Book review – Journeys in the Wild: The Secret Life of a Cameraman

In recent years, wildlife documentaries have started featuring short “making-of” sections at the end of each episode, showing the camera crew in action as they try to film animals in the wild. The reason for this, as Sir David Attenborough explains in his foreword, is actually very mundane. But they have proven wildly popular with audiences and I always find them incredibly interesting. They show the effort, hardship, and patience required for capturing that perfect shot. Journeys in the Wild, then, is like a giant collection of such segments from cameraman Gavin Thurston. For the last 30 years, he has travelled the globe to film footage for some of the best-known wildlife documentaries, racking up more hilarious, unnerving, and wondrous adventures than most people would know what to do with.

Journeys in the Wild

Journeys in the Wild: The Secret Life of a Cameraman“, written by Gavin Thurston, published by Seven Dials (an Orion Books imprint) in August 2019 (hardback, 441 pages)

The downside of being a cameraman is that you are literally out of the picture, so most people might have no idea who goes behind the name Gavin Thurston. But if I say BBC, David Attenborough, Blue Planet II, or Planet Earth you might get an idea. That, and he has won Emmy and BAFTA Film awards for his work. Still stumped? Remember that utterly bizarre sequence in Blue Planet II of an underwater brine pool with an eel suffering toxic shock? That was Thurston behind the camera.

Now, a picture may say more than a thousand words, but Thurston’s book tells of all the things that the cameras did not capture. Journeys in the Wild is divided into seven parts, each seemingly structured around a certain theme (first encounters, courage, patience, luck etc.) and contains a series of diary entries in chronological order.

The material here is thoroughly engrossing and there are some nail-bitingly tense situations: a narrow escape from a kidnapping in India, being caught out in a fierce storm in Antarctic waters, crashing an aeroplane in remote Gabon, being stalked by a pride of lions, or nearly being beaten up by a kangaroo. Especially the trip into war-torn Sudan to film for the BBC is harrowing to read.

But there are also moments of comic relief: dressing up as a gorilla to get close-up shots of sitatunga (small, swamp-dwelling antelopes), dealing with a corrupt customs official in Panama who insists on a “donation for their Christmas party”. But it was the opening scene in a UK studio filming rabbits, where a dominant male rabbit by the name of Piss Dick gets up to no good that had me in stitches, tears running down my face with laughter.

“The opening scene […] where a dominant male rabbit by the name of Piss Dick gets up to no good […] had me in stitches”

There are moments of intense wonder, as Thurston witnesses wildlife and natural events that most people will never see, in many cases before he even has a chance to record it: a chimpanzee admiring a butterfly, the mating call of the male kakapo (an endemic ground-dwelling parrot) in New Zealand, a chance encounter with a wild fossa (an endemic mammalian carnivore) in Madagascar. But he does not shy away from the less glamorous sides of the job: the long days spent waiting in hides, the bush camping under all weather conditions, falling ill while travelling in the tropics, the frequent jetlags, and the long months spent away from home and family.

Thurston has many captivating anecdotes to share and I found it difficult to put the book down. But I thought there was one downside to the way Journeys in the Wild is written. It is literally a collection of diary entries, making the book feel slightly disjointed. One moment we are in the ’90s, the next moment a paragraph header announces we have fast-forwarded weeks, months, or many years to a completely different location. This leaves very little room for a continuous narrative or for reflections on how documentary filmmaking has changed over the years (there are occasional remarks on how technology has advanced, but these are made almost off-hand). The upside of this approach is that it is very easy to pick this book up or dip into it if you do not have stretches of time to read non-stop.

“There are moments of intense wonder, […] But [Thurston] does not shy away from the less glamorous sides of the job”

Although often hard work, documentary filmmakers at the same time lead a charmed and adventurous existence. Many of them would not wish to trade it for something else for all the world. There is a huge audience out there craving to hear their stories, and Thurston joins an illustrious line-up. Attenborough has written many books over the years (most recently e.g. Life on Air, Adventures of a Young Naturalist, and Journeys to the Other Side of the World: Further Adventures of a Young Naturalist), but the people working behind the scenes have equally captivating stories to tell, e.g. James Aldred’s The Man Who Climbs Trees, Doug Alan’s Freeze Frame, Keith Partridge’s The Adventure Game: A Cameraman’s Tales from Films at the Edge, and the forthcoming The Whale in Your Room: Adventures of a Blue Planet Producer by producer John Ruthven.

I think it is no exaggeration to say that wildlife documentaries have been influential in shaping people’s attitude to the conservation of wildlife and natural habitats (see also BBC Wildlife Documentaries in the Age of Attenborough). If anything, Thurston’s drive to capture footage of some of nature’s extraordinary wonders for all to see shines through in this book. If you ever wondered what goes on behind the lens, then Journeys in the Wild is just the ticket: a captivating collection of exotic encounters and truly memorable adventures.

If you want to read more, an interview with Thurston was posted over at my employer’s blog.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

Journeys in the Wild hardback, paperback, ebook or audiobook

 

Other recommended documentaries or books mentioned in this review:

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