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.
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.
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.
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.