Life On The Wild Side
To get the ultimate wildlife photos you need to be in the right place at the right time in the right vehicle…
How one man’s Defender enables him to capture the best in wildlife photography and film
“To take his incredible wildlife and landscape images Hannes literally spends years with his subject”
No human life is complete without a trip to witness the miracle of nature that occurs each year in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Try and imagine the scene. It’s where at the height of northern Botswana’s dry season, the flat, dusty Kalahari desert plains are transformed into a wildlife Garden of Eden thanks to the mother of all water discharges from the Okavango River. The waters of Okavango Delta begin their remarkable journey hundreds of miles away in the Angolan highlands, before making their way south and across Namibia’s Caprivi, and finally they flow over the thousands of square kilometres that make up the Okavango Delta, bringing with them life – and wildlife)
It is here that the award-winning wildlife photographer and author Hannes Lochner decided to shoot (with his camera, of course) the images for his fifth book, Planet
Okavango. Now anyone who has ever done a trip to the Okavango Delta will tell you that the best way to view its magnificence and uniqueness, is from a light aircraft or mokorro (the local name for a wooden dugout). Or for those in a hurry there is always the option of a tinny-type boat with an outboard motor.
To take his incredible wildlife and landscape images Hannes literally spends years with his subject. He has already done three books on the Kalahari and for that he spent five years living there. In fact, he logged over 800 nights of camping in the red sands of the Kalahari and 100,000 kms of driving his 1998 Defender 110 300Tdi, when shooting the book Darksideofthekalahari. Hannes does not travel alone, his fiance and wildlife filmmaker Noa Köfler accompanies him. She is also the reason they christened the Defender Noa’s Ark. We think that is a good name considering all the water driving it has had to do in the Okavango Delta.
LRM caught up with Hannes in Maun, Botswana, just as he was shooting the final few images for his latest coffee table book Planetokavango.
How important is this Defender to your work?
I now use my Defender for all my photography work. I cannot do the same in a Toyota Land Cruiser because it has a kak* suspension system. I used to own a Toyota Hilux but after about three years of working on my Coloursofthekalahari book I decided that it was too small and so I started looking for a different vehicle.
My Defender has literally been through hell to be honest with you. We’ve used it in the Kalahari and now in the Delta and it’s still working very hard. The only thing it does not like are long distances. Just like any other Tdi it was not meant to go on tar roads and so I try not to take it on any. Normally when I take it on Tarmac something goes wrong but when it’s in the bush then everything seems to be fine. It’s a great bush vehicle because it’s very forgiving when you are driving over obstacles. I cannot be more complimentary about the standard Land Rover suspension
Where did you find the Defender?
A friend of mine saw it for sale in Swakopmund, Namibia, for around £8000 at Dietmar Fleiss’ garage and so I went to have a look at it. It was his personal desert travel vehicle and I knew straight away that I wanted it.
Maybe the fact that it had a galvanised chassis from a 1981 One Ten V8 had something to do with it? We had to convert it into a film vehicle and Dietmar did the conversion for me.
Tell us what he did?
As you can see from the pictures this is not a standard Defender, it’s about 10 cm wider on each side. Doing coffee table books is not a very lucrative business and so we had to watch our pennies with the conversion. We had to create something that was comfortable for working in as you have to spend every single day in it for years on end. While Dietmar’s Defender was desertorientated we needed something that would be comfortable in water, especially when we moved to the Delta. I changed the dust snorkel to one for water. Other major changes included: the opening in the roof, rooftop tent and the side panels which fold down. I need all round panoramic views for my photographic and Noa’s film work.
It’s basically a hard top but you can take the windows, panels and windscreen down or off. Once Dietmar had finished all the mechanical work we tackled the interior and built the cupboards that we needed. Seats were replaced with B&W waterproof cases or boxes plus mounts all round for the cameras. Now it’s the ultimate Defender wildlife filming and photographing vehicle.
Do you return to base camp each night?
We’ve spent lots of time shooting at hyena dens and will then just sleep in the roof top tent while on location. The reason for this is that you want to be there for the rare moments when the cubs come out of the den and so you have to be there all the time. It’s a stakeout of sorts really. We did the same when shooting leopard cubs in the Kalahari.
While shooting in the Delta we spent several nights at an elephant carcass to see who would be coming to visit it. The smell was not great and it made sleeping hard. It’s not always pleasant being a wildlife photographer. Noa is just an extension of us and what we do. It’s our office and our world. You’ve been living in the bush with your Defender for eight years now. What’s the best off-road tyres? In the Kalahari we used Bridgestone All-terrains. They were not cheap and we lost loads of tyres. So when two
“What this Defender has gone through is unbelievable. It’s seen some of the most inhabitable places and is still going”
would go I would just buy the cheapest tyres that I could get my hands on.
We were sponsored by Supa Quick for our Delta adventure. They gave us four Pirelli Mud Terrain tyres and remarkably we still have three of them on Noa’s Ark. It’s my fault that we lost one of them as I drove into a stump that created a 10 cm hole in the sidewall. Plugging it was not an option. The Delta is all about sand, mud, water and grass driving. When you go off-road in the long grass you cannot see sharp sticks or other hidden objects. So every second or third day you are plugging tyres. These Pirellis literally have hundreds of plugs in them yet they still do the job.
We normally stay out in the field when shooting for about three weeks before returning to Maun (the last big frontier town before going into the Delta). I then take the tyres to the tyre shop and they patch the tyres from the inside. We always carry two spares with us. I start to get nervous when we loose two spare tyres.
Would you describe yourself as a bush mechanic?
This Land Rover lives in the bush. So when I need a part it gets flown in. That is the great thing about the Delta. All the safari companies need boat or car parts so as long as it is not too big it can get flown in. I have a mechanic in Maun who I call on the sat phone and he get gets it for me and puts it on the plane. I get the parts within 24 hours. I then have to put on my humble hat, jump into the Toyota Land Cruiser and fetch it from the airfield which is about 90 minutes away. I then install the part myself and we are good to go. If it is something very technical then I drive back to Maun to get it sorted. I have never not been able to drive it to Maun. It has never let me down and has been good to me.
Describe the mechanical difficulties of the Delta.
We have a lot of problems with the contamination of the diffs and so we have to often open them up. The seals are not great and they suck in water, not ideal when you’re spending long periods driving through water. So you have to change the oils very regularly.
Any tips for the makers of the new Defender?
I like the square look of the Defender. If they make it rounded then that would be the end. They must keep it as it is, though it should be wider. When you work in a Defender and you have loads of camera gear, you are basically sitting on top of the window and you can’t turn. That is why we
This page: After a few years in a Hilux, Hannes needed a better vehicle – the Defender proved perfect and was soon modified to take wildlife photos
This page: After a few nights camped by an elephant carcass, Hannes got great shots of the animals feasting on it