South Africa and Bristol MA Wildlife Filmmaking

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This last week has truly been one of the most exhilarating, emotional and thrilling times of my life…I will be visiting South Africa this Summer, AND have been offered a place on the incredible Masters course in Wildlife Filmmaking at Bristol, in partnership with the BBC! I literally wept with happiness, joy and relief when receiving the news on Tuesday…literally just had the interview two weeks previously at the University, and everything I have worked for these past 6 years has been worth it. I am truly grateful for both amazing opportunities.

Thank you to all my friends and family for their endless and continual support, as well as belief in me to pursue my dreams. This feels like this is the beginning of some very exciting adventures, and can’t wait to find out what excitement, hard work and challenges lie ahead!

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Hopefully you can join me on this journey and that I can inspire you to feel passionately about the natural world around us, and more importantly preserve it for future generations. It is our duty as filmmakers to protect the stunning and awe-inspiring places we visit and continue to tell the fascinating stories that unravel on a daily basis on this beautiful blue planet of ours.

UWESince I was very young, the remarkable literature talents of Lauren St John, David Alric, Michael Morpurgo and of course all of my history/biology/geography reference books provided me with an escape and world of wonder and curiosity about the natural world. I could travel the world from my bed, chair, rock, beach towel… and one place, always so vividly represented in all the books I read, was South Africa. Its rich culture, bright colours, sublime smells and majestic animals- and I yearned to visit one day. BBC documentaries and the mild attempts of the Spanish equivalent further gave me the impetus to one day visit this staggeringly beautiful country, and this I finally decided that THIS WAS IT! I’m going to SA this year after I graduate to have the experience of a lifetime.

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This is it! I am going to volunteer at the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance, Plettenberg Bay and work as a multilingual tour guide (sounds posher than it is)and photographer/filmmaker intern. Each of the sanctuaries under SASAA include Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani wildlife, which fund themselves through revenues from tourists who take educational tours of the sanctuaries to continue to bring in funds.

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A detailed catalogue of all the SAASA species has not yet been made of the primates, birds and apex cats, and so compiling this information, along with taking photographs and film footage (for YouTube) of individual primates is an important part of the project. They do great work here and I am honoured to be a part of it, and help out in any way that I can.

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SO this will be my ‘job’ from June 2th till August 2nd! I’ll be writing regular updates on what I get up to, and how practical it is for YOU to VOLUNTEER for CHEAP ABROAD, it took me many hours to research ethical, well respected places that treat their animals well and don’t actually charge you to volunteer. The only cost involved is the homestay at Rock Road Backpackers (contact Mac: info@wwisa.co.za) which again is AMAZINGLY priced at £18 a night, FOOD, ACCOMODATION, TRAVEL to and from the sanctuaries included. Total cost for 36 days will be around £1600, but I’ve applied for £500 funding from the Leeds for Life Foundation, fingers crossed! Still an amazing prices considering.

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They are SO lovely there, I’m feeling really confident about heading over now as they seem to be very experienced in receiving students. Currently taking my vaccinations now (ouch tetanus hurts!), which are all covered by the NHS, but be warnerd, rabies is £40 a shot! It is necessary though, especially since I’ll be working with primates, (and an odd bat or two if I get the chance).

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I really want to be able to make a difference at the SAASA (South African Sanctuary Alliance) by bringing my skills as a photographer/videographer/zoologist and researcher, as well as help to build up a collection of all the species and individuals at the sanctuary. Having studied zoology at the University of Leeds for 3 years now, I feel the need to travel and experience different cultures, sights and wildlife encounters before I go on to study for my Master this coming September. Not only do I feel I would grow as a person, but also gain further insight and build upon my current portfolio which will prove to be very useful when applying for jobs as a freelance camera woman. It has always been a life-long ambition to visit South Africa, I missed out on an opportunity field trip last summer due to my research project that was to be conducted in the UK on bat foraging distributions. There’s so many amazing activities to get up to there too, canyoning, scuba diving, sky diving, caving, whale watching and I’ll also be going to the world renewed Addo National Park with students from Washington University!

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One day..one step closer…

SO! I’m currently studying for my exam finals now, and can’t stop thinking how lucky I am. I mean, I have worked really hard to get to where I am…and it’s not been easy by any measure. These past three years a Leeds have been a rollercoaster of emotions- but cannot recommend going highly enough. University teaches you more than simply lectures and how to avoid drunk people! But it allows you to find yourself, your purpose, your dreams, what your capable of and most of all determined to, no matter what, follow your dreams and CREATE YOUR OWN LUCK too.

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Dachstein Austria caving expedition training: A weekend in Wales

This weekend was all about the SRT, caves, sheep and the industrial valleys of the wonderful country that is Wales! I went down with the Leeds University Speleogical society to Summit centre (Wales), Merith Tyfild to further enhance my caving expedition skills. This is all in preparation for the rather excitingly named “Dachstein expedition” which will be going ahead this summer, more of this towards the end! As well as how YOU can join Matt St Claire on caving EXPEDITION– yes YOU could be then next Ralph Reynolds, and best of all the prices are student friendly. A guide on what kit to take and first aid is all you need, (and frankly to be slightly insane) to go on this exciting adventure.. But firstly our trip down south began 10:30am, Friday 27th March…

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The trip down in the van was probably the most entertaining, where much fun was had ridiculing the sheep, lack of windows in and how industrial Wales appeared to be- enveloped in mysterious and ethereal blue smoke. We stopped off in what only could have been described as a town full of Morrison’s and Gregs to buy an entire chicken, which we carved and ate later on our picnic stop, much to the delight of Rachael, (not so sure about Daniel’s reaction though).

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Last bone picked dry

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Whilst Luke and Rob frolicked along the banks of a quaint river, skimming stones and generally skipping around, I took a few photographs of their later modelling efforts- just take a look at these stunners…

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The competition heated up…

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We then set off again, feeling ebullient and joyous about what lay ahead. One more coffee stop and we arrived at a rather late time of 7:30pm, but relatively earlier than the rest. Joel Corrigan (the event organiser), was suspended 12m in the air rigging the equipment for the following day, and so we decided a nice dinner would suffice until he was within audible shouting distance. When we returned from the small village, the car park seemed rather more packed than before, so we made our way to the meet and greet hallway areas, bumping into a few budding cavers.

I met another fellow Zoologist, Kieran, and he told me that he was studying at Cardiff Uni– a brilliant place for research as is Leeds. His research was fascinating!Victoria was a very funky archaeologist and Raphael a smiley German student, both at Cardiff again. Meg, a French exchange student, was telling me all abut the trip to Austria, and what a great time its is for students to get involved with expeditions now. We then popped into the climbing centre where we were astonished by the size of the walls… I mean this really does beat the Leeds wall and Edge!

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Big ass climbing wall

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Climber-eye candy, we had a go at some bouldering. Later after a brief meeting and hearty salad for dinner, a furious networking session with a group of lovely cavers was had! We chatted about our research (how sad…), hopes for the summer, and the thought of what lay ahead the next day. By the time we got to bed my contact lenses were peeling off my eyeballs (it was that long a day)…but fell fast asleep to the sniffling and constant rotations of my top bunk bed partner… thanks Brendan!

Day 1

Morning came rather soon, whilst everyone was slightly hung over and reluctant to emerge from their roosts. I couldn’t stay in bed any longer, so I quietly snuck out to have a shower and sniff out some wifi. No luck with the internet I’m afraid. Or with breakfast for that matter. Despite the long drawn out morning, an energetic meeting was had about the plans and details of our training.

First up, basic SRT practice! The basics of kitting up with your descender, hand jammer, chest jammer or Kroll, cows tails, D-ring, friction karabiner (don’t ask me where these names come from!), chest piece and of course the hip and leg loops/harness from which you attach all these marvellous metallic pieces of kit.

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Henry sorting out his chest straps.

I had fun getting my chest jammer in wrong for the 6th time, but got there eventually. Raphael was being shown by the experienced Elliot (tree surgeon, yep that’s an actual job title!) how to kit up, whilst I took photos of everyone.

The others did the more advanced SRT and Joel swanned around cursing at the ineptitude and lack of safety of the caving clubs tackle masters with their incompetent uni SRT kits… scary times.

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He did have a good point however! And was very knowledgeable about ALL aspects of caving. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is generally that cave keen.

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Everyone also had a go at some easy rope access, tight re-belays, tension lines, rope to rope transfers and cave surveying (attended by Rachael and Luke using Clinos, compasses and Distal X’s).

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Group photo with the lovely Cardiff lot. Will definitely be joining them when I head down to Bristol!
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Testing out the flash
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Lots of SRT hanging around.
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Some quick gear checks to ensure each others safety
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Joel’s Cows tails. Mine were too short apparently…
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Some rigging with alpine butterfly knots. Proud to say I managed them after 6 attempts. Handy for a deviation.

A bit more swinging around on ropes, rock climbing and belaying rounded off the day nicely and brought us to the evening where we watched Joel’s rather insightful home videos. Well, caving videos, which all left us feeling inspired about the trip this summer. Dinner was a bit of a brawl over the last morsel of stuffing and lemon tart piece. Luckily I didn’t want pudding…just as well, the guys went back for more! We all went to bed buzzing with butt ache and the clinking sound of our SRT kit ringing in our ears.

Day 2:

The next day we went to a first aid talk with Rob, a vet, on getting wrapped up in tinfoil (like our chicken counterparts), how to prevent hypothermia, blood loss, broken limbs, painkillers, rock fall, ect… check this space for a special first aid section soon. Also a cave rescue was executed – a very brief intro to French style cave rescue with their system of vertical rescue. That rescue dummy looked awfully heavy!

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As well as this, we attended a fascinating talk by an amazing cave photographer, Andy Harp and his wife- what talented individuals. I got a severe banging on about my tripod, so will have to consider changing mine in the future. I’m afraid its too unstable to get the kind of shots that require the upmost stillness. His cost over £500! But the rest of his kit was surprisingly cheap. Daniel also came with Brendan, also keen photographers. To our delight a 12 month year old puppy chewed at our feet whilst we sat staring in amazement at his incredible shots. This man had travelled to the depths of the steamy amazon rainforest cave formations and some of the most extensive Chinese karst systems. I seriously hope if he’s reading this he enters a Nat Geo photography competition and showcases his photography online, such an eye for incredible compositions, here is just one of them.

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Another special post on how to get into cave photography will be up soon. A final bit of SRT and rock climbing rounded off the trip, and we headed back to our dark van, although Rachael very kindly let me sit in the front, and journeyed through the Brecon Beacons back to Leeds. Such fun!

SO! You wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?

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A motley crew of 40+ cavers, with a range of ages, will descend upon the Austrian Alps for the Dachstein summer Caving Expedition 2015. This is literally all the low down on the cave exploration scene in the Alps. It is as well renowned for its deep, tortious and hard alpine cave systems, as the Austrians are for lederhosen and beer. A staggeringly high peak of 2995m, the possibility of a 2500m deep entrance point to the water table below is tantalisingly closer than ever before.

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The Winter project requires dry, frozen, stable conditions to enter the 100km long, 1.1km deep single monster cave at the main project to the far west (Sahara), deep snow, and involves a breath-taking 2-6 hour approach hike. This is however not for the light hearted, a 10-18 hour caving trip in extreme cold conditions is the likely scenario, and trust me when I say these cavers are literally rock hard and (sorry), rather insane!

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But nevertheless, it’s a most exciting trip to be had if you’re fed up of a gentle walk up Ilkley Moor, and if your local Hyde Park snowball fight isn’t quite giving you enough frost nip…get your crampons and ice picks at the ready and sign up to this winter’s expedition! For more info head to their Facebook page and have a chat with them, they’re a really friendly bunch once you get past the grimy remarks and jokes about your incompetence (I kid of course). A plan of the cave route can be seen here:

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As for THIS summer, the project involves connecting the hysterically named “Wat have U-got-Pot” and the Hirlatz (yes I think its German). So for the fit and keen there will be the opportunity to take part in the exploration of the mighty Wot-U-Got Pot (800m+ deep and 6km long) which requires camping underground for 4 days at a time. But do be warned, this is a dangerous, cold, flood-prone pothole that demands skill, ability, bloody-mindedness & a twisted sense of humour which I must say was provided by the bucket load this weekend (I can’t remember or understand most of it, but do join us if you want to hear some).

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It is this cave that gives Joel and his team the best hope of breaking into and connect to the massive Hirlatz Hole from WUG Pot- then it will become a 1.5km deep monster system and mastercave (1.5km+). Recently over the past few years teams have shortened the distance between these two mega cave systems to under 500m. If the connection is made the journey from top to bottom could well be the ultimate adventure sports challenge involving winter mountaineering, abseiling, caving and cave diving taking several days to complete.

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SO just think of all the mud, sweat, darkness, smelly feet, lack of sleep… I mean- ADVENTURE, EXCITEMENT, HEROIC APTITUDE, SWANKY CV BOOSTER (a ‘what scenario shows teamwork skills’ drill), and most of all FUN 2 weeks of caving during one of the most exciting times in caving exploration history in Europe. The price really is fantastic too (£250 for 3 weeks).  Here’s a little break down courtesy of Joel:

  • Expedition fees (to go towards metalwork/hardware, ropes, communal food, etc) £60 for the duration;
  • Weekly allowance (fresh veg, fuel, etc) €10 (so €30 or €40 for the duration);
  • Accommodation of approx €3.50 or €4 a night = approx €80 total;
  • Travel: very rough guide but maybe £100

hiking-austriaThe team are insistent that it’s not necessary to be a pro but the willingness to train and have a go! I think I may be going to simply take the photographs, document the expedition and have a nice hike and climb until I feel ready to undertake the caving trip- so if you fancy a nice sight-seeing holiday, come along! It’s not just all about that hard-core exploring, there’s plenty of other activities to do and get involved with, including prospecting in the mountains looking for new caves, continuing the exploration of previously discovered caves, assisting with the re-rigging as all the ropes and much of the metal work needs to be replaced.

And if deep dark caves aren’t your thing, there’s even an ice cave nearby that makes for a stunning tourist trip, just so you can pose with those new ice picks you’ve bought (lads), and girls yes you can pretend to be Elsa.

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For all you animal lovers out there, Joel tells me there are marmot colonies near by, gams in the hills at dawn (similar to chamoix), foxes, snakes, etc… Where you’ll be based at 1850m its about 100m below the transition from the superlative carpeted green slopes to more bare alpine scenery- a haven for wildlife, and wild ADVENTURE!

This is the greatest cave exploration project in the world: no discussion!! Matt St Clair will be organising & will appoint key people to the role of “Dachstein Reps” as some of the lifers cannot commit 100% these days. If you feel you would like to assist in the organisation then please make yourself known. Dates are provisional but will probably be 3 weeks in total, see their dedicated Facebook page for more information: info.https://www.facebook.com/events/1490999744511831/

BUT WAIT!!!!

First of all, before you go jet-setting to the Alps with your shorts, T-shirt, trainers and multi coloured running leggings… there’s a few things you need to know about surface gear and caving gear, as well as the health and safety aspects to the trip. I’ll try and make it as painless as possible I promise!

Kit List

“NORMAL” CLOTHES (e.g., trousers, underwear, t-shirt, socks)

Recommended 2 sets for caving (one for each trip) and one for the hut. (You could get away with two sets one for caving one for the hut relying on the drying room – it should be noted that the term drying room is a misnomer, it just makes all things marginally less damp)

DO NOT BRING JEANS TO CAVE IN!!!!!!

(When wet they get cold, heavy and chafe, they also take ages to dry, fine for the hut though.)

BRING WHITE STUFF AT YOU OWN RISK

(Water in caves is often a bit muddy and can dye white clothes a permanent brown)

  • WARM STUFF FOR THE HUT

Caving huts can vary wildly in temperature (also good to keep warm on the way to the pub)

  • A FLEECE to cave in

Fleeces are ideal to cave in as they are warm and drain relatively quickly when wet.

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  • THERMALS to cave in

Very good for keeping you warm in wet caves. (A cheap set can be made with any tight fitting top e.g. modern rugby tops and a pair of thick tights (yes even for the blokes) looks silly? yes Warm? Definitely. I mean, who can resist a guy in tights? (Definitely me…guys don’t go for the 1D look outside of caving, only wimps wear girly tights for fashion).

  • WELLINGTON BOOTS (gum boots) to cave in

Wellies are quite simply the best footwear to cave in. The club has a good selection which it is happy to lend out but please email to request them as unless you were born with 3 size 9 left feet we may not have any in your size (particularly true for small/large sizes)

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  • GLOVES (marigold washing up gloves) to cave in

A controversial one this (some cavers like gloves some don’t) but good for keeping your hands warm they are cheap and can be god-send so you might as well bring them

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  • HAT to cave in

A wooly hat/balaclava is good for keeping warm underground. People with long hair should bring some stuff to tie it back e.g. hair bands, buff e.t.c

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  • SLEEPING BAG

To sleep in. No really.

  • TORCH

So you can find your way to your bunk/ back from the pub. Oh and the cave.

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  • WASH KIT (Tooth brush, soap, deodorant etc.)

PLEASE bring this guys to wash with. Don’t bother with beatifying stuff (hair straighteners), but perhaps a hint of mascara and eye liner..oh and concealer for those equally dark eye circles around the eyes from days of no sleep. Trust me everyone will thank you for it. Shower gel- many cavers don’t even bother to shower after a trip, merely washing will make you look like a god/goddess compared to the other muddy and smelly cavers.

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Because it looks so swish I hope this encourages the guys to get one 😉
  • TOWEL

To dry off with / avoid flashing everyone when getting changed and to hide from the prying eyes of cavers

  • MONEY

Money for the pub crawls and to buy dinner and any drinks

  • BEER/DRINKS

There will normally be quite a few drinks had Friday and Saturday night. We normally stop on the way at a supermarket. Even if you don’t drink alcohol it will probably be worth bringing some coke/ squash to quench your thirst. Missing something? The club has some spare kit it can lend (particularly wellies).

CAMPING

Please Bring:

  • ROLL MATT

A length of foam mat to keep you of the tent floor and hence much warmer.

OPTIONAL KIT (if you have it please bring it):

  • Any PERSONAL CAVING KIT
  • WETSUIT

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Some caves have some great (if cold) swimming opportunities. Chances of using one is slim but swimming in crystal clear pools deep underground is worth the effort of packing it. Please don’t pack your bikini.

  • FURRY / Thermal Undersuit

A giant adult sized fleece baby grow. Known universally by cavers as furries they are also sometimes used by sailors and divers under dry suits. These are the crème de la crème of caving insulation and many cavers’ first purchases. They can be very expensive so if yours is a non-caving one for use under a dry suit you use it at your own risk.

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Oh! I almost forgot. Warm underpants…I’m not fooling around here, its vital to keep yourself nice and snug down there. Nothing worse than soggy bottoms is there Mary?

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Well that’s all from me, write up on first aid and cave photography soon!