Friday 22 February 2013

#004 Super Slow Motion

An now, to quote Monty Python, for something completely different:

A couple of years ago I attended a Wildlife Camera Operator course run by the Wildeye Film School.
On this particular course, one of the instructors (Jonathan 'Jip' Jones - BBC Life In The Undergrowth, Swarm, Nat Geo Great Migrations) brought the new Photron SA1 high speed camera for us to use (under supervision). At the time there were only about three of these £100,000 cameras in existence and just this one was in the UK.

For such an expensive piece of kit, one might have been a little underwhelmed by its appearance. It was a aluminium box with heat dissipating fins on the sides, military style aerospace connectors on the back and a standard lens mount on the front (lens not included in the price).

But the magic lay with the technology and processing power within the unit. Modern cameras of this type can capture events such as the shock wave ripple in air following an explosion and slow the action down so that we can view it.

The other great feature is that it continually records and overwrites data so that if the operator is waiting for an event to occur (eg wildlife cameraman Simon King filming great white sharks 'torpedoing' seals off the coast of South Africa) the save 'record' button is pressed after the action has taken place and the sequence is then stored on hard drive memory. This is something that would have been prohibitively expensive in the days when film stock was needed for recording broadcast quality slow motion footage.

On the course we set up various scenes with jumping frogs and the simplicity of popping water ballons demonstrated the camera's capabilities very well.

Until that is, I somehow became the 'volunteer' stuntman for live water ballon experimentation!!!
The results speak for themselves. Stay with it for the 'out takes' at the end!

Link to You Tube:

Footnote: The Wildeye International Wildlife Film School runs a variety of courses from film research, sound recording and camera work, through to the editing and production process. These highly enjoyable courses give access to information and practical skills which are difficult to acquire elsewhere, making them a fast track to producing your own quality films.

Saturday 16 February 2013

#003 Rwenzori - Mountains Of The Moon

For this week's blog, I invite you to accompany me on a journey to a mountain wilderness of strange plants, endless bogs and equatorial glaciers. Known today as the Rwenzoris and named in antiquity as The Mountains Of The Moon, it is a land of intriguing wonder and fabled legend.

On the western edge of Uganda, bordering the Democratic Republic Of Congo, the saturated jungle scenery for our expedition could have been lifted from the pages of Jospeh Conrad's claustrophobic sojourn into The Heart Of Darkness. However, we took our inspiration from the trail blazing explorers of the Victorian and Edwardian times, literally treading in the foosteps of giants from the golden age of discovery.

As with my last blog, it is a timely posting, as the Rwenzoris featured in the recent BBC documentary 'Africa'. The film shown here was shot on handy cam by expedition member Bruno Baschung. It was originally intended as a personal memoir of the trip. However, when Bruno mentioned he did not have editing software, I offered to take the clips and see what I could do.

The result here is a 2 part mini-feature. So, fire up the JetBoil, fasten your boot laces and enjoy the adventure.

PART 1 (link to You Tube)

PART 2 (link to You Tube)

P.S. Since this film was produced in 2007, there is another excellent option now available starting from Kilembe and run by John Hunwick.

Saturday 9 February 2013

#002 Lion Tracking In Lewa Downs

From the first time, as a young boy, I watched a David Attenborough film of Cheetah chasing Thompson's gazelle in the Serengeti, Africa has captivated my imagination. Several years later I was lucky enough to make my dreams come true on a Tanzanian safari.

At the time, I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, after all safari is not cheap and it took quite a bit of saving up. But as the aircraft turbines roared over Kilimanjaro on the homeward bound flight, I realised a had left a little of my heart swirling in the red dust of East Africa. I knew, somehow, someday, I would...I must, return.

Fast forwards to now; as a Mountain & Expediton Leader and I have lead several expeditions to east and southern Africa, journeyed through wilderness of jaw dropping beauty, climbed amazing peaks and observed wildlife in many game reserves and national parks.

My passion for these special places still burns just as strong as the first time I stood on the edge of Ngorongoro Crater and saw the vision of a real life Eden before me. Many of my friends know of my enthusiasm for the subject, especially when oiled with a single malt (preferably Talisker).

So, with the imminent danger of boring them with another story, I'll share this one with you from 2008. It is very topical as Lewa featured prominently in BBC documentary 'Africa' (with the wonderful David Attenborough) and also included 'Elvis' the black rhino.


I braced myself as our Landcruiser rattled along the serrated track.  Its wheels alternately cutting into the dark volcanic sand then bouncing over consolidated gravel.  A cold draught blew over the plain and gusted through the open sided vehicle.  Shivering, I shrunk deeper into my fleece jacket.

Back in camp, everyone else had forgone the early wake up call and remained tucked under their warm blankets.  Their reticence was entirely forgivable as most of us had competed in the Safaricom marathon the previous day.  It is the only event of its kind held inside a game reserve and this year the start had been delayed by fifteen minutes while rangers ushered a lion away from the course.

During the race, the cool morning was quickly replaced by temperatures so hot that the very air felt like it was on fire.  My early speed was slowly ground down until I was running in battle of attrition.  The Kenyans, naturally, were all miles ahead.  Some had already completed the course in a little over two hours.  For the final six miles I had mostly run alone, a solitary figure in a wilderness paradise.  My legs were shredded, but pride gave me the motivation to turn on the gas, allowing me to claim the distinction of the seventh non-Kenyan to cross the finish line.
I had run the marathon to raise funds for Tusk Trust, a charity which, for the past twenty years, has instigated a quiet revolution in conservation practice.  Tusk’s key thinking is that to achieve effective conservation of wildlife and habitat, one must recruit the support of communities and invest in education.

In partnership with Tusk, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and its outreach programmes have dramatically reduced poaching in a vast area of Northern Kenya.   Rhino numbers have been given a chance to recover and elephant can once again follow their ancient migration routes.  Lewa is also a refuge to the critically endangered Grevy’s zebra.
This was the final morning before returning home and I didn’t want to miss any opportunity to see more wildlife.  Above, a myriad of constellations were ushered away by the first rays of dawn and a warm pink alpenglow touched the frost shattered pinnacles of the mountain guarding the southern horizon.

We approached a white rhino with calf only a few weeks old, gambolling ahead of it’s mother.  William cut the engine, allowing me to capture a few frames in the glorious light conditions.  The only sound was a gentle rustling of tinder dry straw grass serenaded by the cool breeze.  A Pangani Longclaw, conspicuous by its bright orange throat plumage, perched on a nearby branch of whistling thorn.  His speckled chest feathers gently ruffled to retain heat.
The radio cracked into life and William held a brief discussion.  He then turned around to face me.

“Would you like to track some lion?”  he asked.  “There is a ranger not far from here.”

“Yes, absolutely,”  I answered with enthusiasm.

Equipped with radio receiver casually slung by a leather strap over one shoulder and large calibre rifle, just in case, the ranger was waiting patiently for us beside the track, as if time had no relevance.  He wore the khaki uniform of the wildlife conservancy but his tall proud stature and ear lobes stretched into hoops belied his Samburu roots.  He introduced himself as Nyekundu.

“Why ‘red’?”  I asked.

“I was named after a red cow,”  he replied in all seriousness.  Just like the Masai, cattle form an integral part of Samburu culture, indicating wealth and status.

Soon he spotted a clear set of cat prints leading towards a nearby hill.  But, while traversing over the broken, rocky ground we lost them.  So, William drove us to the top where the views were unencumbered with vegetation.  Still finding no sign in the immediate vicinity, Nyekundu switched on the receiver box and held up his aerial.  It looked much like one used with a small television.  An audible blip interrupted the static on his receiver box indicating the direction of our lion. 
We remounted the Landcruiser and headed down onto the rolling plains.  In the lee of the hill, the air was still and hot now that the sun had arced higher into the cobalt blue sky.  I removed my jacket and rolled up my shirt sleeves.  Periodically, Nyekundu stood on the footplate checking his ‘blips’ and from their gestures I guessed he and William were debating the best line of approach. 

There was an abundance of game in the valley where Grevy’s zebra, giraffe and waterbuck all grazed on last of the lush grass, awaiting the return of long rains.  We stopped again but this time I could hear that the signal was weaker. 

“Hold on,”  William said, as he turned the vehicle around and slowly steered across rough scrub towards a thicket of fever trees.  We appeared to be travelling around the perimeter of a near impenetrable mass of vegetation, tangled with thorny acacia.  The aerial was held aloft and we were rewarded by a loud ‘blip’.

“The lion is in that bush,”  Nyekundu quietly informed me.

I strained my eyes but could see only leaves.  William drove around to the opposite side.  Still nothing.  But then as my vision adjusted from the bright sunlight to the recesses of the bush, I saw a brief shake of twigs.  It was a cub!  Then I saw the lobe of a large fawn coloured ear and an unblinking amber eye burned through the shade.  The cat wearing the radio transmitter was a lioness.  She was laying on her belly with huge cupped paws stretched forwards.  We had found her and her young litter, in a place where she would be untroubled by other game during the heat of the day and out of sight of most humans. 

We all sat contentedly watching the cubs play.  Photography was pointless, the lair was too well obscured for any shots to be worthwhile. This did not matter.  The enjoyment was in seeing the results of Nyekundu and Williams’ field craft.  They had combined traditional tracking skills with contemporary technology in a way that was both immeasurably enjoyable and informative. 

William was back on the radio.  “The camp manager is worried you’ll miss breakfast.”

“Let’s stay for just a few more minutes,”  I grinned.  “I can do breakfast any day of the week.”
Footnote: Sadly, since originally writing this piece in 2008; across the continent Rhino are once again under unprecedented threat from poaching, with an average loss of one rhino per day. A statistic which I find utterly shattering. If you are able, please give what support you can, even if it is to spread the word, about the essential work done by Tusk Trust in ensuring that Africa's wildlife is still here for all our tomorrows.



#001 New blogs from Stu Westfield at Ranger Expeditions.

Having read many entertaining and inspiring blogs by fellow outdoor professionals and adventure racers, I thought I would have a go at blogging myself.
With plenty of stories to share from places far afield and in the UK, I'm sure there will be something here for all people who yearn for the wild places and the spirit of adventure.
I also intend to offer the occasional blog on mountain skills, navigation techniques and topics related to safe enjoyment of the UK hills.
As the founder of Ranger Expeditions, I hope you will be inspired to join us on one of a courses, developing your skills and confidence to go forwards with your own journeys of exploration
There's a world of opportunties out there, starting on your door step and goes, well,  just about as far as your highest aspirations.