Close encounters of the extreme wildlife kind
TANYA WATERWORTH talks to an SA film-maker about his adventures and narrow escapes across Africa
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.