In this in-depth interview, they share the stories behind their wild, fascinating - and sometimes dangerous - recording adventures to capture the beautiful and diverse sounds of Africa:
Images courtesy of George Vlad and Daan Hendriks.
What made you go to Africa for your recent libraries?
Daan: I have been strongly attracted to the African continent for years, especially since I went there for the first time, back in 2015, when I quit my full-time audio design job at a games studio to follow a field guide training program in Zimbabwe. I spent 2 months studying wildlife and nature there, and then went on a further 2 months camping trip through various other African countries. I recorded a lot of wildlife sounds then and released my first sound library, African Wildlife, when I returned.
All my focus since then has been on dividing my time between field recording in Africa and game audio design. So I’ve been going back as often as I can, and for my latest library I went twice to Uganda this year. Uganda was on my list for a long time as it has a great blend of biomes, with various types of rainforests and savannas. It’s also likely the best place in the world to see chimpanzees and mountain gorillas in the wild.
I enjoy being in places that feel like nothing I’ve experienced so far, I like the abundance of wildlife and wild landscapes, and I surely love tasting new cuisines.
George: I love going to Africa as a sound recordist, traveller, photographer and everything in between. Africa offers excellent recording opportunities but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I enjoy being in places that feel like nothing I’ve experienced so far, I like the abundance of wildlife and wild landscapes, and I surely love tasting new cuisines. To put it simply, I first went to Africa for field recording and I keep going back for recording plus everything else.
On my recent trip to Ethiopia I wanted to record the sounds of the Cloud Forest, which is a rare and often overlooked type of rainforest that only grows at relatively high altitude. A very welcome bonus was spending time with locals, enjoying traditional coffee ceremonies and recording rural ambiences in the region.
What’s included in your new libraries?
George: My latest library (Human Africa) has been in the works for about two years. I started recording man-made sounds such as traffic and rural ambiences on a trip to South Africa, and kept doing it on my subsequent trips. While I normally try to stay away from anthropophony (and Africa generally offers better opportunities than Europe), I also enjoy staying with locals and observing village/city life. This sounds completely different to what I’ve been used to in the Western world, but also reminds me of my childhood in Eastern Europe. Needless to say I love recording and listening to these ambiences.
Apart from a few recordings from South Africa, my latest library includes extensive recordings from Senegal and Ethiopia. Most of these are available as both Surround and Stereo, but in some situations it wasn’t possible to record with a big rig such as my DMS. In these cases I only used my Sony PCM D100 and managed to not attract too much attention to myself.
Overall, Human Africa includes more than 3 hours of Stereo and Surround ambiences recorded in rural and urban areas, plus more than an hour of Stereo only recordings. These cover traffic on side and main roads in cities and villages, a variety of markets, general countryside ambience, distant village life, conversations in various languages and many more. I will soon update this library with recordings from other African countries, and the update will be free for existing owners as is the case with other Mindful Audio libraries.
Daan: African Rainforest is made primarily out of surround and stereo ambient recordings of various kinds of jungles, from high-elevation afromontane forests all the way down to tropical lowland rainforests, with numerous transitional types of forest in between. These forests are very rich in biodiversity, and the recordings sport a lot of different calls from birds, primates and other mammals. There are also some bonus close-up vocalisations included of chimpanzee and mountain gorilla, both of which I tracked on a number of occasions.
How did you prepare for the trips?
Daan: The most important aspect of preparation for me is choosing a good time of year to visit. Time is limited, and each season comes with its own aspects and sonic character. Ultimately, at this latitude the crucial factor is the start and end of rainy season as this season can seriously hamper your logistics, let alone opportunities for recording. Then again, the beginning of rainy season can be an attractive time as perhaps there’s less other visitors, or it is mating season for a species you want to record. So this is why I went to Uganda twice this year – once during rainy and once in dry season.
Besides picking the right time of year, I spend quite a bit of time researching my itinerary – nature reserves I want to visit, road conditions, logistics and safety concerns. I’ll look for any local contacts to try and ask some questions and get more context. Other than that, preparation is pretty straightforward, just pack all the things you want to bring and off you go.
George: A while ago I wrote a blog post about this here. Some things have changed, but most of the entries in that list still apply. In short, I do a lot of research by reading books and travel forums, I get in touch with people who have already travelled to my target areas (if I can find them), I make a list of gear and accessories needed and I study the wildlife that I’m hoping to record. In terms of logistics, I create a very rough itinerary that almost always ends up being changed, I do a general risk assessment and I also learn a few words in the local languages.
The course dealt with emergencies … and opened my eyes to a lot of risks that so far I’d been ignoring, wilfully or unknowingly.
About 6 weeks before traveling I make sure to visit a travel clinic and get up to date with vaccinations. It is here that I also purchase antimalarials and other bits of medical kit that I will need on my trip. Speaking of medkit, I recently joined a very interesting one-day course on expedition medicine here in London. The course dealt with emergencies that can come up while traveling to remote places and opened my eyes to a lot of risks that so far I’d been ignoring, wilfully or unknowingly. Suffice it to say that I will take this aspect more seriously from now on.
– and view their collaborative sound effects releases here
What sort of sounds were you looking to capture?
George: My main target for the trips to Africa is generally nature and wildlife. However, I often stay with locals and spend time in villages or towns so I can charge batteries, back up data, take showers etc. While I’m in these locations it is quite easy to go out and do some recording, sometimes with my main DMS rig, other times with a small handheld. My aim is to capture sonic snapshots in the lives of locals, from busy markets to people working the field and from traffic to city skylines.
On all of my trips so far I’ve also managed to vehicles as well. This usually happens on slow days when there isn’t a lot to record, and I try to focus on vehicles that are difficult to find in the UK. So far I’ve recorded several off-road vehicles like Toyota Land Cruisers, Nissan Patrols, Dacia Dusters and even an old Saviem 4×4 truck that was built just after World War 2.
Daan: I always set out to fish with a wide net: to capture any and every wildlife and nature sound that I can. This is why I bring two separate ambient rigs with me on these trips, and also some smaller mics and a parabola. I did have some highlights I wanted to tick this time: specifically trying to record mountain gorilla and chimpanzee. But generally speaking, I wanted to try to record ‘everything’ – all the monkeys, all the birds, all the mammals and other species.
What was a typical recording day like?
Daan: For my African Rainforest library, the main approach boiled down to driving as far as I could into a rainforest, set up camp somewhere, and undertake daily hikes deep into the forest to leave my two ambient recording rigs at sites of my choosing, or based on recommendations after explaining my goals.
I was mostly on my guard against columns of marching red ants, who eat everything that is alive on their path.
On these hikes I would always be accompanied by a local guide and an armed ranger. This is because these forests are all protected nature reserves, so you are not allowed to just stroll about by yourself. It also would be potentially dangerous as you could encounter forest elephants on your trail, hence the armed ranger, who would fire off a warning shot in this rare event. Even rarer and more unfortunate would be to run into poachers. But I was mostly on my guard against columns of marching red ants, who eat everything that is alive on their path. Hiking to recording spots generally would take all day, and could be quite taxing due to mountainous terrain, slippery mud tracks and carrying a lot of gear. So at night I would just have a simple dinner, backup / check my recordings, and crash into my tent early.
For the savanna areas, the process was a bit different, but my savanna-themed library is still in the making so I will perhaps write about that another time.
George: On a typical day recording in villages or towns I will go out and do scouting beforehand. I identify good spots, make a mental list and come back with my gear. While I record I usually stare at my gear or my phone and people generally do not approach or ask questions. Other times I will just be driving through rural or urban areas and I see something like a livestock market. If I’m not in a rush to get somewhere before nightfall I will stop on the side of the road and do some impromptu recording right there.
Kids are usually quite curious and approach me, but I find that shushing them and looking absorbed in my work keeps them relatively quiet until I finish recording. Afterwards I can explain what I’m doing and let them listen to some of my recordings.
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Any dramatic encounters along the way?
George: Yes, although generally it isn’t the case. Dramatic encounters tend to happen when I’m out recording natural and not man-made sounds.
One time we camped in the middle of nowhere in a very remote part of Senegal and set up our rigs overnight. All through the night we could hear weird cackling calls which we thought were hyenas, and it seemed like they were quite close. We were excited to be recording them but also quite uneasy at the thought of being separated from them by only a thin layer of canvas.
After a night of rough sleep the sun came up and we started hearing roosters, sheep and people starting their daily work. The cackling that we heard was the calls of feral goats that roamed the area, and we’d been recording a rural soundscape all night without knowing it!
This gorilla was one of the most relaxed guys I’ve met all my life, with nothing to fear, food all around him and generally the attitude of a true king of the jungle.
Daan: Recording a massive silverback mountain gorilla at about 3 meters distance is an encounter I won’t soon forget, although it’s easily misunderstood as a dangerous or brave thing to do – the mountain gorillas I recorded are wild but habituated to regular human presence. I also had a whole entourage of gun-toting rangers behind me, just in case. But this gorilla was one of the most relaxed guys I’ve met all my life, with nothing to fear, food all around him and generally the attitude of a true king of the jungle – lions don’t even live in jungles so they don’t qualify.
But you don’t have to shell out for gorilla tracking to have memorable encounters in African nature. In the savannas I had several close meetings with elephants while in my 4×4, sometimes with 20+ strong herds, crossing the track right in front of me. I slept with hippos grazing very near my tent, honking loudly all night long, and one night I woke to the cries of what sounded like a hippo in great pain – an extremely mournful, dramatic and chilling sound; ironically quite close to my tent while my mics were much further (they still captured it).
Baboons were often nearby, to the point that a troop at one point decided to destroy my tent. I could still use it after, but it wasn’t waterproof anymore. I also distinctly recall hearing for the first time the awesome and spooky croaking calls of black and white colobus monkeys in chorus, right above and all around my tent at night, having absolutely no idea what I was listening to but loving every moment of it. Back in the savannas, it wasn’t uncommon to be woken by hyena and lion calls, and very occasionally I would see them during early morning drives as well.
What surprised you most during the recording trips?
Daan: I was surprised by how peaceful and still the forests could be. Especially the afromontane jungles had due to their high elevation an ambient spaciousness that when a loud monkey or bird called, it set the entire area alight with reverberations. In some of the lower lying rainforests, this was contrasted by a typical cacophony of multiple species all competing for dominance in certain frequency bands. Surprisingly to me, the savannas were the most noisy of all – something that will be reflected in my forthcoming African Savanna library.
George: When I visited a remote village in Ethiopia I thought it would be difficult to record any kind of walla. After I explained what I was doing to a few kids it only took a few minutes before I was surrounded by eager volunteers, and the recording came out brilliantly.
What are some of your favorite recordings?
George: The walla recorded in Southern Ethiopia and the countryside ambience recorded in Senegal while we thought we heard hyenas are certainly some of my favorites. Another one that comes to mind is an idyllic atmosphere recorded in a sugar cane field on the edge of a creek. It was the perfect balance of soft wind, birdsong and distant village life.
I should say that going through fairly thick jungle following chimps while recording and taking photographs can be logistically challenging, I needed more hands!
Daan: Honestly I do love all of them, I imagine it’s a bit like picking favourites amongst your children. But one that has a special place for me is a recording of chimpanzees waking up in the rain. I had spent the previous evening tracking them all the way until they decided to build their nests for the night, which in itself was already an eventful recording as they were very vocal while me and the tracker and guide were following them about. I should say that going through fairly thick jungle following chimps while recording and taking photographs can be logistically challenging, I needed more hands!
Either way, I set up two different mic rigs right where they built their nests, and let those record to be picked up the next morning. It was a perfect windstill night for recording, but as is often the case in these places, the weather turned. Ominous thunders started rolling in and as I heard later in my recording, this caused the chimps to whimper and eventually nervously hoot and scream just as the massive tropical rainstorm started pouring in. This rain lasted all night and while it stopped in the morning, the forest still heavily dripped as dawn came and the chimps were leaving their nests to start foraging for the day. This de-nesting was a very vocal event, and I love the atmosphere in the recordings with dripping foliage, beautiful but sparse birdsong interspersed with chimpanzees doing their typical over-the-top, crazy intense shouts and pant-hoots.
What were the highlights from the trips?
Daan: Apart from recording wild chimpanzees and gorillas and generally being out and about in what I think are some of the most fascinating places on earth, it was the driving for me. I just love driving a powerful 4×4 and going to these remote places with the back of the car filled with recording and camping gear. There’s a sense of freedom and purpose that is hard to top. If you’re curious what driving in these places can be like, I’ve compiled some video footage below:
Driving in Africa
George: One of the most enjoyable parts of my trip was when I was taught how to peel and eat sugar cane by the children after I finished recording. That was quite fun and also delicious!
Is there one piece of equipment or recording gear that turned out to be absolutely vital to your trips?
George: My Sennheiser Double Mid-Side rig and my Sound Devices 633 are probably the most important bits of kit that I take on these trips. They’re impossible to replace on location and redundancy isn’t really feasible, so I could say they’re quite important.
I would count vaccinations and antimalarials as literally vital.
I would count vaccinations and antimalarials as literally vital. This less-than-glamorous aspect is not confined to Africa, but the continent definitely features some bugs that are better avoided. This is by no means a reason to not go, but it means prevention and preparedness are essential.
Daan: I try to not let any one thing be so important to my trip that it would be a disaster if I’d lose or break it. So I bring at least two of everything, if possible. Therefore the most vital piece of equipment to me was my 4×4, as I had only one of those, and it did break down every so often. But even if I’d have gotten completely stranded I would have had a backup plan, so as long as I stayed healthy I could always carry on recording, equipment never being a bottleneck.
Comparing notes after you got back, what were some of the differences in the way the two of you recorded the sounds?
Daan: As far as I know we tend to have a pretty similar approach to these things.
George: Talking strictly about these two recent libraries, I have focused more on the human side while Daan recorded mostly pristine nature. We’ve also been to different parts of the continent. I did some recording in West Africa last year and this year I went to Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, while Daan visited Uganda extensively which lies somewhat towards the Central part of the continent.
Otherwise we have a pretty much similar approach. Long unattended recording sessions in very remote places are the norm, and waterproof kit is essential.
What are some of the key lessons learned from your trips? Anything you’d like to have done differently?
George: On certain days I was too tired to take the rig out and record, so as soon as I arrived at the hotel or camp I plugged all my batteries in and went to sleep. Looking back, I wish I at least left my D100 out overnight. I can always be lazy all I want once I get back to the UK!
Daan: On my first trip to Uganda I was accompanied by my partner, but on the second one I traveled completely alone. Just me in a 4×4 and some camping gear, looking for sounds. The main lesson I took from this is that when you’re all alone, there’s no one to balance out your indulgences – I had 4 weeks, and the first two weeks I was recording, photographing and editing like a madman. Non stop, and with all the long drives and general challenges that come with camping in the bush, by the end of week two I wanted nothing more than to collapse in a hotel room in a city somewhere. Never before had I experienced needing a break from nature and recording on a trip like this, so next time I go alone I know I can take it a bit slower.
What’s your favorite aspect when traveling to Africa?
Daan: It’s tricky to say, because Africa is an enormous and really varied place, and I’ve only visited 5 of its countries so far. My biggest attraction and reason for going up until now has been its wildlife, which is unique and second to none in the world. But take a country like Uganda, the nature is stunning and the wildlife abundant, but one of the highlights to me were its people. I really liked the many Ugandans I met on my way. I also love the sense of space and adventure you can still find in African countries.
George It’s tempting to say that the abundance of wildlife is my favorite aspect, but that’s not entirely true. Places like the Sanetti Plateau or Ferlo Reserve are not known for their big game, but I still very much enjoyed hiking and trekking there. It’s probably a mix of excellent recording places, exploration, roughing it, meeting new people and cultures, local cuisine etc.
How do you find the time to travel extensively?
George: I work as a freelance sound designer and I collaborate with several studios located in different parts of the world. I can generally make arrangements and schedule work so that I can take a few weeks off at a time. On top of that, I always have one or two trips planned for the near future. This mindset helps me allot the required resources and time much more easily than if I were to travel without clear plans.
Daan: To me it boils down to making choices, and having the right circumstances. I am lucky to be healthy, so as long as I can earn a decent living with my audio design work, I am free to choose to do what I want – a really fortunate position that I try to not take for granted. I feel a certain pressure that everything is aligned for me at the moment to make the choices that feel right to me, so I try to make the most of it.
How do you deal with humidity, heat, dust, wildlife or anything that can damage your gear?
Daan: Humidity, heat and dust don’t bother me so much, as it’s just a case of the right gear and looking after your stuff a bit. I have run bathroom tests in the past before a trip – just let a hot shower run for a while and see how your gear behaves in high humidity. For rain, I use a ‘Kelly’ rain protector on my Cinela-based rig, or just natural protection such as big leaves. Ultimately, by now I know and trust my gear enough for me to not really worry about weather conditions.
I have left toy snakes near my mics to deter over-curious primates, but with baboons this could backfire as they do eat snakes.
Wildlife can be a different matter as they’re unpredictable, and while most animals are fine, in Africa I worry mostly about elephants and baboons. The way I record there’s not much I can really do to stop them, as I leave my rigs unattended for up to 20 hours at a time. So I will check the area for any signs of recent elephant and baboon activity – droppings, tree bark being damaged, tracks. I use camouflage netting to hide my rigs better. I also tie my stuff down with bungee cord. With elephants, I try and look for surfaces that they won’t easily traverse, but you’ll be surprised where an elephant can go. I have left toy snakes near my mics to deter over-curious primates, but with baboons this could backfire as they do eat snakes. I have used a leopard trap, basically a big heavy cage, when I recorded during the field guide course in Zimbabwe, but that’s not practical when you’re traveling. Ultimately, it’s a case of calculated luck and a bit of a balancing act too – I don’t want to avoid baboons and elephants so much that I don’t get recordings of them. And as I bring so much gear, I always figure that if I lose one kit, I still have the other.
George: The first step in dealing with these issues is choosing robust gear that is proven to work well in these situations. Kit like the Sound Devices 633, Sony PCM D100, Sennheiser RF mics, Cinela and Rycote blimps or DPA lavs work well in all kinds of extreme temperatures and humidity.
That doesn’t answer the wildlife part of the question though. This aspect is a little trickier and highly depends on the location I’m in. Sometimes, not leaving the rig out overnight is the best option. Other times there will be places where the recording equipment can be hidden so that risks are minimized.
Camouflage occasionally helps too. I’ve had Antelopes, Bushpigs and even Baboons come close to my rig without showing any interest. I did remove all the delicious snacks from the bag before leaving it out though.
How do you manage to get clean recordings of nature and wildlife without any man-made sound?
George: That’s not really relevant for my latest library, but it’s worth answering with regards to my field recording activity and other libraries.
Sometimes there are villages in the remotest parts so it isn’t as easy as looking at a map and driving as far as possible.
Man-made sound has become a plague of the so-called developed world. One of the many reasons that I like going to Africa is the fact that pristine natural soundscapes still exist. As long as I drive far enough away from human habitations, roads and flight paths I can generally record without being interrupted for hours. National Parks are usually great, although sometimes there are villages in the remotest parts so it isn’t as easy as looking at a map and driving as far as possible.
One thing I mentioned in other blog posts and articles regards temperature inversions. An area that sounds promising in the evening might be rubbish in the morning as the air above warms up and reflects down noise from distant villages. It’s worth scouting at all times of day and night if at all possible.
Sometimes there is no choice but to record in an area where man-made sound happens. In places like lagoons, small islands, mangrove forests there will inevitably be boat traffic, which carries for miles and isn’t immediately apparent. In this case, there will be times during a 24 hour cycle when there’s no man-made sounds polluting the recording, so in the end it is down to how long you can record for. If you record for 48 hours there might be a few windows totalling 1 or 2 hours of unpolluted ambience.
Daan: The only way this can be done is by simply getting away from human activity as far as possible. People who have never visited the continent may have an idyllic idea of Africa being filled with expansive, pristine nature, but it’s pretty hard to reach the actual pristine areas. It depends a lot on the country. Recording in Botswana in 2015, I was so happy with how sparsely populated that country was – although there would still be the occasional 4×4 and truck sounds. Uganda by contrast is densely populated, but it does have pristine areas left. It just means you have to hike quite a bit deeper into that rainforest to leave your gear than your accompanying ranger tends to think, because they don’t know how sensitive your mics are, and aren’t used to listening the way you do as a recordist.
Are there any common misconceptions about traveling to Africa?
Daan: I think that Africa is hugely misunderstood, and it begins with how we in the West think of it as a single place, almost like a country, while it in fact is the most diverse continent in the world – illustrated by the fact that it has an estimated 2000 (!) languages. We are only fed images of starving children and war torn places and while these tragedies are very real, they are not everything that Africa should be defined by. It results in people thinking of Africa as a dangerous place to visit, a place rife with disease, conflict and beasts that will eat you.
Anyone can visit the places I have been to, it takes no special badge of bravery, and I would wager you’d love it as much as I have.
But it really couldn’t be further from the truth. As long as you pick the right destination (any country bar obvious conflict zones), all you need to bring is common sense, just like traveling to any place in the world. I’ve felt more uneasy in downtown London than I have felt anywhere in African countries. Take Uganda, the cities and towns can be hectic and people are often poor, but you are never harassed and it’s easy to make local contacts. Camping in the African bush, listening to the calls of wildlife is a really relaxing experience. I am not claiming it’s all roses and moonshine, but the idea that Africa is one place, filled with danger and only for the not faint-of-heart is ludicrous. Anyone can visit the places I have been to, it takes no special badge of bravery, and I would wager you’d love it as much as I have.
George: There most certainly are, beginning with the fact that countries and regions in Africa are incredibly varied and diverse. You wouldn’t bundle up all the countries in Europe or Asia, and the same thing goes for Africa. Every region and country will require specific research and preparation.
More to the point, several people have asked me or commented on wildlife encounters and associated dangers while traveling in Africa. While attacks on humans are not unheard of, common sense is usually enough to keep this from happening. Most of the national parks that I visited will not let you in without a local guide and maybe a scout with a firearm anyway. Things like traffic accidents and malaria are far more dangerous in Africa than wildlife will ever be.
Have you got any plans to return to the continent?
George: Absolutely. Next week I’m flying to Gabon for my yearly sound recording expedition. I’m quite excited at the prospect of spending a month in the rainforests of the Congo Basin, and I’ll do my best to capture authentic rural and urban ambiences as well.
Next year I plan on visiting North Africa including the Sahara desert, and hopefully other parts of the continent as well. This is still too far ahead for any concrete plans yet, especially since I have trips to other parts of the world scheduled. Follow me on social media to find out more:
Daan: I have many African trips that I dream about, but my next recording destination is in two weeks to Madagascar. I have rented a car for 5 weeks and will try to travel the country as much as I can. It will be a challenge as the infrastructure is reportedly pretty bad in places, so I may have to hire a local driver for certain stretches. I usually drive everything myself but in Madagascar the rental companies don’t like the self-driving idea so much, though I did find one who’ll let me. It should be a special one either way, as both my brother and my dad liked the idea of Madagascar so much that they are joining me for a few weeks. Even so, my main focus will be on recording as usual.
I have also been researching the Congo basin for a long time, and I have identified various ways to go there, but am still deciding on what the best approach will be for me; my current intent is to go in early 2019. I am also in the process of identifying good countries that I could take other field recordists to, kind of as a guide or in an organised recording trip fashion, as I’ve had people express an interest to join me on these trips. By going to countries I’ve already been to before we’d be able to cut out the faff and get straight to the best recording locations. And finally, one day I will do a cross-continental road trip, starting in Europe and traversing most of Africa. I’ve postponed this plan a couple of times already, but one day I’ll find the right moment to do it.
A big thanks to Daan Hendriks and George Vlad for sharing with us their recording experiences! If you are interested in hearing more of their sounds, be sure to check out ‘Human Africa’ and ‘African Rainforest’.
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