Being in the right place at the right time. If there’s one skill that’s pretty much essential for the role of wildlife film-maker, it would be this. All those hours and days and weeks spent waiting for that ... one ... unmissable ... shot.
The leopard defending its kill against a sloth bear late at night in Sri Lanka. The wildebeest taking on a Nile crocodile – and winning. The killer whale making a lunge for a sea lion pup on the beach in South America.
Gordon Buchanan’s first, and arguably most important, “right time, right place” moment happened, not on the grasslands of the Great Plains in North America or the jungles of Brazil but in the kitchens of a humble restaurant on the Isle of Mull, where he was working at weekends and during the school holidays.
“The woman who owned the restaurant, her husband was a wildlife cameraman,” he says. “I loved wildlife documentaries but I’d never thought of it as a job; I’d never thought I’d be the person out there making them.”
The cameraman in question was Nick Gordon, whose most famous work was a ground-breaking seven-year project making the definitive film on jaguars. As soon as Buchanan met him, he was captivated by this “incredible job” and set about questioning his mentor on how he might follow in his intrepid bootsteps.
“He talked about the academic route,” says Buchanan, who admits to being “academically incompetent,” spending most of his school days staring out of the window, “but that wasn’t really an option.”
Then Gordon was offered a contract to spend a year and a half in Sierra Leone, documenting the lives of the animals living in a tiny fragment of the Gola rainforest. He needed an assistant – the job was Buchanan’s if he wanted it.
“No-one in my family knew what being a wildlife camera assistant entailed. I just said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’” Bearing in mind he was 17 at the time, there might have been some resistance from home, but he says: “My mum was all for it. She saw it as an opportunity to do something different and to get me off the island. Mull is a fantastic place to grow up, but a lot of people get stuck. And there aren’t many opportunities there.”
So he left school without a qualification to his name and headed off into the wild unknown. He describes the experience now as a “year of sheer hell”. “It was a real eye-opener,” he says, “because I was desperately homesick the entire time I was there.”
Still, it was enough to give him the bug. He’d only been back in the UK for six months when he took his next job with Gordon, this time travelling to the Amazonas region of Venezuela in search of a tribe that was said to worship and consume the world’s largest species of tarantula. Gordon and Buchanan tracked down the tribe and shared in their feast, washing the spider down with champagne. He was still just 19.
“I meet kids now who are real junior naturalists,” he says, “and they know the name of every plant and every animal. I just loved wild places and that’s what generated my interest in wildlife. I’d go out not to see a golden eagle or a dolphin, it’s just that I wanted to go to that part of the island. Then I’d start seeing these things and that was just amazing. But at that early age I just liked being by myself. I had a great group of friends but I liked to get away from everyone.
“And I suppose this job is quite good for that,” he adds. “I’m quite self-sufficient and resourceful. I don’t need to be with people and I find it difficult to understand people who can’t survive without company. The only need I have is, now and again, to get away from everyone. That’s not because I have any issues or anything, I just don’t like the responsibility of having other people with me.”
When we meet, Buchanan, 41, is helping celebrate another great adventurer, John Walker, who took his whisky from Scotland to the rest of the world. A 1920s style yacht has spent the last six months retracing those steps – in reverse – ending its journey in Edinburgh earlier this month. Buchanan admits to having a fondness for the water of life, and likes to take a few drams away on any expedition – decanted into plastic bottles or battered old flasks for ease of carrying, which can look a little suspect in airport toilets, but no matter.
“I was flattered and delighted to be part of the boat’s triumphant return to Scotland,” he says. “My family has had strong links with the whisky industry for generations and this is a way of supporting an industry that I am associated with and proud of.”
Buchanan spent a total of five years as apprentice under Gordon’s tutelage before starting out as a cameraman in his own right. His first films focused on big cats, which he made for the BBC’s Natural World series. “Big cats and big predators were always the pinnacle for me,” he says. “I like that explosive drama you get with them. While a wide variety of creatures are all fascinating in themselves, predators are actually not that interesting. A lion or a leopard spends most of the time sleeping, but when they actually start to hunt there’s something that’s really compelling and has such drama. You empathise with the prey and you empathise with the predator and know how important it is for both of those animals to come out on top. With that you really are seeing nature red in tooth and claw.”
While filming the leopards of Sri Lanka – the first time the elusive creatures had been captured on film – he was camping out alone at night when a sloth bear (all 310lb of prehistoric-looking beast, complete with three-inch-long, raptor-like claws) started sniffing and scratching around his small canvas hide. As it was pitch black, the only way Buchanan could see was through the night vision camera. The result is several heart-stopping minutes of frantic film while Buchanan makes a bit of noise to frighten off the bear then calls his team to get him out of there. When he returns in the morning, the hide is ripped to shreds.
“Bears are among those creatures that are a combination of very powerful but also very inquisitive. A lot of other big predators are really scared of people and you can largely work out what they’re going to do, whereas bears have this human-like curiosity that makes them quite unpredictable. If one bear has had a bad experience with, say, a smell it associates with humans it will behave completely differently to another.”
He blames that situation on his own naiveté, however. “I thought it would be fine to put a canvas hide out in the jungle filled with leopards and elephants and sloth bears and they wouldn’t know I was there.
“On that shoot, when I was still learning where that line between safe and being close to animals is – and you can only find out where that line is by crossing it on a few occasions – I got myself into a few scrapes. I also got chased by an elephant, which is another unpredictable creature because, it’s true, elephants don’t forget and they have often come into contact with human beings. You can get really even-tempered elephants who completely ignore you, then you get others that, as soon as they see you, whatever has been inflicted on them by humans they will take it out on you.
“I’ve been chased by bears, had bears try to break into where I am,” he laughs, “that seems to be a recurring theme. Every year there would be something where I’d think, ‘That was a bit close,’ but it’s less frequent now. Perhaps it’s because I’m being more careful.”
One of those bear incidents is the now-famous footage of him being attacked by a hungry 1,000lb polar bear. He was in a glass pod at the time but, still, it’s terrifying, remarkably bleep-free stuff.
“When I first started working in front of a camera, the only thing the director said was, ‘Just be natural, just be yourself.’ But, having grown up in the west coast of Scotland, to be natural and to be yourself is accompanied by a whole range of expletives. So there are a lot of ‘crivvens’ and ‘jeepers’ and ‘jeesoses’,” he laughs. “I think I’ve tried a couple of ‘help ma boabs’ but they’ve never actually made it to the edit.
“I was filming myself inside the pod and the rest of the crew were about 300m away with a long-lens camera. As the polar bear was walking up, I couldn’t think of anything other than – em – ‘Help ma boab, look at the size of that bloody bear.’ People said I appeared very calm but I wasn’t at all. I thought I was speaking above the noise of my heart beating – I could actually feel it and hear it.”
Buchanan and the team came under fire afterwards over claims they had disturbed the bear and the producer was fined £6,000 for his trouble but Buchanan defends the footage. “It came over as a stunt but it was never intended as that,” he insists. “It was a way of being able to be very close to polar bears, observing them do what they do naturally while staying completely safe. But of course what bears do naturally is investigate anything and everything that shows up in their environment.
“A polar bear will see a massive cruise liner come up to the edge of the sea ice and it’ll walk straight out to it. And to see something inside a glass hide, its natural behaviour is to go over and find out what it is.”
He says the controversy was inevitable, that critics would say the team had enticed the polar bear. “But you can’t actually go to the Arctic and set foot on sea ice without attracting them,” he says. “Every skidoo, every ship that passes by has the same effect on a polar bear. They’re curious creatures and if you don’t want them to change their natural behaviour you just couldn’t go there, because their natural behaviour is to approach anything that’s unusual. Pre-1973, when they were still hunting polar bears, the first thing hunters would do was find a big bit of driftwood and stick up this pole and polar bears would see it for miles.”
But he adds: “I was completely happy because at the core of everything I stand for is the welfare of the animals. You’re telling their story and trying to accurately portray their lives and I’d never do anything I thought was adversely affecting them.”
Sometimes, though, merely getting to the places where the animals are can provide the pant-wetting opportunities.
“We were going to make a documentary, sailing on a ship that, when it’s not carrying a film crew about, is off clubbing baby seals. The whole ship was covered in the grease and grime of a working boat and there we were, sailing around the Arctic seas into the autumn, at the time when the Arctic is really squeezing you out of that environment.
“We hit a 48-hour storm and the part of the boat that moved the least was where the seal carcasses and stuff was in storage, so that was not a place to go for refuge.
“Fortunately I don’t suffer from sea sickness so I just went to bed. The boat was moving about so much that just to sit upright was exhausting so the best way to be was lying in bed. It got so bad that I really thought we were going to come to a very sticky end. The waves were so big we were sliding vertically down and up again and the boat would pitch right over.
“The captain was this crazy old Swedish chap who, when he was really scared, just laughed. So all I could hear from my cabin was him laughing, all through the night. I actually thought, ‘We’re all going to die here.’ I went to the captain and asked, ‘How far have we tipped over?’ and he said, ‘More than ever before.’ He’d been sailing for more than 60 years.”
Buchanan says it was here, rather than at the hands of an inquisitive predator, that he felt truly terrified. “It was the most scared I’d ever been in my career. What do you do in a situation like that? You think you’d run about and scream and write a letter or whatever but I just went back to my cabin and watched a box set.”
Despite all this, however, he’s not prepared to stop taking risks. They really do just come with the territory and that, in the end, is what makes such compelling television. “To keep telling interesting stories you have to take risks. I always think, ‘What am I prepared to do that others aren’t prepared to do?’ It’s nothing to do with being macho or daring or showing off. And I’m not in the Steve Irwin, snake-wrangling category. I’ve never wanted to get hands-on with a wild creature – that’s not what a wild animal wants. It doesn’t want to be picked up and manipulated.”
Now based in Glasgow, where he lives with his television producer wife and two young children, he is just back from filming a three-part series in Burma that will be broadcast on the BBC at the end of this year. “Because it’s been closed off to the rest of the world since the end of the Second World War, things are changing in Burma,” he says. “They have 70 per cent of their forest still standing and the government has to decide what to do with that amount of natural resource.
“We were trying to survey the most special areas to show the Burmese government what’s there and hopefully try and guide them to what parts are worthy of protecting. They have some key species like Asian elephant, clouded leopard, tiger in some areas, possibly rhinos – this is stuff that is being wiped out across the rest of Asia – so Burma has this opportunity to be the last refuge for a range of endangered species.”
And the next big project he’s trying to get off the ground is a series about the plight of the elephant which, despite the ban in many countries on the sale of ivory, is at risk of being wiped out in little more than a decade because of poaching. “I always wanted to lead an interesting life and do things that other people don’t do,” he says. “At the very heart of that is to show that the animals living in the natural world, for me, are the most precious asset we have and I really believe the most exciting discoveries are to be made in increasing our knowledge and understanding of that world and of the animals that inhabit it.”
• Gordon Buchanan hosted a Johnnie Walker Blue Label event aboard the John Walker & Sons Voyager yacht to celebrate the end of its global journey in Scotland this month, www.jwsvoyager-odyssey.com