When the Real-Life ‘Game of Thrones’ Happens to Be Your Backyard
When we meet Brad Bestelink in Botswana, he just escaped death for the fourth time—this time by hippo. Still, he’s determined to bring the brutal majesty of his home to the screen.
Brad Bestelink is speaking on the grounds where he was baptized.
We’re lounging in armchairs on the deck of the tony Eagle Island Lodge in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, gazing over the wetlands where the camp’s tented cabins look out onto pools of bathing elephants and hippos. It’s the kind of vista that quiets the mind, not in a spaced-out way, but in an engaged, enriched way. You feel lighter. You laugh harder. You find perspective. Here we are talking, and there—just over there—an elephant is grazing.
There’s a poeticism to being exactly here to talk about the filmmaker’s work on three different nature docuseries he is filming in the area, all airing on National Geographic and NatGeo WILD. This was the site of the first-ever photojournalism camp built in the delta, which was purchased by his father and is where he grew up.
He arrived by boat when he was 4 years old, precious cargo that his mother was nervous about passing over the water to his father. She attempted a precarious climb to shore while carrying him, but fell and dropped young Bestelink in the river.
“So I was christened right there,” he says, cheekily grinning, the August high-sun spotlighting the mischievous glint in his eye as he broadly gestures over to some reeds where a warthog lurks by the shore. “I was part of the ecosystem.”
When he was 16, Bestelink became the youngest person ever to get a provisional guide's license in Botswana. When he tired of tourism, he landed an internship with legendary wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverley Joubert and worked with them for 12 years until he and his wife, Andy Crawford, struck out on their own with their Natural History Film Unit.
“I’ve always in my filmmaking career wanted to make a film about the delta,” he says. “It’s been a passion project that’s been with me and we’re finally coming around to getting the opportunity to do it.”
Well, actually, it’s three projects.
There is the third season of his series Savage Kingdom, with its brutal wildlife turf-war that often gets compared to “the real-life Game of Thrones,” and the miniseries Wild Botswana, shot all across his home country. Both will premiere next year. But Sunday night will see the debut on Nat Geo of what is, by every account, Bestelink’s most personal project yet, the documentary special The Flood.
(Full disclosure: National Geographic covered all travel and lodging expenses for our trip.)
Narrated by Angela Bassett, The Flood was shot entirely in the Okavango Delta, a large, swampy inland habitat often described as Africa’s last eden, a lingering and unparalleled refuge with huge concentrations of game.
For Bestelink, it also happens to be home. And, finally, it’s work, too.
I nearly miss the helicopter to meet Bestelink and his film crew for a trip to track lions and capture footage. When I rush out of the cabin, a large elephant named Selfie is parked in the walkway, frozen and staring at me as if the world’s most imposing garden gnome. He’s friendly, I’m told, and often walks the grounds. But, hey, should he ever be standing in your path, please immediately turn around and calmly walk back to the nearest, safest enclosure. (Which I did, after taking a heart-pounding actual selfie.)
“I don’t see life here as dangerous,” Bestelink says, explaining his decision to move into the middle of the Moremi reserve when his own kids were less than two years old and recreate the formative experience he had growing up in the bush. “I think that if you’re a delivery guy on a bicycle, you’re doing that every day, you’re going to get hit by a car. Agriculture is the most dangerous occupation. It’s perception…There’s less death here than there is in the city.”
Once we’re finally in the chopper to head the 30 or so miles to Mombo Island, where a majority of filming for Savage Kingdom and The Flood takes place, he explains that there are animals in the area that have never seen a human before.
There aren’t many places in the world that can boast such untouched exclusivity, certainly not among the tangle of safari highways that foster most tourism. “Botswana’s ecotourism model is interesting because it is high-cost/low-impact,” he says. “It’s hella expensive, but it’s a pristine product. High value on it is the only way that this place is going to survive.”
He’s using the duality of Savage Kingdom and The Flood to, in different ways, upend audience expectations for what natural history and nature filmmaking is, and in doing so spotlight the miraculous region to which he’s devoted his life. Equally smitten, Bassett calls The Flood “a love letter to the incredible animals in this untouched wildlife paradise.”
Savage Kingdom subs rural Botswana in for Westeros, depicting warring clans engaged in a bloody struggle for power and control over the kingdom, a Game of Thrones-esque clash of wits and blood sport. “It’s Shakespearean by way of scripted drama,” Bestelink says. “It’s very accessible for people who are not fanatics of wildlife to grasp.”
The Flood, too, chronicles the struggle to survive, in this case against the backdrop of the dramatic annual flood each winter, but finds a certain beauty in the ruthlessness. “It’s an homage to place I love and care about so much,” he says.
Brad Bestelink has three significant tattoos on his body: an elephant, a crocodile, and a lion, each representing an animal that has nearly killed him. It’s still too fresh, but a hippo might soon need to be added to the body canvas. When we talk, he’s still a little shaken up, as the attack only happened two weeks prior.
“I don’t want to freak you out…” he starts the hippo story. “I probably shouldn’t tell you…”
The crux of it is that a hippo—you know, the four-ton beast ruled one of the most dangerous animals in the world—capsized his boat when he was cruising a remote area of the delta for a shoot. It’s disconcerting, as we had spent the previous evening on a boat cruising a remote area of the delta, in our case weaving in and out of a pod of hippos as if they were buoys, stopping often to admire, photograph, and simply lounge with the creatures.
But the area his crew was boating sees little human activity, and the hippo was hostile to boats. It hit them and threw them off. As they climbed back on, they realized the boat was sinking. They were in the middle of a lagoon and realized they just had to dive. “You don’t float,” he says. “You make a noise on the surface, the hippo will come after that. If you use a life jacket, the hippo will kill you.”
So they dove underwater, swam to the other side, and quietly peeled out through the reeds. It’s the second time this happened to him, though far more dramatic than the first. In fact, nearly every adventurer we encounter during our time in Botswana has a similar hippo capsizing story. They also all share the same cautionary tale of a former Miss South Africa who was attacked by a hippo while canoeing unsafely through the Okavango.
For Bestelink, it’s crucial to never lose sight of the inherent danger of a career among wildlife.
(To wit, after he and Crawford pioneered, carefully and over years, a way to study and film crocodiles underwater while SCUBA diving with them, they stopped the practice completely because too many inexperienced adventurers were following suit without precaution and getting attacked.)
It’s a respect that’s ingrained in his blood, coming from a lineage of conservationists, trackers, and ecotourism professionals. His grandfather was a licensed crocodile hunter, until he was killed by a black mamba snake. His tattoos, then, are reminders to stay vigilant—and hopefully alive.
The elephant is to remember the time a bull mauled his vehicle while he was still inside, completely smashing it up. The crocodile immortalizes the time a group of the animals tried to attack him while he was sleeping in his canoe on a wildlife shoot. The lion tattoo is a story he tells with gusto, coloring it with a little bit of “the fish with this big…” glee. Except they were lions. And they really were that big.
It was late evening, and the sky was crackling with flashes of lightning as the sun set. He walked about 50 to 80 meters from where he and Crawford had parked their car to take in the sight. He put his head down for a quick meditation. When he looked up there was a lioness standing right in front of him. He tried to crouch down, so that she’d hopefully go away, but she stalked around and came at him.
He jumped out at her and started screaming, hoping to scare her away. As he ran towards her, a male lion came in. Cornered between two lions, he shouted for Crawford, while a third big cat joined the fray. Crawford charged in with the Jeep and he jumped in the car, alarmed to see, once safe, that there were not three, but actually 13 lions that had been circling him. “I promise you, 20 seconds and they were going to grab me,” he says. “I thought I was finished.”
It’s only mildly upsetting to hear this story while parked in a Jeep and sitting close enough to touch six lions napping under a tree. The cats are a splinter of the Matata pride that features heavily in both Savage Kingdom and The Flood. Suddenly their cuddly indifference to our presence—one female merely craned her neck when we arrived, before flopping down for more shut-eye—becomes more menacing.
We had just spent the previous hours with Bestelink in one of his crew’s filming vehicles tracking not only the lions, but some giraffes, hyenas, and elephants that will be used in the series. The trucks are unusual, in that they also serve as production studios and the crew’s homes. While Bestelink drives, we’re nestled in the back between the portable refrigerator, camera equipment, and bedding. Above us is the roof platform where the crew members sleep, exposed to the stars.
The crew is currently working on collecting footage for Savage Kingdom, with most of The Flood already in the can by the time we visit in Botswana. In fact, under the stars back at Eagle Island the night before, he screens for us early completed footage of The Flood.
Few things are more surreal than Angela Bassett’s booming voice narrating footage of hippos and elephants navigating the delta, in competition with the night-time cries of hippos that provide the screening’s actual ambient noise. The distracting rustling of a tree mere feet away turns out to be an elephant attempting to shake loose some “sausage” fruit from its fronds.
The Flood begins Sunday night a with family of cheetahs, a regal mother and her three rapscallion cubs, following mom as she tracks and hunts an impala. As quickly as you coo at the cubs, you cringe as the cheetah snaps the impala’s neck. Her son starts gnawing on the hind, eager to help. What’s cuddly is also carnal—the reality of nature.
“Natural history, a lot of it is Bambis and rainbows,” Bestelink says. “They are predators. They kill things.”
“Showing the reality touches a raw nerve,” he continues. “It jars you a little bit. Once you’re jarred emotionally, it awakens you and you start caring.”
Both Savage Kingdom and The Flood are biographical, in that you learn backstories, family dynamics, and histories of the animals you’re watching. “If you just see a kill, it’s meaningless,” he says. “But it’s got cubs to feed. It’s fighting for its life because there’s another pride pushing down on it. Or hyenas want to steal and kill its young. They have hard lives. It’s not just brutality to get a kick.”
As The Flood proves, nature filmmaking capabilities have advanced rapidly. Camerawork is nimble and athletic, tracking a leopard from its stealth scouting position, slinking up a tree plotting an ambush, and finally its pounce. As it leaps from the tree onto an impala, you see its muscles billowing with the impact of every move, an action stunt rivaling any cinematic experience.
The scale and scope as well as the specificity with which it’s now possible to capture the most intimate, savage moments in wildlife is astounding. It’s all light-years away from what you might expect based on lingering memories of a nature doc you were forced to watch in a 7th grade science class.
These are vibrant, saturated, alive colors, kinetic filmmaking, and narration done with the bombast and rousing grandeur of Angela Bassett. It’s a far cry from the somnambulant energy, listless narration, and sepia-swathed steady shots of those nature docs past.
More, there’s story. Each shot is imbued with emotion. Each animal is a character. Each story affects how you feel about the world we live in. It’s all so far from home, a spectacle in a world most of us can only imagine, but brought to us with enough specificity to be intimate, even relatable.
It’s not long ago that National Geographic started bringing extreme sports cinematographers to shoot its nature docs. Now it’s doing one better: granting state-of-the-art technology to the people who know the area inside and out. People like Brad Bestelink, for whom the bush isn’t a filmmaking challenge. It’s his whole life. The Flood is his home movie.