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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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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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Black Rhino quietly moving through the bush

We have all heard the dire stats around rhino, but for the sake of making a point, let me just repeat here that in the case of the black rhino there are currently roughly 4900 left in the wild, and at the current rate of poaching they will be extinct by about 2020. To complicate matters, black rhino are notoriously aggressive, in particular a mother protecting her child, and allegedly about 50% of rhino deaths are due to them fighting amongst each other. Not very helpful, everything considered!

The Zimbabwean reserve where I have been staying now for the last two months whilst following the FGASA field guide training, have a  number of black rhino within the boundaries of their fence, which exists for the sole reason of protecting the rhino. No one here likes having a fence around a natural reserve, but there is sadly no choice if you are going to have rhino as a resident species. Besides the fence, other protective measures include 24/7 patrolling of the fence by multiple anti poaching units armed to the teeth, and sawing off rhino horns to make them less attractive to poachers. Removing their horns is yet another necessary evil that no one here is pleased with, but better to have a live than dead rhino with a stump for a horn.

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A feeding herd of buffalo, and a lone old bull wallowing in the mud

One of the most pleasant sounds to fall asleep to is likely the calm, docile atmosphere of a herd of buffalo feeding on grass. They peacefully shuffle across the field, heads down in an almost non stop chewing motion, occasionally grunting and mooing at each other when visibility in the bush is too dense to keep contact by eyesight. Big, deep sniffs and exhales give a sense of the size of each individual animal, and convey the apparent pleasure that is had during the feeding bonanza. Buffalo herds tend to move around their homerange in circles, depending of the size of the habitat, feeding most of the time and stopping about twice a day to lie down for a session of ruminating and sleeping. As ruminants, buffalo burp, and not fart – for the best fart sounds in the bush, you will never be let down by the elephants.

The recording above is a compilation of a feeding herd of buffalo slowly making its way to and past the mics. As the entire duration of them approaching and passing my equipment lasted over thirty minutes, I have compiled some snippets to give a general overview of the event.

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Hippo guffawing and chomping grass

Hippo – they’re big, fat, kind of funny, and of course incredibly dangerous. A well know fact is that they are responsible for the most human deaths by a mammal within Africa. Being herbivores feeding on a diet of grass, that says a lot about how moody they are. Hippo’s have been observed chasing predators such as lion away from a fresh kill of a hapless antelope, for no apparent reason other than the hippo simply taking offense with the big pussycats chewing on the flesh of other species.

The above compilation was recorded during a single recording session lasting from dusk till dawn, with the mics set up next to a big lake within Stanley & Livingstone private game reserve (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe). While I’ve recorded a few more nights at this location, never were the hippo’s as vocal as during this particular night.

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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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Sound recording in Africa – the plan & preparations

Tomorrow my plane leaves for Zimbabwe. I’ve planned a 4 months trip through southern Africa, with the aim of recording wildlife and nature sounds. Besides Zimbabwe, I’ll visit Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, and I literally want to record anything I can – I have no specific goal to record a type of species or sound, and neither do I have a particular end product in mind. It’s simply about the joy of recording, and hopefully finding places that aren’t as infested by manmade noise as Western Europe is. As you can imagine though, there are a number of potential problems and pitfalls that I’ve tried to address before setting off, in order to get an as good result as I possibly can.

 

Problem 1 – The best nature and wildlife sound recording happens when you understand your environment

I have never been to Africa, and I know nothing about the habitats and wildlife of the countries and natural parks I am visiting. I have seen nature documentaries, but that is about the extent of my ‘knowledge’. I could go and plant my mics and see what happens, but I want to take it beyond that and try to have a better understanding of what I am recording, and how to record it.

For that reason, my time in Zimbabwe will be spent taking a 55 days professional safari guide course. This is a very intensive, 7 days a week training program, after which you get the opportunity to try and pass an exam. If you pass, you are awarded a Level 1 Field Guide certificate, accredited by the Field Guide Association of Southern Africa (FGASA). In other words, you can then work as a junior safari guide. Have a look here for the full overview of what is being taught in this 2 months course.

I have no intention to change my career to become a safari guide, but I am very interested in the knowledge taught at this course. It includes subjects such as animal behaviour, ecology, geology, plants and grasses, weather and climate, astronomy – it’s incredibly diverse as it’s intended to steamroll you into having general knowledge about the environment and the wildlife of southern African countries. We’ll spend multiple hours in the bush every day, both on foot and in a vehicle, setting off twice a day, just before dawn and a few hours before dusk, with theory classes taught back at the camp as well.

While I will not be Mr Super Survival Man & The Ultimate Field Guide Expert after a mere two months of intense training, it should hugely increase my knowledge about the places that I am visiting after the course. With a bit of luck, I can also get some sound recording in while there.

 

This photo was taken at the Nakavango centre in Zimbabwe, where the field guide course takes place
Image credit Nakavango Conservation Centre

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