The Lumix Diaries 1/19/2015 Lions and Hyenas Clash
January 19, 2015
The morning began as it always does from our camp in the Mara. 6:45am rolled around and footsteps were heard on the path to our tent. From out of the cool morning air came a hushed, delicate, voice announcing “good morning, good morning, your coffee is here, your coffee is here. Please mind the monkeys.” Tanya replies, “I’m coming,” and pops out of bed as if on springs, instantly awake, wanting to greet our tent girl Maria with a sleepy smile and assurance we knew the vervet’s love for fresh coffee and lightly sweetened short bread.
The day’s game drive would start out with our crossing of the Olarorok River. The brushy scrubland that borders the sulphur smelling, hippo infested waters was our intended destination, prime habitat for the mother leopard and her young cub we had all been hearing so much about.
Our morning drive over dusty trails had entered the nearly sixty minute mark when a call came across Felix’s radio. “Wambugu, Wambugu, Sambas on the road to Governor’s Camp.” Felix answered speaking fluent, rapid Swahili. His voice was energized and obviously excited. He clipped the radio transmitter back to the dash as he shoved the go pedal to the floor. As often is the case, he made no mention where we were headed. I’ve learned not to ask since something like this is always good and most probably involves cats of some kind.
The Toyota Land Cruiser bumped and jumped over the plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Each of us hold onto ourselves and our camera gear. The frenetic pace of bouncing to and fro as if on a roller coaster, abated abruptly after a thirty minute sprint. There, lying on the short, verdant grasses of the Mara plains was a family of lions, which included two subadult males, one female, and four young cubs. Each was engrossed in feeding on a young cape buffalo and off on the horizon was the herd it was obviously siezed from.
Lions feeding is never a beautiful sight, but it is reality on the upper Serengeti plains. Without death there is no living. The medium-sized buffalo was on its side, back towards our cameras as the cats gorged themselves. Surrounding the feasting family were as many as 25 spotted hyenas, some waiting patiently, others heckling that obsessive hyena laugh. Others were getting bolder by the second, but the young male lions kept them at bay quite easily. I have never seen this many hyenas in one place.
As we watched, the large, distant group of buffalo began to gradually make their way back to the scene of their loss. They numbered in the hundreds, the leaders forming a V shape at the front of the heard. The point animals were assertive adults, heads lowered, horns pointed forward. One took a charge at the pile of lions and the cats bolted several feet from the young buffalo’s carcass. That was the opening the hyenas were waiting for, instantly springing to their feet, laughing, heckling, virtually screaming with excitement. Some rushed forward, others ran circles, a few stood watching, the frenzy had begun.
The lions returned the charge with deep guttural roars that literally shook the air around us, swinging, lunging, scattering hyenas and the heard of confused, aggressive bovines. The buffalo would stop, charge again and the process would repeat itself.
It was a massive orgy of heckling hyenas, roaring lions, and bellowing buffalo. In the middle of this swirling vortex was the silence of death, one of the most dangerous animals in all of Africa, a cape buffalo, waited patiently to be consumed.
Suddenly and without warning, from over the ridge, a huge, black-maned male lion came tearing across the savannah. He lunged into the skirmish with a voice larger than all the other lions and hyenas combined. The deep base vibrato seemed to repel resistance on command, not a single animal even thought about returning as the massive mature African lion stood statuesque beside the carcass. The family of females and their cubs bolted for safety.
From what our guide Felix told us this male was not part of the pride that killed the buffalo. A different male, one not part of the original group, would most certainly have killed the baby lions had they not sprinted for safety. But safety is always a relative term on the African plains. Leaving the area quickly removed the threat from the intruding male lion but not the seething heard of cape buffalo that were quickly on the retreating lions’ trail.
We watched as the original pride of four cubs, two subadult males, and one female sprinted across the savannah. Felix blurted out, “they may kill the babies.” He quickly started the engine of the Land Cruiser and began driving toward the newest life or death encounter. By the time we got to the scene the buffalo had retreated and we counted all the lions cubs but one. There was a few moments of sadness as we all ran our eyes across the short grasses hoping not to find the little body when suddenly, from out of an acacia tree, we noticed a miniature lion descending.
He hung for several minutes looking towards his mother who stood one hundred yards out. It was obvious he wanted to come down, but it was equally obvious he knew he was safe in the tree. With a little coaxing he skittered down the trunk and ran to catch up with his family. It was over for now.
Now for the technical details of documenting a scene like this. First of all, I was shooting two Lumix GH4’s and one Lumix LX100. One GH4 had the 40-150mm F/2.8 Olympus attached and I had it connected to a Bogen/Manfrotto 503HD video head.
Attached to the camera’s hot shoe was the new Panasonic DMW-MS2 Shotgun Stearo Mic with the fuzzy cover known as a “dead cat.” All of this was attached to the roof with a Bogen Super Clamp that easily clamps to the bars that encircle the Toyota Land Cruiser’s roof.
Between the Bogen 503HD video head was the Bogen-Manfrotto 538 tripod head leveler which allows me to adjust for the horizon line of the savannah. Accurate leveling of any video camera is always imperative.. There is almost nothing more unprofessional than a poorly leveled shot due to a sloping horizon.
While shooting video, I would sometimes grab the second GH4 with the 35-100mm F/2.8 attached and also capture stills. Having a camera shutter going off while capturing sound and video is a big distraction, so I set my second GH4 to silent mode and shot unabated with no shutter clicks being recorded by the mic. Silent mode is a tool you can only truly get with a mirrorless camera like the Lumix GH4. It’s a tremendous benefit to be able to capture stills and video side by side.
The 4K footage is hard to believe, but unfortunately the GH4’s ran into some technical issues during the heat of the moment of this once-in-a-lifetime lion and hyena opportunity. As I mentioned in my recent post, What Are The Lumix Diaries, I plan to discuss the pros and cons, warts and all of shooting with these amazing new cameras. My philosophy is honesty at all costs. If you don’t know the bad, you will never believe the good. So here it is.
Incredibly, during the most exciting action I’ve ever experienced in all my nearly 25 years of coming to Africa, the GH4’s 4K video kept shutting down. I was only able to get short 15-30 second clips before I would get a message that said ‘Motion recording was canceled due to the writing speed of the card.’ I thought, “How the heck can this be?,” since I was using Panasonic’s own SDHC GH4 4K certified 32GB class 10 U3 cards. These cards were built specifically for this camera, but unfortunately something in the system failed. I can’t tell you how frustrated I was that not only did I miss much of the 4K video opportunity but fighting with the camera, trying to figure it out, also caused me to lose many, many stills. Who knows why this happened, and the engineers from Panasonic are looking into it as I write this. Thankfully, I did capture some of the excitement in the video above.
So that was the downside. The upside is the 4K footage I did capture is phenomenal. Disappointingly, all new technology goes thorough its ups and downs, and the positive aspects of the GH4 4K video capture much outweigh the negatives. As much as I hated losing such phenomenal footage, working with cutting edge technology has inherent risks. Without losses there can be no gains. Being a part of the Lumix Luminary Team is an opportunity to test the newest of technology and help be a part of improving and sorting things out. I’m confident all issues will be resolved.
Throughout the second trip I shot numerous additional 4K video clips, some of them as long as ten minutes and never ran into the shutdown issue again. I tested four of the five Panasonic cards I was using by running 4K video with nothing important to capture. I just let the video run for as long as ten minutes. Neither camera or cards showed any problems. However, two cards still need to be tested. One I just haven’t had time to test and the other I lost, so one’s not going to get tested. Could these two cards be the root of the problem? Both cameras had the shutdown issue, so if it was the cards, it has to be the one I’ve not been able to test and the other one I’ll never know about since I lost it. So stay tuned for additional updates. I’m very hopeful the last card I test will reveal the issue and I can feel comfortable new cards will solve the problem.
It’s now been over two months since I had the card issue with my GH4’s. In that time I’ve shot hundreds of minutes of 4K video and thankfully I’ve had no issues at all. I mentioned the problem I experience I had with the card shutting down to a good friend of mine that shoot video professional all time and he suggested it may have been a formatting issue on the card. I guess I will never know for sure but I do reformat my cards EVERY TIME I put them in the camera. So if there was a formatting issue the reformat may have solved it. Guess we will never know for sure but thankfully it all seems to be fine now.