Discover Botswana: In Conversation With Brad Bestelink
The following article is a piece I wrote for the regional magazine, Discover Botswana. I interview our founder, Brad Bestelink, and describe how he built his business in one of the most extraordinary ecosystems on our planet. If you would like to see the full spread, please visit: https://online.flipbuilder.com/lcha/vgqa/mobile/index.html?fbclid=IwAR2fxQaCExrf_GIfWrHrxzdhpqRPyFeKzW4W3pXI2rLt_05Dw_J9dCtQYPA.
Photo by Liz Johnston
Brad Bestelink was born into the Okavango at a time when only the most intrepid of tourists were just beginning to explore it. Raised in camps, his extraordinary childhood gifted him with an unrivalled knowledge of the natural world around him. In conversation with Brad, he’ll stop you mid-sentence to point out the soft grunts of a male lion, barely distinguishable to the ear, or suddenly spot a rare nesting bird and rush off to film it. Today, his home is one of the world’s most exclusive safari destinations. Over this time, he saw that the Okavango’s preservation could only be achieved with the economic empowerment of those living in its shadow. At the same time, he witnessed the fundamental role sustainable tourism plays in this, from the creation of jobs, to the exponential increase in quality of life. So, in 2010, Brad launched the ‘Natural History Film Unit Botswana’, using the medium of film to share its unrivalled beauty and authenticity, with a simple message: see it for yourself.
Photo by William Steele
By the time this article is published in January 2021, it’ll be the rainy season. Around midday, tempestuous clouds will crowd the sky, sending down thick, globular rain droplets that nourish the blooming wildflowers and grasses below. The Delta’s newest residents are born into this season of plenty. Tiny impalas stumble through the undergrowth on their oversized limbs, while their predator’s cubs shake raindrops off matted fur in frustration. As they grow older, the clouds make way for clear skies and floodwaters trickle in from the heartbeat of the Delta. 11-trillion litres of water spills out from the papyrus swamps of the north to the forests of the south, sending replenishing nutrients sweeping through their sandy beds. As the water ebbs and flows, a tapestry of habitats, unlike anything else on Earth, is born.
Photo by Hannah Gormley
It is the birds that alert you to the arrival of the flood, as storks, kingfishers, and egrets of every denomination cloud the skies. That first night, you’ll hear the roar of red Lechwe as they course across the new rivers. Bellowing hippos follow next, announcing their presence as they prepare to fight for the best spots on the river. Crocodiles lurk beneath the surface, underwater forests flourish, and fish dart amongst their new homes in fright. As the hippos wade downriver, and the elephants rejoice in its cool shallows, they forge new waterways that determine where the flood goes next. It is the termites, however, that decide where the water stays. Their mounds are the work of thousands of individuals working as one, under a king and queen. It is their activity that fragments the Okavango into 15,000 islands, forcing prey, predator, ally and enemy into even closer proximity.
Photo by William Steele
The floodwaters must sustain the Okavango until the rains return. Winter passes, with freezing nights carpeting the Delta in twinkling layers of frost, until summer beckons once again. As temperatures rise, the flood leaves crystal-clear waters in its wake and grassy plains are stripped to sand. At its hottest, even the delicate touch of a leopard’s paw can stir golden clouds of dust into the sky. Under this scorching sun, a crimson and cerulean carpet of nesting carmine bee-eaters gather. But their arrival precedes something much more dramatic. Huge bolts of lightning blitz through the sky and wildfires erupt across the parched land. The landscape, however, rejoices. The fearless bee-eaters dart into the fiery depths to capture escaping insects, and the ashes of ancient forests return critical nutrients to the soil. As the rains return, the fires are snuffed out, and the cycle begins once more.
Photo by William Steele
With a system so in flux, the Okavango is home to an unparalleled diversity of life and, under the stewardship of Botswana’s proud citizens, today houses the world’s largest remaining population of increasingly endangered animals like elephants and cheetahs. This unique desert-oasis was therefore the obvious choice for Brad’s wildlife filmmaking company. Throughout his decorated career, I was surprised to find out his proudest achievement wasn’t when he pioneered filming with crocodiles or changed the science on hippos. Instead, it was the initiation of the NHFU’s community engagement project, in which their translated documentaries are broadcast amongst communities living directly in the Okavango’s shadow. One such event was held in Nxamasere, near the palm-fringed Nxamaseri Island Lodge where Brad spent much of his childhood. This village is located in the heart of the Okavango’s Panhandle, through which every single drop of life-sustaining floodwater flows. Despite this, the Panhandle currently has no protection, and so the responsibility to safeguard it lies with those that live there.
Photo by Noah Falklind
The most difficult part of wildlife filmmaking is not the filming, but the storytelling. How do you communicate the raw, primitive emotions you feel watching the action unfold first-hand? The goose-bumps you get watching an invisible leopard slink through a forest, the reverence at the soft rumbles of an elephant, the awe at a thousand-strong herd of buffalo in pale-gold light, or the judgement you feel under the gaze of the beady-eyed Pel’s fishing owl. Appealing to the emotion of your audience is the only way to captivate attention and elicit a reaction, whether that’s a resident of Nxamasere or someone watching from the other side of the planet. It’s safe to say that hippos are not everyone’s favourite animal. But ‘Africa’s River Giants’ proved just as popular with the citizens of Nxamasere as it was abroad. Soft coos echoed amongst the crowd as the new-born hippo was introduced, laugher rippled at their faecal-focused displays, and everyone held their breath as one at the moment the young hippo was introduced to his less-than-friendly family.
Photo by Hannah Gormley
The aim is to communicate how every single one of the Okavango’s unique animals is precious, not just for their environmental services, but also the economic security they bring by drawing tourists from around the world. In doing so, we hope to foster a sense of stewardship amongst the people of Ngamiland. For it is sustainable tourism that creates stable jobs, for the people of Nxamasere and beyond. It nourishes the local economy and nurtures this proud and emerging country’s long term development. It’s the justification, if ever one was needed, to preserve the Delta in its entirety, so that all the people of Ngamiland and their future generations may be enriched and directly benefit from the untouched lands that surround them. Coronavirus has been a brutal reminder of where we would be without it. So, please do Discover Botswana. With your help, its jewel may just remain untarnished.
Written by Hannah Gormley