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Sound recording & camping in the African wilderness – Part I: Botswana

Take a look at this image, a screenshot of worldwide flight traffic taken from a random visit to the Flightradar website.
What do you see?

Likely, your eye will be drawn to the insane clusters of air traffic that obscure those parts of the map where the United States, Asia and Western Europe lie; the latter being where I generally call home. But go down from Europe to Africa, and we are greeted by space, emptiness, a lovely void of air traffic.

While a few airplanes dot the skies over southern and eastern Africa, seeing this image late 2014 reinforced my will to visit the southern part of the continent, and bring my microphones with me. The never-ending cacaphony of anthropophonic noise in Western Europe, caused by continuous overflying air planes, highway drones and general overpopulation is without a doubt one of my main annoyances – not just as a sound recordist, but as a human being. I crave for a degree of quiet and solitude, for a place that is wilder and more real than the perfectly cut grassy fields and micromanaged spaces that we call ‘natural parks’ in Europe and the UK.

And so I flew down in March 2015, to first spend a couple of months in Zimbabwe, learning about the environment and recording as much wildlife and nature sound as I could, about which I have already quite extensively written & shared recordings of on this site.

After my time there, I flew to Johannesburg in May to meet up with my girlfriend and pick up a rented Toyota Hilux, equipped with all the tools and toys for a few weeks of camping, self-drive game drives and sound recording in the nature of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

  • The car, as we picked it up

    Still nice and clean and with everything intact.

  • Camp fires were made every night

    Sometimes to cook, and always to keep the wildlife at bay.

  • My mics were placed on top of the car

    For overnight recording, as long as there were no baboons roosting nearby.

  • Another shot of the mics on top of the car

    The recorder was normally inside the tent, allowing for monitoring overnight.

  • A typical camp site

    This was taken in Moremi, Okavango Delta, Botswana

 A few images to show the car, camping and recording setup

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Equipment safety in the African bush

As I set off two months ago for this sound recording & learning-about-African-nature-and-wildlife endeavour, I had essentially no idea how to tackle the problem of protecting my equipment from the environment here. Since then, I’ve amassed close to 600GB of sound recordings and learnt a few tricks regarding the safekeeping of my stuff while its left outdoors for sessions as long as 24 to 30 hours. The bottom line conclusion of keeping your gear from being torn to pieces by big & curious African wildlife: it’s not easy, but it’s certainly possible, especially if you’re lucky enough to get some help from people who know better than you.

To recap briefly, the reason why I set off to Zimbabwe for two months was to follow a FGASA course, which was going to train me at lightning speed how to be a safari guide. That course is now done and dusted, I’ve passed, and I can conduct a guided safari/field experience from a vehicle now. But the point here is that as soon as I mentioned my sound recording plans to the course instructor, he immediately and strongly discouraged me to leave my equipment out there in the naive way that I had imagined it was going to work.

My brilliantly thought out plan was: I’ve got a bunch of long and strong cable ties, I will just tie my mics to a tree and job’s a gooden. His immediate answer to that was that baboons will come and check this strange shiny new thing out, and absolutely destroy it within minutes. And if the baboons won’t get to it, then the elephants might. And if not the elephants, then count on the hyenas to run off with your expensive toys. Want to set up and record by the water? A hippo will come and shit all over your mic before it crushes it to bits. So his suggestion was to use a cage, and a strong one at that – a cage to trap leopards with would do the job nicely, and it just so happened that this reserve here owned one of those.

Behold, the leopard cage
 

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Elephants are no drama queens

“What is your favourite animal?” A cliche but certainly acceptable answer would in my view be “elephants”. It is impossible to experience these animals and not at the very least be intrigued with their behaviour and endless range of emotions, characteristics and personalities. Elephants can be funny, imposing, insecure, bullying, menacing, playful, sad, terrified, benign – you could keep adding to this list, but the key thing is that they can be ‘read’ almost as easily as an open book.

There is also plenty of sad facts around elephants and the poaching of their tusks for their ivory. And while these are certainly true and worrisome, the irony is that in this part of the continent, southern Africa, the problems with elephants are essentially reversed – they thrive, and as a result there is too many of them. Though the intuitive reaction might be that you can’t ever have too many elephants, the result is that they cause damage to crops, leading to human-wildlife conflict, compounded by problems caused by the ever increasing transport networks and expanding urban zones. In Victoria Falls town for instance, elephants (and other wildlife) can be regularly seen roaming the streets, which makes walking around town at night rather hazardous.

 

But let’s focus on the good stuff, from a sound recording point of view – the vocalisations they produce, which are plentiful. While I’ve so far not have had the luck to record a lot of close up elephants, I do have amassed a large library of medium distant to distant sounds, some of which are shared on this page. The above recording was made in the middle of the night next to a big lake where I’ve let my equipment roll for multiple nights. Elephants are often present by and nearby this lake, and this night was no exception. Dramatic trumpeting and growling can be heard in the far right of the recording.

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Quick dispatch from Zimbabwe

I really should be studying. In fact I should be sleeping. Though it is only 21:30 right now, I am waking up at 5am again for the morning game drive, which acts as a practical class in the field. When we return a few hours later, it’s time for breakfast, followed by some time ‘off’ for studying notes and books and excercises. Then follows an hour long lecture on the subject of the day – probably more about trees tomorrow. We’ve done a hell of a lot of tree stuff in this first week during the FGASA field guide course in Zimbabwe.

Stopping for our morning coffee break

After the lecture is over, it should be about lunch time – finish your food, and continue studying for about an hour or three until it is time to get back into the vehicle for the afternoon/evening game drive. Return to camp three hours later, have dinner. It is eight o clock now. Study for another hour, two hours – bed. Alarm goes again at 5am, and the circle continues. No days off – this is the seven day a week schedule for the 55 days of this course.

I really should be studying or sleeping right now.

Practicing some basic car maintenance

 

Last night I got woken up at 2:30 by a lion walking past and roaring about 10 meters from where I sleep. I thought I had been dreaming about lions until I heard him roar again. So I jumped out of bed, scrambled my recording gear together, and stumbled outside to try and record it. Had a chat with the night guard, set up my mics, and tried to go back to sleep – no luck on the sleeping part after this, but I did record the lion when it roared again, though fairly distant, and in tandem with a jackal.

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