Wow! Isn’t it great when you come up with a new project that ends up being way more fun than you anticipated, and then takes on a life all of its own! Makes all the hard work seem worth it that’s for sure.
And so began the life of “Car-L”…
I first had the idea of using a remote control vehicle to get a camera up close and personal to wildlife after a trip to Africa in 2012. A friend gave me her son’s old remote control jeep (thanks by the way Erica) and I played around with this for a while, attaching a GoPro as a full DSLR was too heavy for it. Although I love the fun you can have with a GoPro, it sort of seemed pointless trying to set something up to capture still images on this when I was used to images taken with a quality DSLR – the new Nikon D800E no less, which provided huge file sizes with amazing detail in the images. I would certainly be able to get some shots with the GoPro rig – and even some video if I wanted to, but were they going to compare with the rest of the work in my portfolio, and would I want to do anything with them at that file size? Probably not…
So I decided to stick to what I know best and to build something around a DSLR set up, my Nikon D800E to be exact. This is where Carl Hansen from HP jumped in. With a background in (and a passion for) gadgetry and engineering, as soon as I mentioned my ideas to him his eyes sort of glazed over and he got that weird dreamy look on his face you see when people are doing large amounts of visual conceptualizing in their heads. A few weeks of late nights later and my new four wheel drive, four wheel steer, double motor, remote control buggy was born – which I appropriately christened “Car-L”!
I wanted to use a sound blimp supplied by my friends at AquaTech as it provided excellent protection from the environment – the same blimp that had previously been blown up in a certain Hollywood block buster movie (I can’t name the movie unfortunately, but a number between 006 and 008 does spring to mind). This formed a monocoque type chassis to which we mounted ‘motor-on-axle’ style rock crawler drivetrain, suspension and wheels. The Spektrum DX6 transmitter allowed me to not only steer the buggy but also trigger the camera from the same hand-held control. And so the day after the buggy was finished and ready to go, I was on a plane to Africa (not much time to practice)!
I arrived in Botswana ready to guide a photo group together with Dean Fitzpatrick of Wildlight Safaris. Following the safari Dean and I had planned a road trip through Botswana and Namibia and this is where I hoped to get Car-L out for some action. My first test run was to use the buggy to get close to a group of vultures. Unfortunately some rocky terrain meant that I flipped the buggy early on – more driving practice required! Next was a male lion on his own who was only mildly curious. The following day we spent time with a large pride of lionesses – 7 females and 1 sub-adult male – who had just finished devouring a zebra kill and been drinking down at the river. They were very relaxed but also very curious when I casually drove Car-L past their resting spot – jumping up and quickly stalking the buggy to check it out in more detail.
If you’ve seen the video you’ll know what happened next. If not, I suggest you watch it here.
As you can tell it was a fairly exciting occasion for everyone involved! Not just being with the lions and being able to document their amazing hunting skills from such a unique angle, but also knowing we had captured all the behind the scenes action on video and got some fantastic still images from the Car-L camera (not to mention the behind-the-scenes images from the vehicle we were in). Unfortunately Car-L sustained a few minor injuries which meant he was out of action for the rest of the trip, but he has since been patched up and is ready for his next big adventure. As they say, “Watch this Space!!”
Back home it was time to look through the footage and our video guy Ollie Dale put together the fantastic Car-L video telling the story of our adventure. Who would know that when I shared the finished video on YouTube that Saturday night it would receive over 2 million views in the first three days! I guess everyone else has become just as excited about Car-L as we are.
Since then the footage has appeared all over the internet, on TV news shows in numerous countries, in national papers all around the world, magazines, blog sites and more…
“Car-L”, the little buggy with a big attitude. Where will we send him next?
**Additional Update: Sadly since filming this the lion on the left in some of the images – with the damaged eye and face – has now passed away. We received a lot of feedback and comments about her – and about all of the pride – concerned that the lions appeared very malnourished. These are wild lions who live very differently than the larger tame lions we see in the zoos and on TV. This was in fact one of the healthiest and most successful bunch of hunting lions we had seen on safari. The guides were able to recognise and keep track of their movements due to the distinguishing injury on one of the female lions. This was caused by a Lechwe horn (a type of antelope) and the infection in the wound caused her to lose sight in her right eye (seen on the left of the picture). However despite this wound she lived on for many years and even mothered a couple of litters of cubs before recently passing away as one of the matriarchs of the pride. I feel privileged to have captured these images of her before her demise, she has an amazing character in the photos!
See below for my favourite photos captured by Car-L, including a shot of me driving the buggy taken by safari guide Des Pretorious (all images protected by copyright):
Story and photos copyright Chris McLennan. Photo of Chris driving the buggy copright Des Pretorious.