April 2020

Vol. 48, No. 2

About Books: Memoirs of an Ideal Companion

Mark Lynch

Journeys in the Wild: The Secret Life of a Cameraman.
Gavin Thurston. 2019. London:Seven Dials.

From such films, viewers were able to see part of what I have known for years—that if you are going to get into difficulties when traveling in some remote and hazardous part of the world, your ideal companion would be a natural history cameraman. (Sir David Attenborough in the Foreword to Journeys in the Wild)

This might sound stupid but forget an Andy Serkis performance—this witch doctor has turned into a tiger. (p. 100)

Unless your parents were hard-core natural historians who believed in bringing their children on their research trips, chances are your first experience with the sights and sounds of the global world of nature was through television. It is through shows like Nature on PBS, or any one of the numerous programs on the Animal Planet channel, or one of the many BBC series hosted by Sir David Attenborough that we now first learn about the mating habits of dung beetles or the social life of chimpanzees. Our image of the "wild" is deeply affected by these programs. So much so, that as adults, when we finally take a trip to the Rockies or Costa Rica, we want to see nature as it was shown to us via television: close up and doing something interesting.

For those of us raised in the 50s, the offerings were far fewer. I saw Walt Disney's award-winning nature films in the True Life Adventures series only after they were shown on television. Films like The Vanishing Prairie (1953) and Nature's Half Acre (1951) featured state of the art cinematography for that era. This was combined with a decidedly anthropomorphic voiceover combined with a music soundtrack that Disney felt would make the films more appealing to a wider audience. So, a pair of scorpions fighting was shown with square dance music added. For Walt Disney, in these films nature always told a clear story that was easy for the public to understand.

Mention must be made of the venerable Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom series, which ran from 1963 until 1988 and was revived in 2002. This series was a spin-off of the earlier Zoo Parade. Both were hosted by zoologist Marlin Perkins, a Walter Cronkite with a monkey figure. In later shows, Perkins's "man in the field" was the indefatigable Jim Fowler, who was always the guy who had to dive into murky water to grab the anaconda or whatever creature that was the focus of that episode. Fowler soon became the face of the series, making numerous appearances on late night talk shows and even an episode of Seinfeld.

Today, so-called "nature shows" are everywhere. The best are much more sophisticated than the shows of the 50s and 60s. These contemporary programs try to convey a more complex and nuanced view of the natural world. Death and blood and guts, and sex—absent from Disney's vision—are regular parts of the program. The narration and content of these programs is a still mixed bag, but anything hosted by Sir David Attenborough is the gold standard of the genre. We now expect to see truly extraordinary film work that was unthinkable only 20 years ago in every show. Close-up underwater images of penguins catching fish, lyrical aerial shots of hippos swimming down a river, or intimate footage of the daily life of lowland gorillas are all now taken for granted. Usually the camera person, the one responsible for that stunning footage, remains completely unknown to the general public. Often the camera person risks life and limb over long hours, days, and weeks, in sometimes horribly uncomfortable conditions, just to get that perfect shot that may only last a few seconds in the final edited program. Journeys in the Wild: The Secret Life of a Cameraman is the personal journal of one of the best nature cinematographers in the biz. It is a story that is fascinating, funny, sobering, and filled with so many "ripping yarns" as to rival a shelf of Frank Buck books. The reader cannot be blamed for being amazed that Gavin Thurston is still alive after an adventure-filled career of more than 30 years spent shooting on every continent and under the sea.

This book is a meander through those highs and lows, with some plane crashes, wars, coups, near-death experiences, and a kidnap attempt thrown in to boot. (p. 9)

Each short chapter reads like a journal entry. They are dated, given a location, and the longitude and latitude. There are a number of small line drawings to accompany some of the chapters. In addition, there is a small photographic section in the book.

Gavin Thurston's career began in 1972 at age nine in Cheltenham, United Kingdom, when his beloved auntie lent him a camera so he could take a few shots on his upcoming trip to the zoo. The camera was as basic as they got for the time. "Made by Kodak, it's affectionately called a Box Brownie, probably the most common camera available. With only 12 photos to a roll and a waist-level viewfinder, who knew what a nine-year-old boy might capture on film—if anything" (p. 3).

When the film was developed, most of his first roll of film did not produce great shots, except for one picture of Cuddles, a male orca. That single photo was enough to get the young Thurston hooked on nature photography. This decidedly unextraordinary shot is reproduced in this book. But his career as a professional cameraman didn't really take off until years later when he got an entry-level job at Oxford Scientific Films. It was here that he learned the basics of what being a cameraman really means: long hours, on site problem solving, and sometimes dangerous jobs.

Throughout Journeys in the Wild, Thurston never comes off as anything more or less than a good-natured, ordinary person who has had the very good fortune to visit some of the most amazing places on earth. He is up for anything but is also quite self-deprecating about some incredible screw-ups. In 1989, he is filming on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, for the first time. The researchers there warn him about the "jiggers." He and his companion have no idea what "jiggers" are.

Being macho and not wanting to appear ignorant, we don't ask where we might see these ‘jiggers', if they are common or dangerous. I had done some research before coming to Panama and mostly read about jaguars, monkeys, armadillos, anteaters, snakes, sloths and tapirs. Not to mention over 900 species of bird. I don't recall reading about jiggers though. (p. 73)

They spend their hours while filming on the lookout for these "jiggers," searching vines and forest floors for some obvious creature, little realizing these jiggers are the minute biting mites, often called chiggers, that are the bane of unsuspecting jungle hikers. They cause a hellish itching as they burrow into your skin. Thurston and his colleagues wonder why the researchers are all wearing long sleeves and long pants in the heat of the tropics. Instead, they choose to hike in shorts and short sleeves. Of course they are smitten later by a plague of horrific itching.

As his career develops, Thurston realizes that it is not only what happens in the field that is a challenge. He spends on the average 220 days per year away from home. He has a family with children that need his attention, and this time away does take a toll. "Divorce can happen to anyone but I think the strains of this career cause a higher than average marriage failure rate" (p. 54).

Early in his career, as he was still earning his reputation, he opens up about the financial worries he faced at that time, adding to the strains on his family: "It's been an awful few months. Having turned down the trips to Antarctica and the Pitcairn Islands, I haven't managed to get any other work. Interest rates have been as high as 14.25 percent. Not being able even to make the interest payments on our mortgage and camera loan, my overdraft has shot into five figures. It's my own stupidity and I have literally been worried sick" (p. 206).

Much of the time, Thurston finds himself in some predicament that would make of most of us run in the opposite direction. In 1990 in the Kyzyl Jar, Badkyz Reserve in Kyrgystan—then part of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)—he is asked to film a nesting Eagle Owl without disturbing it. The only problem is that the owl is nesting high in a cliff in a cave.

Leonid goes ahead of me, shuffling along the foot-wide ledge, and I start to follow. The kit is going to get lowered down from the top of the cliff by rope. Halfway along the ledge, I look down. My head starts to spin. Below me is a 30-foot vertical drop, and then a 250-foot slope to the bottom of the canyon. For the first time in my life I discover what vertigo is. My brain is thinking of it as a 300-foot drop and the wall of rock behind me suddenly feels as if it's physically pushing me forwards; terrified, I force my head and back against the cliff. Leonid looks at me, "Are you okay?" (p. 41)

He sleeps in the back of the cave all night. The rocky floor is swarming with ticks, fleas and other biting insects. He suffers through it all and ultimately gets the beautiful shot of the owls in the light of sunrise. This is typical of his job. It requires long hard hours in blinds, platforms in trees, or just sitting soundlessly in a small tent in order to bring you that one sequence that will hopefully make you say "ah!"" if only for a few seconds of air time.

Sometimes the situations he finds himself in are both dangerous and humorous. In Tsavo East National Park and Tiva River, Kenya, in 1983, he is assigned to film the life of the dung beetles. "One thing we need for the dung beetle sequence is a backdrop of elephants crapping; that will then lead into the story of how dung beetles can smell the shit, find the shit, make little balls with the shit, and then roll them away, bury them and lay their eggs in them" (p. 64). This means getting very close to the rear end of several large, and potentially very dangerous elephants with all the camera equipment and then waiting for them to defecate. "No gun, no protection, just me and Simon in our sandals heading towards a herd of elephants in an open forest. " ‘Sure,' I say" (p. 64).

In Journeys in the Wild we learn about how these camera people find all the special sites to capture those perfect images. Obviously the camera people aren't just wandering around the planet aimlessly hoping to luck into finding the best places to shoot pandas or Kakapos. In some cases the production company—in Thurston's case this often means the BBC—can develop an interesting mutually beneficial relationship with scientists working in the field.

Keeping scientists out in the field for 365 days a year, in harsh conditions, costs money. Replenishment of grants isn't easy either. Supporters and companies want to see results, data, findings, to convince them to continue the funding. When the scientists can't deliver, because they are mid-process and don't yet have results, additional funding is often denied and money becomes tight. Occasionally, film crews can come to the rescue by paying inflated prices for the huge privilege of filming. (p. 162.

Most of the time this amounts only to scientists giving the camera people access to their research sites or their field knowledge of the area. Sometimes the researchers allow the cameramen to use their blinds and platforms.

Gavin Thurston has worked with Sir David Attenborough many times. It is a relief to learn, that off camera, Sir David is still the enthusiastic, knowledgeable-about-everything naturalist that he presents to the camera. Furthermore, the field people love to work with him because of his generous and friendly attitude to those working around him. "So uplifting to find that Sir David—as well as being a top naturalist and broadcaster, the inspiration to launch my career, a respected figure recognized by the Queen with a knighthood just four years ago—is also a top bloke" (p. 77).

Attenborough's knowledge of the workings of the natural world is unrivaled. There are times when Thurston is filming Sir David that he experiences that perfect natural history film moment that combines unique imagery with on-site stunning narration. In the Conkouati National Park, in the Republic of Congo in 2001, the crew watches as a tribe of chimpanzees raise their arms and begin to wade across a stream. Sir David Attenborough stands in front of the camera while the chimps continue in the background.

The hairs stand up on the back of my neck and I am close to tears. To have Sir David Attenborough just in front of me so eloquently explaining a part of evolution and our ancestry, while behind is a vision of the origin of early man. It all makes so much sense to me. The image and the sound of those 25 seconds will stay with me forever. This is another of those days when I appreciate the experience beyond the job. (p. 318)

I have avoided reprinting any of the numerous really crazy stories recounted in Journeys in the Wild because those would be spoilers for anyone wanting to read this outstanding book. Suffice it to say, they are many tales of filming gorillas, pandas, tigers, lions, and many other animals and birds and invertebrates. Thurston is punched by a gorilla, chased by rhinos, and stalked by lions. He has traveled a number of times under the sea in a small submersible. He almost kills Sir David Attenborough with a Monty Python song. There is so much more.

Three quarters through the book, Thurston's travels take a dark turn. In 1991, he and his crew are assigned to film the Dinka people of Sudan. This requires them to drive for days through Southern Sudan at the time of their civil war. Seeing so many 12 and 13-year-old boys toting automatic weapons is like nothing he has experienced before. It is the first time in Journeys in the Wild that Thurston expresses some doubts about what he is doing..

I find these scenes shocking. This is life for these young men and boys. Most have been conscripted or kidnapped from their home villages and brought here to fight. Driving on, we pass numerous burnt-out and abandoned army vehicles with bullet holes or shrapnel damage. More reminders of the reality of the civil war that has ravaged this country for decades. I'm beginning to wonder whether we should have traveled into Sudan—after all, it's just for a natural history television sequence. (p. 380–81)

Later, in 2005, he flies over Kalimantan, Borneo, and sees the Armageddon-like wasteland that the failed Mega Rice Project has left behind. "The hardwood had been cashed in, the forest destroyed, the water drained. Although not optimum habitat for orangutans, thousands of them, along with a multitude of species, were killed, displaced, and made homeless as a result of this failed project" (p. 408).

"What are we doing to this planet?" (p. 408)

Experiencing scenes like this would be enough for most of us to give up completely on humanity and decide to go live like a hermit on some island. But Gavin Thurston's faith in the human species may have been challenged, but it is not broken. "I believe humans are predominantly a kind and social species—it seems only politics and crazy ideologies split us apart" (p. 132).

I interviewed Gavin Thurston recently for the radio and this is what ultimately impressed me most about him. He is a "top bloke" himself, a down-to-earth person whose faith in the possibilities of the human species, despite everything he has seen, is only rivaled by his deep love of the natural world.

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