Brad Bestelink is a modern-day bushman. The Okavango Delta has been his home 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 when he was still a teenager. At 16, he became Botswana’s youngest professional bush guide, and it was then that he realized his love and passion was for wildlife. He has never looked back since then.
“After I finished school all I wanted to do was be back in the delta with the wildlife and that went from game drives to filming.
“I decided to forgo a ‘standard’ upbringing, return to the Delta and instead experience the tutelage of iconic filmmakers Derek and Beverly Joubert.
“Under their wise advice, I worked as a cameraman for them for five years, then I spent another six years shooting for them,” says Bestelink.
After years of working with his mentors, Bestelink decided to leave the Jouberts and start his own production company. And so the 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 on earth, and it is my greatest pride that my films play a part in its protection, both for future generations and for its increasingly threatened inhabitants,” says Bestelink.
His much-loved Savage Kingdom, filmed at Savuti, changed the course of natural history cinema. Savage Kingdom took a dramatic wildlife approach to telling nature stories and this attracted many new viewers who found nature documentaries boring. Written by Bestelink and narrated by Charles Dance, the series featured 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 among people disinterested in nature’s concerns.
“The fate of the Okavango is in the hands of those who live and work on its shores. Our films entice its audience to come and see the action for themselves, and by traveling here these tourists are empowering and employing local people, and ensuring that there is a rationale to preserve the Okavango Delta for centuries to come. 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, among 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 thinks this is an opportunity for financiers and local governments to invest in local producers to have more local natural history content. He says that established distribution channels for large production companies make it difficult for individual productions to be available in some countries.
Investment should also come from within the country and use some of the established scenarios. “For example, the Savage Kingdom spinoffs, the rise of Sekoti, that kind of production should have been picked up by someone locally.
“Btv should order some,” says Bestelink.
Bestelink believes that the rise of streaming services such as Netflix will allow more content to be widely available. The little they can do at NHFU is hold public shows in various remote villages around the delta, which have proven to be very 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. This exposure should go through local networks, Btv.
“There is also no real local platform to learn natural history filming, and the government and institutions should use us [NHFU] as a platform to host interns and bring in people interested in natural history cinema.
“We want Botswana to be involved. But it’s a long process that requires a lot of commitment.
After many years of living in the bush, some people just get bored, but that’s what keeps Bestelink here.
“You show me work that is filled with optimism every day. We go out into nature here, and at any moment you can see something that no one has ever seen before and you have the opportunity to film it.
“What other job has this optimism on a daily basis? You wake up inspired. That’s what motivates me.
Bestelink’s advice for anyone looking to enter the industry is to study filmmaking or approach production companies.
“If you can, study a degree in film and then major in natural history. If you can’t study, apply and try to partner with a production company and be prepared to put in the time and investment, as it will take longer to become a proficient natural history cameraman,” he said. -he advises.
An example of time and commitment can be seen in Bestelink’s life story. When he was filming Savage Kingdom, he spent months living in the movie truck.
“It wasn’t like here [Mokolwane Camp] where we have a base camp just for us. Before, we lived entirely from our film trucks, sleeping under the stars, on the roof of our vehicles and showering only occasionally in the Savuti camps.
“When we’re filming, I spend more time sleeping in the vehicle than in my bed.”
“There are a lot of stories there.
“Botswana has many of the largest national parks and Botswana has the cheapest access to parks. “Botswana should take the lead and go tell these stories.
“I worked for a long time with the Jouberts, and I too tried my luck by creating my own production house.”
As to whether he wants to do a follow-up to one of his biggest stories, Savage Kingdom, especially now that King Sekekama is about to leave and it’s possible to document the rise of Sekoti, Bestelink is torn between closing and spoiling the legacy.
“I would like to end this story, the Sekekama dynasty.
“But I’m mixed. There is nothing good in the disappearance of a lion and seeing his reign come to an end. “I would like to remember them as the most powerful lions I have ever worked with, a great legacy and a great story. I saw them through most of their prime.
“Catching up with them now and seeing them fall apart is also quite sad.
“I don’t want to have a bitter end to such a beautiful life and story. But also, if I do, it will definitely bring closure. “So I’m mixed.”