Living in a pristine wilderness with your partner and best friend, making wildlife documentaries may sound like a dream for many. I confess since growing up on Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s films it had always stuck in my mind as an ideal life.
But the couple’s 40-year stint in Botswana has not come without compromises.
The Jouberts have been living between the wilderness and their Johannesburg base since first falling in love with the Okavango in the early 1980’s and have produced more than 30 wildlife documentary films since then, starting with the intense and intriguing wars between lions and hyenas, which established their success.
“Of course, there’s a romantic notion that two people going into the bush are living the ideal life. But the reality is that it’s true,” Dereck laughs.
I confess I was hoping to hear that it was in reality extremely difficult to alleviate my jealousy.
But a few minutes into the interview, they concede that their chosen path in life has not come without a price.
While they never compromised on things like personal hygiene – even during long stints without seeing other human beings, there were things their lifestyle simply didn’t allow. Other aspects required meticulous planning.
“It’s easy to over-romanticise it and there are things you give up,” Dereck confesses as we sit on the stoep of their Johannesburg home on a fresh highveld morning in August.
(Photo: Vanessa Yelseth, Wildlife Films)
The Jouberts and their team are busy putting the finishing touches on their latest piece of work – a four-part series titled Okavango: River of Dreams and preparing to take it to the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in the US.
“People who live in cities, if they have a desire to go out and get some chocolate, for example, they go out and they buy it. We would have to plan our chocolate intake for 9 months, for 10 months... and if you eat it all in the first week, you’re kind of out of chocolate,” Dereck says.
He recounts how he would have to choose the literature that would sustain them during long nights in the bush carefully, and ended up reading Beverly the entire works of Shakespeare.
Just as I think their relationship must be perfect Dereck explains a major practical issue they had to adapt to.
“The big thing I think – that harkens back to how we get on together – living in isolation as opposed to living in a city, if you and your husband, or friends even, family, have an argument, you can withdraw. You can go out, you can escape. We can’t – in fact, it would be dangerous to escape. So, if Beverly stormed off in a huff, hyenas would eat her…”
And so, you’ve got to sort of hold it together and plan your lives months in advance.”
But quarrels and chocolate aside, there is one major life decision they made in order to pursue their dream.
"One of the compromises that we did make was in having a family – having children,” Dereck says.
Beverly explains it was a decision that they made very early on.
“But what we were gaining is being able to be together at all times and to have the adventure together and to very much be a part of this story that we were telling.
So, we started looking at each film that we made as our children… And that was a wonderful way of knowing that we were actually speaking to kids around the world – speaking to people around the world – and hopefully putting in place the protection of these wild places for the future.
We’ve also discovered now many children that have grown up on our films we are now recently meeting… and seeing that our work has definitely brought forth humans that are very eager to protect the environment and are beautiful people.”
Dereck says even back then they were also concerned about the global population.
“So we didn’t want to contribute to that. But also - quite selfishly - we didn’t want children to interrupt our careers, and also the reverse of selfishly, we didn’t want to expose children to our lifestyle – and it’s a high-risk lifestyle.”
But films and fans aside, the Jouberts’ parental instincts could not be suppressed completely. Despite their ‘rules’ governing interactions with wildlife, a handful of characters really got under their skins.
“At times on individual films we found that one of the animals – we almost feel like we become surrogate parents too – and that one little animal that comes to mind is little Legadema – it was a little leopard. We ended up spending four years with her because she totally captivated us in so many ways,” Beverly explains.
The cat featured in a film called Eye of the Leopard, which took three and a half years to make. They were drawn back to her and created another film called Living with Big Cats.
“We’ve got a policy never to intervene in any situation unless it’s man-made, never to habituate and animal to man, never to touch an animal… but with this little leopard she kind of broke some of those boundaries purely because she watched us for three and a half years… and that gave her a chance to understand that we weren’t a threat,” Beverly explains.
“She treated us as if we were her mother, and we were with her probably more than her mother was.”
But the price of the Jouberts’ life in the bush is one they happily paid in pursuit of their mission to document the natural world in all it’s terrible and beautiful glory; to capture the harsh truths so that we may better understand life on this planet – and our place in it.
And this notion was central to their latest piece of work – and perhaps more so than ever – after Beverly’s brush with death following a buffalo attack in 2017.
“It’s not always pretty, there’s not always a happy ending,” Dereck explains.
“We’ve seen lion cubs die with broken backs, and we’ve seen beautiful things come to a sudden and abrupt end. Every kill that we’ve seen – and we’ve seen a lot of kills, we’ve seen 1 800 kills – each one of them is important and we pay reverence to that.
But it’s important to show people the real version of this because if we live too much in a Disneyfied world when it comes to the natural world, it throws our balance out.”
Beverly says this principle is central to their mission to help protect places like the Okavango.
“Our main goal is conservation and how we can protect wild places, so for our audience to understand that it’s immensely hard for every animal out there. They have their daily survivals, they have predators that are constantly after them, obviously food and water is key. And so when we’re out there we’re experiencing it with them… and with that rollercoaster of our emotions we try and put it into our films, so that we’re all very aware that to protect these areas we have to understand that there are challenges towards the animals as well and then all of a sudden we as man come along…”
As I sit listening to the Jouberts it dawns on me what profound impact their films have had on me and millions of other people around the globe. They’ve not only shown us the beauty of nature, but the heartbreak and cruelty too. And while some scenes were certainly difficult to watch, it was for our own good and for the good of the planet.
Through their iconic stories they’ve educated us about the real circle of life, instead of the watered-down one presented in The Lion King, so that we may understand the ways in which our actions impact the natural world around.
As one of their ‘children’ I am profoundly grateful for this life lesson.
*The three-part Okavango River of Dreams series is set to air on 5, 6 & 7 September at 18:00 on National Geographic Wild, and focuses on the Okavango in Southern Africa, its landscapes and wildlife. WATCH THE TRAILER BELOW
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