David Attenbourough

By Debby Thomson In Hoedspruit

During the first week of 2005, Hoedspruit was privileged to host one of the leaders in the Natural History Presentation field - Sir David Attenborough.  He visited Hoedspruit, on a week's stop over in South Africa, to film a segment of his latest series - "Life in the Undergrowth" based on invertebrates, their trials, relationships, interactions and adaptations, before continuing onto various other exotic destinations for different segments within the documentary.

Meeting someone of Sir David's calibre was an absolute honour and a total pleasure.  He is even more of a gentleman than he appears on screen, and to be able to hear that voice in person, is an experience one will never forget.

It is due to his innovative and enterprising activities as a young man that Natural History Documentaries have become so popular and so successful over the years - he is a true leader in this field.  I'd even venture to say that men like Sir David are largely responsible, not only for the interest and the awareness of Nature and all her complexities, but also the passion that he has been able to create in many a young mind, for our earth and all her creatures large and small, and thus has added decided influence on the increased protection and conservation status, that is continually been added to, in many areas around the world - Hoedspruit included.

David Attenborough joined the BBC's fledging television service in 1952, with his first documentary series - "Zoo Quest" - a breakthrough wildlife series that established the international reputation of the BBC Natural History Unit at Bristol.  The first of these, "Zoo Quest for a Dragon", established Attenborough as an intuitive performer, so prepossessed by his fascination with the subject at hand and unconcerned for his own dignity in front of the camera that he seemed to sweat integrity - a sense of daring has always surrounded him both on and off screen.

Sir David's Natural History Documentary Career has spanned four decades and during that time he has travelled to some of the world's remotest regions.  He took his first international flight in 1954, before the world was shrunk by jet engines and modern navigational aids.  Since then, he has flown in a variety of aircraft and rested his weary head in countless hotels (as well as many that could barely be called hotels). 

Like anyone who has flown for a number of years, he has many tales to tell - trips to New Guinea for instance could take weeks to arrive.  However, it is his stories of Nature and his many and varied encounters with all her creatures and inhabitants that are the most fascinating.  There can hardly be a person alive that can claim to have seen, witnessed and experienced all that he has during a single life-time surely there can be no-one more knowledgeable on all the many incredible facets from micro-interactions to macro, as Sir David.


During his travels, Sir David has not always endeared himself to hotel management.  "The main problem I used to have staying in hotels is that I used to collect all these animals; and of course we used to have to smuggle them into the rooms.  We put pythons and anacondas in sacks under our beds, armadillos in the bath and had bats hanging up on the curtains!  Of course everything would always escape and get out in the middle of the night".

He tells a story of a trip to Madagascar - "I remember I found some marvellous things called pill millipedes which are about the size of a golf ball.  For some reason, I found a group of about a hundred and fifty of them - it was the most extraordinary sight.  I thought they'd make a wonderful display at London Zoo, so I gathered up about a hundred or so and put them in a sack.  That night, I had to stay in a hotel.  In the middle of the night they found a hole in the sack and by morning they were all gone.  I went out into the corridor there were pill millipedes everywhere and I had to go dashing around picking things up.  I got into a lot of trouble for that!"


We are very happy to report that he did nothing BUT endear himself to the Owner Management at the Blue Cottages where he stayed during his visit to Hoedspruit and certainly did not feel the need to bring any of the little creatures (termites and Matabele ants) that he was filming during the day into his room at night.  Calli Williams - owner of the Blue Cottages says that "Having Sir David Attenborough stay with us for five days at Blue Cottages was a dream come true, the highlight of 30 years in the catering and hospitality trade.  What a giant of a man. He was warm, gracious and modest.  He was incredibly appreciative of every small gesture in making his stay a comfortable one.  He ate with great enjoyment and loved trying our best South African wines.

He really amazed me with his huge energy, up long before light, and out into the field with the camera crew until mid-morning, with packed breakfast, then back for an hour or two before heading out yet again until dusk and then still sitting up with the rest of the crew until fairly late talking, laughing and sharing his many experiences across the globe.

 On leaving us he was flying on to New Zealand to film glow worms in caves and onto Australia to film the giant earthworm and various spiders......now isn't that just remarkable? And all this in a man in his late 70's.  Sir David, I salute you.......I am now even more of a fan than ever......and it was a TOTAL pleasure to have you stay."


During his film shoot in Hoedspruit, assistance was requested from Sean Thomas from Cape Town, and our own local expert Donald Strydom from Khamai Reptile Park in the filming of incredible interactive experiences between Matabele ants and termites.  As can be seen in the production of this, his latest series, Sir David is not only  fascinated and committed to saving the larger "cuter" or more "attention grabbing" species, but puts just as much energy and commitment into drawing attention to the smaller, lesser regarded species.  "The only way to save a rhinoceros is to save the environment in which it lives because there is a mutual dependency between it and millions of other species of both animals and plants.  And it is that range of biodiversity that we must care for - THE WHOLE THING - rather than just one or two stars

It is not just that we are dependent on the natural world for our food and for the very air we breathe - which is , of course, the case - and that the very richness of the natural world continues to provide us with all kinds of assistance.  But it's a moral question about whether we have the right to exterminate species and leave a world that is more impoverished than the one we inherited - simply because of our carelessness and greed - to our grandchildren.  People must feel that the natural world is important and valuable and beautiful and wonderful and an amazement and a pleasure". Words of a wise man...

Having visited almost every area of our globe, with only central Asia remaining undiscovered on his personal explorations to date, and thus asked what his motivations are for so much travelling - he responds "I like animals.  I like Natural History.  The travel bit is not the important bit.  The travel bit is what you have to do in order to go and look at the many fascinating animals".


Despite his rare skills, shared only by a handful of his fellow scientists, and during his years of expeditions, Attenborough was promoted to Senior Management at the BBC where he served for 15 years.  As controller of BBC2, he oversaw (and introduced on screen) the arrival of colour on British screens and is also credited with turning BBC2 around into an attractive, varied and increasingly popular alternative to the main channels.  In 1979, Sir David returned to Natural History Documentaries full time where he produced, among others, the world renown series' - Life on Earth, The Living Planet, The First Eden, The Trials of Life, Life in the Freezer and the Private Life of Plants.


Life on Earth, for which over 1,25 million feet of film were exposed in over thirty countries, subsequently sold in 10 territories and was seen by an estimated 500 million people worldwide.  Though he has always claimed modestly that photographing animals will always bring in an audience, the accumulated skills of naturalist and wildlife cinematographers, as well as enormous planning, are required to reach remote places just in time for the great wildebeest migration, the laying of turtle eggs, or the blooming of desert cacti, scenes which have achieved almost mythic status in the popular world of Natural History Television.


The sequels - The Living Planet and The Trails of Life, concentrating on environments and ecologies created, through a blend of accessible scholarship and school boyish enthusiasm, the archetypal middlebrow mix of entertainment and education that marked the public service ethos of the mature BBC.  Throughout the trilogy, the developing techniques of nature photography, together with a sensitive use of computer-generated simulations, produced a spectacular intellectual montage, driven by the desire to communicate scientific theories as well as a sense of awe in the face of natural complexity and diversity.  Throughout all his documentaries, Attenborough's combination of charm and amazement has been profoundly influential on and in the creation of a generation of ecologically-aware viewers.

In the Private Life of Plants, devoted to the evolution and adaptation of flora worldwide, was another spectacular success in the old mould, involving Attenborough popping up beside the world's oldest tree, hanging precariously in the jungle canopy, or seeking out the largest flower in existence by sense of smell.


Although at the age of 78, he is already planning his next series - to be based on reptiles - and as a man that is honoured by the academy, respected by his peers and loved by the audiences, Attenborough's imminent retirement leaves the BBC with a major problem in finding a replacement.


1954-64 Zoo Quest

1975 The Explorers

1976 The Tribal Eye

1977 Wildlife on One

1979 Life on Earth

1984  The Living Planet

1987 The First Eden

1989 Lost World, Vanished Lives

1990 The Trials of Life

1993 Wildlife 100

1993 Life in the Freezer

1995 The Private Life of Plants

1998 The Life of Birds

2002 The Life of Mammals

2002 Life on Air


1956 Zoo Quest to Guyana

1957 Zoo Quest for a Dragon

1959 Zoo Quest in Paraguay

1960 Quest in Paradise

1961 Zoo Quest to Madagascar

1963 Quest under Capricorn

1976 The Tribal Eye

1979 Life on Earth

1984 The Living Planet

1987 The First Eden

1990 The Trials of Life

1994 The Private Life of Plants

1998 The Life of Birds

2002 The Life of Mammals

2002 Life on Air


  • Society for Film and Television Arts Special Award
  • Royal Television Society Silver Medal
  • Zoological Society of London Silver Medal
  • Society of Film and Television Arts Desmond Davis Award
  • Royal Geographical Society Cherry Kearton Medal
  • UNESCO Kalinga Prize
  • Boston Museum of Science Washburn Award
  • Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science Hopper Day Medal
  • Royal Geographical Society's Founder Gold Medal
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica Award
  • International Emmy Award
  • Royal Scottish Geographical Society Livingstone Medal
  • Royal Society of Arts Franklin Medal
  • Folden Kamera Award
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