Close en­coun­ters of the ex­treme wildlife kind

TANYA WATERWORTH talks to an SA film-maker about his ad­ven­tures and nar­row es­capes across Africa

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS -

FROM mas­sive crocs in the mud to lo­custs swarm­ing in the Sa­hara to swim­ming with great white sharks, that’s the stuff of dreams for Dur­ban film-maker Graeme Duane, who pushes wildlife doc­u­men­taries to the edge in the hunt for mind-blow­ing footage.

Duane, who was con­tracted to Na­tional Ge­o­graphic for eight years and has worked on more than 50 films for the com­pany, is now cre­ative direc­tor for in­ter­na­tional film com­pany Earth Touch in Dur­ban.

He will give a talk ti­tled “Seven Lessons From The Wild” at Croc World Con­ser­va­tion Cen­tre on the KZN South Coast on Au­gust 13.

Af­ter leav­ing the Dur­ban Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in the 1990s, Duane started shoot­ing news in Lon­don.

But the cold, wet UK win­ters soon had him head­ing back to Africa, where he started to break the bound­aries of tra­di­tional wildlife doc­u­men­taries by free­d­iv­ing with great white sharks.

Soon af­ter, he was ex­clu­sively con­tracted to Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, where he pro­duced footage from across the con­ti­nent, en­joy­ing many ad­ven­tures along the way.

One of the more hair-rais­ing was get­ting stuck in a flare-up in Bu­rundi dur­ing the war there.

“We had a 200-strong army es­cort, but there were four rebel groups want­ing to at­tack the army. We got stuck in a gun­fight for a cou­ple of hours and had to hide un­der beds dur­ing a mor­tar at­tack, although I never felt per­son­ally threat­ened. The goal was to come back with a film,” he said.

And while find­ing your­self in the mid­dle of a civil war may be slightly hair­rais­ing, scuba div­ing with Nile croc­o­diles surely re­quires nerves of steel.

A pioneer in un­der­wa­ter film­ing of the huge croc­o­diles, Duane said in his role as cre­ative direc­tor at Earth Touch he pitched the idea of film­ing the croc­o­diles in the Oka­vango, which was quickly snapped up by the mag­a­zine.

His quiet man­ner hints at the pa­tience and per­se­ver­ance needed to ob­tain un­for­get­table footage in an en­vi­ron­ment where any­thing can hap­pen.

“It is nerve-wrack­ing, although you only dive un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, such as in win­ter when the wa­ter is re­ally cold. When the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture drops, the al­gae dies off and vis­i­bil­ity is bet­ter. The crocs don’t eat as much and due to the colder wa­ter, are more switched off than nor­mal,” he said.

And there are ground rules, such as never spend­ing time on the sur­face and drop­ping straight to the bot­tom when get­ting into the wa­ter, as splash­ing around can trig­ger a re­sponse from a croc­o­dile.

“The rules of en­gage­ment are dif­fer­ent with a scuba tank on. The crocs don’t know what you are, although they are not used to re­treat­ing and will watch you.

“If you dive late in the year when breed­ing sea­son has started, the males want you to get out of their ter­ri­tory and get a bit pushy.”

He is also fas­ci­nated with snakes and has shot a se­ries on black mam­bas filmed along the KwaZulu-Natal coast.

Much of his shark footage was filmed along the South African coast­line.

He has also done work in Botswana, Kenya and Tan­za­nia with the fo­cus on the top preda­tors, as they are most in de­mand for wildlife doc­u­men­taries.

“I think one of the lessons is that we need to give wild an­i­mals more credit than we do. They are a lot more cog­nisant and in­tel­li­gent than we think. When we are do­ing a film, each an­i­mal is unique and we get to know their char­ac­ters a bit more.”

What are the most mem­o­rable mo­ments be­hind the cam­eras?

“Swim­ming next to a 4m croc and it be­ing happy with that was pretty mind­blow­ing.

“I also got a ride by hold­ing on to the dor­sal fin of a great white which just dragged me along. Also be­ing up a tree with six black mam­bas all night. They were all shacked up in a hol­low, it was pretty amaz­ing.

“But you do have to be care­ful,” he warned.

Stun­ning pho­to­graphs line the walls at Earth Touch’s of­fices on uMh­langa Ridge. There is a shelf full of awards, in­clud­ing an Emmy for out­stand­ing cin­e­matog­ra­phy of the great mi­gra­tion in east Africa for Na­tional Ge­o­graphic.

Duane said the de­mand for mid-bud­get tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries had in­creased and over­seas pro­duc­ers were al­ways look­ing for new ma­te­rial.

“Four months of shoot­ing, which makes up hun­dreds of hours of footage, will give you a 44-minute doc­u­men­tary, de­pend­ing on the sub­ject.”

On one such shoot, he had to push his cam­era into the mouth of an on­com­ing shark but, as he said: “If you do things cor­rectly, you can have amaz­ing en­coun­ters.

“There’s noth­ing quite like a 5m shark swim­ming di­rectly to­wards you.”

Film­ing a croc­o­dile in the Oka­vango Delta.

Star­ing into the jaws of a great white shark.

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