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Namibia, Africa for BBC/Discovery Pilot Filming

Click here to see selected photos from the trip, and click on any photo for larger version.

Sunset in Fish River Canyon
I received an email March 31st, asking me to come to NYC to audition for a new TV show made by the BBC with the Discovery Channel. The show is intended to inspire people to get involved in the sciences. Part educational, part entertainment. Every episode of the series [should it get commissioned] is to be filmed in a different country at some spectacular and unique locale, using that locale to inspire a specific engineering challenge.

Found out mid-April that I was selected for the show, and that we were to be filming in Namibia, in Southern Africa [borders the west side of South Africa]. This is an account of the trip to Namibia and the taping of the show [minus any spoilers], with pictures where applicable. To see a set of saved photos from the trip, click here.

Limo pickup
To London
Flew in on May 7th to London, to meet up with the rest of the teams and head out. There I met the rest of the primary cast. The show is set up as follows: two teams, each of three people, competing at an engineering challenge. We are not told in advance anything about the challenge or where it will be [as the location determines the type of challenge]. For this episode, we were not even allowed to meet fellow teammates before heading out to Africa.

Dustyn Roberts
Glyn Hughes
My team consisted of Glyn Hughes and Dustyn Roberts, from Great Britain and NYC, respectively. Glyn is an inventor who has designed one of the world's cleanest burning wood stoves for heating homes, and Dustyn works at Honeybee robotics in Manhattan.

The other team consisted of Brits Jim Dyke and James Tongue, as well as my friend Leila Hasan. It is worth mentioning that Leila recommended me to this show, and is the only reason I'm involved in the project. Thanks Leila! Jim Dyke is a mathematician and philosopher. James is a carpenter by trade, and Leila works at NASA doing robotic photography research.

The opposition, from left to right: Jim Dyke, James Tongue, and Leila Hasan.

Along with the 6 team members, there are three other people in front of the camera. Richard Hammond, host of BBC and Discovery shows such as Top Gear, is the host. Kal Spelletich and Ian Johnston are the 'experts'. They film scenes separate from the reality progression, doing demos that illustrate to the audience the concepts that we as teams as using in our strategies. For example, if someone's building a plane, they'll drive a 4WD at 80mph holding giant wings off the side of the truck to show how lift is generated. That sort of thing.

From left to right: experts Kal Spelletich and Ian Johnston, and host Richard Hammond.

I also got a chance to meet the supporting crew, Andrea, Georgie, and Richard. Without them, this show would never happen.

The supporting crew, from left to right: Andrea Paterson, Georgie Hatt-Cook, and Richard Bateson.

Grant, director
Andrew Fettis, Producer
Finally, the director Grant and series producer Andrew Fettis. They called most of the shots on set. All of these guys had been planning this show from initial ideas set out over two years ago. This challenge and location and cast were planned over a roughly three month period.

Kal and Leila in London
Tate Modern
After a red-eye to London, and a little time to smell the flowers and check out the Tate Modern, we grabbed our bags at the BBC building and went to the Gatwick airport.

Air Namibia
Smoking Kills
Air Namibia gave us a second red-eye to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Note that in the non-US, the government is slightly more active in their anti-smoking campaign.

Sossuvlei sand dunes
Long roads ahead.
All we knew about this show was that it was going to be somewhere in Namibia. I did a little research and assumed that it would have to be in Sossusvlei, the location of the largest sand dunes in the world. But I was wrong. We headed down about eight hours to a town called Keetmanshoop, nowhere near the dunes, or Angelina/Brad as it were.

Giant's Playground
More Playground
There are two main things to do in the tiny town of Keetmanshoop, besides checking out the OK grocery store and the Keetmanshoop museum. The first is to check out the Giant's Playground.

The Giant's playground is a collection of basalt rock formations, looking exactly what you might imagine from its name.

Dustyn and Georgie, the Playground, and Jim looking serious.

We then went to the Quivertree forest for sunset, and just barely missed it [because Leila and I got lost in the Giant's playground]. Quivertrees and many other trees in Southern Africa are extremely carcinogenic - many times, hikers using local wood for fires are found dead the following morning from breathing in the fumes.

Quivertree forest sunsets, and our group.

Louis and Gerte, who run
the Fish River Canyon
Lodge and own most of
the canyon land
A room in the lodge,
covered with memories
written by visitors
After some time to hang out and get to know each other, it was time to begin the show. Still we had no idea where this was going to be, but from looking around at maps I had my suspicions. We drove another three hours, even further into the abyss of the 'middle of nowhere'. And we entered a fence with a sign for 'Fish River Canyon Lodge'. So, the show would be in Fish River Canyon.

Tent in the middle of
Hangin' tough
We left the lodge in the morning, and drove another hour in very hilly areas, but still with no sight of any real features, and we came upon an open tent. A tent conspicuously placed in the middle of nowhere, 100 miles from the nearest town, with six chairs, coffee tea and chips. And about a hundred feet away, a circular array of orange road cones. We sat around looking tough.

Glyn gets wired for sound
Arrival at Dawn
After waiting for an hour and getting wired for sound, a helicopter appeared out of nowhere. The heli picked us up, took us across the hills [all with a cameraman filming us leaning against the front window to get a good angle], and then it appeared.

Fish River Canyon
Left Canyon View
Out of nowhere, the ground below us fell out from under us about 1500 feet. This was the Fish River canyon. As if it wasn't enough to be faced with such a spectacle, the pilot took us in a vertical dive about 1000 feet down into the canyon, performing acrobatics that would've made me nervous had I had the time to think about it.

I have no idea what this is.
Roughly 6" scorpion
Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world, but nobody knows it exists because it is in southern Namibia. So, contrary to the Grand Canyon, you can literally walk this canyon for an entire week and never see another human face. Just baboons, springbok, and other local animals like the scorpions and large insects that I've never even heard of. The canyon stretches hundreds of kilometers long, gets up to half a kilometer deep, and up to 26 kilometers wide. Formed roughly one and a half billion years ago. For months the film team scouted locations along this canyon to find the perfect spot to film this episode. What a place they found.

Fish River Canyon, viewed from our work location.

The opposing shelf and 'X'
viewed from our work
A closer view of the target,
indicating scale.
The helicopter landed on the edge, on a perfect plateau on the edge of the canyon. In front of us, the next plateau was roughly a kilometer away. Between us and the other plateau lay a river; the land on the opposite side had a shelf about 100m wide and about 200m below our altitude. On that small shelf, there was a roughly 10m 'X' laid out in orange and purple.

Note that, of course, we still had no idea what the 'X' was there for.

Our camp area, with canyon to the left, our work area in the center, and tents to the right.

Our host Richard appeared and brought us to the edge of the canyon. Opened a box, and pulled out two chicken eggs. Then he told us the challenge:

Without leaving the starting area, you must get your egg closest to the 'X', across the largest canyon in the southern hemisphere, without breaking it. You have 48 hours. Go.

I am leaving out any description of our strategies, our progression, the competition, and the results. That is what the show is for, and seeing the show will be much more interesting without any knowledge of what happens. Sufficed to say, there's other things worth mentioning that I didn't know when we were filming... Note also that I had almost zero time during the filming to take any pictures, so most of the excitement of the event is only captured on video and will not be around here in photos.

Each team struggled with strategies, chose one, worked, and we competed. After we competed and the filming was over, we had a little party and I found out what I thought was some very interesting information.

The first thing is that, since the inception of the challenge several months previous, the team had discussed for months every possible solution they could come up with, and for every field of solution [for example, building a hang glider (which no one did)] they spoke to top experts in the field about the validity of that method as a solution in this type of task. After lengthy discussions they settled on only two completely valid solutions, given the materials on hand and the time constraints. Not that those solutions would be easy to complete, but they were deemed the only two solutions that were not completely impossible given the constraints.

Once they settled on the two strategies, they hired the experts from those strategies to be on set with us for the duration of the competition. Their purpose was multi-fold. First, they were there for safety reasons, as some of the solutions involved dangerous materials/etc, so without expert supervision we would have put many people in harm's way. But the most interesting thing, to me, is that in the background of this event, they monitored every single tiny design decision we made about our solutions. And then, when we went to sleep for the night, they constructed exact duplicates of both of our machines. Since this was the pilot, any random catastrophic failures of the machines would not sell the show properly, so in case we dropped our thing at the last second, they'd be able to pull this out and insure that we'd have something to show for the pilot. They said that in the future there would be no safeguards, that complete failure in an episode is fine, but not in something like a pilot which is trying to sell the concept of the show.

One other interesting note. A couple weeks before the filming, they suddenly switched the dates back by a full week. I had no idea why until we were there - they moved the shoot so that on the main filming day, we'd have a full moon. That was the kind of production this was; I thought crazy.

Beds on the edge,
after tent removal
Dieter, our sound man
Anyway, after the program we generally partied and laid back. The crew began to clear the camp away and we settled back into life off of cameras. During the taping, roughly 48 hours, we had an average of 4 cameras on each team at all times, with mics hidden in our shirts and also with boom operators to get general work sounds, etc. There was not too much privacy to be had. Every conversation was closely monitored by the filming crews, by the director and producer and editors.

Tents in the hidden city
Everyone else's dining hall
It turns out that they built a mini-city about a kilometer away to house and feed everyone [except the 6 team members, of course]. In all, 71 people were on location, directing, producing, being filmed, catering the food, editing, assisting, etc. The size of the production was enormous. And it wasn't until after the filming was done that we were even shown this other city that had existed the whole time.

Inside the canyon hiking
More canyon hiking
Now that things had settled, we had a chance to hike around the canyon a bit for the afternoon. Really an unbelievably beautiful place. Ironically, we had been there about four days, and this was the first chance we had to just sit back and enjoy the surroundings for an extended period. It was good to walk the canyon after such an intense experience involving it.

Sunset at the canyon
Leila panorama-ing
We had a final chance to stop and enjoy the sunset. Drove out to a viewpoint and just barely caught dusk. Leila used the opportunity to catch one of her many panoramas, using the robotic panorama platform she has been developing.

Catalogue poses
After sunset, we walked a bit and caught the moon rising.

Leila dancing

I even got a chance to play with some multiflash photography - on the right: Leaf dropping and Andrew Fettis, the director, leaping with glee.

It was time to say goodbye to the Canyon and those at the Lodge. The cast and crew packed up and we headed back to Windhoek.

Hangin at Nicky's Durban
Bar No. 1
Native Windhoekians
Our last night we got a chance to interact with some natives, which hadn't actually happened all that much until this time. We had one of our drivers take us to a local bar/club which is in actuality pretty much someone's garage that they open up, with a pool table and jukebox. Oh, and alcohol.

Leaving Namibia
Breakfast at Tiffany's
We hopped the flight back to London, and said goodbyes. I was kindly taken to a breakfast to tide me over for a 7 hour layover, and got to explore a little more of London.

The moment of the competition, the actual test of our machines, will stand as one of the most intense single moments in my life - and I think that everyone that went through this experience considers it one of the most unique and amazing of their lives. So, anyone reading this, please check out the pilot when it airs, and let the station know if you like it - we all want to do a full season.

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