Last year I had the pleasure of attending Sonic Mmabolela, an annual workshop/residency for sound recordists, sound artists, composers and other audio professionals that takes place in a remote place on the border between South Africa and Botswana. I wrote a short blog post while in Johannesburg but it was about time I expanded on it.
Preparing for the trip
I had heard of Sonic Mmabolela while on a Wildeye sound recording workshop in Northumberland a couple of years ago. Back then I was still putting together a decent field recording rig and I wasn't sure it was the right time for me to undertake such a trip. Of course, now I know that this was all just a limit I was imposing on myself and that there's never a bad time to travel and do field recording.
To me this trip was first and foremost an introduction to Africa, a place that I had wanted to visit for a long time but wasn't sure how to approach. Hearing about it determined me to look into traveling to Africa and a plan slowly took shape. I started putting together a relatively future-proof rig so that I wouldn't miss out on too much, and I also began saving up since it cost a bit more than my regular outings in Europe.
The rig I ended up getting is the Double Mid-Side Sennheiser MKH30-2xMKH8040 combo housed in a Cinela Pianissimo custom blimp. It has performed flawlessly in the year since I've had it, in the scorching heat of the African savanna, in the humidity of the Danube Delta and in the freezing temperatures of the Carpathian Mountains. I've left it out for overnight sessions more times than I can remember and it has never let me down. It also sounds lovely both decoded to stereo and surround.
Other preparations for the trip included visiting a travel clinic and getting vaccinations against Rabies and other diseases. I purchased Malaria prevention pills, but luckily I didn't have to take them since the area was free of this illness. I say luckily because all Malaria medication has severe side effects, from upset stomach and nausea to anxiety and vivid nightmares!
I also purchased a bunch of new clothes including sun hat, loose fitting shirts and trousers and tough boots. Unfortunately I overlooked bringing any sunscreen, which resulted in a few instances of sunburn. Lesson learned for my next trip to Africa.
I had to drop some of my gear for lack of space in the luggage. I left my MKH416 home, but didn't miss it too much. Besides the DMS rig I ended up taking my trusty Sound Devices 633, 4 DPA lavs, the D100 handheld, JrF contact mics and hydrophones and two pairs of Sennheiser headphones. I was really happy to have brought dry bags on a couple of occasions when it started raining.
Flying London-Johannesburg was uneventful albeit long. I spent a few days in the city exploring, and my impressions of it are: good food, excellent wine, welcoming people and a curious mix of poverty and luxury. Not a city I'd enjoy living in, but exotic and enjoyable to visit nonetheless.
The road trip from Johannesburg to Mmabolela estate took about 12 hours. We made a few stops for shopping, fuel and meals which helped me get used to the temperature and environment. We stopped at a place that sold Crocodile and Hippo dried meat among other similar delicacies, and of course I had to try some. They tasted somewhat like chicken...
As soon as we arrived at Mmabolela Estate, our base for two weeks, I started recording. Birdsong was relatively sparse at 8pm when we got there, with some Nightjars and Scops Owls being heard in the distance. There was plenty of insect activity though, with cicadas drowning out everything else with their almost electric buzz.
It's worth mentioning that for the duration of the workshop I shared a room with fellow sound designer and recordist Daan Hendriks. I knew Daan from social media and had asked him a barrage of questions about his Double MS rig, which he very helpfully answered. We both had more or less the same plans for the trip and ended up releasing a sound effects library together, but more on this later.
Even if we were exhausted when we arrived at Mmabolela, we went for a short recce in the dark. We found a nice spot not too far away from camp and woke up at 4am the next morning to go do some recording. The soundscape was still new and strange for me, but I was slowly getting accustomed to the plethora of new species that I was hearing.
For the following two weeks we were immersed in sound recording (at least two sessions per day) and interesting discussions about sound, music, art etc. Here I have to mention the company which was an excellent mix of technical and artistic backgrounds. All 8 attendees plus the two organizers (Barbara and Francisco) got to talk about their work involving sound, which resulted in very interesting conversations.
One of the highlights of the trip were the so-called listening sessions. We took chairs to a remote location and spent an hour or more each time, simply listening to our surroundings. Francisco talked about the concept of "deep listening", which I think I understood but didn't nearly manage to attain. I felt too involved in analyzing what I was hearing, trying to categorize and label it, to be able to enter a meditative state.
Even so, the fact that we didn't have any recording equipment rolling for these "sessions" determined me to listen much more intently than I would have otherwise. This made me realize that at times my ears tend to "turn off" as soon as I press record, just because I know that what I'm hearing is being recorded and preserved and does not simply fade away as soon as it happens.
Other highlights include finding scorpions around camp and even in the bathroom as I was going to take a shower. This determined me to be more careful when walking alone in the bush, although at no time we were in any danger as far as I can tell. Some of us even chose to lie on huge rocks and meditate, which to me seemed a little too dangerous.
Every second day we would wake up at 3AM and go out recording. We would drive to a certain place, leave our main rigs, get back in the cars and drive for half an hour to a new spot where we would roam around and do more recording. This enabled us to get (relatively) clean recordings without having to be quiet and still.
Since there weren't any big animals in the area we were in relative safety walking around. At first I was a bit put off by the lack of serious mammals, having always wanted to record elephants and big cats. This was a blessing in disguise though since it allowed us to walk around and find the best possible recording locations.
Besides scorpions, there were snakes (such as Mambas and Puff Adders), hyenas and Leopards but we never spotted any. We saw several huge Nile Crocodiles on the banks of the Limpopo River and a couple of lazy Hippos. We saw and heard lots of Baboons while we were out, and their calls sounded particularly menacing in the dark.
We were there right at the start of the rainy season after many months of drought, and therefore were expecting a lot of storm activity. The birds were all in mating season mode, displaying and calling wildly. Sadly the air was incredibly dry for most of the time and it only rained a couple of times. On one of these occasions I left out my handheld on the porch and recorded a few hours of rain with thunders here and there:
The lack of rain notwithstanding, the soundscape was lush and incredibly dense. I had studied the area and listened to recordings before I left the UK, but I was woefully unprepared to identify local species. Thanks to Daan and his SASOL bird call app we were able to ID a small portion of the species, but at times we weren't even able to tell if a certain sound was caused by a bird, mammal or frog even.
Besides the density of species and individuals, I absolutely loved listening to the incredible variety of call types. Most of the times I would listen analytically trying to ID species and pinpoint locations. Other times however I would forget about all these aspects and simply enjoy the downright musical quality of the soundscape. On certain occasions it all sounded like a very intricate polyrhythm, as can be heard on a couple of recordings in the playlist below:
On a lazy afternoon we even managed to record one of the cars that were used for game drives around the estate. This was an old Toyota Land Cruiser, a beast of a car with a 4-litre petrol engine that sounded quite mean. Daan and I used 4 DPA lavs to record the engine, exhaust and underside and eventually put together a small sound effects library:
After two weeks of recording, me and Daan gathered around 1TB of material. It took us a good few months to listen back to everything, ID most of the species, decode from DMS to surround and stereo and turn all this into a sound effects library. It felt really rewarding once it was done though. Downloadable demo below:
This was by far the most interesting field recording trip I've ever been on, and I'll definitely go back to Southern Africa sometimes in the future. I wish I went there many years ago, but I guess it's better later than never.