Monday 2nd March 2009
Bella is a lioness that Born Free had rescued from an pitiful life in Romania. She was almost totally blind and needed an operation to allow her to see. Her problem was so serious that the vets were unable to save one of her eyes and it had to be removed. The sight in the other eye although good is not as good as it could be. When she was young the owners, uneducated in how to look after big cats had fed her on cows milk which had caused the bones in her back legs to grow badly. As a result she can not walk properly and never will. She was going to start a new life in Malawi.
As I sat and listened to the relaxing playlist on my ipod I could see lots of opportunities for points to be awarded to people in the cars all around my taxi. They were getting more and more frustrated with the record traffic jam on the Edinburgh City bypass. Texts were being sent, calls made and more huffing and puffing done than any wolf ever did out looking for a bacon sandwich. Listening to soothing music helped me not get too stressed as part of the journey that would normally take anything from one minute to maybe six or seven took a few moments short of an hour. I was glad I had left early enough because there was nothing else to do apart from sit back and enjoy the music until I got to the airport.
I was there in time and got to Heathrow on an uneventful flight.
Terminal 5 has had a huge effect on how busy things are at the other terminals now. Arriving at terminal 1 was like coming into a ghost town, so quiet, almost eerie. The best thing was that for the first time ever the bags were on the carousel before I had walked from the plane. Terminal 4 was much the same, very very quiet. It felt like a Sunday at a small provincial airport rather than the worlds busiest on a weekday.
I had four hours or so to wait before I was due to meet the rest of the Born Free lot. John, the Producer turned up and presented me with the camera I would be using on the trip. I was glad that he had arrived a little early because it gave me a chance to familiarise myself with a camera that I had never used before.
Not long after that I saw some familiar faces, Shirley from Born Free and Rolland the Photographer for the Sunday Mirror were amongst the little band that including us amounted to twelve. We all said our hellos and made our introductions. After checking in we prepared to go airside to film Bella’s crate being put into the aircraft. The regulations about being around down on the tarmac mean that you have to wear hi visibility clothing. We were thoughtfully provided with those by the airline. I was just glad that there were no minor injuries when the ten of us were down on the apron. The jackets were very hi visibility because they were brand new but also each one pointed us out as “First Aiders”!
All that was needed to be filmed was the crate containing Bella being put onboard the plane and a little piece from Virginia McKenna telling us how exciting it was for another lion to be going to live in conditions much better than the ones she’d been in.
The long night flight to Malawi via Nairobi was made a little bit bearable because it was not too busy. Most of us managed to get a whole row to ourselves allowing at least a modicum of comfort and the chance to sleep.
Tuesday 3rd March 2009
My body knew it was 3am when we landed at Jomo Kenyata Airport in Nairobi and kept telling me it knew. The rest of the group looked like their bodies were shouting out the same message. Well all except Virginia, she outstripped everyone else by at least ten years in age, but looked as if she had just wandered out of her house for an early morning stroll.
There was to be a two hour wait for the flight to Lilongwe via Lusaka. The local time was 6am and the airport was coming to life very quickly. In a short space of time the cafes were full of sweaty travellers, the transfer desk had a long queue with a mixture of the old hands who stood with a resigned nonchalance to the jittery one off flyers nervously moving from foot to foot hoping not to miss their connection.
This flight was the one we were all not looking forward to. Instead of a nice direct two and a half our hop it was a five hour schlep with an hour on the ground in Lusaka sitting in the aircraft.
Feeling hot and sweaty we arrived at Lilongwe airport. Mark, a jolly slightly round faced chap greeted us with a welcoming smile and strong hand shake. Our bags were put on a trailer and we jumped in to a large 4x4. Round at the cargo section of the small airport I filmed Bella’s crate being put on a small light pick up van. John the vet, Tony the expert animal handler and Lee the director of the Lilongwe Wild Life Centre jumped aboard with it and putt putted off away from the airport. I got on the back of another pick up and did some shots of the curious little vehicle with its precious cargo jaunting along the road.
A Hot, Sweaty and Tired Group at Lilongwe Airport
At the enclosure specially built for Bella a sloping pit had been dug out. The driver slowly reversed the little van down into the pit. The tail was now level with the ground. Workers from the Centre then carefully manhandled the crate off the back and over to the hatch that opened into the enclosure.
The sun was quite hot and all concerned were keen to get the crate open and give Bella the opportunity to get out and stretch her legs in her new home. Rolland the photographer from the Sunday Mirror and I had little holes in the compound fence cut to allow us to get our camera lenses through to get clean shots of Bella as she came out. I needed to position my tripod at this hole. The problem was that along with my microphones the tripod had been taken to the place we were to be staying. By the time I got the equipment I needed things were getting a tiny bit tense as the crate was getting a little bit on the warm side. I quickly needed to film a little chat with Virginia before she opened the crate to give Bella her new found freedom. I put a radio microphone on to Virginia, picked up the camera, shoved the earphones in my ears and with John giving her a final note on what he would like her to say I heard some strange hissing and crackling coming from the mic’. It could have been a number of faults that were causing it, but with the pressure on to get the crate open I did not have time to investigate and fault find. I pulled out a hand microphone swapped it for the radio mic, thrust it into John’s hand and told him were to point it. I cued Virginia off. In one great take she spoke eloquently and passionately about how she was feeling about what was about to happen.
Virginia then climbed on to the top of the crate as if she was a thirty year old. Her enthusiasm and desire to do her bit for the animals she has come to love and respect very often, no, not very often, always makes all around her forget that she has had her OAP bus pass for quite a number of years. There are a huge number of people of her age sitting in high backed chairs shouting at the television and telling stories about the past. That is not Virginia. She is a prime example that thinking about the future, not for yourself but others and being passionate is a life giving force in itself.
Once again there was a small hiatus as I got the camera on the tripod and prepared for the lifting of the crate door. I framed my shot of Virginia and cued her off. She lifted the panel and I tilted down to the open crate. Pretty much as I expected there was no rushing lion bounding out leaping in the air with joy at being in a lovely safe environment. Instead she sat deep in the crate not wanting to venture into what was to her a strange alien place full of weird smells and noises of animals she’d never encountered in her life. Rolland, who had come with Bella all the way from Romania and slept beside her, well her crate, on the rather dodgy Russian transport plane that brought her to Heathrow gently shouted out,
“Bella! Bella! Out you come Bella!”, in his best Brummie accent.
I then heard off to my left a rather indignant voice say,
“Well that’s not going to get her out is it! Humph!”
Round the crate there was some very mild encouragement to get her to come out. It was very gentle because the experts like John and Tony know that an animal will come out in it’s own good time when it feels safe and secure and forcing it out pretty much defeats the purpose of the rescue in the first place. On one rescue and release I filmed with Born Free, the crate with a lioness called Aki in it was opened in the middle of the day but she did not venture out until late at night when there was no-one around.
There was one thing they could do that might do it without causing her any extra trauma. The crate was turned around and the side that she had her back against opened. That did the trick. As soon as it was opened she turned her head to the opening and started taking an interest in what was behind her. Slowly she turned around in the crate and faced the enclosure. Out of her one eye she surveyed the strange place. Her head tilted up as she sniffed at the unfamiliar smells. Very very slowly her large soft furry paws padded in tiny steps to the edge of the crate. Her head was now out in the open. My camera was rolling. Rolland's shutter was clicking away. She surveyed the scene carefully. Her movements were slow and deliberate but with each turn of the head and movement of a paw we could tell that she was accepting of what was before her and her confidence in her own security was growing.
The shot that I had of her was as tight as I could get. I looked up out of the viewfinder and saw Virginia with her hands up at her face as the tension that had built up eased away as Bella, with all her frailties of having less than perfect sight in her only eye and difficulty walking on her back legs because of bone problems caused by being given a bad diet when she was young, came out with a dignity that you only ever see in those who have overcome the most terrible circumstances inflicted on them by thoughtless and malicious others.
Then came the moment that had even a couple of hardened tabloid hacks swallowing a lump in their throats and tears in the eyes of just about all of us that had the privilege and pleasure of witnessing it.
Bella was now out of the crate. She scanned to her right and left. She then made a slow but very deliberate turn to her left. As her body turned she turned her head a little bit further round and looked straight at Virginia. She held her gaze for quite some time. It was as if she was giving affirmation to what had been done in the recent weeks to get her here. She may not have been able to say thank you or even to consciously think it, but if ever an animals body language spoke loudly it was at that moment.
I hoped that my pictures could convey to the GMTV audience what we all felt. I did a tilt down from Virginia’s emotion filled face to the lioness looking up in grateful thanks. I might not have been able to see Bella’s face but the emotion was there brighter and more forceful than a shining sun.
Bella enjoying her new home.
It had been a long couple of days of tiring travel but seeing what we saw gave us all a lift. So we all trouped of for a shower a meal and a good nights sleep.
Suzy enjoying her temporary surroundings!
Wednesday 4th March 2009
I woke to the sound of, nothing. It was one of the best nights sleeps I had had in a long time. If I concentrated I could hear the sound of the chirruping cicadas in the trees. There was not much filming for us to do today. All that needed to be done were a couple of pieces to camera with Virginia and her chatting to Lee the force behind the Born Free element of the Wild Life Centre. Once we had all eaten a very nice breakfast in the gentle warmth of a slightly cloudy Malawian morning we set off on a very quick drive, then on foot the short distance to the Bella’s new home.
When we got there Bella was enjoying the early morning sun laying on her back, legs in the air.
“Great shot!” I thought as I tried to push my camera through a gap in the fence. The gap was not large enough for the camera. At that point she decided to get up and go for a stroll. I didn’t get the shot. I did do another few shots of her as she wandered around with some nice close ups of her face.
We did the little bits of interview and pieces to camera with Virginia quickly and easily. She is an amazing lady. Her ability to draw you in to her passion in a quiet dignified very British way is incredible. No wonder Born Free is able to raise the funds and get great people to make rescues like the one for Bella happen.
In the afternoon after nearly three hours of the heavens being so wide open that it felt like the world might sink we managed to get about an hour of free time to get into Lilongwe and have a very quick look around.
Good Old African Rain.
Benson, our driver took us through the busy streets to a little shop where we could get all the usual tourist tat that can be found in most African countries; sculpted elephants, rather scary wooden masks, delicately carved ostrich eggs and some pretty lethal looking knives. It was not a very large shop but we were soon doing our own individual browsing. One by one we decided that there was nothing there for us. Rolland was first to wander out. I noticed as we drove past that outside the shop there was a bit of a street market.
I was last to venture out after one final circuit of the shelves to confirm that there was really nothing that I wanted.
About fifty meters in front of me I could see a large scrum moving slowly from side to side. In the middle of the huddle of humanity I glimpsed a flash of bright green. That was Rolland's T-shirt. He was totally surrounded by ten to fifteen polite but forceful guys asking him to look at their wares. On the edge of his little group was another smaller crowd with John in the centre. As I walked towards them I realised that I had picked up a similar entourage. One guy with a woolly hat, a big toothy smile that signalled a keen enthusiasm, told me his name was Fantastic and he would not give me any hassle. I just needed to look at his beautiful things. A couple of the group broke away as we approached some wet cardboard on the ground. With the flourish a magician uses to reveal the climax of a trick they removed the sodden bits of old boxes to reveal some beautiful little carvings, amazing tiny 4x4 trucks made from raffia and more stuff similar to that in the shop. I was pretty sure that I did not want to buy anything. Things were being pushed into my hand always accompanied by, “I am not hassling you.”
I complimented them on how beautiful the things were. I genuinely liked a lot of it, but it was not what I wanted. I was gently guided past several of these little displays with the same ritual being played out at each one. As the guys chatted it was plain that we were the first people to turn up that day, by that time it was late in the afternoon and they had their goods covered up to protect it from the rain. I did feel quite guilty not spending what little cash I had to swell the local economy because it needed it. All around was real, not relative poverty. The majority of the men around me would be lucky to earn in a year what I and most of us can walk away with in a week.
As well as the good natured pressure to buy from the stall holders and their pals there was a young woman with a child of about between six months to a year old at her breast. She was gently pleading for some money. I was trying to ignore her for two reasons. The first and over riding one of them was guilt because I knew the sort of conditions she and her baby would be living in. I had seen it at first hand in other parts of Africa. The second was self preservation because I knew that as soon as I was seen to give her anything there would be a swarm of equally genuine deserving cases around me.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a neckless that I knew my wife would like. I picked it up.
“I will give you a good price.” said my new friend Fantastic.
“Here we go it is bargaining time.” I thought.
The price started at $65. Fantastic and I spent the next five minutes in some friendly haggling. I got the price down to $35 when I decided to agree. I only had $10 notes. Surprise surprise he had no change. I ended up paying $40. I knew it was a rip off but it assuaged my guilt a little. A year or so ago I had bought a similar one from an airport in Tanzania. It had cost me $20.
As we were being driven away I asked Benson to stop. I motioned to the lady with the baby to come over. I put a ten dollar note in her hand. She smiled and waved. We drove off. I hope it helped at least a little.
Thursday 6th March 2009
We had a long days travel ahead of us, a lot of it waiting in Nairobi for the flight to London.
We decided that we had the time to get out of the airport and go into Nairobi and have a meal. Suzy recommended a place called “Carnivore”.
The journey to the restaurant was interesting. We sat in a Nairobi traffic jam for almost an hour. It would appear that the this is where the population of this bustling city do most of their shopping. There were people selling all kinds of things. Nairobi must have a huge number of Geography teachers because the main items on sale were huge maps of Africa and the world. Of course there were also any number of those ferocious knives.
The restaurant is a large place that caters for the lowest common denominator in eating, meat. The centre piece of the place is a huge barbecue shrouded in red light and smoke. The smell of spiced meats of types hits you as you walk in the door.
On the table there is a little white flag. If that flag is flying the waiters keep bringing little cuts of meat. There was tender lamb, melt in the mouth Ostrich and rather boney crocodile to name but three. When you have eaten as much as you want, or in the case of most Americans as much as you can, you put the flag down and sit back stuffed, satisfied and exhausted.
Suzy said that she got quite competitive when it came to eating. We started on the first small chicken drumstick which we all thought was very tasty. The meal seemed to gain speed as waiter after waiter brought more and more delicious meat. After one round of all the cuts there were John and Rolland gave up. Suzy looked at me. Our eyes met like pre dawn dualists. Battle was joined. We both set about attacking yet more beef, pork and Ostrich balls. Suzy was on the ropes. I had her in my sights. I could have eaten maybe another couple of pieces when she was almost forced to admit defeat when one of the waiters decided that she had eaten enough and took her plate away. A victory for me and GMTV up against the mighty red top the Sunday Mirror.
Well fed and a little sluggish we got back to the airport and got on the flight. We were so glad that it was not a busy flight. We all managed to get whole rows to ourselves to stretch out. When the trolley with the main meal appeared just after take off there was a collective heave as the smell of cooking food filtered down the aisles.