Disneynature’s Elephant: Our thousand-mile trip of a lifetime

When Planet Earth film-maker Vanessa Berlowitz moved from Bristol to Botswana with her husband and young son to track elephants across 1,000 miles of African bush, she knew it would be an adventure. She just didn’t realise how life-changing it would be.

I woke to what sounded like a giant fire hose spraying against our tent wall. It was followed by a series of thundering farts, loud crashes and bangs. We were deep in the Botswana bush, miles from civilisation, and all that stood between us and whatever lurked noisily outside was a thin sheet of canvas.

Vanessa on location in Zimbabwe
Elephant co-director Vanessa on location in Zimbabwe. Image: Mark Linfield

Feeling for my glasses, I peered through the mesh of the tent door. There, inches from my nose, stood a giant bull elephant, his trunk sliding around underneath our groundsheet to hoover up something tasty he had found. And that fire hose? He’d used our tent, pitched helpfully under a fruiting marula tree, as a toilet.

Having worked at the BBC for 25 years on countless wildlife series with Sir David Attenborough, I thought I’d seen it all. But here, shooting for the Disneynature film Elephant – a documentary that would later be narrated by the Duchess of Sussex – was the first close encounter I’d had with these extraordinary animals in the wild. It would be the first of many.

Fifteen years previously, my husband Mark had just finished shooting scenes for the BBC’s Planet Earth series in Botswana with some local film-makers, Mike and TJ Holding. Over a sundowner, they had discussed making a feature-length documentary on the untold story of Africa’s last migrating population of elephants. Every year these elephants travel more than 1,000 miles through southern Africa in search of food and water. They must brave dust storms, swim across giant rivers, defend their families from predators and even give birth on the move. Keeping up with them would be challenging. The terrain is varied and unforgiving, and while elephants don’t need passports and permits to cross country borders in Africa, film crews do. It would involve some radical life decisions for it to happen, but we were determined. So in early 2016, with our seven-year-old son Cam in tow, we moved out to Africa.

We’d sold our four-bedroom house in Bristol, rehomed our two cats with neighbours, lent our car to friends and given most of our stuff to charity. When we finally arrived in Maun, a ‘safari town’ on the edge of the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, we had just six duffle bags between us – and one of them was filled with Cam’s Lego. We rented a cottage on the edge of the river and enrolled Cam at a lovely local school called Matshwane. Our new home had pythons in the undergrowth, and hippos and crocodiles at the bottom of the garden. I’ll never forget Cam’s wide-eyed expression when an eight-year-old neighbour showed us a massive scar that circled most of his leg. The boy told Cam how his mates had dragged him from the jaws of a massive croc that had crawled on to their lawn. Even the local cat we adopted, Pardy, was fearsome – half moggy, half African wild cat. One day we woke to find a large catfish in our kitchen which she’d caught in the river and somehow dragged through her cat flap.

Vanessa and family
Vanessa, her husband and co-director Mark Linfield and their son Cam hang out with the locals in Botswana. Image: Mark Linfield

The mission that lay ahead was daunting in its scale, but we had a secret weapon in our scientific consultant, Dr Mike Chase, from Botswana-based conservation charity Elephants Without Borders. Mike has spent years tracking these elephant herds by satellite, so was able to help us focus on the families we should be following. We were also grateful for his light aircraft that helped us cover big distances while looking for elephants in the vastness of the southern African bush.

After weeks of aerial reconnaissance, a crew of 20 relocated to an elephant hotspot in the heart of the Okavango. From here we would make daily trips to film our elephants. Cam came with us while Mark and I were out filming, and home schooling in the bush had an extra dimension – we had to train him to stay vigilant when moving around camp. I never thought I’d be asking my child to watch out for elephants while doing his maths homework, or reminding him to take a minder to go to the toilet in case of lion or leopard attacks.

One morning, we woke to the rattle of palm trees shaking like maracas and palm nuts raining down on to our tent. The elephants were here and the crew were ready to film them. Elephants are great problem-solvers and knew that to eat the ripe palm nuts 20ft above their heads they had to push the base of the trees with their foreheads to bring the nuts crashing down.

Time and again I was amazed by our elephants’ ingenuity, but there was one incident that will stay with me for ever. In the height of the dry season, the herd came to a pool to drink and cool off. Things turned bad when a small calf got stuck in the mud and its mouth and trunk became clogged with gooey clay so that it couldn’t breathe. At that moment, the matriarch of the herd – not the calf’s mother – took charge. She waded out, lifted the calf’s head from the mud and began clearing out the little one’s airways with her trunk. That was impressive enough, but she then excavated a trench through which the calf could walk to safety. The mother watched throughout, apparently acknowledging that only the herd’s matriarch could pull off such a rescue.

Elephant calf stuck in mud
A calf stuck in mud is rescued by the herd’s matriarch. Image: Mark Linfield

The need to stay safe around wild animals was one of the biggest challenges to family life on the road. Elephants have pretty bad sight but a keen sense of smell. Stay downwind, and allow them to approach you, and they will often come amazingly close. On one occasion I was in the car with Mark when he was filming elephants digging up and eating mineral-rich mud. The herd drifted closer and closer until a few were digging dirt from under the front wheel of the vehicle, causing the camera shot to wobble. At one point, the closest elephant let out a low rumble. The sound was so deep that the vibrations spread through our organs like those ripples in the water glass in Jurassic Park as the tyrannosaurus rex approaches. Instantly, the 20 elephants surrounding us stopped digging, looked in our direction then slowly drifted off. If only we could have understood what their rumblings meant, it could have helped explain the amazing things they did.

On another occasion we filmed the herd passing a pile of elephant bones that were at least a year old and had been picked clean by scavengers and bleached by sun. Incredibly, the elephants stopped and took it in turns to sniff them and even pass the smaller ones between themselves. Of course, we’ll never know, but it seemed to us that they recognised the elephant the bones came from and were somehow reminiscing, sharing memories of an old friend.

Filming elephants
Filming up close for the documentary. Image: Mark Linfield

We had very few ‘normal’ days when making the film. On arriving in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Cam and I went to check out a filming location. We were there partly to film elephants being hunted by lions. This is not common behaviour – elephants are immensely powerful and mostly immune to predators. However, at the height of the dry season, when the giants are weakened by thirst and hunger, the lions have a chance.

We found the lions doing what they always do, sleeping under a tree. Until, that is, the elephants arrived to drink. One lion – the first Cam had ever seen – stood up and strode purposefully towards the approaching elephant herd, followed by the pride’s females. In the blink of an eye three lions launched themselves on to an elephant’s back and all hell broke loose. The elephant let out a blood-curdling scream and charged though the bush, the three lions clinging to its rump. Before we could catch our breath, all of the elephants and lions had vanished and the bush fell silent. The crew had to wait another month before it happened again and we could film it.

In 2016, early in our filming, we met Prince Harry and Meghan who had come to support Mike Chase’s conservation work. As Harry is patron of Mike’s charity, we gave them a sneak peek of our footage. Meghan was particularly moved by the rescue of the stuck baby. She really connected with the theme of female leadership that we were trying to bring out in the film. It gave us the idea of approaching her to narrate – we liked the thought of someone with a genuine connection both to elephants and to Botswana. What’s more, her work as a UN advocate for women felt very relevant for a film about a female-led society.

Fast-forward a year and we found ourselves recording with Meghan at Pinewood Studios. She could not have been more humble and hard-working, determined to stay as late as necessary until we were all happy with the performance.

Since we’d met her in Africa, she’d had a child of her own, and you sense a genuine warmth towards the elephant mothers and their calves in her delivery. Most of all, she wanted to ensure that her narration did the team justice. She had great respect for the enormous amount of work that had gone into documenting this story over three years by the largely unseen team of crew and conservationists.

With 100 African elephants being killed every day, there could be no better time to shine a light on this critical region. More than a third of the continent’s elephants live between Botswana and Zimbabwe, making it Africa’s last stronghold. Now, thanks to donations from both Disney and Meghan, Mike Chase and his team will be able to do even more to help protect these majestic creatures. And our African adventure? Just like elephants, we’ll never forget it.

Disneynature’s Elephant is streaming now on DisneyPlus.