by Roger Short, Producer, BBC Radio 3
Yes indeed, as Andy Kershaw tells us on his promo video, filmed recently in Papua New Guinea, he and Lucy Duran are currently travelling the globe for a new eight-part series of world music programmes. Music Planet will be a companion series for BBC One’s major new natural history project Human Planet, presenting the music of some of the cultures featured in the TV series.
As I write, Andy is on his way to Thailand, there to join producer James Parkin and engineer James Birtwistle for a trip that includes Laos and Burma; tomorrow Lucy Duran and I, with engineer Martin Appleby, head off on a rather shorter haul to Galicia in northern Spain – this is for a feature on how the local traditions are influenced by music from across the sea (and did you know there was a mass migration of Britons buying villas in northern Spain in the sixth century, bringing Celtic culture to that part of the world?).
Just as Human Planet shows how people relate to their landscape and environment, in Music Planet, we’re showing how all this is reflected in the local music. So far Lucy has visited Madagascar, Kenya, Greenland and Mali, and Andy has been to the Solomon Islands as well as Papua New Guinea. There’s plenty more before the series broadcasts early next year. If you’re interested, we’ll let you know how we get on…
by Robin Cox, Human Planet Cameraman
Mamadou is our “David”. He’s only sixteen, with a small but strong frame, delicate features and a gentle demeanour. He is perfect for the role. Our Goliath is an elephant, a bull, one of a herd of desert elephants that share with Mamadou the watering hole of Banzena on which they both depend for survival in Mali’s arid Sahel desert. His arsenal is just a small handful of sticks.
A year ago Mamadou met his Goliath in a pitched battle on the shore of the lake. Having been without water for two days, his herd of fifty cows were gagging for a drink but the elephants had got there first, and they were not going to move aside. What followed in the moments afterwards we fortuitously captured on film. It was not the story we planned for the shoot, but it was perfect. Immediately after the battle was won, Mamadou and his cattle had drunk their fill and man and cows vanished back into the Sahel. Unbeknown to him, our “David” had been cast, and a mission had begun to seek him out and film more of his story. A search was launched across the many small nomadic settlements scattered over miles and miles of desert. A photo of our wanted man was presented at each stop and finally, after three days, he was found. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, he was terrified, and he went into hiding for fear that he might be in trouble for his stick missile attack on the elephants. He was soon found again, reassured and eventually talked into letting us tell his tale.
I am here in Mali a year later to finish the sequence. Not present on the original shoot, I am introduced to Mamadou. Like many we have left behind around the world, he has become pretty well versed in the techniques of film making and now, having been able to see the previous year’s results, he is beginning to comprehend what on earth it is that we are trying to achieve. He knows that when I (the cameraman) say “speed” and the director says “action” it means that he should be doing something. Whether or not we have succeeded in conveying adequately what that something should be is another matter! Most of all he knows that hearing the phrase “just one last time” means it will probably not be the last time and it will most likely be ages before we are happy with the shot.
Generally we communicate without words and I act things out or use crude signs… faster, slower, closer, quieter, gentler. It’s a source of constant amusement for all. Much of the communication between us is by facial expression alone. Amusement, bemusement, anger, frustration, exhaustion and a myriad of other feelings are almost always clear to see in each others faces, with no need for translation. These things are universal. With these aids and cheeky smiles, we’ve got to know each other, and had some fun in the searing heat, sandstorms and mud.
Mamadou is in many ways as civilised a young man as you are likely to meet, gracious, kind, and intelligent. He carries himself with dignity despite a life spent in the desert living a nomadic herder’s life which I can only really describe as “old testament”. However he is wholly uneducated, quite unwashed and crudely dressed. Despite all this he is just as much a modern man as any one pacing the streets of London – just without all the gab, garments and gadgets.
On many occasions I have had the notion that I recognise something peculiarly familiar in a person, a characteristic, an inflection in the voice, sometimes combined with a facial expression, and it is like déjà vu. Today I realised that Mamadou is reminding me of someone. As he’s the only African cattle herder I know it’s not somebody just like him, but it is somebody just like him. There’s a theory, so I was once told, that there are only twelve (or was it twenty?) character types in the world. It’s rather simplifying things I know, and I don’t think anyone has ever successfully catalogued them, but my experiences this year of meeting so many far flung strangers have often borne it out. And Mamadou is reminding me of someone.
This sort of thing happens a lot, yesterday for example…. We’re out in the desert looking for lake-bound elephants when Meddi, our local Mali elephant expert, speaks to us through the door of the car. His gun is slung over his shoulder, he’s wearing a long cotton gown and a blue turban, his skin is dark, coarse and leathery from the relentless sun, he looks, and is, utterly exotic. As I listen to the conversation, ears half closed and not understanding hardly a word, I suddenly realise he reminds me so much of an old acquaintance from London, a Glaswegian red-headed accountant. I recognise him absolutely as being just like him, both the same type, and suddenly I know him so much better. Of course, the appearance of the two men could not be more different, but they share the same somewhat glazed look in their eyes, they have the same uncertain smile and both speak with a soft but deliberate tone. Their physiques are even alike, as though their flesh has grown upon their character, they are both lean and stringy. In so many ways they could be brothers.
This phenomenon has happened many times in the past few years with Human Planet and other projects. I have met a Nepalese porter who is just like my Wiltshire builder, hunted whales in Indonesia with a man much like my uncle Malcolm, met a tribal wife in India who reminds me of a nun from my convent school days and fixed fog nets with a Chilean man who reminds me of Pavarotti! I’ve begun to seek out the likenesses. First I recognise something familiar, sometimes instantly, sometimes gradually, then I rifle through the people I know, and have known and try to find the link. With no visual reference I hold up their characteristics in my mind like a photo, seeking out the person in my nomadic life who I know is just like them, though sometimes they fail to come to mind, like a forgotten tune. I am still working on Mamadou, but I know I know someone else just like him and I’m sure he won’t be a cattle herder.
by Toby Strong, Freelance Cameraman with Deserts/Grasslands Team
Mongolians, Bushmen, Dorobo and Tubu.
Minus fifty degrees to plus fifty degrees.
Hunters, dancers, herders and traders.
Helicopters, hot air balloons, horses and dug outs.
The last couple of years have given me a breadth and depth of experience that as a young boy I couldn’t have dreamed of.
Thanks to the faith of the grasslands and deserts team I have hunted kudu in the Kalahari; soared over camel trains crossing the Sahara; run on foot towards feeding lions; chased wolves on camel back and caught snakes in a canoe. I’ve danced through the night with the Wodaabe, followed a bird to raid a honey comb and rounded up 2,000 cattle by chopper.
To film all this all this I’ve had toys, lots of toys! (of the highly technical variety)…
Macro lenses, long lenses, time lapse, underwater cameras, infra-red cameras, cameras in helicopters, cameras on rafts, cameras on quad bike, horse back and camel back. Cranes, tracks, jibs, steadicams and hot air balloons.
I’ve travelled to some of the most remote corners of the planet and returned with amazing memories and a few exotic diseases. We managed to knock down a teensy weensy part of a sixth century fort, discovered a carpet viper up my shorts, crashed our balloon and got chased out a hide by a leopard.
Compared to some of the Human Planet shoots, a walk in the park.
So what will I take away from filming on this unique series? Apart from the obvious amazing experiences it will be the shared sense of trying to do something very special with the incredible Human Planet team.
While every tribe I’ve worked with has their own unique and special way of life , I have found two common links between everyone - humour and kindness.
I feel humbled and honoured to have worked on this series and with such wonderful people.
Dale Templar, Series Producer
What Toby is talking about here is common humanity. While making this series we have tried to celebrate the similarities and differences in all of us and I really hope this is played out when people watch the series.
by Robin Cox, freelance cameraman, Human Planet
Snow covered our footsteps as we retreated from Pidmo. It had been snowing on and off for a week, the flat roofs of every mud brick house were thick with it and the residents acknowledged our departure as they shovelled their rooftops.
Three days earlier we had advanced downstream on the frozen Zanskar river from Zangla, a mere 8.5km, with the intention that we would progress further the next day to begin our filming. The Chadar, or “sheet” as the iced river is known in winter, had proved to be in poor shape that day. Sections of solid ice gave way frequently to slushy margins and became impassable so we had to resort to the river banks, ploughing through waist deep snow. It was exhausting in the extreme, no step ever finding a sound footing. Two of our heavily laden porters had been ekeing out every bit of open ice when they overwhelmed the thin crust and crashed through. Climbing out, soaked to the skin, they marched on before they froze. No surprise then, that on our arrival at Pidmo morale was low.
The week’s snow had wrecked the length of the Chadar, a hundred avalanches had swooped down onto the ice, puncturing the river’s skin and damming its flow. The pressure then built beneath the surface of the ice and blew huge holes in the ice sheet, as though a giant’s fist had struck it. Water had flooded over the ice, flushing loose shards down stream till they piled up like flotsam against the snowy dam. Some less fortunate than us had been walking on the river when the avalanches occurred. One man, a worker building a new road in the valley, was trapped under an avalanche and sadly perished; others had been forced to wade up to their waists through the icy flood waters to reach safety.
Our mission was to film eleven children and seven fathers as they walked the six day trek along the frozen river from Zangla, a 4000m high mountain village in the Zanskar region of the Tibetan Plateau. Their destination the town of Leh, where the children were being returning to school after the winter holiday. This yearly pilgrimage is routine for the people of the area. The Chadar forms a seasonal highway through stunning gorges, allowing relatively easy access out of the mountains, impossible by road during the winter months when the mountain passes are closed by snow. It is usually traversed without great difficulty and we ourselves had walked upstream on smooth firm ice just a week before with smiles on our faces. The river had been alive with local people marching in both directions, carrying goods of all kinds.
We had been told that in living memory there had been no deaths in avalanches and only two deaths due to drowning when the ice had given way in the spring. We had felt confident that our return trip would be just as easy. To be extra cautious we had left an extra week to make it down the river well before the end of February when traditionally the ice begins to melt and the Chadar becomes perilous. This year the un-seasonal snow had changed everything, and it began to seem as if our film was ill-fated.
Now we found ourselves in retreat – a great caravan of fifty porters carrying our 600Kg of film kit, camping gear and supplies. Days earlier when we started optimistically from Zangla, we had begun to hear the bad news… ‘the worst Chadar I have ever seen’ said one local when we arrived in Pidmo and dissent began to spread through our porters. A meeting was held with the fathers and guides while the porters had their own out in the snow, a shop stewards meeting of a kind. The consensus was not good, nobody was willing to go further so a retreat back to Zangla was the only option.
The river was torturously hard going so we walked on the road, relentlessly trudging in deep snow, navigating a path by telegraph poles, a beaten army returning from battle. The 8.5km took an aching six and a half hours; it was last light as we clawed our way into Zangla and back up the steps of Stanzin’s house, one of the fathers with whom we were staying. We collapsed - the altitude and snow had pushed us to the extreme. Too breathless to talk, David the director asked me to phone the producer, Mark Flowers, back in the UK to let him know of our retreat. Over the next 24 hours a plan to evacuate by helicopter formed and we contemplated abandoning the film.
There was only one chance to save the situation. The fathers told us that given a good spell of clear cold weather, just maybe the ice would heal and we could try again. We decided to sit it out. Next morning the sun shone in a deep blue sky. Hopes were raised and rescue postponed. One clear day followed another as we eagerly awaited news of an arrival from downriver that would signify it was once more passable. We played ball with Stanzin’s daughter and son, Dolkar and Chosing, on the rooftop whilst our guides kept an eye on the distant river. We washed our stinking thermals and waited… but no-one came.
Fears grew that the Chadar was finished for the year. We were washed around in a sea of consternation, trying to find a way to rescue the film before we were evacuated. Finally we formed a plan: we would film with just Stanzin and his two children walking as far as they could before being forced to turn back by the obstacle that lay somewhere downstream… at least we would have something to show for our toil. So three days after returning beaten to Zangla we set out once more for the river. We followed the trail of a snow-plough clearing the route to the road builders’ camp to bring home the dead worker’s body. Like a funeral procession, we followed the rattling machine to the ramshackle camp; the atmosphere in the camp was sobering. The porters again began to lose heart and more negotiations followed. Having successfully talked them round, we set out early the next morning.
It was icy cold, -30C, a bitter but sweet climate in light of our prayers for the Chadar to be safe. We clambered over the avalanches in silence, spread out to minimise risk, and advancing as fast as we could to get past the east facing slopes before the heat of the rising sun caused further falls. By lunchtime we had arrived safely back on the frozen river. The section we found ourselves on seemed solid enough, but as we ventured downstream the havoc the avalanches had wrought on the river became obvious, and there were still monumental obstacles out of sight for still no-one appeared from downstream. We filmed for two days, making the most of the weather until we reached a pool of open water only negotiable by means of clambering over a narrow rocky ledge. What seemed impossible for us to negotiate, seemed a breeze for the kids, but we felt we could go not go further with our equipment and returned to camp for the night. It seemed our story was over, all that remained to do were a few shots the following morning and then we would retreat to await the airlift. We had done our best in the circumstances.
I awoke the next morning to the familiar sleeping bag, iced by my night’s breath. There was much chatter in the camp and the chef was singing and shouting, which was not unusual, but there was a good vibe in the air. We gradually surfaced, squeezing into our rock hard boots and many thermal layers. Nick, the sound recordist, (always first into the mess tent for hot tea with chef) was greeted by good news. Max, David and I joined him and heard it too. That morning, at the crack of dawn, two men had arrived from down river, they had made it, the ice was apparently back, rough in places but sound and passable… suddenly our story was saved. Later that morning, twenty-one days after leaving Leh, we began to walk the Chadar to school with Dolkar, Chosing and Stanzin and the real film began. I have never known such a roller coaster of a shoot, or ever been away so long and achieved so little with the very real prospect of coming home empty handed.
We reached the school in Leh on the last day of the holidays and proudly sent Dolkar in her crisp new uniform with her brother through the school gates to begin their new term. Mission complete, we headed for the comfort of a hotel. Father Stanzin turned on his heel to start the return trip back to Zangla. He was only halfway through his journey, but as usual he took it in his stride.
by Renee Godfrey, Researcher, Rivers/Urban team
As an anthropologist, most of my television work has been with remote indigenous communities rather than filming with or looking at wildlife. This is where the Human Planet series has stretched my experiences hugely. When I found out about the Samburu story and their relationship with elephants, it seemed a dream come true– the Samburu, one of Kenya’s most traditional and colourful tribal groups; and elephants –one of the world’s most majestic and beautiful animals.
The Human Planet team often find ourselves wide eyed while filming on location, but the Samburu shoot in one of the least accessible parts of an inaccessible region in northern Kenya was an assault on all the senses. We had the usual logistical fun and games of getting a crew and kit to a remote corner of the world and setting up camp but this shoot also presented new challenges. The elephants in the area are at their most active in the riverbed at night time – so, without waving spotlights around like an intimidating laser show, how do we film them in the dark? The answer was an image intensifier camera, a sky brimming with stars, and the light of a full heavy moon. Problem one solved.
The Samburu District covers just over 20,000 square kms. There are no real roads, just miles of raw, unexplored Africa. Transport is by foot, camel or, where sandy soils allow and you can get enough fuel, 4X4. It is Samburu tribal land, no fences, no private game reserves, few if any tourists – man and beast are wonderfully free to roam wherever and whenever they wish.
Thankfully we had the help of the Milgis Trust and their local scouts who sustain and protect the wildlife in the area. Out on foot patrol on the silver sand of the Milgis River bed, the scouts track elephants – reading the landscape for a snapped twig or fresh dung which give clues to when elephants have passed and where they might be headed next. Using these skills, the Milgis scouts are able to map out with amazing precision where we will get our best chances of being in the right spot at the right time to film the elephants.
As soon as the sun sets, hush is enforced. Sitting for eight hours in a hide under the cover of moonlit acacia branches has to be a still and quiet time. Any break in the silence, any sudden movement and the elephants you hope and pray are heading your way, may hear and run, for fear there might be men with guns as opposed to men with camera lenses.
So we sit and wait downwind in our hide, in the black of the night, listening for breaking branches as elephants walk through the bush or the padding of big feet on sand. The riverbed below is an opera stage and we sit above in the Gods, waiting for the performance to begin. The moon aches with light as it casts shadows that play tricks on your eyes. Suddenly and silently, from nowhere, a herd of 18 elephants arrive on stage; babies, mothers, brothers all dance under the moonlight. White faces and whiter teeth smile, and we try to breathe and blink as quietly as we can. Mark Deeble, the cameraman, changes lenses on the camera as if carrying out a Tai Chi routine – every move thought through and with slow, silent grace so as to keep the elephants unaware of our existence.
The elephants move underneath us, babies playing with each other and running around gangly legged and trunked, trying to copy the behaviour of their elegant peers. We are captivated, camera rolling. Trunks touch trunks and tusks gleam brilliantly, irridescent under Nature’s spotlight, until the sound of a distant trumpeting call from deep within the bush breaks the silence and lifts every hair on my body. Another herd are on their way – tonight’s performance is far from coming to an end.
Unexpectedly the evening breeze drops and a light wind blows from our hide down into the riverbed. Within seconds, the herd of elephants below us run off in total silence, back into the acacias. The wind picks up and we realise our human scent will now be drifting up the riverbed and the wise elephants will be heading far away from us. Exhausted but invigorated by what we have just witnessed, it’s time for bed on our mattresses under the blanket of stars. If the wind changes they could come back – this time the elephants would be the ones aware of our existence… while we dream and snore the rest of the night away.For beautiful pictures of elephants by night, you’ll have to watch the programme!