Tim Liversedge makes his home in Maun, Botswana, on the southern edge of the Okavango Delta. He has lived in Botswana for more than 30 years, as a game warden, a river boat captain, an airplane and helicopter pilot, an entrepreneur, a filmmaker, and, above all, a naturalist. Since the 1980s, he has channeled his love and expertise of this unique region’s diverse wildlife into the production of no less than 20 nature films. THE GREAT THIRSTLAND and THE FLOODED DESERT constitute his most recent work.
NATURE spoke to Mr. Liversedge in October 2003 about the making of the two films:
Could you tell us about how you moved to Botswana and began making nature films?
I was actually born in London. When I was a year old my parents settled in what is now Zimbabwe. Before I had left formal schooling, I became involved with helping to set up a museum and look after its natural history collections. Later, when I was 20 years old, I was very fortunate to be chosen by the Smithsonian to be a representative of a two-person team that conducted mammal research in Botswana. I soon became the leader of this team and it was the most wonderful opportunity. Botswana, or Bechuanaland at the time, was a British protectorate and had huge, huge expanses of wilderness and wild area. I was sent a four-wheel drive truck, masses of equipment they thought I might need, and told to go off and collect specimens of mice and rats and basically everything that might be interesting. We got huge amounts of data in what turned out to be a three-year survey. That collection of specimens, and data, and everything else is out in the Smithsonian today.
I then became one of Botswana’s first game wardens. That was in the late 1960s. Three years of amazingly interesting work, everything from anti-poaching to helping decide boundaries of new national parks and trying to raise money for wildlife in the country. The country is mainly cattle country, desperately poor, and we were trying to find ways to make wildlife pay.
Were you at that time doing any film work or photography?
I did a lot of still photography at that time, and in the very early 1970s I did something that I intended to be the beginning of a filming career. I built a big riverboat; about a 25-ton boat. The idea was to do wildlife research and make films and take guests on cruises — a lot of the Okavango Delta was uncharted territory then. We ended up having to do so much work looking after guests that I only managed to get some research projects done and never got into the filming. At the end of that I’d done the first scientific work on Pell fishing owls, as well as conduct specialized trips — we were one of only two safari operations in the country at that point.
But after five years or so I’d started some businesses in Botswana and shortly thereafter I was able to buy my first professional camera and started doing some photography. During this time my wife, June, and I set up several businesses in order to make the money to fund the kinds of things we wanted to do. The main one was to make wildlife films. In 1984 I came up with the idea of doing a three-part series on Botswana, which was later aired on PBS, called OKAVANGO: JEWEL OF THE KALAHARI. Since then I’ve made about a dozen films.
In THE GREAT THIRSTLAND you featured flamingos and their migration. Where do the flamingos migrate from and how do you follow them?
In 1987 I’d just started to make a little film on flamingos, because I had been asked by some ornithologists in Namibia to see whether there were any flamingos in Botswana. They had noticed a sudden decline in all the flamingos that normally live up and down the Namibian coast, also called the Skeleton Coast. At that time I had a small plane — I’d been flying since the early 1970s — and I did an aerial survey and amazingly found a huge breeding colony of flamingos on the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan. So I got really excited and decided to make a film of them. And, of course, that led to questions of whether they all came from Namibia. It seemed that there were more birds on the Makgadikgadi than they normally see in Namibia. So it’s all speculation, although the very first tagging of flamingos has just taken place … I think so far it’s just proven they come from Namibia, but we’re pretty certain they probably come from the East African Rift Valley and also from the south. There are a few in the southern part of South Africa and some even near Cape Town. So I’ve been going every year with my plane counting flamingos — when they’re there. We thought, when we made that first film, they might only be there every 10 years or so because nobody had ever seen them there before. We’ve found that they come there much more often. They don’t always breed successfully, but, when conditions are good, they breed rapidly. One set of adults lays eggs, rears chicks, the eggs take 30 days to hatch, and within a few days of them hatching they toddle off and then another load of adults get onto those nests, do some temporary repairs, and lay eggs, and 30 days later another wave of little chicks comes out. In the end, if the rains have been really good, you can get 3, 4, or 5 waves.
What was it like to film the flamingos?
Flamingos are generally extremely difficult to film. You’ve got to be extremely careful not to disturb them. One can never get very, very close. I’ve used a variety of ways to get out there. I used a four-wheel drive, what we call a quad bike, an ATV with big fat tires. From high in my plane I would mark down where they were with a GPS and then go out on this ATV with cameras packed in waterproof pillow boxes. You can only go across any distance when the salt pan starts to dry out. It becomes a lake for part of the year after the heavy rains, and then gradually dries out. And the chicks are stranded when it dries out.
So I made some really, really risky trips about 15 miles out from shore to get the shots of them on their march. One occasion, when I went to visit the abandoned nest mounds, I had a really scary experience as I drove up to the edge of the mound. It actually looked as though it was all completely dry. It was really bizarre because the temperatures are soaring, probably 140 degrees on the surface, but it looks like you’re on snow or ice. Everything’s white around you and as one gets near those mounds, the ground, the crust that forms when it dries out, gets thinner and thinner, possibly because the flamingos have damaged the actual surface by making the mounds. I noticed at one particular time the whole surface started to give like a thin piece of ice, when I suddenly realized that this quad bike was actually causing a whole area around me to slightly subside. I got really scared because in many places there’s 300 feet of deadly ooze beneath the thin crust.
I got off the bike very carefully and, as I put both feet on the ground, one of my legs just went straight through this crust and I was up to my thigh. I hung onto the bike, thinking that the whole thing was about to collapse. And I was so far out, my radio wouldn’t work to the mainland where my wife was waiting with the vehicles and other equipment. It was a horrifying moment. I pulled my leg out, pulling myself on the bike, started the bike, put it in reverse, and slowly, slowly tried to put half my weight on my bike and half my weight on my feet and backed out several hundred yards before I felt safe enough to get back on the bike. And it’s very easy to get stuck anywhere out there. The other problem is, even though it was a white surface, it was still moist and scalding hot mud would fly up and land all over. And it was highly salty too. Very corrosive stuff. Not just salt, different salts dissolved, it was very alkaline. So that was very dangerous for the equipment. And it’s very difficult to handle the equipment when you’re completely covered in mud yourself.
In the second film, THE FLOODED DESERT, we see that fire plays an important role in the Okavango Delta. Where do the fires come from?
Some of them are started by people, unfortunately. Usually either just before the flood has arrived or just after it’s been there, and long after the rains, which is when you would normally get lightning. A combination of rains and lightning and fires is not a bad one because some patches get completely doused and put out. So you get a more patchy burn. But nowadays it’s often set alight at the height of the dry season when there’s no chance of it being stopped and it burns for miles. Fires also burn in the peat. During dry periods they burn for years deep underground. I’ve heard stories of people falling through the surface, sometimes 6 to 8 feet down into burning embers. That’s not a very usual thing, but it certainly does happen because there’s a thick layer of peat and under very dry conditions it gets dried out and exposed.
You see islands in the film, circular with a circle of heavy forest trees and palms around the edge of a big open white space. We’d seen a massive one of these islands with the fire advancing on it. The thick trees on the fringe, a lot of them were palm trees that go off like bombs when the fire gets there. So we settled down in the center with a helicopter, thinking we were far away from any fire. We waited for the fire to get to the fringe of these big trees to get some spectacular images, some of which are in the film. I was there with another cameraman and so we shut down the helicopter, it was a jet-helicopter, and got the two cameras out, tripod, batteries, and the whole thing. Eventually they started exploding, big palms going up. Massive flames. And it generated, suddenly, such a wind and what we hadn’t thought about was the very sparse grass cover between us and these trees. With that wind and the heat, the flames just came roaring towards us. When we suddenly realized what was going on we just grabbed the cameras off the tripods and dove for the helicopter. To start a jet-helicopter you have to wait while the blades slowly turn and you have to build up the right settings on various gauges before you can even begin to lift off. And all the time I was thinking of something I’d been warned about by my instructor when I learned to fly helicopters. He told me of a helicopter that crashed in California. It was hovering over the top of a chimney and a bubble of carbon dioxide had come out of the chimney and put the engine out, because you need oxygen for a jet engine. So, as we pull out of these flames, there were obviously big pockets of carbon dioxide floating around and I just thought, “Boy, any minute this thing is gonna cough and we’re gonna go straight back into the fire.” But we didn’t. So we did run some risks, but I’ve been living in Africa in the wild for a very, very long time and I’ve been very careful to stay in one piece. And I don’t have any serious scars on my body, thankfully. So far. And it’s not as dangerous as people think. Sure, there are some risks, but I would be one to play them down whenever I can.
How long did you spend making these films?
I think it would be fair to say they were made over the last four to five years.
Is there anything in particular that you’ll remember from making these films?
Well, getting back to the first film, THE GREAT THIRSTLAND, some of the most hilarious things were the bullfrogs. They’re absolutely amazing. And it’s a huge frog. I think we say it’s the size of a dinner plate and it really is. Weighs about 5 pounds, a big male. They do attack anything, the male frog or the tadpoles and the little frogs continuously attacked me. They got more and more used to me, but they’ve got very sharp teeth and I certainly got bitten several times when I couldn’t get my hand out of the way in time. So they’re incredible and the fact that they will construct these canals to get their tadpoles to new feeding areas or to get them to new water when their water is about to dry up is remarkable behavior. But the most interesting thing was the antics of the little frogs. They’re like little bullies and they really attack anything that they think they can overpower and of course they eat each other and it is absolutely hysterical. I was actually filming most of that in 35mm film before I had use of a high-definition camera, where we had 40 minutes of tape to run if needed. But with 35mm film, you have 4 minutes and, of course, the little things sat there doing nothing very often for 4 minutes or more. Very, very expensive and nerve-wracking. But, in compensation, what they did, when they did do something, was hysterical.