A crew of 73 travelled out from the UK for 6 days of BBC’s ‘Big Cat Live’ programmes from Kenya early in October. Most of us were flown in on single engine cessnas which took us from Nairobi across the great Rift valley & down towards Tanzania. From the moment we touched down on the rough dirt & asphalt landing strip in the middle of the Masai Mara we knew it was going to be a totally different experience to any other programme we had worked on.
We drove the short distance to the Governors main camp where the OB had been set up, no more than a few minutes away, but we saw herds of wilderbeest, topi, gazelle & ostrich as well as the most beautiful bird I have ever seen, a lilac breasted roller, with phosphorescent lilac & blue wings, apparently quite common out here. It was a clich but we actually had to slow down for a ‘zebra crossing’.
At our safety briefing, on arrival, we were told that we should never go anywhere at night without an Askari (guard) even if only a few yards. Even in the daylight we had to stick to only mowed areas & paths on camp & never venture into the bush alone. This particular camp is completely open to all wildlife and at night, they roam freely wherever they fancy; as you would in your own habitat. Hippos, they said, although cute & comical looking, kill more humans than any other animal and can be quite aggressive.
Although we would be spending the two weeks of our stay sleeping in tents we did at least have proper beds & flushing toilets. There was no running water for the sinks but a big sealed bucket & a jug and the stewards left a flask of hot water at night. Showers were a big balloon of hot water suspended from the ceiling and worked by a simple pull chain for on or off. Standing in a large ‘wet room’ half open to the bush is surprisingly liberating. We were told to put all toiletries away, though, as the baboons were likely to have a field day with them otherwise.
It took me a few nights to feel at ease lying in a tent listening to a cacophony of wildlife sounds. The noisiest by far were the hippos who grunt, snort, bellow & guffaw constantly and quite close to the tent. The baboons sound like they are all squabbling & fighting and it took me a while to work out that there wasn’t a leopard prowling right outside my tent but the cat-like growling I heard was from elephants! The large pile of elephant dung outside my tent in the morning gave it away.
Waking in the morning to the sun dappling through the trees was a real treat in daylight and the noise of the wildlife was instantly delightful & fascinating rather than threatening. The birdsong in Africa is something else and the tropical boubous are the most vocal birds I’ve ever heard.
We breakfasted under the trees watching pretty little purple grenadiers & colourful turacos in the trees and if we were lucky a blue monkey would come out of the bush to try to steal from our breakfast table. This is apparently very unusual as blue monkeys are normally shy and elusive. We were to see this particular blue monkey regularly on our camp along with our ‘camp crocodile’, the tiny deer-like dik dik, a troop of dwarf mongoose, the hippos & a pair of Egyptian geese.
The crew were placed in various camps along the Mara river and it was only a 5 minute drive back to main camp each day but even on that short trek we would pass elephants, crown crested cranes, baboons, giraffe, impala, topi, zebra & many other animals. We remained constantly entranced & fascinated and the birds were a particular delight to me as they are so varied & brightly coloured and the songs more vivid than anything I’ve ever experienced before. Seeing birds & animals in zoos and even wildlife parks can never come close to the experience of seeing them in the wild and witnessing their natural behaviour patterns.
The facilities for the ‘Big Cat Live’ programmes were provided by PresteigneCharter and Mike James was the mastermind behind the operation to engineer a 5 camera OB which incorporated 9 mini cameras watching wild animals 24hrs a day for 8 days over a 10 mile range in the middle of the Masai Mara.
A total of 12 tons of broadcast equipment was flown to Nairobi and then driven to Governors Camp along dirt tracks. Eight large tents were erected for the production village and as there were no fences around the site, 3 miles of cables had to be dug into the ground to stop hyenas & other wild animals chewing on the cables.
To reduce the weight Mike used Evertz VIP-8 & 12 input multi-viewer cards displayed on 8x 52” and 4x 40” Sony LCD Bravia monitors for the viewing stacks. A Thomson 4-ME Kalypso mixer was used for the live shows while the 5 live WEB streams running 24hrs a day were switched from the 128 squared matrix.
As the area covered was so large the radio communications for the in-ear monitors were run at high power through a filtered combiner of 25 watts. This is not something you would normally do on an OB in the UK but it keeps the number of transmit & receive aerials down and minimizes the chances of mutual interference between channels – Mike’s words, not mine – I’m just a humble vision mixer!
‘Air conditioning’ during the heat of the day was provided by rolling up the sides of the tents and they had to be regularly swept & vacuumed to keep the dust to a minimum and protect the equipment. Graham Collett, one of the engineers working on the programme said ‘ All in all, the rig went quite well. The one thing we thought about most in such a remote location, was the fact that you can't just replace equipment or get that missing something overnight as freely as on a
'domestic OB'. But this is what Presteigne-Charter are best at - organising along with the expertise of the hmm... engineers, and other such people, so we never had any major facilities related issues’.
I can endorse that sentiment about organization and Mike James & his team did a fantastic job. So much so that from the vision mixing side of things it was ‘business as usual’ – apart from the mongoose running in & out of the tents & the spectacular backdrop of the Masai Mara. I don’t get quite such a good view when I’m working at White City!
During off-duty periods we were able to go on a game drive and it was such a privilege to see so many beautiful and fascinating wild animals at such close proximity and in their natural habitat. It is amazing that the animals take so little notice of the various tourist landrovers buzzing around them but then they will have been born into an environment where they are a daily occurrence and will have learned that they do not represent a threat. These tourist vehicles are necessary as they bring the income needed to keep the Mara as a game reserve & protect the animals from poachers.
The drivers were able to tell us lots of interesting facts about the animals we passed :- the secretary bird kills snakes by stamping on them and that most elephants live to 75 and die only because their teeth go rotten and they starve to death. And he told us that elephants communicate by ultrasound up to 10km away from each other.
One morning we saw some baby elephants being looked after by the teenagers in the herd. But it was the bull that took action when he decided that we were too close and charged our landrover. Luckily Joel, our driver, had already started the landrover engine when he sensed the male’s unease. As soon as the bull’s ears started flapping – a sure sign of aggression - Joel hit the accelerator and as fast as the elephant gained on us we were speeding away. It would have been a dangerous moment but Joel had obviously read the situation well and made sure we were not in any danger.
Whenever we came upon the ‘stars’ of the programme it was like meeting celebrities. It was fascinating, for instance, to come upon the Marsh pride and see alongside them the bare bones of the wilderbeest kill which we had witnessed live on the internet the night before. We were lucky enough to see all five of Shakira, the cheetah Mum’s, cubs just two days before two of them went missing. While we were watching them two of them wandered away from Mum and she had to go and round them up. It’s very likely that these two adventurous cubs were the ones later presumed eaten by hyenas.
The lions were my particular favourite with their regal air, supreme arrogance &
disdain of anything considered unthreatening. They would languish in the grass n the early morning sunlight & studiously ignore us as if to say that we were not worthy of even a glance.
Working on BCL was a great experience as we never knew what was going to happen. We were able to show remarkable live night-time hunts. The game reserve authorities were happy for us to film at night due to new technology. It wasn’t that we haven’t had the infra red cameras before, able to show night time shots, but finding the animals in the dark without disturbing them with vehicle headlights was very difficult. The real break through was the thermal imaging camera which could show up, from a great distance and in amazing detail, any warm blooded creature and even pick up trees, landscape etc which holds a certain amount of heat from the day. Not only were the wildlife cameramen able to pick out the big cat hunters in the dark but could also pin-point likely prey and anticipate where best to place the vehicles & cameras for a hunt.
The programmes seemed to have been very well received by the viewers and the viewing figures for the week were peaking at around 5 million. It was very exciting to have been involved with such ground-breaking television and I was proud to have been part of such a highly skilled & experienced team of TV professionals who achieved the complex feat of setting up a large OB and transmitting such a large amount of live action wildlife footage in the middle of Africa. It was enormously rewarding to come back to the UK to find so many friends, relatives, colleagues & members of the public talking about the show in such an enthusiastic and appreciative way. I was also extremely lucky to have had such a wonderful experience.