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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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Baboons, the gangsters of the bush

I love baboons, but most locals here would disagree with this sentiment. Baboons are so ubiquitous that they are met with a sense of resentment, not least because they roam the streets of towns and villages, raiding every house and building that has left its doors or windows open. A baboon troop visiting your home or kitchen would certainly not be an event that causes warm feelings to bubble up within you for this species, as they will thank you for your unintended hospitality by absolutely thrashing your place.

But I have no house here and watching them in the wild is always a guaranteed moment of entertainment. People get excited about the big cats, but all I have seen them do is lie flat on their bellies – the baboons however are jumping around, playing, arguing, posing, barking, pretending and everything else that you would expect from a bunch of monkeys.

 

And for a sound recordist, they are delightfully vocal. I had set up my mics for a few nights underneath and nearby a group of ana trees, favourited by the baboons to roost in at night for the shape of their branches. Their defensive strategy at night consists of the small and young ones to stay on the far sides of the tree branches, the bigger ones more central. If their arch enemy the leopard decides to climb up the tree to try and have a snack, it will first have to pass the big boys guarding the centre. Baboons have vicious canines the size of a lion’s, and have been known to kill a leopard in a mobbing attack.

The hyena is no natural predator of the baboon for it climbs no trees, but the above recording could be interpreted as the baboons taking a respectful silence as soon as the lonely hyena to the left of the channel starts whooping in search for its family members.

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