The African landscape is dominated by big animals; wildebeest, zebra, elephant, lions – the animals people come from all over the world to see.
For me as a nature sound recordist, they posed both an opportunity and a huge problem. How was I going to record them? How could I record anything else with them lurking around?
This field trip was our first experience of Africa, and we had no idea of what to expect. We had booked a vehicle for 7 weeks, and with it a driver and a cook. Roger and Ally turned out to be the best of companions; capable, knowledgeable and always filling our days with humour. Indeed, we laughed our way around Tanzania. (An early priority was to name our little safari, and after some banter, we settled on The Mwongo Mwongo Safari, which in swahili means; small talk, inane chattering, shooting the breeze or as we’d say in Australia, just talking bullshit! Perfect.)
Before we left for Africa, we anticipated that we would spend some time viewing big game, enjoying the novelty, and then leave the grunts and bellows to get down to the more rewarding business of recording the more aesthetic birdsong.
How wrong we were. The animal sounds are the highlight of the African soundscape.
We first realised this when we arrived at Tarangire, where the ‘small migration’ (Serengeti being the big migration) was in full swing. The Tarangire River was attracting huge herds of wildebeest and zebra; tens of thousands of them were grazing in the open grasslands and coming daily to the river. Hundreds of individual families of elephants wandered around, and we’d be coming across groups every day. And with the herds, came the predators; lions, cheetahs, hyena, jackals.
The problem was how to record these animals.
It is not feasible, safe, or even allowed, to get down from a vehicle in many of Tanzania’s big game parks. After mixed results recording from our vehicle, we realised we needed another approach, one that would allow us to get more intimate recordings.
I began thinking in terms of leaving the microphones out in the landscape, to record ambiently for long periods in the hope of getting something fortuitous.
This strategy was prompted by a happy discovery. Before the trip, Sarah had hesitantly purchased some no-name batteries online. When I tested them, I found they ran our SD722 digital recorder for twice the time that the Sony-branded batteries did – I was getting 10 and a half hours from a single battery!
This transformed everything. I could now leave the microphones on a tripod to record overnight, when wildlife was most active.
However, I was concerned that my microphones were taking a life-threatening risk. They could be trampled, or dragged off somewhere by hyenas. I was always anxious when returning to retrieve them, but fortunately, they survived. Their worst misadventure was a close, sniffing inspection by a pair of Aardvarks who knocked the tripod over.
However on another occasion, our gear had a lucky escape. Collecting it from under a bush after an overnight session, I noticed elephant prints in the dust right next to the microphones. Listening back at camp, we found we’d recorded a scary encounter; the footfalls of an elephant approaching steadily, the animal eventually standing right over the mics, breathing heavily, before moving off after a pride of lions began roaring only about 50 metres away. Phew!
These listening sessions at camp were a revelation. Roger would often join me, and with great expectation we’d scan through multi-hour audio files (using Izotope RX sonogram on a MacBook Pro) for the ‘interesting bits’. His ability to identify the strange sounds of the African night was invaluable. To my novice ears, hippos roaring were easy to confuse with lions, and I would have guessed our unexpected recording of leopard was just a baboon grunting.
Sitting out in the bush, our SD722 recorder would be writing to a compact flash card, to save battery life. Back at camp, the files would be backed up on HD, and by the end of the trip we had nearly 300Gb of audio data. That is a lot of listening for us to go through back in the studio!
Sometimes we’d record whole evenings with not much happening, or morning into afternoon where all the birdsong seemed to be happening somewhere in the distance. But as often as not, we found we had recorded something extraordinary.
Some of these highlight recordings have found their way onto our ‘Safari’ album. Others are awaiting forthcoming projects, such as an album of African night sounds. In the meantime, here is some of ‘Safari’ for you to sample, and you can download the complete album here:
Established in 1993 by nature sound recordist Andrew Skeoch and photographer Sarah Koschak, Listening Earth offers a range of beautiful nature sound recordings from around the world.
"Our albums feature only the sounds of nature as you would hear in the wild - no music or other distractions. Recorded in often remote and pristine locations, they bring you the relaxing and beautiful sounds of our living planet. Listen, and let our recordings take you there."