After a rather long break I have finally got around to writing a new blog. This is one I should have written at Christmas, but events conspired to delay that idea.
At long last I finally had another crack at filming wild Siamese crocodiles. I first filmed these illusive creatures back in early 2003 on a lake up the Sre Ambel River. That represented the first footage ever recorded of this critically endangered species. In 2006 the BBC recruited me to film them for the series “Saving Planet Earth”. I spent 10 days at the same site in the Areng valley that I returned to this time. Last time I had to battle my way there in the wet season, needless to say, the BBC presenter went in by helicopter a few months later. Sadly that footage belongs to the BBC and when I inquired about purchasing a few seconds of it, I was informed that would be GBP250 per second. Ouch! It’s a shame because I doubt that footage will ever be seen again as it’s not HD.
As with most of my wildlife filming this trip was out of my own pocket. I tagged along with a botanical team to reduce costs, while FFI helped out with arranging 2 guides/cooks for me.
As usual I had a fairly significant amount of equipment for this trip. I took one very large camera rucksack, a 100 liter Bergen that was bursting at the seams and a large waterproof case for the 500mm and other lenses. To add to the fun, I also had a 45amp car battery and my new 180w solar set up, and of course the drone. The camera kit for this trip included 2 cameras, 3 lenses, 2 video tripods, shotgun mic, Macbook Pro, a wireless WD hard drive and an assortment of batteries, chargers and various odds and sods that you need for a trip like this.
This was also my first time using my new solar set up in the field. It was very nice to have so much power available, but, there is a small downside… the panels pump out around 400v, which could very easily kill you. I had to make very sure no one touched it unsupervised. I also took some “luxury” items in the form of a large fly-sheet for the camp and a decent light for the evenings. Absolute luxury. Now if I can just work out how to get ice…
Once we arrived in the Areng valley we went by boat to where we planned to share a camp. I am more used to having to travel by bikes so it was wonderful to be able to take an almost unlimited amount of equipment in a boat.
To help keep the guides happy I invested in a bottle of Black Label. Personally, I can’t stand whiskey but it helps to keep the guys happy… and away from my stash of rice wine. I don’t really drink at all these days, but I do when I’m in the forest. I like a small cup of a decent rice wine after dinner. The problem is if your local guides get a sniff of it, it’ll be gone in an instant. For those who aren’t aware, rice wine is a spirit, quite like Irish Poteen, but made from rice. It can be really nice (and very easy to drink) particularly in remote communities where they take great pride in their brewing and distilling abilities. Quite often though, it’s more like boot polish.
And so, to the filming.
On arriving at the camp site location, we quickly set up and I headed off with my assistants to build a hide for the next morning. Already knowing the location is really helpful as this is quite a big lake and you could waste a lot of time searching for the right spot. Despite it being 10 years I assumed the Croc would be in the same area and sure enough there he was, hanging around where I had last seen him directly across the lake from me. It may not be the same animal but I am convinced it is. I refer to him as a “he” as this is an ox-bow lake and almost certainly his territory. The ladies will come here from time to time (as nest have proved in the past) but this is very much a territorial male thing going on here.
If I am honest Crocs are not the most exciting creatures to watch but if something does happen it’s almost certainly going to be spectacular. Given they can go months between meals the chances of catching a kill on camera are very slim indeed. I had a list of shots I hoped to get and much to my surprise I got pretty much everything I had expected on day one, as he was very active.
By mid-morning a troop of Silvered Langurs arrived and proceeded to slowly move through the trees along the bank opposite. I soon discovered that I needed to do some more gardening in front of my hide, as I couldn’t get a shot of the monkeys in the trees. I settled for filming the Croc who had positioned himself under them and followed them as they moved. Each time they moved he went to the next obvious place they might use to drink from. This went on for about an hour and I was really happy with what I had shot, but, frustratingly no monkeys. I took a gamble and with the small camera I left the hide and crawled around the back trying to find a shot. The trouble with primates is, while you can see some moving around, there are always a few on look out that you don’t spot. Once the alarm goes up it’s all over. I started filming and got a couple of ok shots, so I ventured nearer and set up again. I just started trying to frame the shot when I was spotted. Bugger.
I spent the rest of the day watching the Croc do very little so I went back to camp to get some help with the gardening. This entailed climbing trees and wading out several meters into neck deep water, which is a little nerve racking given there is a 3 meter Croc in the lake. They are very shy and not known to attack humans but still, it’s a big animal and I don’t think you’d have much chance if it was hungry enough.
Next morning, I was rewarded with another troop of primates, Long-tailed Macaques this time. They didn’t hang around that long but I did get enough shots and again the croc was similarly busy below. I couldn’t believe my luck, I had all the shots I expected in my first 2 days.
Day 3 was rather boring. With no monkeys the Croc settled in and moved very little. I decided I would leave a little early and build another hide with a very different view. I knew that from this 2nd location I couldn’t see the Croc when he was just sitting, but I was hopeful he would at least come out to the center to sunbathe. I also found a spot with a great perch for Kingfishers just 10 meters in front of the hide.
It turned out to be a good move. I got some really nice footage and photos of various birds including Common and Stork-billed Kingfishers and Green Bee-eaters among others. The Croc did make a brief appearance when the sun came out, but soon disappeared again when the clouds returned. Over the next couple of days, I got hours of footage of the Kingfishers and Bee-eaters as well as some great cruising shots of the Croc. On my second day at the new hide the Croc went straight across the lake to very clearly check out my first hide, stealthily disappearing below the water as it approached the hide. He came out to sunbathe a couple of times and did a slow roll. I’ve seen this before and it kind of looks like he’s stretching when he does this.
I went back to the first hide but got bored very quickly as I was getting the same shots. I took a day off to fly my drone and build another hide. This time along the river, at a spot where the botanists said they kept seeing a Croc each morning as they headed off to survey the forest. Filming there did turn out to be one very boring day, but right at the end I got some fantastic shots of a Stork-billed Kingfisher that made up for all the frustration.
I decided not to bother with the river again. The Croc can easily move away and it just seemed a huge gamble to spend more time there. I spent the remaining few days at the lake and getting more aerial shots with the drone.
Having all the extra equipment was wonderful. The botanists, Martin Van de Bult, Soren Brofeldt and Chhang Phourin all commented that this was real luxury camping. In addition to the lights and an almost unlimited charging capability, it turned out there was a village just a few km away, so we ate really well. Eggs are a genuine luxury in the field so a morning omelet was just a fantastic change to endless rice or noodles. Importantly, we were also able to keep a stock of rice wine to keep everyone happy in the evenings. It really does help, honest.
All in all, this was a great trip. I got some fabulous photographs and video sequences, had a lot of fun, tested new equipment successfully and we all left in one piece, so all is good. One of my best trips in every possible regard.
I’d really like to go back to spend more time filming, but first I need to find someone interested in making a film on the Areng valley. For now, here is a teaser of just a small fraction of the video I shot.