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Mmegi: an interview with Charles Thalefang and Brad Bestelink

We invited Charles Thalefang, a journalist for local newspaper 'Mmegi', to visit us at our operational hub here in the Okavango Delta. Here's some of what he had to say....

"Out in the Okavango wilderness, onboard a modified film truck, tracking leopards, the legendary filmmaker, Brad Bestelink, gives Mmegi Staff Writer, THALEFANG CHARLES, rare access. An exclusive wide-ranging interview about natural history storytelling, animated with interjections of stops while listening out for that bark of a primate, the snort of a herbivore, the high-pitched chirrup of a squirrel, and screech of a francolin to lead us to predators. Brad Bestelink is a modern-day bushman. The Okavango Delta has been his home ever since he was born there 44 years ago. His parents were pioneers in the photographic safari industry, replacing their guns with cameras. Bestelink found his passion and calling while he was still a teenager. At 16, he became the youngest professional bush guide in Botswana, and that was when he realised his love and passion was for wildlife. He has never looked back since then.

“After finishing school, all I wanted to do was to be back in the Delta with wildlife and it turned from safaris to filming. I decided to forego a ‘standard’ education, return to the Delta and rather experience the tutelage of the iconic filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. Under their expert guidance, I worked as a camera operator for them for five years, then spent another six years shooting for them,” recounts Bestelink. After years of working with his mentors, Bestelink decided to leave the Jouberts and set up his own production company. And that is how Natural History Film Unit (NHFU) was born. Bestelink is now a legendary natural history cinematographer, with his name appearing in over 16 productions. “It is my privilege to live and work here, in one of the last truly wild places left on earth, and it is my greatest pride that my films play a role in protecting it, both for future generations and for its increasingly endangered inhabitants,” says Bestelink.

His highly rated Savage Kingdom, filmed in Savuti, changed the course of natural history filmmaking. Savage Kingdom adopted a wildlife drama approach to nature storytelling and that attracted many new viewers who used to find nature documentaries boring. Written by Bestelink and narrated by Charles Dance, the series introduced real-life lion characters like Sekekama, Motsumi, and a leopard called Tshaba. The success of Savage Kingdom boosted Botswana’s tourism industry and helped bring more attention to the Okavango Delta even amongst people who were disinterested in nature issues. “The fate of the Okavango lies in the hands of those that live and work on its shores. Our films inspire its audience to come and see the action for themselves and, by travelling here, these tourists empower and employ the local population, and ensure that there is a justification to preserve the Okavango Delta for centuries to come,” says Bestelink.

He has also worked in many other productions including Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale, Okavango: A Flood of Life, The Flood, Lion Brothers: Cubs to Kings, Hostile Planet, Diving with Crocodiles, Leopards of Dead Tree Island, Pride in Battle, amongst others.... After many years of living in the bush, some people simply get bored, but this is what keeps Bestelink here. “You show me a job that is every day filled with optimism. We go out into the wild here, and at any point, you could see something that nobody has ever seen before and you get an opportunity to film it. “What other job has that optimism every day? You wake up inspired. That is what drives me.”

Bestelink’s advice, for anyone looking to enter the industry, is to study filmmaking or approach production companies. “If you can, study a film degree, then specialise in natural history. If you can’t study, then apply and try get yourself associated with a production company and be prepared to do the time and investment because it is going to take more time to then become a proficient natural history camera operator,” he advised. The full interview can be found at: https://www.mmegi.bw/features/brad-bestelink-a-lifetime-of-natural-history-storytelling/news.