Brad Bestelink: A lifetime of natural history storytelling

In the wild: Bestelink grew up in the Delta PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
In the wild: Bestelink grew up in the Delta PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

Out in the Okavango wilderness, onboard a modified film truck, tracking leopards, the legendary filmmaker, Brad Bestelink, gives Mmegi Staff Writer, THALEFANG CHARLES, rare access. An exclusive wide-ranging interview about natural history storytelling, animated with interjections of stops while listening out for that bark of a primate, the snort of a herbivore, the high-pitched chirrup of a squirrel and screech of a francolin to lead us to predators

Brad Bestelink is a modern-day bushman. The Okavango Delta has been his home ever since he was born there 44 years ago. His parents were pioneers in the photographic safari industry, replacing their guns with cameras. Bestelink found his passion and calling while he was still a teenager. At 16, he became the youngest professional bush guide in Botswana, and that was when he realised his love and passion was for wildlife. He has never looked back since then.

“After finishing school, all I wanted to do was to be back in the Delta with wildlife and it turned from safaris to filming.

“I decided to forego a ‘standard’ education, return to the Delta and rather experience the tutelage of the iconic filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert.


“Under their expert guidance, I worked as a camera operator for them for five years, then spent another six years shooting for them,” recounts Bestelink.

After years of working with his mentors, Bestelink decided to leave the Jouberts and set up his own production company. And that is how Natural History Film Unit (NHFU) was born. Bestelink is now a legendary natural history cinematographer, with his name appearing in over 16 productions.

“It is my privilege to live and work here, in one of the last truly wild places left on earth, and it is my greatest pride that my films play a role in protecting it, both for future generations and for its increasingly endangered inhabitants,” says Bestelink.

His highly rated Savage Kingdom, filmed in Savuti, changed the course of natural history filmmaking. Savage Kingdom adopted a wildlife drama approach to nature storytelling and that attracted many new viewers who used to find nature documentaries boring. Written by Bestelink and narrated by Charles Dance, the series introduced real-life lion characters like Sekekama, Motsumi and a leopard called Tshaba. The success of Savage Kingdom boosted Botswana’s tourism industry and helped bring more attention to the Okavango Delta even amongst people who were disinterested in nature issues.

“The fate of the Okavango lies in the hands of those that live and work on its shores. Our films inspire its audience to come and see the action for themselves and, by travelling here, these tourists empower and employ the local population, and ensure that there is a justification to preserve the Okavango Delta for centuries to come,” says Bestelink.

He has also worked in many other productions including Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale, Okavango: A Flood of Life, The Flood, Lion Brothers: Cubs to Kings, Hostile Planet, Diving with Crocodiles, Leopards of Dead Tree Island, Pride in Battle, amongst others.

But despite all these successful productions, the challenges are that the industry is foreign-dominated and most of these productions are not accessible locally.

Bestelink believes that this is an opportunity for local financiers and governments to invest in local producers to have more local natural history content. He says the established distribution channels for major production companies are making it difficult for individual productions to be available in some countries.

Investment should also come from within the country and utilise some of the established storylines. “For instance, the spinoffs of Savage Kingdom, the rise of Sekoti, that kind of production should have been picked up by someone locally.

“Btv should be commissioning such,” argues Bestelink.

Bestelink believes the rise of the streaming services such as Netflix will allow more content to be available widely. The little they can do at NHFU is hold public broadcasts at various remote villages around the Delta, which have proved quite popular with children.

On why there are few black Batswana in the industry, he says: “I don’t think there is enough exposure for natural history. That exposure should come through local networks, Btv.”

“There is also no real local platform to learn natural history filming, and government and institutions should use us [NHFU] as a platform to have interns and have people interested in natural history filmmaking get in.

“We are keen to have Batswana involved. But it is a long process and requires a lot of commitment.”

Bestelink: THALEFANG CHARLES
Bestelink: THALEFANG CHARLES



After many years of living in the bush, some people simply get bored, but this is what keeps Bestelink here.

“You show me a job that is every day filled with optimism. We go out into the wild here, and at any point, you could see something that nobody has ever seen before and you get an opportunity to film it.

“What other job has that optimism every day? You wake up inspired. That is what drives me.”

Bestelink’s advice, for anyone looking to enter the industry is to study filmmaking or approach production companies.

“If you can, study a film degree, then specialise in natural history. If you can’t study, then apply and try get yourself associated with a production company and be prepared to do the time and investment because it is going to take more time to then become a proficient natural history camera operator,” he advised.

An example of doing time and showing commitment can be seen in Bestelink’s life story. When he was filming Savage Kingdom, he spent months living in the film truck.

“It was unlike here [Mokolwane Camp] where we have a base camp all to ourselves. We used to entirely live from our filmtrucks, sleeping in the open, on the roof of our vehicles and only occasionally showering at the camps in Savuti.

“When we are filming, I spend more time sleeping on the vehicle than in my bed.”

“There are lot of stories out there.

“Botswana has lots of the greatest national parks and Batswana have the cheapest access to parks. “Batswana should take initiative, and go and tell those stories.

“I worked with the Jouberts for a long time, and I too took a chance and started my own production house.”

On whether he is keen to do a follow up of one of his greatest stories, Savage Kingdom, especially now that king Sekekama is on his way out and there is a possibility of documenting the rise of Sekoti, Bestelink is torn between closure and spoiling the legacy.

“I would like to bring closure to that story, the Sekekama dynasty.

“But I am mixed. There is nothing nice about the demise of a lion and seeing their reign coming to an end. “I would like to remember them as the most powerful lions I have ever worked with, great legacy and great story. I saw them through most of their heyday.

“To catchup with them now and see them falling apart is quite sad as well.

“I don’t want to have a bitter end to such a great life and story. But also, if I do, it will certainly bring closure. “So, I am mixed.”

Editor's Comment
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