Making wildlife documentaries is trickier than you'd think: Jeff Wise trails Animal Adventures' Jack Hanna on safari as he tames nature for television


When I was a little kid, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom was my window to a perfect world. I would sit on the shag rug four inches from the screen of my family's wood-cabinet TV watching Marlin Perkins send his cohost to tackle crocodiles and grapple with buffalo. I couldn't imagine a more appealing way to live: traveling to the farthest reaches of the world, seeing real wild animals, and having someone elsewrestle them to the ground. The show was neat in every sense of the word. Marlin never got a speck on his safari jacket, and his wild quests always followed tidy narrative arcs and paid off with thrilling climaxes. It was a marvel how they managed to do it—utterly infallibly, every week, year after year.

Wildlife TV shows took themselves seriously in those days; they were full of profundities about the cycle of life and death. Then along came Jack Hanna, the slaphappy director of the Columbus Zoo, who during his frequent appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in the eighties always seemed to be on the verge of losing control of his animals. He also seemed pretty dumb. When Letterman asked him what his mongoose ate, he answered, in his native Tennessee twang, "A lot." When Letterman asked him where it came from, he said, "From the zoo, Dave."

It was all an act, and a successful one. His guest appearances led to his own syndicated TV show, now in its 10th season, on 220 U.S. stations and in 67 countries. Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures is an amusing show, and I jumped at the chance to tag along for a three-day shoot as Hanna filmed an episode in South Africa's MalaMala Game Reserve. Maybe I'd finally get to see how TV zoologists tie everything together so neatly at the end.

A skittish herd of impalas bound out from the acacia thickets and stop in the dirt track ahead. They stand motionless, their ears erect to danger, and then, in a flurry of motion, vanish into the woodland beyond the road. The bushveld is silent. Inside the Land Rover, anxious eyes scan...

We're all exhausted, our nerves frayed by the 17-hour flight from the States followed by an hour-long hop in a small prop plane over the high veld of eastern South Africa. It seems surreal to actually be here, parked under a cool blue sky in an African forest that seems so tranquil, yet so laden with menace.

And here they come: ghostly shapes emerging from the underbrush. A lioness, slinking low in lethal prowl, and another, and another, fanning out around us, passing within feet of our bumper, remorseless hunters pressing forward for the kill.

It's a dramatic moment—a perfect scene for the show. There's only one problem: the crew doesn't have any cameras. Their gear was lost when they flew in this afternoon. Hanna's team has only three days to get enough footage for a half-hour episode, and if the equipment doesn't turn up soon, it will be too late. In the meantime, we scout locations, get the lay of the land, and hope for the best.

"A.T.," Hanna says. "African travel."

Apparently, this stuff isn't as easy as it looks.

Dawn arrives, and a courier has just shown up with the camera gear. We're back on track. The sun is rising over the Sand River as I meet Hanna and the rest of his entourage on the verandaof the lodge. It's a sizable group, including Hanna's producer, Larry Elliston; his cameraman, his sound technician, and his still photographer; Hanna's wife and two of his daughters; and three other travelers along as paying guests. While Hanna and Elliston huddle to talk about what kind of footage they want to get, the others fill me in on Hanna's penchant for on-air mishaps —tumbling into a pothole hidden by high grass, tripping off a dock, ripping the seat of his pants while clambering to escape from an irritable camel. "My poor mom just has to keep sewing them up," says his daughter Kathaleen.

Serious nature documentaries require months, sometimes years, of patience, as filmmakers wait for elusive creatures to reveal their secrets. But Hanna's show is far from serious. "It's a family show," he says. "I'm just standing in for the ordinary guy. The idea is that anybody at home could be doing what I do." An illusion, of course: Hanna works hard to make it look easy.

Hence the appeal of MalaMala. Thanks to its abundant wildlife population, it's almost certain that we'll see all of the Big Five—lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo—in our first 24 hours. Better yet, the animals are so habituated to people in vehicles that they don't pay any attention to us at all. It's as if we're invisible.

We head out in three open-topped Land Rovers, Hanna and his guide in the lead. Ten minutes out of camp we come across a herd of impalas, and soon after, a pair of giraffes. Then we hit pay dirt: a large herd of elephants browsing in an acacia thicket. Camera rolling, we follow them as they crash through the undergrowth and plunge into the river to drink and splash. Later, just after nightfall, we come upon a young leopard sprawled high on a tree limb while her brother sits on the ground below.

Roll camera. "Wow! This is something else!" Hanna says. "I could sit here all night watching this! And maybe I will!"

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;; 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.

MalaMala Game Reserve

Three camps, a wine cellar, library, viewing deck, and an infinity pool on South Africa’s largest private Big Five preserve.