Tag Archives: wildlife filmmaking

Laos – the new Thailand. PORTRAIT & CULTURE PHOTOGRAPHY

Portrait/culture photography with the G9 and GH5

I recently went out to Laos on my first assignment as an ambassador for Panasonic to solo shoot a short film about the unbreakable bond between an 80-year-old mahout and matriarch elephant. Alongside the videography I took stills of the people, places and culture around this most beautiful and mysterious of countries – one that is so often overlooked in between it’s more popular cousins; Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I can’t recommend visiting this ethereal and magical slice of Indo-Asia; it’s one of the few remaining Asian countries that can offer you a genuine experience of the culture without hoards of tourists. You can have precious moments to reflect without running into paparazzi or drunken party goers (yes, even in Vang Vieng!) So if you’re keen to learn about Laos and what you can photograph/do in the city and villages – look no further!

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Humans – such a complex and fascinating species, and perhaps of all the animals that roam our vast planet. Over 7000 different languages spread over 7 vast continents, all 7.4 billion of us are as unique and beautiful as the atoms that make up our universe.

Without getting too deep and sounding rather philosophical, I am of course referring to the very nature that defines us as human – our intelligence, our curiosity, and our emotional capacity. These qualities are the very essence of humanity and is something we can all relate to – across all boundaries regardless of cultural, language and political differences.

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Faces are incredibly expressive for a reason. There are 43 muscles in the face, most of which are controlled by the seventh cranial nerve (also known as the facial nerve). This nerve exits the cerebral cortex and emerges from your skull just in front of your ears. It then splits into five primary branches: temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular and cervical. These branches reach different areas of the face and enervate muscles that allow the face to twist and contort into a variety of expressions. This is something I really love to capture when photographing people, I am inherently wildlife photographer but have been keen to explore what makes us as supremely evolved animals tick.

It can be trickier to photograph that moment in time where your person makes the smallest of expressions – which makes the challenge all the more enjoyable. In film you can shoot off speed and capture this more easily, I always shoot 50/60fps for people to highlight their subtle emotions rather than 75/120, the latter would only be in situations where my character is moving incredibly fast or for a special effect (usually in sports where you can go up to 2000fps). Again the eyes always draw me in because they are among the very first features we notice when passing by or meeting another fellow individual – so much can be read emotionally by looking into them. I mention looking into them – never at them, because this cuts you off from the persons true essence. I believe that a lot of portrait photography is about building trust, even if for a brief moment passing by, and ALWAYS ask for their permission!

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So first a little history lesson; and yes I’ll make it a quick one I promise. It is of course the summer season! But you’ll want to know what you can do with that amazing camera that you got for your holidays, right? 😉

Despite it being one of the poorest countries in South – East Asia, one of the things you notice, is that nobody dies of hunger. This landlocked country is known as the ‘fruit/vegetable basket of Asia,’ and most families manage, not only to meet their needs, but even to put an important part of their small earnings to one side so as to participate in what small futile pleasures that make life enjoyable. Laos is a country of smiles, where composure and serenity reign and from where a sort of karma and an invigorating energy exude – from your local flower lady to the monks praying for our happiness. Laotians say that this special karma, was born with Laos, many centuries ago.

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The Lao people (Hmong, Hill tribe, monks, Buddhism). With nearly 5 million inhabitants on an area half the size of France, Laos is one of the least populated countries in S.E. Asia (17 inhabitants per km2). Laos counts about 80 ethnical groups which can be grouped into 4 families. Each group speaking its own dialect and having its own customs, traditions, religion, etc.

Laotians have an easy-going, smiley and amiable character; and quite Latin (I’m half Spanish so just saying!) in that they generally prefer to take their time, the same as in their way of life, savouring each moment not overthinking or worrying about the future, unlike the hustle and bustle of other mega Asian countries or indeed our own. This is one of the things that decidedly give this country its exceptional charm, completely the opposite to the Vietnamese or even Thai restlessness – which is partly why I wanted to visit this staggeringly beautiful country. It’s so often overlooked for it’s more famous surrounding countries.

Whilst the Laotians primarily practice Bhuddism, Hmong people are traditionally animist, worshipping the spirits of their ancestors and the surrounding environment. Shamans (Ouanung) are called upon to communicate with the spirits, seeking their advice in moments of ill health and village adversity. It tends to be that a spirit is upset and offerings such as livestock are made at the spirit’s request. Most Hmong wear amulets around the wrist or neck to ward off bad spirits – and you can buy their amazing jewellery and hand crafted artisan gifts in the night market..

Every house has an ancestor spirit altar where food and water is placed to please them. During Hmong new year white paper is put on the columns of the house and a chicken is killed in their honour; and there were certainly plenty of them going around (waking me up at 3am every morning!)

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Monks – it is estimated that about 1 in 3 male Laotians join a monastery for at least some period of their lives, ranging from a few months or years to an entire lifetime. Most novices enter monastic life at an early age, learning the ancient chants and sutras, while also attending a regular school with a curriculum similar to that followed by most young students around the world. For many children in rural areas of Laos, joining a monastery is the only available option for education. Life in the monasteries can be tough and some novices from remote communities are only able to visit their families once or twice a year. The young monks follow a strict daily routine, living communally, sharing food and daily chores.

 

Camera: G9

The low down on the G9 before we get technical; this camera packs a powerful punch in terms of features. From the 4K, 60P, 4:2:2 GH5 goodness that was released late last year (I’ve been shooting with since February 2017), came the photographic brother that boasts:

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  • No Optical low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter
  • 20MP micro four thirds sensor
  • ISO sensitivity from 200-25600.
  • 5-axis Sensor-shift Image Stabilization
  • 3″ Fully Articulated Screen
  • 3680k dot Electronic viewfinder
  • 20.0 fps continuous shooting
  • Built-in Wireless
  • 658g. 137 x 97 x 92 mm
  • Weather Sealed Body
  • 6.5-stop built-in image stabilization system
  • 4K UHD recording in 24/25/30/50/60p.
  • Full HD recording in 25/30/50/60p.
  • Long GOP compression.
  • 4K UHD 3840 x 2160 video resolution high-speed video recording up to 60fps.
  • Full HD high-speed video recording up to 180fps
  • CINELIKE D and CINELIKE V photo styles.
  • Depth from Defocus AF.
  • Mini jack input for an external microphone.

 

The Lumix G9 gets the same 20.3MP Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensor as the Lumix GH5, which means that, as on that camera, there’s no low-pass filter. And if 20.3MP isn’t quite enough resolution for you, the G9 also features a new High Resolution mode, which outputs files at the magnificent equivalent 80MP. This works by combining eight images that have been taken in rapid succession, with small sensor shifts between each one, which means that, unlike with some rival systems, a tripod is a must when using this mode. Whilst I don’t use this mode because of storage  (the 20MP images are amazing enough as they are!) it’s a nice little feature to show off with. In timelapse mode you can go all out with this and pan/crop as far in as you want. The auto focus is ridiculously fast, even a cheetah couldn’t outrun this little baby feature and it’s one of the quickest on the market.

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The double SD card slot means you can shoot jpegs on one card and RAW on the other which is quite handy when you decide if you want to keep the JEPEGs or vice versa.

Ergonomically I love this camera – the buttons sit right where you fingers rest where with the tip your finger you can zoom in before pressing the shutter button (a specialism of this model for telephoto users – hence why this is geared towards wildlife photographers). Also I’ve put this through its paces in the humidity when hiking to caves and through the leech, tick infected jungles (!) and of course the (light) rain – and it handled this well. On a more recent trip it handled the freezing constant rain too, was really impressed by its rigidly. 

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There are of course video recording features like the GH5 but please bear in mind that this is not a video camera like its brother. So it has much less features but can still record both HD and 4K resolutions in MP4 format, 4:2:0 colour sampling and 8-bit colour depth, lacking the internal 10-bit capabilities of the GH5 so your video is noticeably more compressed. However, it is possible to record 8-bit 4:2:2 in 4K 30p via an external recording device, I’ve always got my trusty Atomos Ninja Inferno to do the job.

The responsiveness of the camera was perhaps the standout feature for my day with the G9. After over 2,000 photographs the battery was still going strong and the results were strong in almost every case when shooting a timelapse – so this certainly bodes well with wildlife photographers. All in all it’s a great stills camera more than a video one (go for the GH5 or its newer sibling the GH5s) – you should give it a go!

And now for a little more technical details with examples from my travels, each with a key theme to help you decide what and how to shoot on your next project.

 

Key factors to think about:

1. The light – I can’t begin to describe the beauty of this country in terms of light – it is ever changing and so incredibly awe inspiring words can’t do it justice. Play with it. Follow it. Bask in it.… use it as the ultimate tool to create images that capture the nature of your subject – human, animal and/or landscape. ALWAYS shoot in MANUAL for such images, as well as in RAW so you can also have as much fun in lightroom and Photoshop (just kidding it’s more fun actually being there…). Remember to adjust your variable ND if you’ve got one on.

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P10442942. Movement – we are by nature very mobile, with our physical movements to the way in which we live our lives in chaotic urban settings or indeed nomadic lifestyles in the countryside. Capturing that sense of movement is fun when you use different techniques – so here I wanted to shoot a timelapse at one of the many famous night markets in Luang Prabang to highlight this. Using the 3 axis shark slider mini you can programme the movement with the easy to use app – video of that up soon!

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Shade – this helps with your tone and mood. A lot of black and white stills photographers will focus on the varying light and shade to get their feelings and message across – fear, love, joy, happiness, sadness, admiration, hatred, hunger, elation…. removing colour makes you think of how to tell your narrative in far more sensitive ways in a way similar to producers of B&W movies back in the 60’s would have directed their shots. Patience when using natural light to frame your subject is KEY!

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Playfulness – this is one of the defining characteristics that makes us intelligent mammals. It is seen across the animal kingdom, from dogs, to horses, tiger cubs to humpback whales – and again is a universal motion that transcends boundaries (or species). I feel that as a photographer you certainly have an influence in bringing about this feature – although children are the easiest to capture with this emotion; as they are devoid of the adult tendencies to judge, criticise and generally be more grumpy!

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Textures – peoples skin, their hair, their clothes say a lot about them as individuals. I don’t mean in a vain sense but you can gather a rich array of information about them as characters or background what they get up to and how they hold themselves. The culture in Laos as mentioned above is so incredibly rich and vibrant – it hits you with it’s sharp saturated colours, like those of a bold acrylic painting. I often think England  is the complete opposite, and draped in a sweet, soft glow and the light painting it in equally soft water colours. The food, dresses, festivals streets and of course magical temple offer this in glorified abundance. When first arriving in the Capital, Vientiane, my senses were overwhelmed by such a variety of colour, shade and patterns – all of which are a joy to capture.

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The remnant French archways and colonial architecture among the hotels and homes, the soft, large shapes of the many fruits adorning the markets and of course the magnificent sharp, elaborate temples – of which the country has over 100’s. I was very excited indeed to go on my very first ‘temple run!’ Such exquisite colour – would be nice to see such comparably colour in our own churches and places of prayer. In this particular temple, one of the largest and most superlative in the city, I used the 12-60mm 4.6 lens with a 46mm Gobe variable ND filter. It was a bright, sunny day, and whilst I would have liked to capture it during the golden hours, I felt that it wouldn’t do it’s full colour spectrum justice. I also used the Panasonic 100-400mm lens for some closer details of the statues and patterns adorning the holy site.

Monks are of course a central part of the religion and culture in Laos, and something that I was especially eager to photograph. Again the bright, bold colours highlights the amiable and fun personalities of the locals, whilst the actual reason for their colour choice lies in ……. At first I’ll admit I was rather shy and reclusive at photographing them out of courtesy and etiquette – but then you quickly realise that all it takes is a smile and polite gesture to your camera to ask their permission… and 9/10 times you’ll find they are more than willing to have their photo taken. This one was taken at the same temple as above.

Here I was rather lucky to see a group of young monks walking along the mighty Mekong riverside front as I went out the first day to explore – the light was perfectly aligned with one of the tallest of the (collective noun for monks?) group. I moved myself into position from the opposite side of the road and so that I could frame the rather beautiful verdant green parasol against them as they paraded along. Again this was with the 12-60mm and I did use photoshop to tweak the highlights – but I can promise you that the colours were just as vibrant and enchanting.

 

Emotion 

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I think this particular title is highlighted in all of the above mentioned – as texture, colour, shade all feed into our emotions and how we react to each image or film clip. It’s one of the most basic principals in cinematography and where the Director of Photography will work closely with the director to create a specific look and/or feel to the film. Photography also uses this principal and of course a lot of it can be touched up and edited in software later. This is quite often where all the magic happens (sorry to burst any bubbles – but I’m guessing many of you reading this are well aware of this!)

Washer woman cleaning off her dinner – people look so incredibly timeless in Laos, I could never tell how old she was.

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So a handy little anagram for what to look out for when photographing people include:

H- humour: So this can work both ways. They can be (and this is most of the case!) laughing at you and find your odd demeanour and camera geekiness quite entertaining; don’t wait for the moment to pass – snap away and capture the moment!

U- unique: What’s unique about your subject (person)? Have they a standout feature, eye colour, beautiful smile, scar, long/short/frizzy/straight hair? Whatever is distinctive about your person, make sure to celebrate an honour it by making this one of your focal points of the image. It’s what makes us all special.

M – movement: Just slow down that shutter speed and experiment with your person, especially if they’re moving. Adding a little motion blur to your image can bring it to life and give you a whole different angle to play with.

A – activity: What does your subject do? Are they dancers? Crafts people? Artists? Scientists? Whatever it is they do, try to photograph them in their element doing what they do best – not only will this make them more comfortable, but you will certainly make the image more genuine and interesting to the viewer.

N – ature: Try to capture and set your human in their environment, their natural habitat that represents them. I really can’t emphasize this enough, a single image of a person in whatever comes naturally to them is key to capturing their essence.

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My encounter with the people of Laos has been a magical one at that – their resourcefulness, peace and positivity reflects the equally majestic landscape where they are able to sustain and feed their families – securing a better future for all. Family is certainly a huge part of this country, and everyone plays their part in taking care of each other – with young girls cooking, cleaning and taking care of elderly relatives – with the men earning a living in the farms and wives working like wonder women in the rice paddy fields. For me the most surprising thing was seeing how happy they were compared to another poor country I recently visited, Kenya. I can now see and understand this to be partly due to the abundance of food which is far more readily available than it is in Africa. But also the spiritual belief and conviction they have that their Buddha/deity/spirit guide will help them live a prosperous life in the here and now – as well as the next should the reincarnation cycle not be broken…

Until the next post – all about the wildlife in Laos!

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Panasonic GH5 – A wildlife filmmaker’s dream?

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Hello everyone! It’s been a while since I wrote a single word on this blog as these past 6 months have been hectic- editing away for A Lion’s Tale, doing work experience on the One Show, BBC Wildcats, attending Wildscreen – and recently my own film premiere at the Everyman theatre! I’m officially a graduate MA Wildlife Filmmaker; time has flown and can’t actually believe the course is over now. I also managed to get some very exciting work at the BBC as a researcher for NHU digital, on Planet Earth II digital and now the Oceans projects – a dream come true (!) So much can happen in the space of a few weeks, Bristol is such an incredible city full of passionate creatives…

More of that later, but today I’m here to share my experience with the greatly anticipated Panasonic GH5, which has been released TODAY...

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At the beggning of February I had an amazing opportunity to try out the pre production GH5 model, which I was especially excited about. I had been reading different hybrid mirrorless camera specs, including the GH4 and A7S II; but then came across the GH5. If I could write a specs list as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker – this camera would tick them all! And whilst there are many of you out there shooting incredible films with FS7’s or RED One’s, this article is targeted towards those with much smaller budgets and the need to travelling light. I principally wanted my choice of camera to provide me with all the features that allow me to have stabilized, sharp images, 4K at 10 bit, variable frame rates to shoot in high speed and capture high quality, blue-chip style footage… and here it is! Not to mention the improved low light performance and compact body…

Here’s the tech specs for you to drool over:

Technical Specifications

  • 20.3MP Digital Live MOS Sensor
  • Venus Engine Image Processor
  • UHD 4K 60p Video with No Crop!
  • Internal 4:2:2 10-Bit 4K Video at 24/30p
  • 4:2:2 10-bit (DCI and UHD up to 30p + HD 60p) Firmware update summer/April
  • 400mbps All-intra (DCI and UHD up to 30p) Firmware update summer/April
  • Variable frame rate (up to 180fps in 1080p HD: )
  • 5-Axis Sensor Stabilization; Dual I.S. 2
  • 0.76x 3.68m-Dot OLED Viewfinder
  • 3.2″ 1.62m-Dot Free-Angle Touchscreen
  • Advanced DFD AF System; 6K & 4K PHOTO
  • ISO 25600 and 12 fps Continuous Shooting
  • Dual UHS-II SD card Slots;
  • Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
  • Improved low light
  • Hybrid Log Gamma (for HDR video)
  • Waveform and Vector monitors (for all you graders out there!)
  • Price:  £1699.00 (body only, UK)

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Sample shots

So enough of me gabbling on; here are some stills I took at Bristol Zoo and around the city, using the 100-400mm f/4-6.3 and  the 15mm Summilux  f1.7  Leica lenses:

duckDucks galore. 1/650 sec, f/6.3 with the 400mm Leica lens. 6K stills mode.

lions_edited_black_bkg4_curve_balanceLions lair. Shot handheld through a fence 1/650 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1600 with the 400mm Leica lens. Cloudy/dark conditions so had to increase the ISO as the min aperture was 4.

lion_ss_1Look into my eyes. 400mm Leica lens at 1/400 sec, f/6.3, 1600 ISO, manual

fur_sealSleeping beauty. 400mm Leica lens at 1/320 sec, f/4, 400 ISO, 6K stills mode.

fur_seal_MCU400mm Leica lens at 1/320 sec, f/6.3, 400 ISO, manual

red_panda400mm Leica lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.2, 1600 ISO, 6K stills

red_panda_2400mm Leica lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.0, 1600 ISO, 6K stills

penguin215mm Leica lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.8, 200 ISO, manual

flamingo2.1400mm Leica lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.2, 1600 ISO, 6K stills

And now for cities!

test415mm Leica lens at 1/1020 sec, f/1.8, 200 ISO, manual

tes2sunrisemist15mm Leica lens at 1/3200 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual

boats_harbourside15mm Leica lens at 0.6 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualcranes_bristol15mm Leica lens at 0.65sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualboats_towards_city15mm Leica lens at 0.6 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualcathedral CU15mm Leica lens at 0.5 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualtower15mm Leica lens at 0.5 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual

So here’s my short little summary breakdown of the pros and cons (so far):

Pros

  • Incredible image quality. Both stills and video
  • Sharp 
  • Fast focus, cont focus very good with fast moving subjects (with a whopping 225 autofocus points compared to the GH4 which had just 49 of them!)
  • Dual IS was brilliant; everything was shot handheld!
  • Colours were vivid and realistic
  • Variety of functions and control
  • Viewfinder superb contrast and easy to use in combination with the screen
  • Screen: incredible quality and sensitive to touch screen capabilities
  • Solid feel, nice grip
  • Sound stereo actually good
  • 6K photo function
  • Ability to stabilise on a drone and shoot 4k 60fps
  • Price: Nearly $1500 cheaper than the A7S Ii, you can afford to splash out on a decent lens and not struggle
  • Compact: You get through customs without questions, as a ‘tourist’ and not draw attention with a large FS7 or FS700 without compromising on quality…
  • You can use this on a Movi for additional stabilisation
  • Ability to attach mics – interface with Panasonic’s optional hot-shoe powered DMW-XLR1 microphone adapter (for amazing sounding interviews!)

Cons

  • High speed grain. Quite noisy at 180fps, better at 120 when light conditions were good. An try and avoid using 1080 120 100mbps with a telephoto lens (if you’re using the 15mm 1.7 you’ll be fine as this is a nice wide, fast lens that gives you plenty of light).
  • 100-400mm manual focus not as smooth or intuitive as some of the Canon L glass (but you can get a speedbooster and mount for your Canon lenses)
  • Battery life; constant 4K shooting 3 hours and 15 minutes. Not mega efficient! But can get 2 and lasts longer than A7S.
  • Poorer performance at 3200 in low light, not good in darker conditions with telephoto, but superb with the 15mm

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What next?

Well, there’s a few things that I personally want to film with this revelatory new piece of camera technology. Exquisitely designed in terms of ergonomics and with the operator in mind – this is certainly one to watch for indie wildlife filmmakers who not only want to shoot stunning stills, but also enter film festivals with high quality films – all within budget. (Then you’ve got more to cash to splash on going out on location to exciting places!)

More soon with video footage samples in 4K and variable frame rates, as well as a more extensive guide on what each of the features allows you to do – but in the meantime, get down to your local camera store and try it out!

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ps: Me playing with a DJI Ronin! And soon the GH5…..

Burning Kenya’s Ivory: A 360 perspective & CITES 2016

Low angle ivory pile

6am. Adrian was still asleep, I was praying that he felt better after his terrible bout of sickness…. to no avail. I felt so bad for him, that he couldn’t share this moment with me as a friend, filmmaker and fellow conservationist. Today was the largest Ivory Burn in history- 105 tonnes of ivory and all of Kenya’s leaders, wildlife activists were ‘joining the herd’ in Nairobi National Park to stand up against the illegal wildlife trade that has caused over thousands of elephant deaths due to the simple sake of man’s greed.

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Heavily guarded ivory, the Kenya Wildlife Service Rangers on patrol. 

However….

Rain…rain…not so beautiful rain! It HEAVED it down, the ground was quickly assimilated into a large soup bowl of red earth. My already worn out boots seemed to cling to the ground like roots. We had to queue outside the National Park gates and collect our press passes, much to my horror mine wasn’t there, but I was reassured when I had my UK Journalism (NUJ) Press Pass and the brilliant Tim Oloo to help us by pass the armed KWS rangers (the novelty of people with AK-47 guns hadn’t worn out..)

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They searched our pockets and bags for any explosives (I certainly didn’t fit the bill), and we were ushered into a packed mini-bus to drive us through the park in safety. Journalists, reporters, filmmakers and conservationists clutched their camera gear and tripods with gusto as we bumped along the muddy path. It felt rather like we were entering Jurassic Park inside one of their vehicles with its dense scattered Acacia bushes and thick highland trees.

We then we piled out of the bus as we arrived at the site we had done before on the 28th, and once again went through security with all our kit. Droplets of rain began falling, just teasing us as we hauled our kit across the already quagmire site.

The press stands were soon filling up and I bagged two spots with my tripod for good measure. Rather than on the journalist podium, I placed it just offside where a direct shot of the flames and president could be had (we’re talking photographic terms here, not actual shooting!) Then it began raining lions and hyenas…and I schlumped my way across to the press tent…which was like a rather nice watering hole– not the like where you could find drinks but the literally the ground meant your calves were submerged. I got the kit to high ground and worked out a plan of action. Wides and close ups on the tripods with the 200-400mm lens, and roving with the 17-200mm kit lens on the shoulder rig. Tim and Will were busy liaising and so all we could do now was wait for instructions and people to arrive. To say I was excited about seeing Leonardo Di Caprio was an understatement…. I wondered if Elton John would be coming too?

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 The rain at the ivory burn event, Nairobi National Park. Press avoiding the rain 8:45am, 30th April, 2016. © Tania Esteban

 

Being among top journalists from around the world made me laugh and smile, I was nothing if not a minute fly in comparison to their expertise… but I felt thrilled to be among them and curious as to what camera equipment they would be using. A lovely guy from the Huffington post asked me about my Richo Theta camera I was using and showed him my model, his was the updated grey version. Everyone wanted to be part of the new trend! Well I only saw two other people with one, so check out my 360 videos for some exclusives!

I thought I’d leave some of the kit back in the little white tent opposite the main presidential one, and follow Will. Again the floor wasn’t any better here. Heels would not be useful for any dignitaries! There I saw Will talking to Charlie-Hamilton James! One of my fave wildlife photographers, I was very excited to introduce myself and ask about his recent trip to film for Disney Nature. He told me he had just come from filming lions in the Mara, and I told him about my own film I was wishing to find in Meru. Then I bumped into Michael Owino, a local Sound Technician who offered to hold an umbrella for me in the rain- thanks Mike! He was such a help, I managed to get a few steady shots of officials as they prepared the ivory and rhino horn for the main event.

SO much was happening at this point (11am), and many journalists were beginning to set up and capture the events. Also bumped into Ian Redmond, Born free ambassador and Ape Alliance chairman who actually put me in contact with Will about the film, I owe pretty much the entire trip to him- thank you! He was busy filming for the BBC’s new exciting series (more revealed soon!) and I happily agreed to shoot an interview with him for it. So whilst milling around in the mud inside the tent, we shot outside when the weather cleared up. Ian was piece perfect and hit the key points, balancing the emotional and logical science on the issue.

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Ian Redmond at the Ivory Burn talking to Ian Douglas-Hamilton. ©Tania Esteban

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After that I went celebrity spotting! Was quite fun and I did see Kristine Davis who is an ambassador for the Sheldrick Trust (Sex and the City!), the modern lion man himself Kevin Richardson, and I met legendary wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott! Was such an honour to meet him towards the end. Also another of my conservation heroes Iain Douglas-Hamilton! I shook his had with enthusiasm before I realised they were covered in mud…I apologised profusely but hopefully he didn’t seem to mind, I doubt that a bit of mud will perturb this great man, father of one of my heroines Saba Douglas.. what I wouldn’t give to roam around Samburu bear foot and searching for elephants.

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Actress: Sex and the City star Kristin Davis, who is a patron of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
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Kevin Richardson, the  modern Lion Man himself at the burn.

Anywho! I also filmed the legendary Dr Richard Leaky as he walked among the crowd and then approached the main ivory pile. Then it was time to film the events going on inside the tent. I bumped into my new friend Michael as he was setting up his C300 onto the stage. There were dancers and performers as well as upcoming rising eco warrior, actor and musician Luca Berrardi, aged 12 he has accomplished many great things in Kenya, raising awareness about the plight of their wildlife. Check out his twitter profile.

Then after a few more roaming shots I decided to head out and capture the president when he came out to the podium outside. Journalists were clearly thinking a similar strategy…and we all crammed together in mud like penguins looking lost. The ivory gleaned in the afternoon sun, wet from the mornings downpour. Thank goodness I had placed the tripod earlier! Long lens on one camera, the other with the zoom…we were ready for the president and the lighting of the ivory. In the tent the words ‘Worth more alive” echoed in our ears, its staggering to think of the mindless bloodshed because of mans greed. Virginia herself quoted that ivory carvings represent”little symbols of death.” Charlie Hamilton-James and Jonathan Scott also lined up alongside us to capture that perfect shot of the president lighting the ivory pile- the symbol of Kenya’s strength and determination to eliminate the horrific trade as well as all others (including lion body part trade).

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Jonathan Scott at the Burn site, ready to take photos of the president. ©Tania Esteban

The president made his way along the muddy path and took questions from the press, I filmed away in awe of what I was witnessing. Kenyatta then lit the ivory and to our disappointment there wasn’t much of an all-explosive-light-up of the pile; a rather puffed out cough of smoke. But soon enough the smoke billowed and the flames grew

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Surrounded by the world’s media and press, all eyes on the president. ©Tania Esteban

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Billowing smoke as the president looks on and the world’s media. ©Tania Esteban

 

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President Kenyatta taking questions at the ivory burn. ©Tania Esteban

The flames were flickering up towards the heavens as the light fell, and a silence fell upon all of those witnessing this momentous spectacle. 105 tonnes of ivory, 6000 elephants…generations of elephants wiped out because of the simple sake of mans greed. I often reflect upon humanity, and my own existence as a human because of the terrible atrocities many people commit. The smell was overwhelming, a mixture of kerosene but more prevalent still the smell of death…burning carcasses and bone of once living creatures. The sound of the cracking of the ivory was equally powerful, and the burning hiss that resonated across the field. And then the carnage….

We all literally legged it as soon as the tape was removed to get the first shots of the flames up close an personal, the solemn meaning of the event was temporarily forgotten. But first there was a ditch to cross…

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Not pleased with the ditch to cross…its deeper than it looks!
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A solemn moment…Very privileged to have been given access to film but equally overwhelmed by the numbers of elephants slaughtered.

Once over the rangers patrolled the ivory like rottweilers with rifles, their heavy boots sinking into the ground, and posing for eager photographers. You could really feel the heat coming from the 11 stacks, the smell billowing away into the inky darkness

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I continued to film and photograph away, staring in awe at my surroundings. A drone engine suddenly pierced the air and we looked up to see an Inspire capturing a unique view of the burn, something we all would want to shoot! Check out the video by Barny Trevelyan-Johnson.

Here’s me in a 360 video filming at the front where the piles are burning, don’t forget to pan around!

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Filming at the ivory burn was a privilege, I was happy to be there to document this as a my first proper shoot, but I felt truly overwhelmed by what I had seen…
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10 tonnes each; up in flames….On the tusks are individual identification names, with information regarding the origin, weight, elephant sex, age and herd.
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The haze moving in, the smell was very powerful.

After capturing further shots I was the introduced to another one of my heroes, Jonathan having seen him photograph all day, and Ian Hamilton. What a privilege. Also saw the fabulous News anchor/presenter for NTV Wild, Smiriti Vidyarthi there interviewing Patrick Omondi and the KWS officials.

And so dear readers, the emotional rollercoaster of a day came to an end, and Will, Ian, Tim and myself readied ourselves to leave the sight…one last GoPro video….

But before you go, remember that THIS September  over 180 countries will convene in Johannesburg at the CITES meeting to decide the fate of lions and elephants– to upscale the protection afforded for lions and ban the illegal wildlife trade in ivory. Hong Kong’s chief executive C.Y Leung recently stated that they would attempt to phase out all trade in of ivory. Others are yet to act. In fact Zimbabwe and Namibia are planning to ask CITES to approve new legal sales of ivory – a dreadful idea.

SO..

Keep the FIRE BURNING…share on Social media, tweet, Facebook, Pininterest, about how YOU CARE about the fate of not only elephants, but ALL wildlife. In the next 30 years they could be gone forever. The greatest threat however is habitat destruction and this is something I will be addressing in the next few blog post. In the meantime, have a look at this clip by Wild Aid at the end of this article and start talking to your world leaders and politicians to act!

Also some of my ivory burn footage can be seen here in a preview of A lion’s Tale! See what you think (at 1:43 min in):

 

 

Meet the Grauer’s Gorillas: a virtual reality

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Chimanuka– a 200kg male silverback Grauer’s Gorilla gently grooms his 3 year old sons back, carefully picking out the burs and ticks…meanwhile wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan captures the most amazing sequences of these gentle giants in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, one of the last retreats of these elusive Gorillas. Can you imagine watching this in 360… live? This might become a reality very soon…

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If you’ve all been watching the superlative “Gorilla Family and Me” on BBC 2 over Christmas, I am certain you’ve fallen for the protective 30 year old male silverback of the 25 strong group of Eastern Lowland Gorillas (or Grauer’s) and his adorable son, Marhale. The bond between these two is emotively captured in this compelling new series by executive producer Ted Oakes, DOP David Johnson and cameraman Gordon Buchanan.

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As a lead contributor to this beautiful, heartfelt piece of storytelling, Ian Redmond OBE– (wildlife filmmaker, conservationist and ambassador for the protection of wildlife) has developed a pioneering way in which to view these amazing apes from the comfort of your own home. Yep you heard me, ZERO risk of being sat on by a Grauer, bitten by parasite ridden mosquitoes or blown to bits in a potentially volatile conflict. vEcotourism (http://www.vecotourism.org/) is a virtual reality project that uses interactive on-line tours connects you at home with conservation projects and local communities in ecologically and culturally sensitive areas worldwide.

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Founded in 2004 by director Mark Laxer, current vEcotours are primarily being produced in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Indonesia to highlight the plight of the great apes in those countries, but as they grow they intend to tackle the challenge of conservation world wide. Ian films, presents and narrates all the content that is being brought to you on-screen on his travels and conservation work in these areas.

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Ian giving us a talk about his brilliant new project. It was such an honor to meet him; as a huge follower of his work I am very excited to work with him.

It’s innovative and fresh– allowing you to interact and take control of the content you want to see and find out in certain hot spots. Together with a team of volunteers (including myself), we are using our skills as editors, scriptwriter and social media associates to help Ian to be able to host these virtual eco tours and spread the message about the plight of the great apes.

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What we’re looking to do is have LIVE tours of these beautiful biodiversity hotspots of the world, where you can join Ian and a co-host via 2 virtual live streams and pan the virtual 360 world of the apes. With these panos (panoramas) you have the power to be able to zoom in/out during the tour, whilst having a team of wildlife experts guiding you. Interactive chat boxes allow you to ask questions with live feedback from Ian throughout the tour. You can take a look at some of the content (non-live tours) and where Chimanuka and his family live RIGHT NOW!

http://www.vecotourism.org/panos/prototours/kahuzi_stump/

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Of course, there’s nothing that can beat a real-life encounter with these magnificent great apes, but such virtual reality tours are a fantastic way to learn about the fascinating behaviour and life of an incredibly threatened species…the hope is it will inspire you to help protect the environment in which they live, take up a career in research or simply share your love for these gentle giants.

Time is running out for the largest Gorillas Species, as civil unrest continues to take its toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the last 50 years, its range has decreased from 8,100 square miles to 4,600 square miles today…and less than 9000 individuals remain. Please do what you can for this remarkable species and donate/share if you can:

https://secure.gorillas.org/save-me?platform=hootsuite

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REMEMBER tonight on BBC Two (27th December at 9pm to 10pm) is the last episode of the beautiful “Gorilla Family and Me.” So much emotion and storytelling with the 25 strong family, led by the charismatic Chimanuka silverback male. Shout out to my roommate who was the assistant editor- Charis May!

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The Hunt: With Alastair Fothergill and Huw Cordey

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A tiger sauntering through the long, tall Vetiver grass, an African leopard quietly padding down a gully, a spider delicately reeling out and laying a deadly silken trail….

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Their story begins with the fight to live another day in their unforgiving habitats – these ultimate “villains” of the natural world are given a second chance by Silverback Company Director Alastair Fothergill, Series producer Huw Cordey and their team in an epic visual feast- The Hunt.” Packed with stunning visuals of the like you’ve literally never seen before, dramatic story telling through cutting-edge editing, colours to pop your retinal cones and sound to resonate with your wild animal instincts…The Hunt truly marks the new age for incredibly high-end drama and storytelling.

We (wildlife filmmaking students), were treated to one of the first talks about this remarkable new series….

In the heart of the Chemistry building in Bristol University, barely a student made a shuffle to reveal their presence in the dark. Their only light source permeated from a screen which displayed the never-before seen markings of a new landmark series. Then enters Alastair and Huw- the ultimate documentary predators of our time, a most formidable duo set to storm the wildlife film industry market with a flurry of experience and talented flair… we didn’t stand a chance- we were preparing ourselves to be amazed….

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Huw Cordey on location in Kenya

They both spoke with such eager passion and confidence about their remarkable 6X60 blue-chip landmark series, which explores the dynamic relationships between predators and prey, each based in a particular habitat, with its own unique challenges. One thing in common that unites these animals is their struggle to survive and fail as predators-something that Alastair really wanted to capture,

“We wanted to put our audiences in the footsteps of a Cheetah. The previous shows have always depicted predators as ‘red tooth and claw, and so this is one of the most exciting relationship to film. We decided to base the animals in different habitats where each of the different ecosystems create these different challenges. Be it the open ocean– a big blue desert with ephemeral and notoriously difficult to find species, or the vast plains of the savannah where there’s nowhere to hide- where competition (interspecific- between different species) between other predators is rife.”

Although he admits that they were going to film the “BBC blue chip” animals (ie: Charismatic species), but also the more unusual such as the ancestral Telophores and Portia Sider.

It took 3-5 years to make, and I’m guessing at least £3 million per episode to make… But when your throwing in all the possible latest kit (Cineflex or ‘Eleflex’ as its known in Episode 2, jibs, cranes, Sony F55’s, helicopters, editing suites, sound crew, SF, musical composers, flights, travel…ect), you can’t expect to get incredible visuals if you cut corners. The remarkable almost mystical image of the polar bear that talented cameraman Jamie McPhearson captured was made possible with the use of the £300,000 cinflex camera and boat crew- and a total of 14 people and 8 weeks to capture that sequence! The co-proability of this series will, I’m certain, make a lot of it back so that we can enjoy even more exciting series to come (such as BBC 1’s One Planet, 2017!)

Alastair mentions he often think about what the next series will be, for example after Frozen planet they decided to look at habitats. But rather than just to look at the polar regions and tropical jungles for a sense of place, they also they turned to a new areas of natural history- animal behaviour…The most exciting dynamic behaviour is arguably between predators and prey. They haven’t forgot about the prey- despite not appearing as the “sexiest” of animals. One such species shown is the snow goose- where it will form large flocks to protect themselves from predators and use instinctive ‘next nearest behaviour’ movements to coordinate the huge triangular flock formations we associate them with.

Off to the Polar Regions in the first episode.  If you live in the poles you have to be adaptable. After frozen planet he was worried there would be no new stories to tell about its iconic wildlife. But again they managed to give us a literal brain freeze with the superlative polar bear sequence filmed by talented cameraman Jamie McPherson– it was absolutely stunning! Hats off to the remarkable colour grading by Adam Inglis, and editing by Andy Netley too. At some point I felt as if I was transported into Narnia with its gorgeous cool colour pallet. These animals are unique in that they change their hunting tactics serval times during the stalk.

“We didn’t manage to capture how this incredible behaviour stats in Frozen Planet, and so we wanted to film it this time.”

This is usually when the ice breaks up and they are no longer hunting seals on the ice. The weather however made it very difficult for the team to make it through one of the most inhospitable places on earth. At the very beginning of summer when there’s meltwater, the skidoos can be used to get through this vast terrain. Polar bears weren’t at all bothered by their presence, if anything they could pose more of a threat to the crew and so they took “polar bear” security very seriously. At the end of summer, the ice breaks into a mosaic of ethereal blue-coloured ice pancakes, which forces the bear to change its behaviour accordingly. The ‘Aquatic stalk’ is where the bear pursues the ringed seals within the water, which is no problem for it is supremely adapted to swim with its webbed feet and high body fat ratio to prevent it from dying of hypothermia. The metal boat allowed the crew to move in the ice and move with the bear, use the parallax of the moving ice in a beautiful way, which led to creating this incredible sequence.

Another polar tale was filmed at Elsmere Island, most northerly Canadian islands. It is the nearest land to North Pole, 8 degrees north, and a total population of UK and Scotland (150 people), most of which are Inuit. This lack of people that makes it perfect for Arctic wolves, they are completely fearless of people. The challenge here for the team was keeping up with these finely tuned long-distance runners which can reach speeds of up to 40mph. So a larger crew was needed on the ice… 2 cameramen, 1 wolf scientist, 1 producer and 1 helicopter pilot. Then it was Arctic hare characters that leaped into the story with the wolves, leading to a rather entertaining sequence!

In this weeks episode we take a look at one of my favorite animals of all time- the Cheetah. This evolutionary powerhouse can run at 56mph at its top speed for 10 seconds, and has to get within 50m of its prey before the lactic acid burns into its fast twitch muscles and need to slow down to recover. The stalk is a very important part of the sequence, and the amazingly talented high-speed specialist camerawoman Sophie Darlington and the team tried to emulate this hugely important behaviour and put the audience in the footsteps of the cheetah… where every detail and sinew of the hunt can be analysed. They filmed it at a level of detail never seen before, capturing a very intimate and tense moment…at which most cheetahs will fails at this point to successfully make a kill.

This sequence was made possible with the use of the Cineflex- slowing the image by 40 times at 1000fps. This ‘black ball’ is home to a very powerful lens, with gyroscopic stabilizers which could make Taylor Swift’s Shake it off look like a graceful ballet. Mounted onto a make shift arm on the safari vehicle…it makes for the most remarkable follow up shots as the animal glides through the savannah grasslands. They were able to track the cheetah alongside it as it stalked without disturbing it from 100m away, preventing any interference. Alastair tells us rather counterintuitively that one of the skills about filming cheetahs is…

“Don’t follow the cheetah… Predict and follow WHERE the prey will go, and then go beyond it to try and capture the “down the barrel shot.”

Talented camerawoman Sophie Darlington

The Massia field guide, Sammy Munene, had the superb ability to get the team in the right place at the right time to capture one of the highlights of the series.

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“The last and most crucial thing is to choose the RIGHT Cheetah.” They spent much time deciding who would be their hero…and it was to be Malaika, BBC’s Big cat diaries star, with four 8 month old cubs. Such a remarkable feat for a feline, as 50-70% of cubs die at within their first 3 months. She was under pressure to kill every day for her young and growing family- and so the action heated up…2 cameras on the vehicle, 2 aerials and 6 weeks later led to the team capturing one of the most detailed and incredible hunting sequences of all time. Make sure you tune in this Sunday (TODAY) 9pm BBC One to see it!

But it’s not just all about mammals- the army ant sequence filmed by the brilliant Jonnie Hughes was a feast for the entomological eye and bliss for keen sound recording artist. Just enough of the tittle-tattle sound of the tiny footsteps of one of the smallest and yet deadliest of predators in the rainforest, which demolished everything in its wake.

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Equally the Darwin’s bark spider featured in episode 2 certainly proved that what it lacks for in size it makes up for in awe and charisma (YES I used an anthropomorphic word!) This spider was only described by science in 2009, and perhaps the reason it has never been filmed before. But nevertheless the teams found that the spiders were quite easy to find, and yet was still challenging in that they required just the right amount of wind and light to film. Huw tells us rather unwittingly that the number of camera kit cases required on such a shoot is inversely proportionate to the size of the animal- and with over 40 cases weighing over 40 tonnes… you can see why!

To really tell the story about the spider, a similar camera set up to the other sequences was required to get the shots they were after with all the dramatic elements and action. This quirky arachnid sprays out a stream of silk for over 20m, with which we are informed by the voice of natural history, Sir David Attenborough, that such material is stronger than steel. This sequences took 5 weeks (almost as long as the Wild dog and cheetah sequences) and so was no mean feat of technical skill and patience… even the smallest of creatures require the same level of detail to pull off a good story.

Of course our beloved hero Sir David Attenborough narrated The Hunt, with such verve and passion that it simply wouldn’t be the same without him!

The sound effects of the silk being expelled sounds rather like a spring coil being trailed along the floor, and is rather entertaining I must say! Anyone hear the sucker squelching sound of the crocodile’s nictitating membrane of its eye opening and closing? Or the mission impossible zipping effects of the Portia spider? The last squeaking breaths of the mantis? Hats off to the foley effects artist for being so brave! The music throughout the series has been quite sublime, the perky little notes with our smaller insect protagonists and action bass heavy chase sequences creates so much depth and engages the audience further. Clearly Alastair and Huw were proud of their music assembly and so they should be. Attenborough’s performance as a narrator and storyteller as always is faultless…a true master of hitting every single syllable and verb with incredible passion and verve- what a true legend!

The shear amount of dedication that went into making this series is truly astounding – and a HUGE inspiration to us up-coming wildlife filmmakers. Now that we’ve learned about how the whole team coordinates and how the industry works, we can really appreciate the hours, blood, sweat, tears, talent and of course money that goes into blue-chip productions like this. But if you have the right team, you end up with a remarkable piece of natural history that will inspire others to want to protect these fascinating species, with their array of intriguing animal behaviours.

Can’t wait to see what’s next for the team! (**Hint hint.. Keep watching out on BBC 1 and Netfilx!**) Tune into BBC One tonight 9pm to see the Cheetah hunt!

 

[All images above were taken by BBC staff and I do not take any credit for them, simply sharing their content in a review/analysis/report].

 

 

South Africa Wildlife filmmaking internship – How YOU can volunteer for free!

Backpacking and volunteering in South Africa

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This year in June I flew to South Africa to pursue a childhood dream and volunteer as a wildlife filmmaking intern in Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani– 3 wildlife sanctuaries located in The Crags, Western Cape, Titsikamma National park. I never thought it would be possible until I began doing my own research- without the costly fees of a company doing it for me. I’m a scientist by nature, research is what I love to do! So I set about by looking at the organisations which didn’t charge an arm and a leg to simply volunteer. Its infuriating when such companies around the world will voraciously take advantage of students wanting to give up their time to a good cause, and have a trip of a lifetime; travelling whilst it’s still possible without being tied down to jobs and life.

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So I’m creating these following posts to help YOU VOLUNTEER ON A STUDENT BUDGET, WITHOUT COMPANY FEES! WHY? Because I was in the SAME SITUATION as YOU, and wanted to experience Africa at my own pace, see and do incredible things and meet amazing people.

Above is a little video clip of one of the many species I filmed there. Many of these individual Capuchins have been rehabilitated and evidently the methods have worked, as they display remarkably natural behaviour and social interactions.

So here’s what I did and how you can also do something similar for a budget price.

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I worked as a student volunteer at the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance parks, Plettenberg Bay to work as a ranger tour guide and photographer/filmmaker in the Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani wildlife sanctuaries. They fund themselves through revenues from tourists who take educational tours of the sanctuaries, and multi-lingual tour guides are much needed to continue to bring in funds. A detailed catalogue of all the SAASA species has not yet been made of the primates, birds and apex cats, and so I wanted to help compile this information, along with taking photographs and film footage (for YouTube) of individual primates as an important part of the project.

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I really wanted to be able to make a difference at the SAASA 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, I felt the need to travel and experience different cultures, sights and wildlife encounters before I go on to study for my Master this coming September at Bristol (for a MA in Wildlife Filmmaking). Not only did 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.

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It has 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. I can tell you it has far surpassed my expectations… it’s really was life changing and incredible, fascinating, awe-inspiring, revelatory, amazing, stunning and… yes this is why you should GO FOR IT!

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On the SASSA website they advertise the jobs that need doing and how you can get involved, and the possible accommodation that’s nearby where you can backpack and be drive to and fro; take a look:

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1# Getting the volunteering internship  

SO sort out what your role will be doing with Vivjer and Laura via email or telephone. Then you can start thinking about where you want to live these next few weeks…

This requires you to get in contact with them which is very easy nowadays- a simple email telling them what you do and want to achieve through volunteering there, what experience you have to offer, CV, website, ect. You’re pretty much in unless you’re going through a well-known organisation and a company is booking you through (such as Conservation experience Africa, or the Born Free Foundation). Having said that, Monkeyland which opened it’s doors in 1998 is actually an enormous 13 hectares, where 11 monkey species are allowed to roam free in stunning natural Afro-montane forest. Nothing is simulated, the forests were here originally before the project was started, and endemic Vervet monkeys use to roam the forests. It far supersedes anything I have seen in Europe…and is truly a sustainable, long-term project with many modern concepts and ideas being implemented by Laura Mostert and the team. In fact it’s even won the Tourism Sustainability awards (2014).

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Monkeys that were previously kept as pets, ex-circus performers and abused zoo monkeys are rescued by Monkeyland, and placed into special monkey homes to rehabilitate before being released back into the forest sanctuary. This is known as the “Eden syndrome effect,” which when implemented; nobody is allowed to touch, pet or feed the monkeys…and minimal contact is made other than during feeding. When released, guest must also adhere to these rules, keeping a distance of 2m and NO SELFIE sticks are permitted.

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This is to keep the monkeys as wild as possible and behaving naturally, which in my experience is most certainly the case. I got some brilliant behaviour when filming across all the species. Of course not all the species would be mixed together in the wild, but this doesn’t seem to affect intraspecies communication (between the same species). We feed them a variety of fruits and vegetables, all of which come from locally sourced farmers, so not only fresh but also benefitting the local communities. I’m not going to lie, the monkeys ate better than us! I’ll be writing more specifically about “A day in the life of a Monkeyland volunteer” soon.

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2# Accommodation- backpacking all the way

Now the concept of backpacking is one that I had never come across. I had heard of hostels and camping sites, but it never really occurred to me that it could be a place to stay at a reasonable price and allow you to spend your hard earned cash elsewhere on incredible activities, trips, safaris, ect. I stayed at Rocky Road Backpackers, a quaint little place wedged in between the valleys with large open grounds.

Now I had an amazing time there, but unfortunately a problematic situation arose between a member of staff which caused problems for all the guests (a tale for another day!) and so this was unnerving…but other than that, the food was great and the transport was reasonable. But for me it was the incredible people I met there. I met 14 students from Western Washington University on their incredible journey to help the locals in Mosassami and Kurtland village– township communities in need of teaching, building, counselling and community project funding. I can say now I have made friends for life here and I spent all my evenings and weekend trips with these amazing people- having the time of my life!

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The inspirational WWU students and I at Addo National Park. Couldn’t have imagined better travel buddies than this lot, missing you all terribly!

So I was paying the equivalent of £17 a day for transport, 3 meals and accommodation. I got a small shared room with a single bed, you can save a go for a tent which does come with electricity. But be warned, its COLD in winter! That’s pretty darn good, compared to hotels which can cost double the amount not including food or transport. But of course in South Africa with the strength of the pound to the rand…you can get more bang for your buck. According to a recent Post Office study, a Briton buying £500 in local currency can get 22.3% more for their money, or an additional £91.03, compared with one year ago. The current exchange rates from £ to rand are: £1=20.7 South African rand. I mean that’s remarkably weak…

Having said that, in the past if was far weaker, only now are South Africans able to benefit from tourism. You can get your regular shop for less than a fiver, go out on a safari for £13, get a taxi for £5, fine-dining for £5, accommodation for £10 or less. Hence why there is such a draw to places such as Cape Town and Plett, the strength of the pound in particular means it’s hugely attractive for students too, looking to enjoy their student finance money!

Another fantastic place is Stephanie’s Homestay, located right next to the Beach in Plett. It’s very central unlike Rocky Road, and you can get all your food shop, souvenirs without needing to ask people to drive you there which is great. You also get lifts to Monkeyland, ect as well as DISCOUNTS FOR EVRYTHING…I’m not even kidding…mention Stephanie’s name and everyone knows her. She’s sort of like your South African mama, so if a homestay backpackers is more your cup of tea, stay here.

There is a THIRD option…of which is FREE. Yes you hear me…FREE ACCOMODATION. Impossible I hear you say? Not so, Monkeyland have limited volunteer homes right next to them, a friend of mine who =volunteered here stayed here for the entire month without paying a single rand. The only snag is that it’s a bit of a …well, dump. Its not the safest of places, I’m not going to lie, but if you’re a guy or happen to be with one, its worth going. Two of my friends (both girls) stayed here and were totally fine, but you’re limited in terms of food and transport unless you rent a car. I’ll come onto that, but this is not particularly the best way to spend your hols, it’s nicer to meet other backpackers. SO unless you’re a bit of a loner, this isn’t the best option, but certainly the cheapest.

3# Flights

Right so you have somewhere to stay now. Actually getting there is the next big thing! I looked through Skysanner.com, which kept sending me the best offers for the dates I was looking for. You can go via STA but sometimes it can be cheaper doing it yourself. Since I was going to Plettenberg Bay, not via Cape Town, but through Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, it worked out cheaper through this website. I paid £660 return flight with British Airways, flying from Manchester to London Heathrow, London to Johannesburg and then finally to Port Elizabeth.

I then got a £80 taxi to my backpackers (I know…ouch!) after an exhausting 21 hours of travelling! I booked in April to avoid the summer hike costs, I have friends that paid £800-£1000…so book EARLY! BA were brilliant too, the service was excellent as usual, and the food pretty decent too. I must POINT OUT though, DO LEAVE TIME between transfers…I almost missed my connection return flight from Joho to London because of a delay! Also watch it in Johannesburg, it can be quite dodgy over there. But other than that, enjoy your flight!

4# Packing- What to take?

Clothes

Right, I wish I could have read this before I went! Our summer is their winter…I can’t express more lucidly how South African winters are the SAME as European ones…that just because its Africa doesn’t mean that short shorts are an option! Its rather similar to a Spanish summer, not quite as bitterly cold as the UK. So do take many different layered clothes, such as thin long sleeved t-shirts, jackets, fleeces and scarves. Socks are a must too, the thick walking boot types, and bring X2 the numbers of pairs you think you’ll need…you’re going to lose half of them I promise! Also the same goes for underwear. There are few places that own a tumble drier annoyingly so be prepared to reuse (sorry), and smell like a monkey for a bit… that’s how it rolls here in Africa! Also bring a sturdy pair of thick boots for hiking in and for the muddy terrain, you’ll definitely thank me for this one. Sunglasses for those sunny days are advisable, sun cream not really. A good rugged and waterproof rucksack will keep all of this kit together nicely…DO get a decent one, I got through 2!

Oh! And a Safari HAT of course!

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Products and tablets

Mosquitoes aren’t out yet, too cold, but ticks most certainly are- bring some tweezers! I got many whilst in the forests. Kwells seas sickness tablets work a treat for boat trips, especially the notoriously known choppy seas of South Africa…Immodium for those loose bowels of yours, the food can be too rich for the delicate intestinal linings of us Europeans, so this one will be of great help to stop you from living on the toilet at the most embarrassing of times. Never get caught out on safari! A water bottle bag is very useful too, as well as electrolytes in case of diarrhoea. This is to replenish lost bodily salts which are vital to your bodily functions. Echinacea tablets work a treat if you’re in contact with people…so many of the American students fell ill with cold bless them, these tablets keep all that away.

 

Vaccinations

I skimped a little on this…you shouldn’t but I was desperate to buy a GoPro and decided to spend my £140 on one instead of the 3 courses of Rabies. But YOU SHOULD if you’re working with wildlife! Also get your polio, tetanus, Hep A/B, and Typhoid re done if you haven’t. There’s no Malaria here so no need to splash out on the expensive tablets. All of the mentioned is free expect the rabies. Get them 2 months in advance before your trip and go and see your nearest travel clinic.

Gadgets

My favourite part! Okay, PLEASE BUY A GOPRO your life would be incomplete without one!! Trust me, I used it on all my trips; the hikes, safari’s, swimming, surfing, cage diving especially, kayaking, canoeing, running, rock climbing, ect. It’s such a hardy little camera (waterproof 30m, shockproof) that it won’t bust on you, and it makes everything look amazing with its 180 degree wide view shots. Have a look at some top tips on creating your own videos here from my last post. I own a GoPro Hero which I bought for £90 on amazon. Plus et the extras like the selfie sticks, head strap mount, ect for those awkward moments where your hands are required.

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Of course I would say take a SLR camera, I myself have the Canon 600D with a zoom lens (another key bit of kit for close ups of wildlife and birds), with the flip screen to shoot video.

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I had the Tamron 70-300mm lens as well as the Manfrotto MH01 to shoot at night and film. Amazing what you can get from kit under £300. Here are some of my results.

Extra batteries for your camera are a must. You wont get much opportunity to charge everything at the same time. Also take extra harddrives (Samsung 1TB), SD cards, Micro SD cards (for your phone and GoPro), recording microphone for the amazing sounds, lens wipes and universal plug for your gear.

FINALLY…

Get yourself a car if you want more freedom. If you cash in with some friends it worth getting a car so you have the freedom to come and go as you please. There’s nothing worse than having to rely on others and wait hours to bunk in with people heading your way. I got caught out several times and was left in dangerous situations alone… You DON’T want this to happen! Also it’s really cheap if you get it for the month, and petrol is also inexpensive. Will cost you about £200 for the month to rent, and less than £170 for petrol…but it of course depends where you go. Make sure you have an international driving licence, or something in your passport to say you’re a tourist visiting for a month….we got pulled over by the police for this!

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Here was the car we rented for the week to go on the trips, not the most reliable of thing! We nicknamed him Freedom…

So now you’re ready to go to South Africa to the volunteering holiday of your dreams…And be prepared to have a rollercoaster of a time- Africa truly leaves a mark on your heart, and gives you the travel bug! More updates on what to expect in the volunteer sanctuaries as well as some amazing trips you can get up to too!

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