Flying With Bats

There’s a swamp in central Zambia at the confluence of the Musola and Kasanka Rivers which each year hosts the biggest aggregation of mammals in Africa.

Nobody knows why 11 million Straw-coloured Fruit bats fly from all over central Africa every November to roost in just a handful of trees in an area measuring only about 2km by 300m. The bats come from as far afield as Uganda in the East to Cameroon in the North, basically from all over the Congo rain forest. They don’t come to breed, many are already carrying babies beneath them so presumably they must make their long migrations carrying the extra weight of a youngster. They don’t come to feed although at twilight they all fly out to feed through the night  on the abundant waterberries of the miombo woodlands.  The fruit isn’t especially abundant though and no reason to fly a more than a thousand miles for

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The truth is, it’s a bit of a mystery, but what the hell. It’s a bloody spectacular sight to see all 11 million bats fly past an African sunset and that’s from the ground.  The BBC, “Life’ producer Ted Oakes had envisioned filming this spectacle not only from the ground but also from short range in the air. In short our plan was to fly with the bats!

Enter Dany Cleyet-Merrel, a handsomely bearded & moustached Frenchman who speaks absolutely no English at all. Dany is an inventor of wacky flying machines. In fact, for those who remember the 1965 movie with Terry Thomas and Sarah Miles, I’d go as far as to say he is THE ‘Magnificent Man in his Flying Machine’.

 

Dany has spent a lifetime inventing new ways to explore the canopy of the rain forest for scientists and explorers.

Check out his site at http://www.cleyet-marrel.com/site/?id_secteur=3&id_rubrique=10&page=pilote&id_article=30&lang=en

The particular craft we had in mind to fly with the bats was the Cinebulle (French for Filming Balloon believe it or not). The Cinebulle is a hot air balloon supporting a little 2-seat bench, (one seat for the pilot, Dany and one for the cameraman, me). Behind the bench there’s a propeller, a bit like a microlight so there is some control over the balloon’s direction  if there is no wind which was lucky for us because the bats fly only early morning and  early evening when atmospheric conditions are at their most stable.

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The Cinebulle is not an easy thing to transport to a remote part of Africa.  It’s not something a customs officer in Lusaka comes across everyday and government ministries don’t really understand why you would want to do something like this and therefore treat the whole exercise with the utmost suspicion.  The liquid propa ne to make the hot air has to be sourced locally  as  aeroplanes  really don’t like to carry tanks of this stuff.

Eventually  though, after months of preparation  it  all  came together  one morning in this little swamp  in  the  middle of Africa.   We  started to  inflate  the  balloon  at 4 am  so  we would  be  ready to fly as  soon as there was enough light to film.  Most  of  the bats had already returned for the day but there  were still  many  more flying in. We weren’t quite sure what  effect  flying  a  hot air balloon over a bat roost would have. When  a hawk flies  through  they all take off  which is pretty  spectacular but we in out balloon were slightly bigger than a  bird of prey. The plan was to start high and see what happens  then slowly  to  descend  until  we  were at treetop height.

Dany and I strapped ourselves in and I fixed the camera to a central mount  between us. We’d attracted quite a bit of attention by this point and surrounded by astonished local children, Dany gave the balloon a final few  blasts of  hot air  and  slowly  we  left  the  ground. At first all looked good, everything was working well and we rose vertically to about 10 meters. Then we  started  to  move  sideways faster than we were moving vertically heading straight for the nearest clump of trees. For a long time it was touch and go whether we  would  crash into the branches or just clear them. Danny was still recovering from a broken ankle sustained while skimming inches over the rock formations in Mono Lake in the United States. This was fine until he got to the one  rock  that  was  a  few  inches higher than the rest and it snapped his ankle.  At least tree branches have some give in them. Well, we sort of cleared the trees, in  that  our legs  and  feet  which hang into thin air beneath the bench were dragged through  the  uppermost  branches  as  we  skimmed  the treetops. I’ve  climbed  a  lot  of  trees over the years and it’s damned hard work. This though was totally effortless and  sublimely  serene  once we’d risen above the trees.  The idea normally is to skim just over the ground or water or the trees you are trying to film for a  totally  unique perspective.  You  can’t  do  this  with  a helicopter because of the down draft.  The trees would be blowing all over the place along with the bats!  Our  plan  the first  day was to gain some height of a few hundred meters and observe the reaction of the bats. However, our horizontal speed over the trees by this time far exceeded the rate of our ascent.

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I tell you, if you ever want to put 11 million bats  into  the air  all at the same time this  is   the   way   to  do  it.  Luckily,  the  bats seemed  to  fly  around   for a  few minutes and  resettle  in  the  trees  behind  us.   In front, wave  after wave of Straw – Coloured fruit bats emerged   from  the  canopy  and we  really  did  fly with them  and  amongst them.  When  I  looked  down  there   were bats  ducking  and   weaving   through  the canopy  just  inches  beneath   my   feet.  I could  reach  out  and  almost   touch    the flying bats.  We  could  look  each  other  in the eye!  I  suspect  to  the  bat    I  looked awed,    to   me   though  the    bat  looked terrified.  We  filmed  as much  as we could on   that   first   flight   and   within  a  few minutes I decided that ethically, as amazing as this was, we should not disturb  the bats again like this even though  Dany  was with us for 2 more days.

On the plus side, there was plenty of time for everyone on the crew to have a go (not near the bats of course) and the local children took turns to sit in the hot seat and give the burner a quick blast.

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