Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Solo



The descent into Tswalu’s airstrip provided me with a real rush of adrenaline and excitement.  The time had finally arrived when my adventure with the Gosa meerkat gang was about to begin. 3 months of seemingly unimaginable experiences lie ahead of me.

What really struck me, initially from the air and later as we made our way to “base camp”, was how this part of the Kalahari appeared so green and lush. Not two words you would normally associate with one of our planet’s harshest environments. I was however, reminded that my new home is still very much in the desert, when I arrived back at base camp later that afternoon. The afternoon drive involved a visit to two of the Gosa gang’s burrows and a short, refreshing, skin-stinging rainstorm followed by a magnificent Kalahari sunset.  Taking off my shoes back at base camp revealed enough fine, red sand to fill the greenside bunker at the 17th  hole at St. Andrew’s.   Welcome to the Kalahari.

The WildEarth team is trying to establish what the meerkats’ burrow systems look like underground, and to that end have employed the help of Barry Barnard, an expert in ground-penetrating radar systems.   I spent much of my second day assisting him as we tried to get an impression of the complexity of the tunnels and chambers of the burrows that the Gosa gang call home. It was hard work and by the middle of the day it had become very hot and thirsty work.  Welcome to the Kalahari indeed!

Judging from the different coloured blobs we were shown on his computer screen last night, it appears that there is indeed much to learn about the literal ins and outs of these burrows from Barry and his magnificent machine (sounds like the title to a children’s story).  How far we can go with this new information remains to be seen, but from my point of view it is certainly very exciting to be involved with a project that is pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible.    

This morning was a very interesting one on a number of levels.  I was given the job of walking with the meerkats today in order to familiarise myself with their behaviour and patterns and basically introduce myself to the Gosa gang.  After 2 days, excitement levels were pretty high as I was to finally meet the meerkats that would be dominating my life for the next 3 months….or should I say meerkat!  After waiting patiently for the sun to makes its appearance above the koppie(small mountain) and cast its light on the Gosa gang’s Camelthorn burrow, Solo, a female meerkat popped her head out and took in her surroundings.  She was visibly nervous, but not so much to suggest that we were witnessing anything out of the ordinary.  As she allowed her belly to be warmed by the sun, she continued to be extremely vigilant to the point of appearing rather paranoid. 

Several minutes past and with no sign of the rest of the gang, we (Graham, Peter and Barry were also there to test equipment and continue work with the radar) started speculating that Solo was alone.  We realised this was indeed the case when she eventually decided to move away from the burrow with yours truly as her chaperone.  The speed of a nervous, solitary meerkat coupled with the not insignificant factor of a blanket of knee-high grass, meant that my earlier idea of a leisurely morning walk with the meerkats would be anything but.   Every ten metres she would turn around to see if I was still there and after about 70 metres she had obviously decided that she would prefer to spend the rest of the morning without me and disappeared down a bolt hole.  Despite the fact that she had not appeared bothered by our presence at her burrow, she was not yet prepared to have me follow her on foot and that is something that we have to respect. 

Upon our return to base camp we were able to ascertain via the Tswalu researcher’s grapevine, that Solo had in fact been kicked out of the Gosa gang at some point in November last year.  We can only speculate as to the reasons for this, but I can’t help but be amazed at the tenacity of this meerkat who has survived on her own for such a considerable length of time, in an environment not short of predators looking for an easy meal.  The recent good rains will have certainly played their part in her survival.  The long grass has provided her with great cover and perhaps food has also been easier to come by.  Her ultra-vigilant attitude would no doubt have stood her in good stead too.  What remains to be seen is how Solo manages as the days start to get shorter and we move closer to the harshness of the Kalahari winter (although judging from how warm it felt at 9am this morning, that feels a long way away).

Well folks, I think it's time I signed off and stopped my social loafing and went to help Rob make the Ganda, more....mobile.....shall we say.  That's a scary prospect.  What the hell do I know about Land Rovers?

Chat soon
Garth

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Ganda



Few things excite me more than being able to drive a Land Rover through the bush. Especially if it is an old, beaten up warrior-vehicle that has seen it's fair share of action in the wild.


Meet WildEarth's field vehicle and the powerhouse behind the Gosa gang crew: The Ganda. Our mean green meerkat machine. Lacking a roof, windscreen, side mirrors and driver's door, this Landy legend was hauled across the country from it's old haunt in Djuma Game Reserve to come brave the escapades of the Kalahari. The stories behind this vehicle are innumerable and can be likened to the old Grandfather whose battle scars and war stories engulf the mind of the curious child at his feet. Mud, sweat and gears is what the Ganda is built from, and heat, dust and dreams is what it delivers!


Now, for those of you who do not know much about a Land Rover in the bush, it's simple: If it works, it works well. If it doesn't work, burn it and do a rain dance around the blaze. Luckily, the Ganda works. But I use the word 'works' in the broadest possible sense. The fuel gauge doesn't work, and the Ganda arrived up here with two flat tyres already. The tyres weren't a problem as they were easily replaced, and the fuel gauge wasn't such a big issue either....until we ran out of diesel... in the bush... miles from camp. And yet we were not worried in the slightest. Had we been in the city, we would have been sharpening toothbrushes and building a fort against any would-be assailants, be they uniformed or casual, in order to defend our gas-less machine. But here, in the kalahari, we simply opened up a few cold ones, took some photos, and watched the sunset. Easy, simple, no worries. For you see, in the bush, time means nothing and has no real value because Africa and its occupants run at their own pace, and this has happened for a million meerkat years and is highly unlikely to change. A wise man once said: The Swiss may make the watches, but Africa owns the time, and this is the absolute truth.


And so as we waited for help to arrive, we smiled and watched another amazing sunset glimmer on the horizon and toasted our drinks to another day in the Krazy Kalahari.


Ranger Rob

Tequila Sunrise ... in the Kalahari


Tequila sunrise is the name that WE have given to the very first 3D GoPro beamsplitter rig. All future versions will be named after cocktails as well. :)

In fact we sat around and decided to retroactively name WildEarth's very first 3D rig (the one used at Djuma in 2010 and 2011) the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. A cocktail supposedly invented by the fictional character Zaphod Beeblebrox from Douglas Adams' series The Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy. The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster was said to be "the alcoholic equivalent of a mugging - expensive and bad for the head" and states that the effect of one "is like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick". This in many ways describes the incredibly difficult process that we went through to build this first beamsplitter.

Tequila Sunrise is light years ahead of the Gargle Blaster though. Designed using CAD (Computer Aided Design) and 'grown' in nylon using a 3D printer, this incredibly small and tough armature in an enclosure holds two GoPro Hero2s, with their new lenses installed, and a 50/50 mirror as well as all the new circuitry to control and power the cameras. The result is the world's smallest and lightest High Definition beamsplitter that allows us to focus and converge on a meerkat 150mm in front of the camera and get a perfect undistorted head and shoulders shot, but still be able to fuse the background in 3D.

But thats not where it stops. WE also felt that it was crucial that we filmed this 3D meerkat diary series from a meerkat's point-of-view (POV) so that the viewers felt like they were one of the meerkats. That meant shooting the entire film from just 50mm above the ground! To make this even more challenging we wanted to broadcast LIVE (in 2D only, mind you) onto the Internet the whole time that the crew are out with the meerkats, which is going to be from dawn to dusk every day for 3 months.

Now you just can't ask Rob, Garth and Paul (the camera team) to crawl around on the floor for hours at a time shooting from a meerkat's POV. So WE devised what we call the broomstick rig. Basically we bought a second hand bush whacker (also known as a weed trimmer) removed the engine and the blades, added in a pool net pole and attached Tequila Sunrise to the end. This means that the camera operator can stand up and walk normally while the cameras are just above the ground. Add in a high definition field monitor and a whole bunch of new circuitry hacked into the Hero2s and the camera part is done.

Next was audio ... again WE had a very ambitious agenda. For the 3D meerkat diary series we wanted uncompromising stereo audio that would again make the viewer feel like they were inches from the meerkats and living as one of the gang. This called for a super high quality set of matched X/Y microphones positioned just above the ground so that if you wear headphones you get proper surround sound that allows you to discern the direction from which noises are coming. But we also wanted the camera operator to be able to chat to our LIVE Internet audience and help them identify individual meerkats and explain what is going on. This LIVE narration is, as so many of you know, crucial to the experience and really helps improve the 'connection' between the audience all over the world and the animals. So the camera operator wears a headset with a microphone and he can push a button to talk. All this sound is mixed and recorded and sent out to the LIVE audience.

The LIVE video is encoded right on the broomstick, which is connected to the Internet via a wifi network that WE are installing across the whole territory of the Gosa meerkat gang (about three square kilometres). This means that the very highest quality video and audio is sent directly from the broomstick to our video ingest servers in Europe and from their to our distribution networks around the world.

This has been by far the most ambitious project that WildEarth has ever undertaken and we are super proud of what has been designed and built so far. There is a great deal of work left ahead of us, but the team of engineers, designers, suppliers, consultants and crew that WE have assembled are absolute professionals and WE are confident that we are on track to deliver the most immersive meerkat experience in history.

Written by Graham Wallington

Monday, 27 February 2012

A quick change of house



Ah yes, day 4 of my Gosa gang adventure in the Kalahari. I have my toothbrush, I have my camera, and I have my new Gosa gang family. Yesterday another WildEarth crew member joined us in the form of Garth; a slender and pleasant chap hailing from the coastal metropolis of Cape Town. After his arrival, Garth and I set out to find the Gosa gang and introduce him to the furry-family that will dominate our lives in the following months.


Before Garth arrived, we had a very interesting event which has still got me pondering what exactly went on. Picture the scene; it's late afternoon on Sunday, the sun is setting, and the Gosa gang are below ground and settling in for the night. Or so we thought. Suddenly, and without warning, Cleopatra's head pops up from their burrow and scans the surroundings. Then the entire Gosa gang, as if spurred on by some unknown event, all come running out of the burrow and head directly North to one of the family's other burrows. Now, moving burrows is not uncommon among meerkats and most families will have up to 6 different burrows in their territory, but changing burrows all of a sudden makes we wonder what their reason was. In any case, the Gosa gang reached their Northern burrow and immediately went to bed leaving the WildEarth crew perplexed and a little bit lost...we didn't know the Gosa gang had a Northern burrow! But wait, there is more. On Monday morning we met the Gosa gang at dawn whilst they went about their morning chores of brushing their teeth and cleaning out their burrow. After a brief sun-tan session in the golden African sunlight, the group started to forage and moved directly South again - straight back in the direction of their main burrow, and spent the night there. Now, I have no explanation whatsoever for this, however it is making our story more and more interesting and my curiosity is constantly growing about their lives and family dynamics!


Apart from the antics of my meerkat brethren, all is well. I'm settling in very quickly here as my heart relaxes back into the rhythmic beat of my home continent and the kalahari dust slowly saturates my blood again. But tomorrow, my world will be rocked with the arrival of THE GANDA.


Rob



Sunday, 26 February 2012

Meet the Meerkats





After a long haul from Johannesburg with all the field gear and some very Southern music, the WildEarth crew arrived at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. I had totally forgotten how much I missed the Kalahari, and soon my ears were filled with the sound of sand-grouse, my lungs with the promise of rain, and my nostrils with monstrous smell of rhino dung.  My lodgings are just how I like it; basic, practical, and in the middle of a few sand-dunes.  After unpacking last night, having a “braai” (barbeque) and soaking up the starlit atmosphere to the sounds of a Jackal quartet, I decided to turn in for the night and suddenly realised that I had forgotten one crucial, exponentially important ,  ultimate health issue that I can only liken to a second Chernobyl disaster….I had forgotten my toothbrush.

However, undeterred and fuzzy-toothed, I was up at 4am this morning prepping my gear and donning my boots for my first morning with the Gosa Meerkat Gang. The blood-red sunrise set the scene and after a quick drive and a spat of rain I found myself sitting in front of the Gosa Burrows. 10 minutes later, there she was.

Cleopatra’s head popped out of the burrow, cautiously eyeing the surrounding Kalahari for any sign of danger, be they predator or paparazzi. Cleopatra is the matriarch of the Gosa family, and it falls upon her to look after the well-being of the family members, and of course give us the over-the-shoulder Hollywood shot for our facebook fan page. And even more amazingly, she is pregnant. Heavily so. By my estimates, she will give birth in about a week and a half’s time which means that her pups will come out the burrow around two weeks after that. And so my fellow followers, soon we shall have the arrival of a small band of meerkat pups right on our doorstep, and I promise you I will be there every morning  awaiting for the great reveal, Live and unscripted, of this fantastic moment here in the middle of the Kalahari. To tell the truth, I cannot wait! I have never seen meerkat pups before, and watching Cleopatra introduce them to the Krazy Kalahari is going to be a moment we can all share and continue to watch over the weeks!

Hope you are all well, keep in touch via facebook and twitter and I’ll keep you updated as often as possible if the signal here will let me! The great Gosa Meerkat Gang is about to invade your screens!

HA! JUST FOUND MY TOOTHBRUSH!

Rob

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Enter the Meerkat Mongrel


If I were to have had a 3D camera follow me through my life, you would have seen fleeting images of me spending a lot of my youth out in the bush, then studying conservation and running the biology pub at university, becoming enthralled in photography, and then landing up on the doorstep of Wild Earth with the classic phrase “Please sir, can I have some more?”.

Now, I have never been a blogger, and for that matter I have never been a fellow bloggee either. In fact, were it up to me, I would deliver my daily updates to you all via a flock of Zazu Express hornbills cut straight from the cast of Lion King 3: Rise of the Meerkats. However, seeing as this is not possible due to some very restrictive budget cuts, here we are. My name is Rob, and I am the chief cook and bottle-washer for the Gosa Meerkat project at Tswalu reserve. My task, on top of filming the Gosa Gang, is to keep you in the loop of our daily meerkat adventures in the Kalahari and to make sure that you, the bloggee, together with our live meerkat cam, feel as much a part of the team as our live camera does*.

I will be taking photographs and posting them up on our facebook group (facebook.com/Gosa.meerkat.gang) as well as on my personal fan page (facebook.com/RobBruyns) and tweeting the tweets (twitter.com/RobBruyns) and clogging the blogs in one giant effort to keep you updated as often as possible, because this is going to be one of the greatest adventures ever! And you have a free ticket to be a part of it! I love the bush, and I love to laugh, so stick around for the next few months and who knows, (insert your name here),  we might upgrade you to the Hornbill v2.0 of this blog!

Wow, 402 words. Not bad for my first blog!

Chat soon!

Rob

*As a short side note, we have decided that all our cameras are to be named after cocktail drinks. The name chosen for the camera we built for season 1 of the Gosa Meerkat Gang is… Tequila Sunrise.