Grasslands are really strange and unfamiliar places. In north-east India you get elephant grass, the tallest grass in the world. It grows to four metres tall, at a rate of two feet a day, and it’s impenetrable. Elephants will push their way through and create temporary tunnels. You end up with this network of beautiful carved grass tunnels, Alice in Wonderland like.
This elephant grass in India contains the greatest number of large animals in all of Asia. But because the grass is so tall, you can’t actually see them. So what you do for safety is go in on elephant back.
We also worked in the Okavango Delta in Botswana to film flooded grassland. I went down in a little boat with a local cowboy cameraman in this tiny metal dinghy.
Hours in, we got bogged in these thick reeds, surrounded by hippopotamus. They’re really aggressive, they kill more people in Africa than any other large animal. As it got close to sunset, we had to start getting out of the boat because it kept getting wedged into this thick mat of swampy reeds. The local cowboy told me to take my shoes off, because we wanted to be able to react as quickly as possible if we stepped on a crocodile. We’re pushing a boat through the Okavango, surrounded by deadly crocodiles and hippos, at night, barefoot, trying to feel for crocodiles and at that stage I thought ‘I’m an idiot, I should have known better, what have I done?’ Our legs got slashed to ribbons by swordgrass, and our faces were getting eaten alive by mosquitos. From head to toe we were decimated, and our legs were just bleeding with thousands of cuts. Every single step you’re taking in this water you can’t see, you’re feeling for the texture of a crocodile back and getting ready to jump. That was the most hair-raising it got.
But if there’s an animal and a place that I’m most excited about bringing to people, it’s the Saiga antelope. It’s this wonderfully bizarre-looking creature that used to roam across the tundra in tens of millions, but got decimated very quickly by poaching and hunting so the last few herds are left in the middle of nowhere. We went deep into the middle of Kazakstan, driving for days with nothing around, to find the calving herds of this amazing animal. To go somewhere so remote to see an animal that looks like it’s from another planet was just incredible.
There’s a slight twist to the story. When we were out there in the calving grounds, with hundreds of thousands of females all giving birth at the same time, a very virulent disease swept through the population and killed around 150,000 of them in a matter of three days. At the time we thought we were watching the greatest natural catastrophe that I’d ever heard of. We watched 150,000 of these magnificent animals die in front of us. At the time we didn’t know if it was the final extinction of the species, which was devastating, emotionally, for the crew. But we’ve since heard that the last few mothers and babies we filmed for Planet Earth II have survived. It was a potent reminder of how fragile yet resilient nature can be.