Virtual-reality nature documentaries are making safaris more accessible

Kenya hopes to boost tourism during the pandemic through a partnership with Tiktok
Kenya hopes to boost tourism during the pandemic through a partnership with Tiktok
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
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For international tourists, wildlife is a major part of visiting the African continent. But cost and distance often make the same world-famous game parks inaccessible for Africans. Now, advances in virtual reality are putting Africa’s wildlife within reach for anyone with a smartphone and VR headset.

Exodus: The Great Migration, which follows the migration of wildebeest, gazelles, and zebras across the Maasai Mara and Serengeti plains, is one of an increasing number of nature documentaries filmed as 360-degree visual experiences. Created by Johannesburg-based film startup DeepVR, the documentary is also one of few such films made by African filmmakers.

Exodus gives viewers the sensation of being in the middle of a wildebeest herd as they make the perilous journey across the crocodile-infested Mara River. Seen through a VR headset, the wildebeest scramble right by you as they struggle up an embankment. In perhaps the most incredible scene, viewers even find themselves inside the mouth of a lioness. (That moment came about by chance, when a curious lioness tried to bite the camera lens.)

Making VR is difficult, as 360-cameras are expensive, and need to be as close to the action as possible. For Exodus, that meant placing cameras in the middle of the bush, where they were exposed to the elements and inquisitive  animals. In a separate video exploring the documentary’s difficult logistics, producers talk about dealing with camera equipment breaking down and drones falling out of the sky.

“Having to self-fund this passion project was a humbling experience,” DeepVR founder Ulrico Grech-Cumbo said in a statement. “We went to the US to pitch Exodus to a well-known wildlife broadcaster, but got turned down. We experimented with a crowdfunding campaign (video) and managed to raise enough capital for a few plane tickets to Kenya. That was just enough for us to decide, to heck with it, let’s commit.”

So far, Exodus has been shown at pop-up VR cinemas in South Africa and at VR festivals around the world. But with a VR headset or a Google Cardboard, anyone can watch it on their smartphones on YouTube. Grech-Cumbo and co-founder Telmo dos Reis have plans to produce a whole series on animal migrations, and will next be following the Amur falcon’s 60,000 km (37,000-mile) journey from Mongolia to South Africa.