Did you know that hippos bathed in the sea surf? Or that there is a prehistoric cave located right under the Kalahari called Dragon’s Breath, so-called because of the way steam escapes out of the mouth of the cave when the outside air is cold? Did you know what a shoebill was until Attenborough showed us, or how heartless it can be with its young? No. Neither did I.
My favourite of Attenborough’s history of televising the natural world is the Blue Planet. It’s the one that tapped right into my love of the ocean and all the creatures that inhabit it. When I saw the trailers for Africa appearing on my screen, like any fan of Attenborough’s programmes I felt a surge of excitement as I knew he and the BBC would not let us down.
And indeed they haven’t. So far we have toured the Kalahari, the Savannah and the Congo and this week’s episode will feature a trip around South Africa and the Cape, followed by a final tour in episode five next week of the Sahara. Personally it’s tomorrow night’s episode I’m looking forward to the most, as my afore-mentioned fish fetish will be fed quite substantially if the trailer is anything to go by, featuring the spectacle of great whites devouring an enormous whale carcass.
Highlights for me have included the discovery of blind golden catfish in the hidden lake within Dragon’s Breath; the way the golden wheel spider escapes its predators by doing an Indiana Jones down the sand dunes; seeing a rock python warm herself up by basking in 40 degree heat in order to incubate her eggs… and who knew that giraffes were that fierce and violent? Now you know better.
With each new series Attenborough and his team continually raise their own bar on the standard of natural history filmmaking. The use of slow motion and sped-down shots in Africa illustrate the extreme methods that the animals of the plains undertake in order to survive. Take for example the game of Russian roulette tiny agama lizards play with their lives as they leap like children on rooftops across sleeping lions trying to snatch circulating bluebottles. One swipe of a giant lion paw and those lizards are going to know about it.
And it’s not just the techniques of filming we marvel at from the comfort of our sofas as we watch. Spare a thought for the cameramen who traipse through miles of damp and humid Congo rainforest in the slightest hope of witnessing a female chimpanzee as she hammers away at a tree to get at the honey produced by sweat bees. A woman after my own heart indeed.
The programme has certainly not been without its gut-wrenching stories too as it documents the harsh realities of day-to-day survival. In a particularly heart-breaking scene during Savannah, a mother elephant has a Sophie’s Choice-moment when she is forced to choose between continuing with her family through the dust-choked plains to find water to ensure her own survival, or stay with her dehydrated calf who cannot continue walking any more. Sadly, her choice is made for her as her baby gives up on its short life, succumbing to the blistering heat and its thirst. Watched over by its helpless mother, it lays down to die and it’s a cruel moment as we see just how merciless Mother Nature can be.
There are further brutal moments too as we witness a battle between two male giraffes fighting over a female. Up until now I had thought the giraffe somewhat of a gentle giant, but clearly when there is the love of a good woman at stake then it’s a different story if the scars and wounds on the hinds of the giraffes are anything to go by.
However Africa has some truly heart-warming and humorous moments too; the afore-mentioned sight of hippos relaxing in the surf off Loango beach, western Africa; tiny frogs kicking each other out of the way ninja-style in the attempt to claim the tallest branch and thus lure a mate in the Congo forest, and the social activities of picathartes, who I dubbed to myself ‘IKEA birds’, given their colours and skills at home decorating.
Attenborough and his team are masters in their field in the way they help us discover and learn about the lives of many animals we otherwise might not get a chance to see, unless at a zoo or park. However if I am at either of these establishments and I come across an armoured ground cricket and his homies, I can assure you I will be bolting it the other way to go and play with the red river hogs.
If you have missed any episodes of Africa, then catch up with them here at BBC iPlayer.