KRUGER NATIONAL PARK - DAY 5
18.13pm. “This is brilliant stuff! Brilliant stuff!”
Geoff Daniels is perched on the end of his seat. He oscillates between being extremely quiet and shouting out loud while punching the air in joy.
The rain has made the air muggy and air-conditioning is the only refuge. We hide from the humidity in the satellite broadcast van, watching the show on a myriad of small monitors.
Geoff, the executive producer, suddenly starts talking to the cameraman through the screen, making me jump in fright. “Closer Riaan! Take the shot closer!” His speech is fast, staggered and loud. An elephant walks right up to JV’s vehicle and Geoff and I start laughing uncontrollably. After a while, Riaan zooms in on another elephant pushing over a tree, as it can’t reach the soft leaves at the top.
We jump up in joy, high fives going off all over the place. Sorry tree, but this is good telly. “Nice, Nice – this is so good!” Geoff says loudly while repeatedly stabbing his finger towards the bank of screens.
We keep completely quiet for the next five minutes, riveted to the screen, both praying that the same is happening across the world.
The director cuts to Andy who is with Singita tracker, Ecksoni Ndlovu. Ndlovu means elephant and Ecksoni is in his element mimicking the angry beast – Geoff and I break out in uncontrolled laughter, silently hoping that the same scene is taking place across the world.
The executives had cancelled this morning’s show to allow the crew to regroup and to sort out the technical gremlins we have been experiencing because of the rain.
I often have to remind myself what we are attempting to do here: We take pictures and sounds, bash them together using some really expensive black boxes with loads of knobs, buttons and lights and then send it to 150-odd countries.
Sounds fairly simple, right? Not really.
We take television broadcast equipment made for confined, urban applications to the remote bush – The microwave link we use on JV’s vehicle for example, is made for helicopter applications. But, we take this signal, send it to a receiver station set up on the mountain and then beam it back to the control centre – a total distance usually topping 20 kilometres. At the same time, another signal is beamed from Andy’s position to the control centre.
I would also like to point out that our so-called HQ was a humble shipping container less than two weeks ago.
From here, we uplink the signal to a satellite 38427 kilometres above our heads, which in turns goes to the UK. A piece of glass thinner than a human hair takes the signal across the Atlantic to New York.
The poor jumble of ones and zeros have no time to take in a show as Tim Joyce has other ideas. Using another couple of expensive boxes and buttons, Tim uplinks the signal to another satellite that shares it with a couple of space-bound buddies. These buddies have even more expensive buttons and lights and distribute the signal across the globe.
Sounds fairly simple, right? Not really.
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK - DAY 4
16.53pm. The unexpected.
In any live television environment, the unexpected is your bread and butter.
Take away any resemblance of civilisation, add in a couple of lions and hyenas and the unexpected suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.
Dealing with surprises has become commonplace at Caught on Safari: Live! – the crew do not even think that there could possibly be anything ‘out of the ordinary’ any more.
Ian Dormer, the technical director summed it up pretty well earlier: “We had meatballs for lunch and not just chicken”. Bread and butter.
A few days before the show started I was installing the static waterhole camera with the help of a technician from Germany. The poor soul had been in the country for less than 24 hours when he gently tapped me on the shoulder and whispered “lions”.
Two male lions were casually strolling along the road not seven meters from us.
My mouth went dry and I carefully put the tool I was working with down.
Mischa started turning around to run but I managed to stop him. The rules are extremely simple: if you run, they will chase. We slowly backed away, heading for our vehicle. The lions retreated for a bit and then lay down for a nap. The installation had to wait for another day.
The next day, there was an elephant and calf at the camera position… again.
A few days ago, Nathan was kept away from a signal relay station by a pack of hyenas. Luckily, they did not bite our cables – something hyenas are infamous for. Nathan came back to base several hours late and extremely wet… again.
Earlier today we had a troop of baboons foraging close to one of the camera links. No amount of persuasion would get them to leave the equipment alone and the standoff lasted for quite some time.
Wait, Ian is shouting something.
The wind from the incoming storm moved our receiver dish. The show has just started. It is amazing how quickly how a forty-odd year old man can get on top of a shipping container when he has to.
Bread and butter.
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK - DAY 3
By mid-morning we knew that it was going to be a hot day.
In the Kruger, hot takes on a different meaning. The sun beats down with an unrelenting consistency. The heat covers you like a blanket, numbing your mind and robbing your senses. Sweat constantly trickles down your temples and the crew longingly looks towards shade nearby. There is no respite however as the afternoon broadcast draws closer.
At five we WILL go live and there is no choice but to carry on preparing.
For the first time in days, Nakedi is smiling again. He has been worried about the leopard we trapped and collared a few days ago. It was his first collaring and he was extremely concerned that the animal might have been negatively affected in some way. Now however, he walks around like a new father. There is a certain spring in his stride and he seems taller somehow – when he thinks that no one is watching, introspection clearly plays out on his face as the corners of his mouth pull back into a sweet smile.
One of the crewmembers found a scorpion in his boot. They have been spotted running around camp at night and the city slickers among us have been seen to shiver violently at the thought.
Under an ultraviolet light, the little critters glow with a weird whitish brilliance. It is quite unnerving when you actually see how many of them are scurry about as you enjoy the evening coolness.
Andy was lucky enough to handle some scorpions on air. With his hand shaking ever so slightly the scorpion lay motionless in his palm.
I was in the satellite truck with Dr Peter Rogers, a wildlife veterinarian. He says that while the scorpion Andy handled is not poisonous, the sting burns with a remorseless vigour. After time this pain gives way to numbness that can last a couple of days.
I will be sure to check my boots thoroughly tomorrow morning.
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK - DAY 2
01.43am. What a day.
Francois and I are heading back to camp. We have been out all night taking photographs and it has been the first time in several days that we could sit down and talk about the show.
The rain seems to have passed for now and the temperature is soaring again.
Even now we are still breaking a sweat as the two vehicles kick up dust in the headlamps.
I blink to get the dust out of my eyes and my mind starts to wander. Today was a major success by all accounts. The crew came together, braving the heat and technical snags to create four hours of amazing television.
Francois slows down for a sharp bend and I remember the buzz around the production today. It started with the director radioing ’45 minutes to broadcast’ and then slowly escalated until the air was electrified with anticipation.
The morning broadcast went by in a flash as the cloud cover slowly burned away. All of a sudden the sun burst through and the temperature spiked as we tried to get ready for the next show. Even the air-conditioned control centre became unbearable and it was a relief when the director called places.
A mouse runs over the road, framed in the lights. We slow down as it stops to have a look at the two alien invaders. In fact, I think it is looking at JV’s Landrover. The machine has been transformed from a game drive vehicle into a marvel of modern television technology. Antennas and wires protrude at different angles and there is a certain uncomfortable hum the machines give off. Every time the vehicle’s crew powers down, they pat their heads to make sure that a new earlobe or nose has not started to sprout from somewhere.
We carry on and Francois tries to negotiate the vehicle through some trees hanging over the path. The evening’s show looked good on telly but it was a near disaster behind the scenes. JV’s transmitter antenna was damaged minutes before show time, meaning that he had to rush back to base for repairs… Luckily Andy had a snake expert as a guest.
Francois and I discussed the black mamba earlier. We spoke to the snake wrangler after the show – he had only ever been bitten twice. One of those bites was from a mamba. I have never been so close to one of these creatures before and in all honestly it was thrilling standing so close to potential death. The creature was magnificent though. Its long slender body glistened in the camera’s lights and its steel cold eyes seemed to penetrate into the soul.
We reach base in silence – with our energy spent and our beds in sight mumbled goodnights are all we can muster.
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK - DAY 1
03.42am. Oh no.
It's raining. It is coming down in buckets.
Weeks on end only the heat, the dust, the sweat. Now, the rain, the drizzle, the mud. The mud.
We are going live this morning. We need to move.
No turning back now – the Caught on Safari: Live! is in living rooms across the globe. Months of planning and waiting. The show is on.
The crew scrambles. Some move. Some stay. Everyone holds their breath. Five, four… Radio crackles. Someone winces. 'Joy go on Michaela' the director says. 'Welcome' says Michaela.
JV has found a giraffe carcass. Lions took it down. It is massive, macabre, fascinating. We stay upwind. Unpleasant on the other side. He thinks it might have been ambushed at night. Possible – it is in a large clearing. Don't underestimate the lions around here he says. We found a lioness a few days ago at a water hole. Two impala stuck in mud. She took them out. Not satisfied. Another impala came to drink. Dead in a flash.
Andy Coetzee bends down. Elephant dung. Squeezes. Winces – he is suppose to drink. Nothing. Smiles.
Andy bends down. Takes mud. Smears it over his body. Cold. Sticky. Laughs. The crew winces.
We did it!
Leopard sprung the trap.
Nakedi Maputla holds his breath. Another minute. Yes, the radio says. Leopard in trap.
We rush off. We have been waiting for weeks.
The roar rumbles in my chest. The smell is next.
Unmistakable. Never smelled it before. Will never forget it.
Its heavy. It powerful. We carry it away. The vet, Danny Govender, says the cat is ok.
Only seen a few before. Far away. Reach out to touch. Fur so few have ever felt. Stop. Look instead.
Nakedi the researcher smiles. Catches himself. Stops. Concentrates. Carries on measuring and noting. It took him a long time to be able to touch.
JV stops. Looks. Sees.
Another leopard. Male. Stronger than the first. He follows.
Leopard doesn't mind. Strange. Should be shy.
Getting dark. Leopard stops. Rests.
Licks himself. Stops. Looks at JV. Not interested. Yawns. Teeth.
Collared leopard had a broken tooth. Others worn down. Old. Not much time left.
Not this one. Not shy. Confident. Magnificent.
He gets up. Looks at JV. Walks off. Night prince melts into darkness.