When I saw WildEarth’s Kickstarter reward offered for a contribution to their new “Dive Live” project, I jumped on it. Though online only a few hours, seven of the eight spots were already gone! Who wouldn’t want to visit your heroes, live in the African bush and maybe even make a small contribution to wildlife preservation (aquatic & terrestrial)? It was described as a 10-day “work/visit” at the Djuma Research Camp (DRC), so a form of “voluntourism”. It was just meals, a room, observing in the Final Control (FC), doing a blog, and a few short drives between live shows. But about a week before I arrived they added live drives/bush walks, vids & pics, and other things for the interweb (that’s grandpa-speak). I warned them I knew little of the bushveld, blogging or internet broadcasting. They didn’t revoke the offer!
It also seems I’m the first to do this, so kind of an experiment. My hope is to represent my fellow chatters on YouTube (where I’m known as “R Beard”), pave the way for the other voluntourist who’ll follow me, and at least carry my own weight while here. Here’s my account of this amazing adventure:
DAY 1 – Watching the Sunset Drive in FC
I’m met warmly and showered with welcomes and warnings about keeping alert, carrying a torch at night, etc. Remembering Ben Franklin’s truism that “fish and visitors begin to stink after three days”, I try to alter that equation with gifts of “apple juice” & snacks. After a quick camp tour and stowing my gear in my room, I’m in FC watching the sunset drive: Kirsty is directing, Jenna is the D2 (assistant director – cues viewer questions to be sent to the guides), Gerry is the producer and Conrad is the tech specialist. This process is much more complicated than I had imagined, partially because many users want wildlife clips. Conrad, when not working issues, takes me under his wing. Kirsty, Gerry and Jenna explain things when they are able, as they are working non-stop. It turns out that creating a safariLIVE show is safariHARD!
I’m asked to help field viewer questions and set up on one of their network computers. I say I could only handle YouTube, as I’m familiar with it. (I even recognize many of the chatters!) However, my slow pace cannot match Jenna when she’s “in the zone”, and my picks are mostly redundant. The more tech savvy may actually be a help to the team, but we decide I should just chat as a viewer, occasionally passing along the odd question the team might miss. This works much better. For a few days the other chatters don’t know I’m here. When they are finally told, I’m careful not to drive the chat “off topic”.
On that subject: The SL crew could not say enough good things about KarenVA, and her team of Mods (& Zoomies). Everything Karen told us was 100% true! The D2 position has their thumbs in about five or six pies. If you wander off topic, fail to use “@FC”, engage in negativity or battle the trolls, your questions are unlikely to be seen. And I don’t mean they’re ignored. I mean literally not seen at all! They’ll fly right by both directors. Occasionally viewer comments lacking @FC are submitted, but those too are seen more easily if the chat stays focused. BTW – I say this as one who has violated all four of those guidelines repeatedly. (Even been put in a timeout a time or two!)
DAY 2 – Sunrise Drive in FC, Onboard a vehicle during the Sunset Drive
The night sounds & nervous anticipation interrupt my sleep, but sunrise drive in FC is great. For the sunset drive I’m on a vehicle with James guiding and Dave on camera. We haven’t even moved and a bull elephant walks by just beyond the main entrance. I pat James on the shoulder and say: “You ARE good!” He chuckles and I think to myself: “This is going to be a fun drive.” Soon we encounter necking male giraffes, then Hosana sleeping in a ravine. Later, an amazing view of elephants drinking at a pan just before sunset. Then back to Hosana, who climbs a tree and gnaws on a kill. I’m able to use my budget IR and FLIR spotters, both of which can make low-resolution vids. In between live shots, Dave and James explain their processes. My main impression is that of teams of professionals working seamlessly. Even the hiccups are handled with aplomb. FC helps coordinate the field crews and weaves together a story that’s technically & logistically challenging, but the end result leans toward the artistic.
DAY 3 – Sunrise Drive in FC, Bush walk with “Eagle Eyes” Herbie
Sunrise drive with Emma as D2, Faith as D1. What a team! Still busy as bees. Afterwards, I’m sent on a one-on-one (not filmed) bush walk with Herbeth Khoza, dubbed “Tracking 101”. We come across a confusing mass of lion tracks mixed with buffalo scat & tracks going in opposite directions at once. Herbie reads the scene as if telling a story: lions chased the buffalo, who run for a bit, but then turn and chase the lions. The buffalo poop as they are being chased (who wouldn’t?), and even that tells a tale: it elongates as it lands, showing speed & direction. The trampled grass also speaks. The role of pursued and pursuer changes several times, alternating between predator and prey. Buffalo, especially a large herd, will fight back.
Later we find the Nkuhuma pride of lions, and Herbie does a fist pump, exclaiming: “This is what I do!” We climb a large termite mound for a good view. A game counting helicopter (a necessary endeavor) spooks them, so we cannot approach closer. We head in a different direction. However, the helicopter now moves low over a large herd of buffalo down our new path, causing a stampede. It’s like an Old West movie with a wave of them cresting a small hill. We’re quite far away, but Herbie has us retreat back to the termite mound as a safety measure. (Seems logical to me!) Later, there’s brief glimpse of Tingana, who disappears in a ravine. Herbie says we’re being watched as we walk to the DRC. Later in camp, I get a quick view of Hosana, not far from my room.
Day 4 – Sunrise Drive in FC, the tent, onboard Sunset Drive
Once again I’m watching the amazing coordination required by the FC team. Later, James lets me observe as he does video voice-overs in the tent, as well as live, unscheduled nest-cam sighting narrations. I go with Tristan and Dave on the sunset drive and have a marvelous close encounter with elephants, then later on with Thandi.
Day 5 – Sunrise Drive “bush walk”, Sunset Drive in FC
I walk about 5k with Sydney as guide, Dave on camera and Herbie as tracker/guard. Poop sightings X 3, a ginormous lion hairball, rhino tracks, bush lore and other things. We nearly find a leopard but a lodge vehicle gets there first. They will not go on foot to a vehicle sighting, as it stresses the animal. The coordination by all three team members while tracking is remarkable.
Day 6 – Sunrise Drive at FC, Sunset Drive in vehicle
With James and Senzo for sunset drive: elephants close up, lapwing chicks, and a great view of Hosana perched in the open atop a termite mound, practicing looking regal.
Day 7 – both drives in FC, plus Hosana in camp!
During the sunrise drive, Hosana walks right through our camp. Sometimes you go to the bush. Sometimes the bush comes to you! I watch it on SL just like the viewers do, as going outside is considered unwise (or just plain nuts!).
Day 8 – Watch both drives in FC
Work on my blog, including sorting pics & vids they might use.
Day 9 – morning bush walk (Sunrise Drive)
I’m with Stef, Herbie and Dave. We follow Thandi’s tracks, Stef gets a glimpse, but we lose her.
On the way back to camp, Herbie finds tracks of Thandi & cub, who’ve managed to out-fox us and slip away behind were we had just walked. (The look on Herbie’s face was priceless!) They elect to let Thandi have her victory and not stress her any further. [Day 10 – finish my blog!]
I came here believing that what we witness on screen could not be possible without a dedicated behind-the-scenes team of professionals possessing considerable technical and artistic skills. I was right about that. What surprised me is that what they do is even more complicated than I had imagined. They work very, very hard, even during the “off” hours. Gerry, the producer during my stay, is a good example. She seems to have a part in nearly everything that goes on here (applies to Kirsty too). Even after ten days I’m learning new things about their jobs. The same is true of everyone at safariLIVE.
One of my main goals was to describe the role of the support folks, but words have failed me. There’s just so much going on here! I’ve discussed this with Conrad and discovered, interestingly, that he had a similar awakening when he first arrived at SL. By design, it’s supposed to look easy on-screen. But in fact, safariLIVE truly is safariHard. (Really!) We viewers can do our part by supporting them. I hope I’ve done at least that much during my stay.
***Postscript: Disregard all above! The REAL secret to safariLIVE is Amanda and Happiness the team of miracle workers in their tiny kitchen. Morale & proper nutrition is critical in remote operations, and their food is tops! The SL folks gave me a nice send-off meal on my last night, including a delicious “pudding” (dessert) Happiness had whipped up.
That’s when it all became clear to me!