IMG_9340

 

This page may seem a little self-indulgent, but my travels to the UK Overseas Territories are the culmination of my life’s work, and it has dominated my waking thoughts and dreams for the last four years, so I want to tell the story of this project for anyone who may find it of interest.

For me, natural history is not just a pastime: it is my life. I have been obsessed with the natural world for as long as I can remember. I began to collect shells, fossils, rocks and butterflies as soon as I could walk to find them, and from the age of seven, I amassed a small zoo in my bedroom as I reared up to one hundred species of insects, fish, reptiles, spiders, frogs, salamanders, crayfish, hermit crabs, giant millipedes and countless other exotic treasures. I loved plants just as much as animals, and bred and collected carnivorous plants in several terrariums and a greenhouse.

David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries left me, like countless others across the globe, spellbound and numb with awe. Several of my earliest memories involve watching his films and the wildlife that he showcased. As a child, I devoured books on nature and explorers, and came in particular to idolise the nineteenth-century observational naturalists, especially Robert and Richard Schomburgk, Everard Im Thurn, Alexander von Humboldt, Henry Moseley, Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker and Alfred Russel Wallace. The sense of excitement and raw wonder at the intricacy of the natural world that permeates the writings of these great minds spoke to my soul, and left me desperate to see some of the natural wonders of the world for myself.

As a teenager, annual visits with my mother to the cathedral-like Natural History Museum in London and the steamy crystal-palaces of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew were near-religious experiences for me. Trips to entomological fairs with my father left me in awe. To my young mind, nothing seemed purer or more wonderful than studying, understanding and appreciating the natural world in all its splendour, and I couldn’t help but dream of becoming a naturalist myself one day.

During the bed-ridden, hospitalised summer of my sixteenth year, I began writing my first book, which examined the diversity of American pitcher plants, of which the South American genera were particularly obscure, and in some cases virtually unknown, at the time.

Natural history is essentially story-telling, and its pinnacle to my mind would be presenting high-integrity wildlife documentaries, but I knew that getting to that goal would be extremely difficult. I chose to study Geography at university because I wanted to gain a broad, foundational understanding of the systems and laws that govern our world, which I knew would be crucial for later study of biodiversity and ecosystems. During my degree, I wanted to study Geography from many different perspectives, and received scholarships to study for a year in Germany and another in the United States. Between these years abroad, I organised what remains the most epic series of expeditions that I have ever undertaken. With two friends, I organised a pair of helicopters to undertake exploration of some of the most remote and least explored mountains in all of South America. The journey resulted in the re-discovery of several species that had been lost to science for decades. It also gave me enough information and photographs to complete the book that I had started as a teenager, as well as more material that became my second book, which I wrote whilst completing my degree in England the following year.

When I graduated, I didn’t want to undertake a Master’s degree or post-graduate studies, but elected instead to get out into the wide world and start to follow my dream of becoming a naturalist. Although I had had the idea of visiting all of the UK Overseas Territories whilst at university, I knew that it would be wise to get experience in studying plants and animals before attempting such an undertaking. Before graduating I had set up a company which I called Redfern Natural History Productions (www.RedfernNaturalHistory.com), and I began to search for a natural history subject to explore.

It was obvious to me that it would be very difficult to contribute anything meaningful to the study of large, popular, extensively studied animals, such as the big cats, elephants and primates. All had been documented for decades by leading authorities, and, in any case, many were difficult to observe at close quarters and largely out of my reach.

I decided instead to focus on the carnivorous plants which I had loved since I was a child. At the time of my graduation in 2006, around 700 species of carnivorous plants were known across the globe. They represent some of the most intricately evolved and beautiful of all plants, and were at the time grown by thousands of people across the globe, yet hundreds of species remained almost undocumented. Many had never been photographed and some had not even been seen since they were first discovered, often more than a century ago. I developed a plan to write a series of twenty-five books that would cover the key carnivorous plant genera, and I calculated that, in order to complete the series, I would need to climb about three hundred mountains across the world in order to find each species and study, photograph and document it.

I applied to several charitable trusts and received a few small private grants. This funding, combined with the meagre trickle of revenue from the two books I had written at university, allowed me to start my search for carnivorous plants. Between 2006 and 2011, I set out across South-East Asia, Africa and South America, and slowly managed to climb each mountain, one after another. In some years, I spent up to nine months in the jungle exploring remote mountains, and those travels introduced me to my wife (over an unfortunate leech incident), and, on a separate occasion, one of my best friends.

In addition to searching for known carnivorous plant species, I climbed about 30 mountains for which no records of earlier exploration existed, and on many of those peaks I was fortunate to co-discover (for usually I travelled with friends) 35 new species and other taxa of carnivorous plants, including two of the largest pitcher plants ever found. My colleagues and I decided to name one of these Nepenthes attenboroughii after Sir David. Dead animals as large as shrews were found in the traps of that species, although, like the few other similarly-sized pitcher plants that trap animals as big as rats, the killing of vertebrates by any carnivorous plant is extremely rare, and mostly takes place through freak circumstance. Regardless of these facts, the publication of N. attenboroughii attracted considerable press coverage, and the species was ranked the top new species of 2010 by the International Institute for Species Exploration.

As each year passed, I divided my time between climbing tropical mountains and working in front of computer screens to craft each new book that I wrote and self-published through my company. I feel privileged to have spent so many years on misty peaks in cloud forests studying exquisitely beautiful plants, but I equally value the memories of the thousands of guides and porters with whom I trekked, and am particularly lucky to have caught a final glimpse of their fading tribal cultures and customs.

Towards the end of 2011, I completed all the research that I needed to finish the series of carnivorous plant books, and I became increasingly eager to move towards my ultimate goal: wildlife film presenting. Around this time, I was invited to contribute short segments to several broadcast programmes concerning carnivorous plants, and I began to make a few (non-professional) short films myself. I also began submitting ideas to wildlife film production companies and TV channels. Dozens of times, I received very enthusiastic responses and requests for more detailed documents. Each time, I raced to complete whatever was asked of me, but each time, after I submitted detailed overviews of my ideas, the correspondence would fall silent. In several cases, a year or so later, I would see exactly my idea being made without me by the very people to whom I had submitted my proposals, in a few cases featuring the very plants that I myself had discovered and named.

Disheartened, I returned to the idea of visiting all of the UK Overseas Territories. I wrote to twenty wildlife film production companies and several natural history commissioners at various TV channels, but most did not even reply. Several organisations turned down grant application that I submitted, and I began to feel that my dream was slipping through my fingers.

No one was willing to back my project, so I decided to do so myself using every penny from the books that I had published and every loan and credit option that was available to me. To my endless joy, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and the Transglobe Expedition Trust both awarded me grants to help my project to get off the ground (for which I will always be thankful). By the start of 2012, with every penny that I could muster, I calculated that I had just about sufficient liquidity to undertake a journey to all of the UK Overseas Territories. Even though my budget was less than 10% of that which a real documentary production would require, I bought broadcast-quality cameras and reached an agreement with several professional cameramen. Colin Clubbe and Martin Hamilton of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, kindly made crucial introductions on my behalf to their colleagues across all of the Territories to secure permission for my visits and to request support during my stays on each Territory.

My approach may seem foolish or naive, but it was actually a careful, rational decision. I decided that I could not live my life without making a serious attempt to become a naturalist and wildlife film presenter. I knew that, one day, when I lay on my deathbed, I would have to justify my life to myself, and I couldn’t imagine the feeling of utter regret and sorrow that would accompany the knowledge that I had not even tried to achieve my dream. I reasoned that, even if no one cared or wanted to see the output of my project, and even if the whole endeavour were to be a financial disaster, I would at least be free of regret.

Many serious logistical challenges emerged to visiting all of the UK Overseas Territories. One of the biggest problems is simply reaching them, because many of the Territories are among the most remote islands in the world. I needed to visit not just each and every Territory, but also the outer islands of several Territories, some of which were almost impossibly remote and are served by no regular forms of transport whatsoever.

Despite the challenges, in each case a transport solution eventually emerged, and on reaching each new Territory, the local conservation teams kindly supported my project and extended generous offers of assistance. I was guided to key wildlife locations, offered transport on boats, loaned vehicles, invited to take part in diving trips and sometimes even offered accommodation. Perhaps most importantly of all, many of the conservation teams and authorities on several of the Territories granted me access to several sites where members of the public cannot normally venture, such as Boatswain Bird Island, Gough Island and dozens of other locations. The biggest honour I received, however, was the permission of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to visit the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which no private film- makers had been allowed to visit for decades (see British Indian Ocean Territory chapter).

I also benefited from countless instances of extraordinary good luck. A few examples include finding two vessels at the last minute that were available to voyage across the Southern Ocean (I required two: one to feature in the documentary story, and another from which to film). Finding 16 friends willing to share the (considerable) costs of chartering the ships was equally fortunate, as was having constantly perfect weather, often at the most unseasonable times and during extremely narrow windows, for example, during my visits to the British Indian Ocean territory, Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia, Henderson Island, and perhaps most impressively of all, Gough Island (in the latter case, the single day that I had available to go ashore coincided with the first day for over four weeks with suitable conditions, and bizarrely, my arrival just offshore of the island occurred exactly during one of the most beautiful sunrises of my life, creating perfect filming conditions; see Tristan da Cunha chapter). Without planning, my visits to many of the Territories also coincided precisely with the peak migrations of land crabs, turtles and many other species, and the return of the endemic Ascension frigatebird to Ascension Island, after an absence of 185 years. These are only a few examples of many dozens. I mention this bizarre good luck because I have usually been accompanied by bad luck (for example, it has rained at virtually every wedding I have ever attended!).

Even though my filming budget was miniscule in professional terms, the cameramen with whom I worked were very innovative, and we worked together to maximise what could be accomplished with the minimal equipment available. For example, a conventional large-budget production, when filming in Antarctic waters, might use a helicopter to capture footage gliding over icebergs and ice floes. My team did not have such an opportunity, but one of the cameramen (voluntarily) agreed to be suspended from the arm of a crane on the back of one of the ships that I chartered, and dangled far over the side of the ship as we motored amongst the ice so that he could capture exactly the same gliding shots (although, in the excitement, the cameraman was nearly fed to a hungry leopard seal and had one or two unfortunate encounters with icebergs that were taller than they initially appeared).

As filming across the Territories neared its completion, Steve Nicholls, the producer of one of the broadcast films on carnivorous plants to which I had previously contributed, kindly offered his advice, and then brought my project to the attention of Carl Hall, the owner of Warehouse 51 Productions, the company at which Steve worked. Steve had visited several of the Territories himself, and persuaded Carl of the value in the series. To my eternal gratitude, Carl took on the project, and Steve guided the programmes through post-production, improving and polishing the storylines that I had written, to craft 4 x 48 minute documentaries for international markets and 3 x 60 minute films for the BBC.

Four years after commencing my journey, the names of the Territories, which at first seemed so unfamiliar and exotic, all now conjure wonderful memories of wildlife and friends. Looking back, my approach does seem naïve and optimistic and, considering the challenges that I am now aware of (which I did not understand and could not have known of at the onset), the likelihood of completing my project successfully was far smaller than I ever could have initially imagined. It may be that such a naïve approach was the only way that such a project could be completed, and perhaps the reason why no one had visited all of the UK Overseas Territories to document their natural history stories before. It is difficult to imagine a professional film production taking a gamble on so many shoot locations where there was no certainty that it would even be possible to land, let alone any guarantee as to what footage might be captured. But somehow – and I owe eternal gratitude to everyone who helped me – my project is now complete and all the objectives set out in the Introduction are fulfilled.

Most importantly, I wanted to return the goodwill and support of so many people from across all of the Territories, and so, before I recouped a penny of the costs of undertaking this project, I raised money so that I could donate £1,300 to each Territory and make several further donations, and I hope to raise further funds in the future.

I can truly say that I loved every aspect of completing this project, especially researching, planning and scriptwriting in preparation for each shoot, directing, presenting and filming at each location, and working with the producers and editors to complete the final documentaries. This may be my only broadcast wildlife documentary series, for my future hopes depend on the more conventional process of working with TV channels. That, in turn, depends on whether viewers enjoy the Britain’s Treasure Islands series, which will be broadcast a few weeks after I write these words. Regardless, I will always be glad to have visited the UK Overseas Territories, and will treasure my memories of stepping onto a beach on an unnamed island, walking among half a million king penguins, meeting the descendants of the mutineers of the HMS Bounty and countless other experiences. Showcasing such wonders is all I have ever wanted to do, and I truly believe that sharing the transcendent diversity and wonder of our world is more important than ever before, given the pressures that the planet is under and the reality that today’s youth is generally more disconnected from nature than ever before.

It was not my intention to end this page with the cliché of urging the reader to fulfill his or her dreams, but if you do have sincere ambitions, following your dreams will truly bring a sense of fulfilment and pleasure that nothing else can rival. I have learnt that it really is up to you to make your dream happen – don’t be the person who suffers life, and counts away every hour, day, month and year. If the story of my project encourages anyone – even in the smallest of ways – to move closer to his or her dreams, then I will be very happy.

Stewart McPherson
stewart@redfernnaturalhistory.com
www.redfernnaturalhistory.com

Video

Filming the Britain’s Treasure Islands TV documentary series

 

Read more about the wildlife, history and cultural heritage of all of the UK Overseas Territories in the 704 page Britain’s Treasure Islands book (CLICK HERE).

Watch 42 ‘mini-documentaries’ that explore the wildlife, cultures and history of all of the UK Overseas Territories (CLICK HERE).