Saturday, July 14, 2012

Past Adventures: I dream of...elephants


©Remi Benali

It has been quite some time since I have contributed to this series, one that focuses on some of the previous adventures that my companion, Remi and I experienced during our whirlwind years of working as a team of travel writer and photographer for the French press. Today's post is not at all something that I had planned but was delightfully surprised by a fun cross in the wires of the internet. It is a long one, so feel free to settle in with your morning coffee or an evening glass of wine.


Jeanne, of the charming blog I Dream Of, recently made a post for her husband's birthday in which she included several photos of their travels together. I immediately had a hunch that I recognized the elephant in one of the photos. Our world is so overwhelmingly huge and yet there is that inevitable six degrees of separation, one that apparently applies to certain famous pachyderms as well! For Jeanne and her husband as well as Remi and I had the great fortune to experience the wonders of Abu Camp, a luxury tent resort in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and to meet the elephants that make this safari so exceptional. 

To read about Jeanne's experience on her honeymoon, please click over to her links about Cathy and the herd as well as an evocative description of Abu Camp. Both are beautifully written and the first even features one of Jeanne's watercolors (many of her fellow blog friends are looking forward to what direction she will take with her art, having recently had the courage to leave a lucrative position in the fashion industry).


Remi and I found our way to Abu Camp for a very different reason. When we received the call from TBWA in Los Angeles in 2004 about the possibility of shooting an ad for Apple and their software Final Cut Pro, it was beyond anything that we had ever hoped could happen. They had a very specific concept for the ad featuring a man sitting in a tent on the plains of Africa while editing a film on his laptop (inspired by a wildlife documentarian) with animals in the background during the "magic hour" of either sunrise or sunset.


Now, this idea posed a challenge for one main reason--the animals! Such wild animals will either flee or attack in such a situation so we needed to think outside the box. As I was working on the project as a producer, I first contacted the amazing Giraffe Manor outside of Nairobi, who kindly referred me to another possibility, one that suggested the tamed and trained elephants at Abu Camp. After hours upon hours of negotiating with the Botswana Film Commission, we received our shooting permit. Due to scheduling, we were able to rent out the camp in its entirety, along with the elephants as well as their capable handlers...but only for one weekend!


So, as thrilled as we were, the pressure was most certainly on. We arrived on Friday evening along with Bob, the model and Adam, the Artistic Director sent from TBWA's Johannesburg office (you can see the team above in the safari vehicle that is driven by Al, the camp's convivial owner). Immediately, we started to scout for a location--in advertising the client expects that their rough sketch for the ad be reproduced exactly as drawn--across the glorious terrain.


We only had four shooting sessions--yes, two sunrises and two sunsets. Our days were spent looking over the polaroids from the previous shoot and searching for other location possibilities. Alas, there was not a spare moment to partake in one of the elephant-back safaris for which the camp is so deservedly famous.


The shoots themselves were incredibly complicated, involving technical precision on Remi's part (can you believe that this was before he had changed to digital so he had to rely entirely on his gut to tell him whether he had the shot or not?). It took great courage on Bob's part to sit inside the tent with the elephants so close by as their handlers had to be out of the shot. At one point, the baby elephant (at a mere two tons) charged Remi, who held his ground, crisis was averted and he gained the respect of the handlers. 

©Remi Benali, please do not Pin, borrow or steal

And the result? We did it! On the very last shoot, it all came together. Talk about relief! Above is a small representation of the ad taken from Remi's website. Was it well received? The team at TBWA forwarded an email from Steve Jobs with his two word response: "Love it." 



As it would happen, our last day at Abu Camp also happened to be my 35th birthday. Along with finally getting to spend some quality time with Cathy, the matriarch of the herd (and the link with Jeanne), we were surprised with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot by the truly fantastic team at Abu (albeit also to celebrate the wrap of the shoot) and then we headed on a quick safari while en route to the tiny plane that would take us back to reality. I had just spied a momma lion and her cubs when the above photo was taken. It is my favorite photo of me ever, capturing a moment when I was filled with utter confidence and joy. 

What magic life can bring. Our time at Abu Camp was short but so incredible that with the distance of time, I have a hard time believing that it actually happened. But it did and I will always hold the memory of walking amidst the elephants on the finest birthday of my life (so far) very dear to my heart. I dream of them still.



Thank you for staying with me for this long post. Wishing you all a wonderful weekend and for those of you in France, an excellent Bastille Day!

35 comments:

  1. Oh dear, lots of tears as I read this beautiful post! One could blame jet lag, but I know that it's mostly how proud I am of my beautiful sister and how much I rejoice at the gift of her adventures. An AMAZING post - having just been reacquainted with your travel photos, may I be the first to start a campaign for more posts about your travels? The photographs and stories are unbelievably rich and we would love to hear more! Also, bravo to Remi for sharing his beautiful photographs for this story!

    To close, I will say that I think you are still filled with utter confidence and joy; I see it as you thrive in your beautiful life in Arles and, also, it is why people are drawn to your blog! I'm so grateful to have seen it, and you, and am still savoring every conversation and vista - especially the one from your couch while talking endlessly with you.

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    1. Oh my goodness, who is crying now? Me! I threw myself into writing this so as to think about something other than missing you for a while, beautiful Sister. Thank you for what you wrote, I will cherish that.

      And I have done two others in the series already but they were a long, long time ago! Yes, including Ethiopia with the "cutie on the side"!!

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    2. Hi Heather and Robin

      What is that last sentence again Heather about Ethopia and "what on the side"

      My imagination is working overtime. Tell all and don't leave anything out.

      Helenxx

      Hee Hee

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    3. Heeheehee. I will repost on Monday Helen--all will be clear!

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  2. It could be a part of a "Past Adventure" series!! How about it? Yes yes yes!! : )

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  3. Heather you are such and inspiration and adventuress!! Of course this experience is incredible; thank you for sharing with us!

    xoxo
    Karena
    Art by Karena

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    1. Oh gosh Karena, thank you! I fear those days are over but then again, never say never!

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  4. Heather, Thanks so much for sharing your Abu story. So fun to connect with you through Cathy and the adventure of the place -- even though your visit was quite different than ours. What an exhilarating experience. I have produced photo and video shoots -- but never, ever in conditions even close to this-- so have just the slightest inkling of the pressures involved. What a triumph for you and Remi! (Was it Pula who charged him?) And I love that final photo of you - it says so much about the time and place and what you've just accomplished. What a wonderful exchange of stories - and what a happy opportunity to share in this way. Finally, thanks as always for your kind words about my painting. I truly appreciate it! Hope you have a delightful Bastille Day weekend. Here's to many, many more adventures ahead! XOXO

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    1. Hooray! I loved this exchange too--especially as they were so different! We certainly didn't get to have the whole Abu experience--aside from the lovely dinners at night and yes, the munching outside the tent!! And yes, the pressure was madness, a true trial by fire. Just getting the permits alone--I would alternate between begging and yelling (I am sorry to say) and ended up finally contacting the president's office in the end! For Remi, as you can see in the ad the light sources are multiple (including one from the "laptop" inside the tent) and just hello! Elephants right there! I have another photo which shows how close he is--let alone Bob. Insane. And yes, I think it was Pula that charged him! I couldn't remember his name, the little stinker. It all happened so fast too. Such a phenomenal experience. I would love to hear more about your trip--we haven't made it to Namibia yet--I would love to go!!!
      Bon Dimanche Jeanne!
      xo

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  5. Heather, what's the chance that you'll spot an elephant you knew, on a friend's blog. Wow! The circle of life sometimes can be very small. You are skilled at your crafts from reading about that plum assignment with Apple. Do you still go on assignments to these exotic locations? I've never been to Africa but its on my bucket list. Watching documentaries on elephants are eye opening - their motherly instincts, familial closeness and mourning rituals are so eerily human. When I see poachers carried away those bloody tusks, it breaks my heart. Elephants seem gentle as long as they are left to their own devices. Your picture shows a beautiful lady, intelligent and adventurous. I don't foresee a rocking chair anywhere near your future. LOL. It's more like "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead".

    Hope you are toasting Bastille Day with a glass of Veuve Cliquot! Have a great weekend! XO

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    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response! Unfortunately, with the dive in the economy, my assignments to such exotic locales have all but disappeared. It is a big reason why I started this blog, so as to keep writing and keep exploring, even if only in my own backyard! And yes, elephants are so incredible. We also had the great fortune to go twice to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and see them up close--one in particular had a strong connection with Remi, it was amazing! And yes, poachers break my heart too.

      Have a wonderful Sunday!

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  6. Your writing is pure joy Heather, and you have such great tales to tell!! I love the photos, both those of the shoot and the pics of you.

    Sharon
    xx

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    1. Oh merci Sharon--coming from you that means a lot! :)
      Bon Dimanche!

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  7. The shot by Remi for the Apple ad is truly a terrific shot. Having recently read Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, you get a clear picture of how difficult he was to please and cruel he could be to people who worked months on projects but he didn't like the results.

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    1. Yes, we were well aware that it could have all turned awry and feel very fortunate that it was a success!

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  8. Oh dear, so Robin has gone home now? Such awful emptiness after a loved one returns home. Gut wrenching sadness, all mixed up with the sweetness of happy rememberings.

    Astonishing thing to have done - this adventure. That image at the top - it stopped me in my tracks. Your expression, just "popping out of the tent", and the whole composition is so very powerful. To get so close to these beautiful creatures, in such a setting, would have to rank as one of "life's moments", I should think. xx

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    1. My friend, as always you know exactly the words to use. Emptiness is most certainly what I am feeling. As if I keep waiting for her to pop back in the room so we can take up our conversation again. As I have said many times before, to be so far from my family, despite the love I have for Remi, is the hardest part of being an expat for me. I miss them terribly. But I am trying to focus as much as I can on the positive by being very grateful for having had such a wonderful time with Robin.

      That first photo was my birthday portrait--something that we used to do--up until 40! And now it has gone by the wayside, which is fine by me! ;)

      And yes, a safari is the most amazing travel experience on the planet. It just burns through you and into you forever.
      xo

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  9. Thank you so much, Heather, for taking us on your adventure. That last photo of you is breathtaking. What a wonderful way to spend your 35th birthday.

    I look forward to more of these "past adventure" posts in the future.

    Big hugs,
    Judith

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    1. Thanks for the hug Judith--I'll take it! I will repost the two previous soon and ok, will do more!
      PS. You can appreciate this--look how bright my red hair was then!! Sigh.

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  10. Hello Heather

    Quite the contrary, this post is way too short. I was just warmed up and want it to continue. What a story! What a once in a lifetime experience. Nobody could have purchased such a trip.

    The photos by Remi are the best I have seen. I am not surprised that he received the ultimate praise from Steve Jobs. Well done.

    It is such a joy to see you in the pictures. As the bloggers who have met you said, "you are beautiful" Not just outwardly but also what is within.

    Thank you Heather for sharing this special time in your life.

    Helen xx

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  11. Helen, you are such a wonderful lady. I don't know who found who and how (although I have a sneaking suspicion the Hattats were involved--how I miss them!) but I am so grateful that our paths have crossed virtually and would be so thrilled if we ever have the opportunity to meet.

    Have you ever looked at Remi's website? Or the Nature & Cultures website? I think that you would appreciate much in his work in terms of color and composition, depth and humanity. I am so proud of him--it shows, non? ;)

    And oh my that was many years ago! Not to mention that I was 30 pounds lighter. But thank you so much for your very kind compliment, truly.

    Wishing you a lovely Sunday,
    xo

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  12. Heather...this post is a heart thumper. I am with Robin, keep digging into the past, it is pure enjoyment for us all. I can imagine the excitement on anticipation of the assignment and then being there in the thick of it all..literally. Remi is such a talented and gifted artist and with your writing skills, what a team! Botswana is like no other, I could appreciate every word. When you can get up close and personal like that, day and night, away from the passing chain of tourists, it is magic. Your photos say it all, a wonderful memory for those of us who have been to Botswana and I am sure, excitement for those who now plan to travel there as a result. Your assignment has come full circle. Love that photo of you Heather, I hope that one is somewhere you can appreciate every day..keeping the travel spirit alive... :)
    Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I have come home to Massachusetts, for a week's interlude, to the area I grew up in, before heading off to Vietnam next Sunday.

    Best wishes from USA...
    Jeanne xx

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    1. I was just about to sign off after a morning of getting caught up and how lovely to hear from you! But Jeanne it is so early there! It must be the jet-lag? How wonderful though--I imagine that you will have a gorgeous sun rise soon. And also it is lovely to read that you will have this time at home before your new adventure. A way of centering before jumping in to the new. Again, sending so much good energy your way...

      And yes, what a different experience Botswana was from say, the Sernegheti or Ngorongoro (as much as I love them). You are all alone. Phenomenal. I would love to go back!!

      Thank you for your kind words about my writing and Remi's photography. I am so grateful for all that we have had the chance to do together so far...and yes, here is to new adventures ahead!
      xo,
      H

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  13. LOVE IT TOO............just like STEVE JOBS said!What an adventure...........and for us to see YOU in front of the camera now thats a treat!YOu can go back in time any time!Love to hear your stories and see you in front of the camera!

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    1. Ah, ma chere Contessa, alas, after ten years of living in France my cheese intake has caught up with me. I don't quuiiite look like that these days!

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  14. Ditto from this end of the earth: loved the post, the photos, the adventure, and I agree it is fun to see the oft-times photographer in front of the camera as well. And while you may have thought it a long post, is simply was way too short; I could have read much, much more of this adventure! Keep 'em coming, Heather!

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  15. What a wonderful experience. The Okavango Delta is my favourite place in Africa. Somehow it feels more "African" than anywhere else. x Sharon

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    1. Perfectly said, Sharon--especially in terms of wildlife. I have had amazing people experiences in Mali and Ethiopia but for the scenery and the safari...well, I just wish we could have stayed much, much longer!

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  16. Talk about Out of Africa - eat your heart out Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke!!

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  17. Dear Heather, you never fail to surprise and generously lighten up a day by your posts. Please write more and MORE about your adventures!
    I'm sure new destinations are yet to come.

    Meanwhile you and Remi have plenty of exciting stories and photos for a genuine travel book. Exotic places captured in fantastic images come to life with your vivid and talented writing, with your sunny personality shining through.

    Thank you for sharing.
    All the best to you and Remi.
    Natalie

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  18. Thank you so much, Natalie--you also know how to brighten someone's day! :) It is definitely something worth thinking about (and actually we were talking about something similar yesterday) especially as all of the articles that I wrote are just sleeping in my computer! I'll pass on your compliment and coucou to Remi!

    Let's hope we start to travel again. As you know, travel is addicting!
    Bisous,
    H

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  19. Oh my! I can't quite explain how I felt just reading this post. I have never been to Africa and to see such amazing giant creatures up close like that would be an absolute dream come true. I'm sure it would bring me to tears just to be up close & personal with them!

    Remi's ad is amazing. I also adore that photo of you on your birthday! Beautiful, beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

    ~ Clare x

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    1. Clare, yes, it is really moving to be so close to them, especially the elephants. Lions are so fiercely impressive but the elephants seem to hold such secrets! If there is only one big trip for you to make in your life, I would definitely recommend a safari. And they are not all as expensive as you would think. We did a trip with Guerba that is geared towards a younger crowd. You have to help prepare dinner, do the dishes and pitch your own tent but it was so worth it!

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