used to driving in.

The main challenge of filming at night is navigating around the Mara in total darkness whilst following lions in and out of thick thorn bushes. We don’t use any visible light so our driver Stanley wears night vision goggles and illuminates the road ahead of the car with infra red light. This relaxes the wildlife and prevents creating an unfair advantage for the lions by spotlighting a potential meal.

If we don’t accidentally bump into them, we locate the lions using our thermal camera which can pick out a heat signature from several kilometres away. As we mentioned before in our blog about mistaken identity, this can lead us towards hot rocks and glowing termite mounds but most of the time we find the lions we are looking for. The starlight and thermal cameras are providing us with incredible insight and images of life on the plains at night. I can only compare the experience to SCUBA diving, when you first plunge into the sea and discover it is not full of the sharks that your imagination convinced you were there waiting for you. We have a unique and new view of what is really going on and it is endlessly fascinating to see the plains covered with grazing hippos and romping hyenas once the sun sets.

We have two weeks of filming left to go, who knows what we will find in the dark over these final weeks!

This post written by
Tom ‘Cakeboy’ Stephens


Mistaken identity

One of the prerequisites for working with wildlife is that you can tell different creatures apart, and that you can recognise different species from different angles in different light.

Every day, we go out to find lions, perhaps with a tip off, perhaps with just a hunch, and we look very hard at shadows under bushes for a flick of a tail, or a single paw in the air. Sometimes we are guided by the gaze of giraffes, topi or zebras, but these creatures are also quite happy to stare at nothing in the heat of the day.

Soon, our desire to find something, anything interesting leads our brains to imagine shapes in rocks, fallen trees, grass waving in the wind. There are hundreds of rocks in the Mara shaped exactly like the head of a lion, and no doubt these same rocks get misidentified over and over again by new visitors to the area.

Animals can play tricks too. Warthogs are such weird looking animals that they take on all sorts of characteristics far away in shimmering heat. A warhog grazing can for a moment appear just like a baboon the other way round, or end on from a distance like a male lion looking down his nose. Hartebeest are exactly the same colour as lions, and their white rump and pale brown fur from far away can lead the less experienced to claim ‘there’s a lion!’

Recently, things have been getting out of hand. A flock of sheep was identifdied as a large group of hyenas, while some elephants behind a termite mound were pronounced to be lions. A warthog even took on the persona of a buffalo for a few short seconds. And that’s in daylight. At night with the thermal and starlight cameras we have to develop a whole new range of ID skills as completely nocturnal animals show their faces. Aardvarks walk a bit like hyenas, so at first caused confusion then amazement when we realised that we had at least four of these extremely secretive animals bumbling around the car digging sniffing and chasing each other.



The last few nights have delivered varying degrees of success with various groups of lions, mostly mothers helping their sub-adult offspring to hunt. We have tried to follow them through luggas, swamps and thick scrub, but still achieved lots of lovely hunting moments (all of which failed). The kids are full of confidence and excitement, running this way and that, while mum tries various tactics to get one of her cubs to actually make contact with an animal. In these dark conditions, the lions can’t see the prey but have to locate them by scent or sound. And the prey can clearly hear heavy lion footfalls in the grass unless the lion is very careful. This is where mum’s patience and experience count.

Now the moon is waxing, the dynamics change completely. With even a quarter moon, the wildlife can see each other pretty well, and the lion response to this is either to sleep until the moon sets or revert to more daytime like hunting methods - hiding in long grass - if there is any.

Last night we met up with two lovely experienced females and their 6 tomcat sized cubs. When mum told the cubs to stay put they did, and the two mothers set about stalking a mixed herd of topi, gazelles and wildebeest. Or so it seemed. After some protracted stalking and waiting about, one of the girls charged at the herd, who in the light of a quarter moon saw her coming in plenty of time to make an easy escape. It seemed a pointless effort. She really didn't try very hard. Or was she hoping to drive the prey towards her waiting sister?

The other female mysteriously didn’t seem at all interested - because as we found out, she was already with a dead topi, completely untouched, which they must have killed earlier in the day. Both mothers and all the cubs moved in for a quiet dinner under the moon and stars. And the cubs got their bed time milk before all dropping into deep sleep.


The Sky At Night

Here's a single frame from the starlight camera last night - a dark starry night ie most of the stars obscured by clouds and thin haze over the others reducing their brightness

Most days we set off about 4pm, to find our lions and film whatever we can of their daytime behaviour (you guessed it - mostly sleeping).

Just around sunset, hungry lions will usually move a little to get a better view of the surrounding plains. If they have cubs like the two mothers we followed last night, this is when the youngsters run about chasing, watching anything that moves, playing with stuff they find. Sadly, last night these items consisted of a black plastic bag and a small item of clothing. I’m sure nobody was eaten, but clearly the world has changed for us as well as lions.

Not until darkness closes in do the lions make their move. By this time, we’ve changed from daytime camera to night time cameras. Daytime camera: HD video camcorder - ie one that you put on the tripod, look through the viewfinder and press the button if you like the picture. Night time cameras: a whole other story. For various reasons the cameras we have to use will only record to computers. And laptops aren’t fast enough, so we have two desktop computers in the car running off inverters and car batteries. To see the images, we have a variety small computer monitors placed in strategic positions. The cabling of all this electronic hardware always starts off with the best of intentions but by the end of the night it usually resembles a Gordian knot. We’re working on the cable discipline.

Before we can follow the lions Stanley needs to get his night goggles correctly adjusted, and we have to mark our position on the GPS so at the worst we can back track. Once landmarks disappear into the gloom, it is very easy to become disoriented, especially if a layer of clouds covers the stars.

In this kind of darkness, the Starlight camera can’t see very far without infra red light. Even then, its amazing ability to see animals is completely overshadowed by the thermal camera which allows us to identify lions or hyenas up to three kilometres away. It should therefore be easy keeping up with the lions.

A typical dark night lion hunt will start with a bit of a move, then a bit of a rest, wait and listen, followed by another bit of a move. This night after a couple of starts the two mothers heard something in the bushes and moved quickly towards it. We were in a bad position, and had to go out up onto the hill to see what was going on. A herd of buffalo were coming down to drink, and there in front of them were our two lionesses. One of the buffalo smelt a cat and gave an alarm at which point the entire herd came charging out of the lugga.

Buffalo routinely chase lions in daylight, and present a real danger to the cubs. These two mothers were not starving and so would never attack a healthy buffalo in a herd returning instead to the waiting cubs. This place, with its multitude of dry river beds, luggas and bushes is hard enough to navigate in daylight. Even with the thermal camera we soon lost the lions and the buffalo. So we moved up to the place we now call Lazy Boy Hill (after two lazy male lions) to see if we could find the Monico bunch - or at the least film a bit of starry scenery.

Once I give my eyes time to adjust to the gloom, the beauty of the milky way over the plains never ceases to astound me and is always a small compensation for having lost the lions - again.


The Mara Seven

Suppertime in the Mara


Lion Pride

A month ago when we left there were encouraging signs that the drought was over. Rain had greened-up lots of plains in the Mara, especially the North West. Hardly a drop fell since we left, and the Olare Orok Conservacy is very dry - but there is still good drinking water, so plenty of healthy looking zebras, wildedbeeste, topi and gazelles are hanging around. And there are also plenty of dead cows in various states of decomposition. Many of cattle herds here have been weakened by long treks from other areas in Kenya, where the drought was still having a huge effect. Yesterday, heavy rain hit Nairobi and surrounds, while rain was visible to us over the Northern Serengeti. Hopefully the drought is finally over.

What effect the dryness, all these cattle and accompanying people are having on the lions is hard to say. There have been spearings as well as poisonings, and everyone reports fewer lions in areas where they were common.

The day before yesterday we set off north to Maternity Plain with the help of Sara and Emma Blackburn of the Mara Predator Project to find The Group of Seven; one 3 year old male born in that area, one adult female of unknown provenance, her four 18 month old cubs, 2 boys 2 girls, as well as a smaller adopted cub. This kind of pride doesn’t fit the normal stable lion pride stereotype, but seems to be more common here at the moment, and mature males are thin on the ground.

The Group of Seven set off to towards wildebeeste herds at dusk, and the daughters didn’t disappoint, randomly chasing anything that moved, while mum held back as if to teach them the lesson of patience. The group spread out, chased all the animals away, then reformed for another go. Second time round, the 2 girls produced the same result and all the wildlife legged it.

The night was moonless and partly cloudy, conditions in which neither prey nor lions can see very far, and sound and scent become more important. The lions roughly locate some prey by sound and spread out in that direction. This time, mum decided that playtime was over and had to show the cubs how it was actually done. She knew more or less where the cubs were, and where a sitting herd of wildebeest was quitely chewing its collective cud. Mum made a huge loop around to the other side, careful to keep her footfalls silent, still not sure exactly where the wildebeeste were.

Now the wildebeeste were between her and the cubs who appeared to be waiting for something to happen. Mum charged straight into the middle of the panicking herd, and downed an adult, cheetah-style with a flick to the back legs. It was practically dead by the time the first cub arrived. An hour later, the Group of Seven had devoured the lot, with surprisingly little fighting.

Let’s hope that in time, despite living in a heavily grazed and human inhabited area, the Group of Seven can become a stable and successful pride.


Touching the Trophy

The memory of sitting in a hot spring surrounded by Autumn forest and mountains in the Grand Tetons National Park is rapidly losing ground to the maelstrom that usually precedes a big filming trip. Engineering always progresses at exactly the right speed to be ready about 10 minutes before the last case needs to be closed. Strange bits of metal are concocted to solve new problems, make new cameras easier to use or allow the operator to actually focus this time. Things that failed on the previous trip and should have been fixed weeks ago are found still in their cases - exactly as they were packed for the journey home. We have to plead with busy engineers to help us. Couriers are constantly coming to the door with new cables, or special electronic boxes, torches, special batteries etc etc. This is the reality of modern wildlife photography. Budgets, schedules, new projects demand immediate attention while automated sales calls dumbfound us with their complete irrelevance.

During all of this it was necessary to gather the Smalltalk Diaries team to come and touch the Jackson hole trophy themselves - and drink some champagne. James Taggart, Claire Berry, Charlotte Jones, Simon Sleath and Will Dohrn all managed to come at short notice, while Hilary Prosser, Charlotte Crosse, Richard Higgs, Ben Ward, Caroline Norris, Richard Webb, Fiona Mackenzie and Jonathan Jones will all have to come and touch it another day - which means we can have another little party later.

The last case was closed yesterday at midnight ready for the 5am drive to Heathrow.
Cases checked in - ahhhh - 1 hour of peace with nothing to do but read the paper - where I discover that Gordon Brown and Barack Obama aren’t very popular, but Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tomorrow the Masai Mara, where the problems of rich economies in the North and West may seem very far away - but sadly for the wildlife are very relevant.


Crossing Fingers Works

It must do because Smalltalk Diaries Changelings won the prize for Best Short Film, a fantastic result for a small company like Ammonite (see winners). This year, Jackson Hole Film Festival had a record number of entries, over 400, representing the best wildlife and environmental films of the last 2 years from all over the world. The surprise ‘best of festival’ was an incredible and moving film by Patrick Rouxel called 'Green', made entirely without broadcaster support, and lacking any narration. The film is free to view at http://greenfilm.free.fr/

After endless (mostly very productive) meetings, long chats about the state of broadcasting, the state of the planet, fascinating seminars and talks, it’s already time to pack up and head home for a few frantic days of prepping for the 5 week Masai Mara shoot that is almost upon us.


It’s Tuesday, must be Jackson

After a few days travelling I can now tell you for sure that Turkey is a wonderful country but that Dalaman airport is an appalling money grubbing hole of an airport (nescafe about £3.50, disgusting stale bread sandwich about £6) which makes Heathrow’s terminal 1 (Cafe Nero double esspresso £1.70 and toasted mozzarella, tomato and fresh basil panini £3.40) look like a very nice place to relax and wait for your flight. I can also tell you that Chicago O Hare airport is still a confused mess of over zealous security and passport control that somehow lacks the management ability to staff the numerous unused xray machines and border control desks to avoid the whole place being constantly crammed with people standing around in lines trying to go somewhere.

The Masai Mara already seems like ages ago, but finally we’ve had time to asses the results. Amazing. The new starlight camera IS the sharpest, most sensitive image intensified camera ever built. Some movie clips in due course.

Before our departure for the main lion shoot later in October, the biennial Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival is upon us once more, and here I am to meet up with old friends, get some new projects funded as well as cheer on ‘Smalltalk Diaries Changelings’ which is up for ‘best short film’ award tomorrow night - against some stiff competition.


Return to Blighty

After three weeks we headed home, having finally filmed some stunning baboon material for BBC's forthcoming 'Rift Valley' series, identified some serious technical and ergonomic problems in our new Starlight and thermal cameras, and saw more clearly than ever the true nature of lion nocturnal hunting behaviour.

We now have just 3 weeks to get engineering underway, go on holiday, as well as go to Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival before heading back to the plains for what is predicted to be an extremely wet October. I hope not.

Rain on the Plain

Rain in the Mara usually comes in the form of localised storms that build up in the afternoon and evening. Look around the hilltops just befire sunset and you’ll see small columns of rain over several of them, or huge grey curtains covering portions of the sky, with the setting sun peeking between them. The Mara’s numerous lone, gnarled trees offer a fantastic point of focus in this massive landscape.

As the torrential rain arrives, all the grazing animals stop moving and turn with their backs to the wind, zebras, gazelles and wildebeeste all aligned in the same direction. Is it because they don’t like driving rain in their faces or because they want water to penetrate their backward facing fur and clean it? I’ve yet to hear a convincing explanation of this universal behaviour. Twenty minutes later, it’s over, and twenty mm of refreshment has covered an area of only fifty square kilometres. In three days time, the wildebeeste will come from far and wide reap the benefits.

Lions love this kind of weather. It always makes them active, and full or not, ready for a hunt. This was one of the main reasons for our trip, to see what lions actually do at night, and we weren’t disappointed.

We had three more fantastic evenings with the lions, doing what they seem to normally do on dark moonless nights - bumbling around chasing stuff and every now and again actually bumping into animals and killing them.

It’ is now, finally clear, that without moonlight, lions can’t see their prey at any distance any more than the grazing animals can see the lions. Detection of each other now depends almost entirely on smell and hearing. All the lions have to do is be very quiet - but then, most of the prey animals do the same. They stop moving and sit down to chew their cuds. Which has given us incredible images of lions stalking right past their victims - all of them unaware of each other.

For more information on Mara lions check out the Mara Predator Project website


Lions and Cows

We have begun to learn the truth about rampant cattle grazing in the Mara.

The day before yesterday we (me on camera, Stanley on driving) watched some female lions sleeping peacefully as Masai cow bells and voices approached. The cows passed on the other side of the lugga* - and the lions paid no attention at all – then we heard the bell of a single cow trotting after the main herd. The lions leapt into action and hurried after it, behind the bushes. An outsider lioness also arrived, the lionesses had a bit of a spat and the cow escaped.

Later on, we saw some hyenas attacking a wildebeest, oblivious to the nearby Masai and cattle, some lions arrived on the scene commandeering the wildebeest that the hyenas had yet to bring down.

Last night we watched through our thermal camera as The Masai brought their herds closer and closer to where some lions were lounging around in the grass, the lions simply ignored them. We showed the footage to the Masai later, who had been completely unaware of the presence of 5 lions. Between looking at the cattle and sleeping, the lions chased a few hyenas and generally gave the impression that it was business as usual on Paradise plain.

The biggest question that remains is to what extent the cattle grazing damages or enhances the environment. And when the rain will relieve the pressure, and allow these
huge herds to go home.

*Mara term for ditch


Night Rights

Finally we get the news we have been waiting for - that we can film off-road at night in the main Mara reserve - having paid quite a lot of money for the privilege (which it truly is).

Twelve years ago when we made Mara Nights here, we went all over, into what is now the Olare Orok Conservancy, the Aitong conservancy, the Mara North Conservancy as well as the Mara itself. Today, each area requires different permissions, different fees, and has different levels of 'allowed’ land usage, from light grazing to the building of permanent settlements. Further to the North, this also means ploughing the land and planting wheat.

Most National Parks exist simply because nobody could find another use for the land. The Mara is exceptional as it occupies prime agricultural land, and as such is really only secure as long as it earns more money through tourism than if it was converted to wheat. The areas surrounding the Mara are under imminent threat, and this has galvanised various organisations and alliances of tourist operators and land owners to create what is in effect a series of secure buffer zones and extensions of the bigger reserve.

There is however a problem. Cattle. This year has seen the driest drought in Kenya for 70 years. The Mara has the only remaining grass in Kenya (much of the best of the rest having been ploughed and planted). Estimates vary in the total number of cows that have been brought here from elsewhere, anything from 40,000 to 100,000, all grazing wherever they can – dodging wardens by going at night. Whether or not this grazing is bad for the plains and wildlife is hard to say. Generally, areas which cattle have grazed have shorter grass, which is what the wildebeest, gazelles and zebras like anyway, so these animals are often to be found among the cattle. But on the other hand, the number of people wandering around the reserve and surrounds has now got to the point that many of the predators have changed their behaviour and become more nocturnal or moved on altogether. And some areas have now been overgrazed to the point that they are just bare dirt waiting for rain.

Last night we watched as hyenas watched an advancing wall of cattle hundreds of bells ringing, Masai whistling commands, torches flashing. The hyenas took it in their stride and melted away when people came near. It’s a very complicated situation, but the will seems to be there on all sides to solve it, and keep that Mara largely as it is - the most incredible and beautiful place for wildlife I know of.


Beautiful Baboons

This is a multi purpose trip to the Mara. We need to test the latest starlight camera, find the best areas for our next lion film trip, try and understand the new boundary, political and rule changes around the Mara – and film some baboons.

Not the world’s most popular monkey, despised by many and unappreciated by most, the baboons here have been a revelation. Unable to film our first choice group until next week (because of politics), we have gone into the Olare Orok Conservancy on the Northern edge of the Mara reserve. The best group we could find has been grudgingly trusting – as long as we stay more than 50 metres away – and has routinely dragged us into rock fields or made us cross the same dry river 5 times in an hour.

But these baboons are true savannah monkeys. They don’t visit any lodge rubbish tips or Maasai settlements. They live entirely on the plains by their wits. And they seem to be very happy despite the dryness. Bickering and fighting are rare, while grooming and general niceness to other members of the group seems to be the norm. Loads of babies are always running about jumping on each other, while the big males perform sentinel duty at the edge of the group. Two nights running, they’ve chosen a beautiful open branched fever tree for roosting after prolonged social mucking about in the nearby river channel. I had no idea baboons were such nice and interesting monkeys


Cramped Conditions

I wasn’t prepared for the drive to the Mara. The last time I drove was in 1984 – ever since then, I’ve flown. The air route goes over some dramatic rift valley scenery, then a bit of semi desert before arriving at the relatively green oasis of the Western Mara.

The land route is completely different, and has to take a Northward direction before heading south to the plains. In 1984, I remember seeing giraffes and gazelles less than an hour out of Nairobi. This time, at the same place all we found was one roadkill zebra being eaten by dogs. Another hour down the way, the transformation was even more complete. What was scrub and dry empty plains 25 years ago is now endless fields of wheat. What was a significant wildebeest and zebra migration route is now the breadbasket of Kenya – if not much of East Africa.

As we drove South to Aitong, it was clear that the number of people and cattle living here had increased enormously. As we got close to the Mara reserve, we could see that a huge number of cows, sheep and goats had cropped the grass to the limit. But as is often the case here, we could also see huge numbers of wildebeest surrounding the cattle, drawn to the fresh green growth – which is in part due to the intensive domestic stock grazing (much of which has been brought here from other areas – because of drought, this is the only grass in Kenya). Whether or not we find more predators in the areas where there are most wild animals (often where there are cows and Masai) or where there is less disturbance from people remains to be seen. Watch this space.


Snake Encounter

While the crew are getting to the filming location I thought I'd put up the video made earlier this year in Botswana when a puff adder was discovered in the kit tent (really poisonous and BAD NEWS to get bitten by this chap)


Return to the Mara

Wildlife film making doesn’t need to be about travel to foreign parts. But it usually is.

We could happily film subjects close to home, reveal extraordinary new behaviour of the strange creatures in our back gardens. But we rarely get the opportunity to do that. Broadcasters and funders tell us that 'the viewers’ are more interested in lions and whales and polar bears and don’t really give a stuff about the 'mundane’ life forms closer to home. Bugs, the broadcasters say, are 'a hard sell’.

Which is why wildlife film making is almost by definition about travelling to far off remote places. And spending quality time there. The more remote and exotic the better, for stints of 3 weeks, 3 months or more. Wherever we go, we almost always meet and work with scientists and local people, usually accept their hospitality, sometimes live in their houses, always make new friends.

For me, many of the details of the past locations hard to retrieve easily. But a few places stand out. Kenya’s Masai Mara being one, where I can recall some spectacular high and low images; two bouts of malaria and one of amoebic dysentery, various random food poisoning events and frantically digging trenches in torrential rain to stop the equipment tent being washed away remind me to respect the Mara, but don’t in any way inhibit me from wanting to return.

And we're on our way back there now...


There’s Never Enough Time.

After just 7 days in Portal our trip was over. We did pretty well, with a variety of amazing behaviours of ants in spectacular surroundings.

Frank behaved itself pretty well on location - delivering fantastic smooth moves at ant-eye level with only a few minor hiccups. New cameras using the Panasonic AVC Intra system gave us unprecedented picture quality and ease of recording in the field. With the help of Howard Bourne looking after equipment, Gavin Thurston was able to apply his 25 years experience in close-up filming to produce some incredible images. As ever in Wildlife film making, we had to curtail our ambition and make it fit the small time slot the budget allowed us. We were just getting going when our slot on the calender expired.

As we drove around the Chiricahuas on our way to interstate 10, the sun lit up the clouds in a range of pinks and oranges, silhouetting the nearby peaks in a way that could not have changed much for a million years or so. As the sun rose, very recent changes to the landscape became very visible, roads, a house here, a house there, the odd barn, and of course the interstate at San Simon. On the horizon other mountains rose out of the plains (mostly included in the Coronado National Forest, along with the Chiricahuas), and between them vast dry flat lands with ranches, mines and factories - all full of ants - passed by as we made our way to the airport.

20 cases on the conveyor belt at Tucson and home.


Antagonistic Antics

We needed to find out more about our ant antagonism so I talked to our ant expert Alex Wild, as well as some other antologists (myrmecologists) who happened to be visiting the Southwest Research Station (funded by the American Museum of Natural History) during what must be the biggest annual gathering of myrmecologists anywhere in the world (about 50 attendees).

As it turns out, very little is known about the relationship between the long legged ants (Aphaenogaster cockerelli) and the orange harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex maricopa). We’ll just have to look very closely at the images when we get back home to see if we can work out why they fight every day, but don’t actually seem to hurt each other (which both are quite capable of doing).

On the other hand, we did discover that the spectacular Chiricahua mountains have been undergoing the same sort of territorial ebb and flow as the as the ant territories. Two hundred years ago, this area was technically a part of Mexico (in the eyes of the Mexican government), but in practice was part of the Apache lands which straddled the borders between Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. The Apaches were doing pretty well in keeping their lands to themselves and keeping settlers away. So much so that the Mexicans were only too happy to sell the Chiricahuas and surrounding area to the emerging United States for $10 million (about $236 million in modern money) for the building of a railroad. This ultimately led to the Apache wars where leaders Cochise and Geronimo held off settlers and the US army for a decade in a desperate attempt to keep their territory and culture intact.

They failed, and their people were removed. What little is left of the Apache nation is restricted to the San Carlos reservation to the North of the Chiricahuas. There are many differing accounts of events of the Apache wars, but Geronimo’s autobiography Geronimo - His Own Story* would be a fascinating place to start.

We have no idea how the change of land use affected the ants, the arrival of thousands of cattle would have certainly changed the habitat dramatically from the ants point of view with both beneficial and harmful consequences, possibly bringing the long legged ants and the orange harvester ants together for the first time.

Today, the US now fears incursions by Mexicans, and is making the border to the South secure against further immigration. The US Border patrol driving their green and white trucks are always much in evidence on the gravel roads as we try to get to our ants before sunrise (about 5.30am). On the back of each truck is a cage - in case they catch a Mexican trying to settle in a new land.

*also available as an audiobook


Back To The Desert

About 5 hours South and East of the sweltering heat of Phoenix is a tiny little place called Portal, on the edge of the stunning Chiricahua mountains. Portal has become famous for its ants - not that there is anything particularly special about the ants here - just that there is a research station where some significant ant science was (and is being) conducted, especially experiments which have helped is begin to decipher the complexities of ant chemical communication. Apparently, there are harvester ant nests near here full of little glass beads that were covered in ant pheromones which Deborah Gordon used to work out how the ants knew when they had collected enough food, or when they needed to collect more seeds. This is a significant advance of ant understanding. The casual observer could well conclude that ants have incredible intelligence. And yet it seems they can exhibit complex behaviour with just a simple set of instructions, and a variety of chemical cues.

This morning, these simple instructions led a colony of one species of harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex maricopa - very powerful sting) to attack the nest of the so called long legged ant (no sting). The long legged ants generally like to forage at night, while the maricopas like the heat of the day. They both like similar food, seeds and insects, and technically they share the territory. But when the maricopas get up, they find their patch swarming with long legged ants skirmishes soon break out, leading to a full scale assault from the maricopas who by 8am have driven the long legged ants back into their holes and are swarming around the entrance. Oddly, there don’t seem to be many injuries in these fights, just the occasional antenna or tarsus. But this is exactly the kind of situation where Frankencam excels: Fairly flat, loads of light, bare dirt with no plants in the way.

Incredible images.


It’s Not Cheating

After the splendour of the Sonoran desert, we find ourselves working in a lab in the Arizona State University, looking into little glass and plaster models of the interior of ant nests - with living colonies of ants inside. We have been filming some of the amazing social behaviour of the extraordinary Sri Lankan jumping ant. Some would say this is cheating. Perhaps it is. But the truth is that: we don’t have the budget to go to Sri Lanka. Even if we did, we would struggle to find a nest of this species and dig a huge hole next to it. Any behaviour we filmed wouldn’t be 'natural’ because the ants would all be freaking out about the huge hole in their nest. They would run up the lens, sting the operator, and would definitely refuse to act in a calm and relaxed manner. Our film would be worthless.

Thankfully, Dr Juergen Liebig of the ASU has already gone through that particular hell, and not only managed to bring some colonies back to the US, but has also managed to get them to breed in the lab 'like rabbits'. Juergen’s studies of the interesting social behaviour of these ants are what led us to the lab, and are what we are trying to depict on film - in the most natural way possible, with intimacy and the least disturbance of the wild ants.


Getting Expert Help

Arriving for night filming; Photo by Alex Wild

With the help of Dr Alex Wild, an Illinois-based biologist and ant expert, we have been able to track down most of the ants, behaviour and locations we needed to film in Arizona.

Alex introduced us to the empty splendour of Sycamore Canyon where we found an amazing density of harvester ants, we watched the ants patrolling their borders, while we in turn were being closely watched by the US border patrol - Sycamore canyon is just 5km from the Mexican border.

Being super-talented, Alex is also a professional photographer and has posted photographs of the filming in Tuscon, he returned to Illinois a couple of days ago and has written about his experience here.

Thanks for all your help Alex


We Are Yesterday's News

Although we've been filming out in the National Parks, many of our best moments are coming from parking lots (car parks) and sidewalks (pavements). The desert ants seem quite comfortable just inches from freeways and busy roads. Maybe they depend on insects hit by cars? From an ants perspective, a bit of roadside under neon lights is pretty much the same as a bit of desert under saguaro cactus. They might be city ants, but in the nest their behaviour is no different.

Today we hit the Green Valley headlines
The parking lots here seemed to have some particularly good ant nests and the local newspaper came to see us as we carefully drove our endoscope into an ant nest, to reveal the inner workings of an ant society.


Small Stuff Big Kit

Hotter Than Hot

Here we have Martin (centre) and Howard (right) getting some crane shots of the desert, featuring saguaro cactus, using the Varicam.

(Today's post comes from Gavin Igor Thurston)

Filming is progressing well. The first leg of the trip here in and around Tuscon has given us some nice imagery and behaviour. We were incredibly fortunate to capture the alates emerging and flying from their nest. This only happens once a year usually after rain.

We were there and filmed the 20-minute event with two cameras.

The biggest challenge has been the heat, with temperatures in the non-existent shade reaching 45 degrees celcius. I can tell you that is damn hot, especially in full sun. The equipment gets so hot it burns your hands when packing up and carrying it back to the car. Amazingly the cameras have been holding up wel, whereas we are going lobster coloured.

Tomorrow - off to Phoenix.


Frankencam's New Operator

Igor and Frankencam together in Arizona


The Inverse Size Law I: Camera Vs Subject.

One of the most unexpected results of close-up photography is that the smaller the subject, the more gear you need to be able to film it. The inverse law of subject size. Hence the 20 cases (er - you took 20 cases to film the lions too - ed). If someone could be bothered, they could make a study of this phenomenon, quantify the relationship, and have an obscure law named after them. For this trip, we are using Frankencam* whenever possible. Frank weighs in at about 40 kilos when fully loaded, whereas the ants weigh around a 500 000th of a kilo.

Frankencam being assembled on a shoot last year

Yesterday, those members of the crew not sure about the value of Frank were finally convinced of the need for a camera that allowed us to be well away from our ant subjects while the tiny camera glided among them. The ants of the day were harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbartus in the process of nuptial flights. The males and winged queens come out of the nest, fly off and mate. The males die shortly afterwards, while the queens start new colonies. At this stage in their life cycle, the worker ants are very aggressively defensive and will attack anything that moves.

These harvester ants also have a vicious sting containing the most powerful venom of any animal yet tested. And they really hurt - about two times a bee sting per ant - some of us sustained over 50 stings filming the flying females while Frank was being set up. Swarms of workers would come running out of the nest towards intruders, climbing up legs and stinging as soon as they felt like it.

Incidently, if you are wondering what kind of clothing would be best in this situation, we can tell you that shorts and flip flops probably aren’t ideal, but those of the crew wearing shoes and long trousers got stung at least as much if not more.

Was it worth it? - to see nuptial flights of any species of ant is quite hard. To see it when you want to and have the equipment to film it is practically a miracle.

- affectionately known to us as Frank, is an Ammonite invention, a motion-control device developed over the years to help overcome the various problems associated with filming insects.


Taking It All Back Out Again - 20 Cases

It’s always 20 cases these days. The return from Botswana had two of us turning up at the check-in desk in Maun with 20 filthy label-encrusted pelican cases of equipment and two pieces of personal baggage. That was to film lions. Now, we’re leaving for Arizona to film ants - with about 20 cases. We’ll probably need two cars to carry it when we get there.

In the old days, we would have had maybe 5 or 6 cases - a 16mm film camera, a few lenses, tripod, a couple of batteries. and maybe 30 tins of 16mm film (equivalent to 2.5 hours of material). But we are told public demand needs more and more incredible imagery. So now, to film ants, we need to take about 5 different cameras, which if used carelessly could easily create hundreds of hours of digital video. There is a 'normal’ camera, for er 'normal’ scenes, a miniature HD camera that rides on Frankencam* for moving tiny wide angle lenses into the heart of the action, a small infra red camera to film ants that don’t like visible light, a Starlight camera to film ants that really don’t like light or heat. All these cameras need about 50 different lenses. ‘Normal’ lenses, close-up lenses, really close-lenses and ultra-close lenses.

There is a case of cables - video cables, power cables, usb etc etc etc. And gaffer* tape. Thankfully, budget constraints meant we had to cancel the slow motion camera. So we’ve just got the 400 kilos - packed carefully into 20 filthy label-encrusted cases (the insides are of course immaculate).

We’re now off to the desert with all of this 'advanced’ technology to meet some of the most advanced societies on the planet - the ants. Let’s hope that our numerous cameras don’t disappoint and come back with incredible scenes of the incredible things we have read about.

* Frankencam is a motion-control device invented by Ammonite

** The gaffer is traditionally the person who is in charge of all the lighting, who liases with the director and director of photography. The gaffer may just have a '2k’ to move around or they may be in charge of thousands of lights using enough power to run a small town. Either way, gaffers have given us some very good tape.


Ant Filming Preparations - Or How To Turn Pants Into Camera-Stabilising Systems

Sometimes the best solutions to filming problems are lo-tech.

Many pairs of trousers returned from Botswana in a grave state of repair. They have now been transformed into glamorous shorts with additional handy bean bags - to use as ballast and to stabiise the camera, this makes filming little things, low on the ground easier.


Bringing It All Back Home

The baggage has come back from Botswana, the cases will need forensic cleaning to ensure that no seeds or bugs become illegal immigrants.

Lion filming will continue in the autumn.
When we've got access to the footage we'll put some up

Meanwhile notes from the field will bring you news of the epic ant filming expedition that starts next week.

This is what the camp breakdown looked like...


Last Night Filming In Botswana

A quick search of the sandy tracks in the morning showed us that our family of lions had now moved to a spot where it would be impossible to film them, water channels and thick bush meant we had to go elsewhere and find some other animals to film.

We needed shots of impala herds, more elephants and anything else at large in the area

As we came round a bend, a couple of sitting giraffes got up and wandered away from the track and stared in their usual way. This was very interesting as giraffes at night seem to be very hard to find. It could well be because they spend time quietly sitting and ruminating rather than wandering around making themselves a target for predators.

We have seen the same pattern with many animals, springbok, topi, buffalo, oryx, wildebeest, gazelles, spending many of the hours of darkness sitting almost silently, ruminating. The darker the night, the more likely these animals are to be sitting, sleeping even, usually in a tight bunch. And it’s very clear that lions have great difficulty in locating these herds. It would explain why giraffes were so hard to see
at night, these two soon stopped staring and sat down again (an awkward process for giraffes). With the starlight camera, despite bright moonlight, the giraffes were almost impossible to spot, even if you knew where they were, their tall necks looking more like tree trunks. With the thermal camera, we could see them clearly, as well as herd of elephants moving in the background. And we could also see that there weren’t any lions anywhere near us.

That was a fascinating night, free of the pressure of having to find or keep up with lions, we could at last have a good look around, get some much needed shots of other animals featuring in the film, especially impala.

Tomorrow we start the pack...


Walking And Roaring

After following the tracks of our lion family up and down the edge of the swamp, we finally found them. They had walked a good 10 kilometres on the sandy trackroads before settling down in some bushes. As we came round the corner, a warthog (startled by another vehicle) just ran right into them and met a grisly end. The brother of the bloody nosed male appeared out of the undergrowth and sent the females off the kill, while still allowing the cubs to feed. Minutes later there was only a head left, which the male chewed on.

Then, we heard some roaring not far off. Clinton identified this as the bloody nosed male – and his lady companion who roared as well, giving the game away. Our pride all roared back. This went on for an hour or so, the bloody nose male never coming closer than a couple of hundred metres. Shame we didn’t have a decent microphone as the whole car was shaken by the roars all around. You can hear a lion roaring on a still night at least 10 kilometres away. Lions can probably hear it from much further. Either way, at 10 metres it’s an incredible sound.

One little warthog barely touched the sides, and the whole pride were pretty hungry. Now we were going to get some hunting behaviour. Off they set – on the road – stopping looking and listening every few hundred metres. A herd of impala gave itself away with a rustle of a leaf or some noisy cud-chewing, the lionesses spread out in readiness for attack. But in the bright moonlight, one impala spotted the lions and gave an alarm whistle causing the entire herd to leg it – cubs watching all this with interest.

The lions moved on and we continued to follow them for another five kilometres and didn’t see another single animal. With the thermal camera we could be sure there was nothing on the menu out there tonight - the pride gave up and went to sleep. Waking after a couple of hours, the pride continued their journey – South, looking for a large herd of buffalo we guessed. They left us at the edge of thick woodland where we couldn’t follow.


Wildlife In Camp

Usually, after a cold night filming, we need to warm up with a fire before we can sleep, Whisky helps too. In the Kalahari, there was always the chance of a lion or leopard wandering in at this time of night, but that is quite unusual. In Moremi, we often have company, in the form of hyenas. Hyenas aren't present in the Kalahari, but they are ever present at campsites in Moremi. They will try and eat anything, milk cartons, plastic bottles, car exhausts. We could usually pick out a pair of eyes looking back at us while clanking and crunching sounds came from the kitchen area. Needless to say, anything remotely edible was locked away in a steel trunk, but hyenas have an incredible sense of smell and would always give it a go. (Years ago, while filming in Kenya, I was foolish enough to leave my smelly shoes outside the tent one night, in the morning the only evidence that they ever existed were some bits of chewed shoelace). In Moremi, hyenas are rarely seen anywhere apart from camp sites, giving the impression that they are only scavengers of human waste*. This may be true here – we didn’t see a single hyena out and about at night – but the likelihood is that the camp hyenas are mostly lone males.

Yesterday morning, we were also paid a visit by the bloody-faced male and the female he has been hanging out with. He just wandered past camp barely even registering the humans hiding in cars or tents, perhaps too deep in thought considering his situation - encouraging intruders into the range of his own pride - to notice mere cowering humans.

* Hyenas are still regarded as scavengers, despite research showing they are primarily predators.


Driving In Circles

A tip off from a tourist guide
finally led us to the lions we wanted to film – well, it was only the cubs – still no sign of the females, but the cubs were looking pretty hungry, and chances of filming hunting behaviour were better than ever. When we returned that evening, the cubs were still there – still no sign of their mums. Just at after sunset, the cubs all ran off – they had heard their mothers calling from the bush, and the whole pride was reunited. Now all we had to do was follow them using the thermal camera. But the whole group promptly set off into thick mopane bush. We did get close to the lions but they just slept for a couple of hours. When they finally woke, they went into even more impenetrable bush – the car got stuck on some logs, and we had to let them go.

Clinton Ewards, a Botswanan wildlife expert working with us, had a good knowledge of this group – and based on his past experience guestimated where they might reappear. And he was right, there they were, looking a bit surprised to see us. But very soon, they headed off into thick forest again. We had to return to camp, cold and dejected. (The weather here is only slightly warmer than the Kalahari, and the Antarctic high pressure is still hanging around.)

The next morning we sent Sondag, the bushman tracker and Korbus, the trainee Dutch Reformist minister off to pick up the trail, to read the morning news printed on the sandy roads. Our family was soon found again. They had done a complete circle.


Bigamous Lion

NB: This post was written 5 days ago but there has not been enough signal to use the sat phone for emailing

The tarmac road to Moremi
(the new camp) soon gives way to a hard graded dirt road, the kind of road that would shake most ordinary vehicles to pieces in a matter of hours. The Toyota land cruiser is one of the few vehicles which can put up with this kind of abuse. When we got to the camp, we heard that the one of our vehicles has not only taken the wrong road, but that it has also broken down. We arrived just before sunset to find a half-built camp under a spectacular sausage tree*. There was just time for a quick drive around to look for tracks before dark.

Moremi game reserve borders the Okavango swamp, and like the Okavango sits on a huge flat bed of fine Kalahari sand. Car tracks in these areas offer a perfect substrate for animal tracks. Every morning, the night’s events are easily read, and to a degree timeable. Many of the animals prefer to use the tracks, especially lions, as they offer a silent way of moving around. For us, the tracks give us a quick way of finding our lions. Even if they just cross a road, 9 lions usually leave clear evidence. Any degradation of the tracks, by wind, insects, rain etc allows us to make a good guess as to when the tracks were made.

The next morning, we set off early an very soon found some lions, two females, a full grown male intent on mating with one of the females, and a young male with some kind of severe eye injury. The big male’s face was also bleeding from a huge gash on his nose.

Interesting - but they weren’t the lions we were looking for – they were bloated from recently eating a huge meal and wouldn’t be interested in food for another 4 days or so. The only thing of significance was that the big male with the cut face was apparently two timing. His own pride was the very pride we were looking for, 5 females and 4 cubs - and they would be very annoyed if they knew what he was up to – especially in a place they would regard as their own.

*The Sausage tree is so called because of its enormous sausage-shaped fruits weighing about 10 KG each, loved by elephants but a bit of a menace to smaller animals - baboons have been killed and lions knocked out by these falling fruiteorites.


Beaten Back But Not Defeated

We did get some incredible footage in Deception Valley which fitted our story perfectly, the Kalahari lions are very good looking, one of which we'd christened 'Pretty Boy'.

Generally the Kalahari lions live in smaller groups than in other areas, and seem to fight less among themselves. Most of the lions we met are free of facial scars, and generally all looked in incredible condition.

Sunday morning, we packed up and drove to Maun - mostly a 5-hour slog along the dead straight sand road that runs alongside the veterinary fence*. Yesterday we moved on to Moremi Game Reserve, on the edge of the Okavango Delta. The lions here have a completely different prey base, with buffalo and zebra forming their main food supply. The groups of lions are generally larger, there are more roads and tourists which should make the lions easier to find. On the down side, the grass is longer and the landscape is generally more bushy which could be a problem.

* This is the fence that divides Botswana in two, and was put there at the insistence of the EEC, to ensure that there was no chance of foot and mouth disease or other livestock diseases infecting cattle to the North of the line - so meat products could be exported to the EEC. You should be able to see this fence clearly from space with Google Earth.

Economically, the fence has benefited Botswana, enabling it to export its excellent beef all over the world. It has in some ways helped protect natural areas from incursions by cattle. But the fence also has a big downside. It completely blocks migrations of many grazing animals, many thousands died shortly after the fence was built as their route to fresh grazing was blocked. The long term effects of the fence are still being assessed.


Leaving Deception Valley

It’s not called Deception Valley for nothing.

Camping in the bush is by far the best way to see African wildlife. Being able to examine lion footprints from the night before right outside your tent is exciting enough, but being able to meet some of the smaller creatures; desert mice which nest under the tents (and nibble cables), African wildcats which come to catch the mice, curious hornbills and the African stink ant, one of the largest ants in the world, all contribute to the experience and understanding of how the ecosystem works. But camping is usually best in warmer climates.

Two days ago, another Antarctic front arrived, not that it wasn’t already very cold at night. Now the temperatures dropped to below zero on the valley floor - and when the vehicle moved, the windchill dropped the temperature to as low as -15. This was itself is a major problem for us. The clothing we needed to stay warm was very restricting and batteries of all kinds ceased to function properly. But it was the lions which were our biggest problem now. We noticed with the thermal camera that the tops of the dunes on the valley* edges were a couple of degrees warmer than the valley floor. On very still nights (most nights), a clear thermocline (A clear boundary between gas or liquid of two different temperatures) was visible. Cats don’t like the cold, and it looks as if our lions had disappeared into the dunes - where we can neither film nor follow them - until either the weather warms up, or a breeze breaks up the thermocline and warms the valley floor again. For three days we found no signs of lions that we could film, heard no roaring (one of our main means of finding them), and saw no tracks or kills. It was time to leave the Kalahari...

*Using the term 'valley’ loosely here. The ‘valleys’ around here are usually about a kilometre wide and completely flat on the floor where short grass grows. On either side are fossil sand dunes covered in scrub, which rise as much as 20 metres, but are generally about 10 metres high

these images are made using our image-intensified camera, the 'starlight camera' can film clear images at night using only the light of the stars.


Damage Assessment

Yesterday morning, we sent the bushman and his new companion, a trainee Dutch reformist minister (the lawyer had to leave us and get on with his life) to see if they could find the other 4 female lions we've heard about.

Waiting for the lions we already have tabs on to digest their recent meals gives us a bit of semi-down time so we could get on with some vehicle to vehicle filming using the starlight camera and thermal cameras at night. In the daytime we fixed backfiring jalopies and counted the cost of lost/broken items:

1 sennheiser microphone is hanging in a bush somewhere in the thickest thorniest place we have yet visited.

1 new Canon EOS 5d mk2 suffered complete failure after a couple of drips of coffee fell on it (hopefully it’s a one off, and the rest of them are a little more robust – perhaps Canon could send us a replacement?).

1 battery charger which made a loud crack as rain fell through a leaking tent (during the storms),it hasn't worked since.

1 set of iphone headphones which were eaten by mice (no really, even though there is a well stocked kitchen area nearby).

1 burnt out 12 volt fridge which seems to have had 240 volts injected into it.

Never mind. Tonight’s a fresh night with the clearest stars you have ever seen. Shooting stars are two a penny and even if we don’t find the four other females we’ve heard about, the stars and other fascinating nocturnal wildlife will still be spectacular.



Last night started with some real hope. We located the big male and his two young females again, and they looked pretty hungry. Despite having wasted our time over the last few nights ineptly chasing potential prey, they were now in a great area for filming and hunting.

As night fell, they moved into a perfect position. Then the male stuck his big head up, roared and alerted all the animals to their presence, then the girls started chasing anything that moved. Round and round, backwards and forwards. The oryx were not surprisingly being extra vigilant and pretty much all moved off to somewhere quieter.

This strategy was only going to work if there was at least another lioness present, a strategy that needed a couple of chasers who push the prey towards a couple of catchers. It doesn’t work with just two chasers. But this young inexperienced duo weren’t getting it, and the male who clearly had big expectations wasn’t helping either, just wandering around sticking his big head up at the worst possible times. Eventually they all gave up and settled down for a long sleep.

We were running low on energy and batteries, and decided to return to camp.

Yesterday morning, we discovered to our shock that the trio, who had used up three of our filming nights chasing prey as if they were cubs, had actually brought something down, an oryx, about 3km away from where we left them.

The other lioness and cubs we had been looking for, had also killed an oryx on the road about 15 km to the south. That’s pretty much all of our useful lions used up for at least three days while they digest the 20 or so kilos of meat they’ve each put away.



Normal seasonal conditions have resumed. After a late night with the lions, we generally sleep until about 9am, that's when the tent, which has been sealed carefully against the cold, becomes an oven as the Kalahari sun fries the exterior. Outside it’s deliciously warm with a gentle breeze wafting through the camp. Smoke from the mopane (pronounced mopanee) wood that we burn on the camp fire drifts around as breakfast (porridge and coffee) is prepared. Hornbills cluck. All the lions are asleep.

The arduous bit of film making (well, modern film making) is the transfer and logging of all the digital files we recorded the day before onto something more permanent. Here we have a total of six computers, three for recording imagery, one for controlling a camera, and two for copying files from one drive to another. We also have to charge all the car batteries we used in the night – which means that the delicate and varied birdsong all around is wrecked by the sound of one, or even two generators.

The shower is water heated on the camp fire, put in a canvas bucket and then suspended from a tree. It always seems such a good idea, so refreshing. But every day, it’s a disappointment. As the hot water touches skin, the extremely dry air evaporates the water quickly, cooling it to 'cold setting’ in a matter of seconds. It’s a hot and cold shower.