When an elephant lands on your head


Some of the many people involved in making Mission Africa

I’m trying to get my old PC and scanner up and running so I can begin to tackle digitising my enormous archive of negatives and transparencies. Lo and behold when I finally got the PC up and running, I found a disc of images from Mission Africa (MA) in the CD drawer. I’ve mentioned MA before in my blog. Mission Africa resulted in a series of documentaries for BBC 1 (there are lots of clips on You Tube) on the trials and tribulations of building a game reserve for the Samburu people of Sera in Northern Kenya.

I can’t remember seeing this disc of pictures before but looking at them now, I’m reminded of how crazy the project was. Fifty degree celsius heat, wild animals, seriously remote locations with real life bandits and a show to make every two and half days were just a few of the problems we had to overcome.  I was employed as series producer but with so many shows to make and too few able bodied personnel  I had to pick up the camera as well.

Chasing an Elephant

Me shooting in Kenya

With about two weeks to go before we finished filming on location, we had to dart a mature bull elephant to fix a tracking collar round its neck. Darting this enormous beast with tranquilisers was tricky. Trying to follow a fully grown drunk elephant rampaging through the bush was dodgier still. But it was when we finally found the animal that the real fun began.

It had eventually succumbed to the tranquilisers and had stumbled and crashed to a halt amongst trees on the side of a steep hill. As I ran through the bush, checking all the time to make sure my camera was running and I was ready to capture the scene, I was stopped dead in my tracks. Nothing prepares you for five tonnes of wild animal legs akimbo, snoring louder than twenty old men in a dormitory. I was overcome with emotion. Stunned by the magnitude of what lay in front of me.

Five tonnes of snoozing bull elephant

Five tonnes of snoozing bull elephant

The group caught up and all stopped dead. No-one moved until the Rangers from Lewa broke the spell and started shouting orders. Although the animal was blissfully unaware of its predicament, it was actually in mortal danger. The dose of tranquilisers required to knock out an elephant has to be so powerful that an antidote must be administered quickly or the animal will die. It lay awkwardly with it’s legs uphill and needed to be rolled down hill so the collar could be slipped under its enormous neck.

It’s not something you get taught in first year at school, but while some of the rangers attached ropes others gave a crash course to our trainees on how to flip an elephant. Soon, some were pushing from above and others from down below.

The sight and the sounds were incredible. The animal snored and grunted as they shouted and heaved. I raced around trying to get as many angles as I could. My heart was in my mouth as I ran to the down-side of the hill to capture that final moment as the elephant finally reached its tipping point.

I looked at the animal, working out its likely trajectory and stuck my eye back in the viewfinder. Looking through lenses is a rewarding but dangerous job at the best of times. It’s a well known phenomenon that a photographer’s sense of danger is diminished by the act viewing rather than participating. This is exacerbated by the myriad of decisions that go through the filmmaker’s head. Am I running? Am I framed and sharp? Do I need an establisher again? Which of the characters is telling the story best? Is that a boom in shot? Where is my sound recordist? Have I all the shots I need to do the story justice? Where should I be next? How much tape do I have? How will I wrap this scene…crash.

Filming the elephant as it is being turned over

Filming the elephant as it is being turned over

We used the shot in the title sequence. The elephant reaches its tipping point, starts to roll toward camera then, woosh, there’s a blur of colour and light. I may have positioned myself to miss the animal but I failed to notice that its huge sharp tusks were lying on either side of a tree. The momentum of tonnes of elephant flesh snapped the tree at its roots and hammered it down on my head.

Apparently I came to quite quickly. Took the viewfinder which had been smashed off the camera stuck it back in my eye and started filming. The only problem was, it wasn’t attached to the camera. I have vague recollections of plugging it back in and getting the camera working after a fashion. My AP tells me she held me round the waist as I alternately filmed and blacked out. You can watch what was broadcast of this event in a clip on You Tube – keep an eye out for 2:05, which is the tree landing on my head.

I still have little memory of the rest of the events of that day. Even the following day when we were darting lion I was still blacking out.

The end of filming Mission Africa

The end of filming Mission Africa

From then on until the end of the shoot two weeks later, it’s all a bit of a blur. There is a book in the adventures we had on this shoot but on the last day, when the people from Sera gathered to take possession of their new lodges, wells and animals it all seemed worth it… or at least I think it did.

Photographs by Anna Parkinson.

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