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Jack Hanna in Africa

The cameraman repositions himself to get Hanna and the leopard in the same frame. Elliston asks Hanna to tell him everything he knows about leopards. "I read that the leopard is called the silent hunter," he says.

Elliston stops him. "Don't say, 'I read.'"

"I heard that the leopard..."

Elliston stops him again. "Don't say you heard it. Just say it."

"You know, the leopard is called the silent hunter." Thumbs up.

As we watch, the leopard on the ground stirs, stretches, walks to the base of the tree, gathers himself up, and leaps. His sister, unwilling to share her spot, hisses and swats him. He backs away and jumps to the ground.

The camera gets it all. Once the leopards have settled down, Hanna does a voice-over. "Here comes her brother!" he says, his voice crackling with excitement. "I bet he's going to try to jump up there! Wow, there he goes! I can't believe they're not getting along! Wow, she just popped him in the face! I bet he's going to back down—sure enough! Wow, he's right back where he started!"

Cut. A little Elliston magic in the editing booth, and it'll be on-screen gold.

Larry Elliston is up at dawn, plotting strategy. With a full day of shooting still to go, he already has enough footage for an entire show. Whatever the crew gets today will be gravy. "I've got a lot of options," he says.

Hanna has a way of stumbling across great material—"Jack's luck," the crew calls it. Despite Hanna's reputation for mishaps, his crew has suffered many accidents that are far more serious. They've been charged by gorillas, grabbed by crocodiles, clawed at by tigers—usually on tape, which makes for a terrifying blooper reel. On one shoot Elliston was underwater in a shark cage with a camera when a great white attacked and snapped the suspending cable. He hung from a safety line until the others managed to pull him up.

"Let me guess," I say. "You filmed Jack climbing out of the cage saying, 'Wow, I can't believe I was just attacked by a shark!' then cut it in with your underwater shots." This is entertainment, not journalism.

Elliston smiles. "How did you know?"

As we head out that morning, Jack's luck is again in full effect. We shoot some zebras, a herd of impalas, and an elephant nursing her calf. Word comes over the radio from another of the park's guides that a pair of cheetahs has been spotted nearby. We race to a clearing, where a mother and her cub lie sunning on a rock.

Roll camera. "I bet she'll make a kill soon," Hanna says.

Elliston stops him. "We could say that if we already had a kill in the bag."

We drive off in search of more visuals. The guide proposes that we climb to the top of a kopje, one of the granite hillocks that rise a few hundred feet above the plain. From the top, we can see for miles. Elliston is struck by inspiration: the show will start up here, with Hanna looking out over the deceptively quiet landscape.

The crew sets up on the edge of an outcrop. Elliston reads Hanna the brief intro he has scribbled on a piece of paper. Hanna nods and walks to the edge.

It's a bittersweet moment, the last shot of the trip. Or rather, the last shot in chronological time. In TV time it will be just the opposite, the first shot of the show. That's the secret, in a nutshell—that's why everything goes so smoothly on screen. Time reversal. The presenter and the producer know exactly what's going to happen because it's already happened.

For a second it feels as though I've stepped through a screen and found myself on the other side of the glass, in that dream world where intrepid zoologists get to play with wild animals and everything follows a flawless arc, where life itself can be edited and sorted and tidied up. A world of complete control.

Then I realize that I'm standing in the frame, and I step back, and suddenly there's nothing underfoot. With a lurch I flail at the air, toppling backward, windmilling my arms as I fall, and come to rest with one leg jammed down a foot-wide crevice. Hanna runs over to pull me out as the crew cracks up.

I slink away as Hanna gets into position for the shot. The camera rolls, and Hanna's face lights up as he sweeps an arm over the vista. "I've climbed to the top of this granite kopje for a view out over the bushveld," he says. "It may look tranquil down there, but let me tell you, there's a lot going on."

One shot, one take. It's a wrap.

You don't need to be shooting a TV show to visit the MalaMala Game Reserve (MPUMALANGA, SOUTH AFRICA; 27-31/716-3500; www.malamala.com; DOUBLES FROM $1,000, INCLUDING MEALS AND GUIDED GAME DRIVES). The best time to go is winter, from May to September, when there's less vegetation and the animals are easy to spot.

JEFF WISE is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.


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