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In 2009 we embarked on a project to take close-up, wide-angle photographs of African animals. To accomplish this we created BeetleCam, a small remote control buggy with a DSLR camera mounted on top. Filled with trepidation, we boarded a plane bound for Tanzania. We had little idea what to expect… would BeetleCam survive?
It was a trip of mixed fortunes; BeetleCam took some fantastic photographs of elephants and buffalo but early on it was mauled and our camera destroyed by a lion. BeetleCam limped on with a replacement camera but we steered well clear of lions thereafter.
On returning home our BeetleCam images were a big hit; they were splashed all over the Internet, appeared in print around the world and BeetleCam even made some TV appearances. However, we didn’t feel entirely satisfied… just imagine what we could get with a lion-proof BeetleCam!
Well, last summer we returned to Africa. Our targets? The legendary lions of Kenya’s Masai Mara!
We had with us two BeetleCams. The first was an armoured version of the original BeetleCam, equipped with a Canon 550D. The second was a more advanced model, boasting a live video feed, HD movie recording and a Canon 1Ds MK III. We imaginatively named the more advanced buggy “BeetleCam Mark II”.
On the morning of our first day in Kenya, we were understandably nervous as we tentatively deployed BeetleCam and trundled it towards one of the largest male lions I have ever seen. The buggy looked tiny and insignificant as it approached the ferocious-looking beast. We had visions of the lion’s huge paw shattering the diminutive vehicle with a single swipe.
We edged the buggy forward and the lion considered it sedately. We inched closer and closer until it was within touching distance. Our nervousness turned to elation as we snapped away. Perhaps these cats weren’t so bad after all! Maybe we had just been unlucky in Tanzania? We retrieved the camera and gawked in awe at the incredible lion portraits that we had captured.
Day two continued much the same way as day one, with BeetleCam tentatively edging around huge docile lions, taking photographs that we never dreamed would be possible. It was going so well we that forgot the lessons of 2009 and took a risk; we deployed BeetleCam Mark II. Equipped with the considerably more expensive Canon 1Ds MK III, this BeetleCam was bound to get better images. However, there was a catch… this BeetleCam didn’t have any armour!
We drove our new BeetleCam Mark II out and it started to get mouth-wateringly good photos of a lovely male lion. Then, out of the bushes a young lioness appeared. She looked just like the one that had been BeetleCam’s nemesis back in Tanzania. She stared at the camera and once again our hearts were in our mouths. “Just leave it completely still,” Matthew hissed, as my fingers hovered over the controls. She sauntered up to it and lowered her head. Time seemed to slow as she opened her jaws and slid them over our $6,000 camera. She lifted BeetleCam up by the material that covered the camera. I desperately spun the wheels and fortunately the noise surprised her and she dropped it. BeetleCam beat a hasty retreat! We nervously inspected the camera and to our relief it was undamaged. It had been a close shave and a reminder that lions can never be trusted!
We were eager to try BeetleCam out with cubs as we hoped their inquisitive, playful nature would lead to some fantastic shots. It was not long before we got our chance. Once more, BeetleCam was sent out into the unknown.
The pride had four cubs and it wasn’t long before they were all circling BeetleCam suspiciously. They grew bolder and more inquisitive by the second and soon they were approaching to within inches of buggy as they probed for weaknesses.
They intuitively recognised the front of BeetleCam and would try to circle around to attack it from behind. They also grew bolder whenever BeetleCam retreated, swiping at it with their oversized paws. We were just getting the hang of this new game when disaster struck; BeetleCam’s front left wheel hadn’t been tightened properly and it worked its way off! The cubs instantly seemed to recognise that the buggy was in distress and they closed in.
One made a lunge for the wheel and BeetleCam took the photo above a split second before the tire was grabbed! The cubs ran off with it and proceeded to have a highly raucous game as they tried to steal it off each other.
We had to wait for over an hour and a half before we were finally able to retrieve the saliva-sodden tire! To our amazement, it had a few punctures but was otherwise undamaged. We slotted it back onto BeetleCam and we were ready to go again!
On the morning of day four, a once in a lifetime opportunity presented itself… our dream BeetleCam scenario… a male lion, eating a freshly killed wildebeest, in the sunrise light. Our hands were shaking with excitement as we deployed BeetleCam and sent it through the long grass towards the kill. How would the lion react to this cheeky little impostor?
It was a thrill to discover that the lion was so distracted with his kill that he completely ignored the buggy. We couldn’t believe our luck! We even risked a foray with BeetleCam Mark II and got some amazing photographs with the larger camera. The photos that we took that morning will always be some of our most cherished.
Over the course of the next few days, we were able to gain new understanding and respect for the lions we were photographing. We were always mindful that we didn’t want to harass them or intrude on their lives. However, we came to appreciate that lions are incredibly curious cats and full of the bravado that comes from being the Masai Mara’s top predator. This resulted in plenty more raucous games with the youngsters and some wonderful encounters with older individuals, who treated BeetleCam with nonchalant disdain, deliberately ignoring it as it manoeuvred around them. However, we also found that lions can be very unpredictable; every now and then one would deliver a powerful bite that bent metal and left us wincing. As a result, we never knew if the next encounter might be BeetleCam’s last.
After two weeks of constant action, BeetleCam was scarred and battered. However, we could breathe a sigh of relief because we had reached the end of our trip and we hadn’t suffered any major losses. We returned home with a set of images that exceeded all our expectations and plenty of ideas for BeetleCam’s next adventure!
We have built a dedicated BeetleCam site where you can find many, MANY more BeetleCam images and some entertaining video footage of the BeetleCam in action. We have also started producing bespoke BeetleCams for photographers around the world. If you are interested in buying one, please visit this page: Buy a BeetleCam.
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