The making of DStv’s deadliest shows

Find out what the stars and crews of DStv’s most daring shows faced in the quest to entertain us

Documentaries and reality shows take us all over the world chasing everything from tiger poachers, to terrorists, to tarpon. And while the focus is on the presenter or star risking life and limb to bring us the story, there’s also a whole production team offscreen facing the same extreme, uncontrollable conditions and environments.

Here are some of the dangers that the hosts and crews faced in their high-risk shoots…

That creepy feeling

South African actor and action man Cliff Simon isn’t easily spooked, but there was one moment in his new series Uncharted Mysteries that had him high tailing it out of there.

"There were very scary times during the season, like in North Carolina (the team investigated The Brown Mountain Lights, orb-like lights over the mountain range). I said to the guys, 'I think we should leave.’ And we did. It felt out of control. Look, I can take care of myself to a certain degree, but that night felt out of control. I’ve got guys working with me, I don’t want any major catastrophe on my show. I don’t want animals killed on my show. That’s not what we’re doing. It’s my name and face and if I’m not comfortable, I’m not going to do it. And that night, in North Carolina, I was not comfortable,” says Cliff.


Maybe nothing would have happened, but a smart man learns not to ignore a warning from his inner voice, that prickle at the back of his neck that warns that things are about to get serious.

Watch Uncharted Mysteries S1 from Thursday, 4 June on History Channel (DStv 186) at 20:15


Natural hazards

Extreme angling show Fish Or Die promises that its four hosts will “fish the most remote waters on earth or die trying”. That’s not an exaggeration.

“The whole Mongolia adventure was insane. We went straight through the wilderness. The outside temperature was about zero degrees, and our horses were all wild, meaning they didn’t like humans or gear being put on their backs. My horse I named CocoPuff. CocoPuff was possessed by the devil and tried to kill me every chance he had. Thanks to CocoPuff, it still hurts to sit in this chair and type this,” says angler Chris Owens.

Aside from rivers flooding, trees falling on campsites, a cameraman almost drowning, allergic reactions to insects, and poisonous trees, Chris reveals, “I think one of my fondest memories was sleeping in my hammock at night in the jungles of Borneo, picking leeches out from between my toes with a headlamp. Every night I’d have to pick dozens off of me, and they were big.”

Watch Fish Or Die S1, Fridays on Discovery Family (126) at 21:50


Deadly greed

In Tigers: Hunting The Traffickers, former Royal Marines commando Aldo Kane and the documentary’s director, Laura Warner, risked everything to secretly film evidence of tiger smuggling, poaching and illegal breeding.

“Due to the nature of the trade in these countries, trafficking can also be linked to other illegal activities such as drugs smuggling, illegal logging and people trafficking, so the level of risk and danger is quite high,” says Aldo.

Laura adds, “If they suspect at any point that you’re going to be disrupting their income… [she pauses, hinting at death]. But I do stress that I’ve got 20 years of experience of investigating criminal networks, so I’m quit savvy. And Aldo Kane specialises in providing safety for film and television productions in extreme environments.”

But Aldo and Laura weren’t even the ones most at risk. It was their researchers – people we never see on camera – who were on the front line. Aldo says, “I was working with NGOs like the Environmental Investigation Agency, Debbie Banks and her team, and a team of investigators in every country. Their lives are very much in danger. It took us a year of working with investigators on the ground to build this big intelligence picture of how the trade was working across south-east Asia. In places where you see me jumping over walls and having a good look, we had quite a big body of evidence that there was wrongdoing.”

Watch Tigers: Hunting The Traffickers on Sunday, 24 May on BBC Earth (DStv 184) at 16:00


Braving hatred

RuPaul’s Drag Race superstars Eureka, Shangela and Bob The Drag Queen quite literally took their lives in their hands as they travelled around the backwaters of the United States conducting makeovers and hosting drag shows in conservative towns for their series We’re Here.

“In Missouri, there’s a scene when the police get called on us. A gentleman didn’t want us outside of his store promoting our upcoming drag show. We were like, ‘Really? The police?’ But this is the experience of drag entertainers and queer people in primarily conservative places,” reveals Shangela.

Bob continues, “We got the cops called on us three times in Branson. They just didn’t like that we were there and they just called the cops on us. We beat it before the cops showed up. I was a little bit nervous in Gettysburg, too, because there are just so many Confederate flags everywhere. I’m not saying everyone who has a Confederate flag is a danger, but when you’re a black queer person, it’s not a comforting sign to see.”

Eureka adds, “When you’re a drag queen, you learn to be perceptive of what’s going on around you and what other people might not notice, you notice more. And there were definitely situations where I felt that we were very unwelcome. People screamed things at us when they were driving down the street. There’s a constant nervousness that comes with being an out and loud queer person in general because we’ve all had our experiences and it can be terrifying.”

Watch We’re Here S1 from Monday, 25 May on 1Magic (DStv 103) at 22:00


Dropping a bomb

In her recent series of documentaries including Isis Brides, reporter Stacey Dooley is doing the foxtrot where angels fear to tread. She’s dealing with not only direct physical threats, but the social intensity of asking awkward questions all the time. “You have to be brave and ask the questions on the tip of your tongue. Sometimes, you’re cringing inside. But you can’t have people screaming at the screen the question you didn’t have the balls to ask. People can tell you to eff off and do all the time. If you tried to avoid people telling you to eff off, you’d never get a decent interview, “ Stacey says.

Is she afraid, physically, when she goes into war zones? Absolutely. “I’m such a wimp. I’m nervous, pretty much 90 percent of the time. I might give myself a heart attack. You just have to try and be brave, and be courageous, and stick your heels in – otherwise you wouldn’t do anything. I don’t even like flying!” Stacey insists. The scariest place she’s ever been is Iraq. “I been to Honduras, Congo and lots of hostile areas – but Iraq was just another level for me. Mosul is intense. And we were there three months after it had been liberated, so there were still loads of IEDs (improvised explosive devices, i.e. homemade bombs) unexploded, there were still sleeper cells and there was a lot going on. You never really know. I’m always frightened in Iraq.”

Watch Stacey Dooley: Isis Brides on Tuesday, 26 May on BBC Brit (DStv 120) at 22:15


Getting the chills

The environment was the greatest threat that The Last Igloo documentary producer and director Christian Collerton and his team faced. “The temperatures of -15°C meant our camera equipment was really put to the test. One of our drones broke almost immediately and one of our main cameras packed up not long after that. Ironically, though, it was global warming that turned out to be our biggest foe: The sea ice hadn’t formed in several places, but more importantly it proved difficult for Julius – the Inuit hunter we were filming with – to find the right snow to build his igloo (igloos require a very specific hard-packed snow the locals call Pugaq). Climate change is one of the central themes of the film but it also threatened to stop us making it.”

Watch The Last Igloo on Monday, 1 June on BBC Earth (DStv 184) at 22:00


Sea sickness

Finally, through all the Deadliest Catch seasons and series, the camera crew has had to be every bit as tough as life-long fishermen, as they join them through ice and snow and rough seas, through long days. Executive Producer Arom Starr-Paul says, “You need to have an iron stomach. You need to be able to go out on those boats and sustain a level of health and operation so you can actually do the job.”

And once you’re out there, you have to be aware of a lot at the same time. “You have one eye in a viewfinder trying to level the frame, and then your other eye is open looking for your next shot as the boat is moving under you. It really is disorienting in every way.” The camera operators are doing that while carrying a heavy rig and moving around the boat, dodging swinging pots, moving fishing lines that could drag them overboard in a blink and a constantly changing environment.

“Our camera operators, they really are basically professional athletes,” says Arom. “In terms of operating, there is a lot of weight that’s high up on their body on a boat that’s heaving back and forth. So it is a little bit of an art and a little bit of a science in order for them to maintain stability and still follow [the] story.”

Boat captain Bill Wichrowski takes his hat off to them. “It’s hard enough on deck without a camera. You see our guys getting bounced around on deck and they have their full peripheral vision and they’re supposed to be trained professionals,” he points out.

Watch Deadliest Catch: Bloodline S1 from Monday, 8 June on Discovery Channel (DStv 121) at 20:55

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