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Rough Science 5 Zanzibar: Mike Bullivant's diary: Beneath The Waves

Updated Wednesday, 23rd March 2005

Mike Bullivant's diary about the challenge for the Beneath the Waves programme, part of the fifth BBC/OU TV series Rough Science, based in Zanzibar

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Mike, Kathy, Jonathan and Ellen, Rough Scientists Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team Day 1

This next programme, Programme 6, will actually be the last to be broadcast next March (2005), even though it's only the fifth to be shot. I don't know why it's been filmed out of sequence. The lead director for this programme, Claire, is one of the two researchers on the team. She's been working on developing the challenges for something like three months now; and is understandably a little nervous at what we scientists are going to do with her baby. Claire directed the second and third programmes when Emma, one of the assistant producers, went down with malaria early on in the shoot.

Ellen and I are to cast some lead weights for incorporation into the design of an underwater breathing apparatus for Kate. Not too difficult, and there are two of us working on it, which will make things easier

First we have to work out, using Archimedes' Principle, exactly how much lead we'll need in order to weigh Kate down underwater. I'm a little irritated when Ellen goes ahead without too much in the way of consultation. 'We' get ourselves into one almighty mess using a beam as a balance, and are only saved by the regular intervention of soundman Rob's common sense. We end up spending far too much time getting the balance to work, and tempers are frayed by the process. Not the best of days for me.

Mike and Kathy Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team


Day 2

With a melting temperature of 327°C, lead can be melted over an open wood fire, but precautions have to be taken to ensure that the environment isn't polluted by what is, after all, a very toxic and dangerous metal. Molten lead vaporises quite readily, and we have to take steps to see that the amount of lead vapour we produce is minimal (work at a low heat, vent off any lead vapours through cooling water, etc.). By lunchtime we've already cast two impressive weights for Kate's dive belt. Only six more to go. This is going well. We get some great close-ups of the lead melting, like some Antarctic iceberg collapsing into the sea. As for Ellen's lead impressions of Kathy's feet, well, I think she's become quite a proficient foundry-woman over the last few hours.

A comparatively easy day. Time to take stock of my time on Zanzibar. In essence:

  • I'm infatuated by this place, and have liked most of the Zanzibaris I've met. There have been one or two villains out to fleece unsuspecting tourists, and although I don't regard myself as a tourist, attempts have been made to separate me from some of my money. Wouldn't I probably be doing the same if the boot were on the other foot though? Of course I would.
  • Zanzibaris are predominantly a happy, outgoing, friendly, hospitable and generous lot. Their attitude to life reminds me a lot of what I'd met in Australia. Unlike Australians, however, Africans have to contend with their poverty as well as their weather.
  • We're all working a lot harder, with fewer rest days, than we have on previous Rough Science shoots. There are clear reasons for this, which we must avoid in future.
  • There have been some tensions within the group, but these don't affect me directly and I stay out of it as much as possible.
  • The camera crews and Kate H are working their socks off; they're obviously deeply committed to this series.
  • Having initially questioned the need for TWO Researchers out here, I can now see that they're necessary. Getting hold of things (like proper heat-resistant ovenware) can be very difficult and time consuming, even with the invaluable help of our local fixer, Eddie.
  • Sarah (our Production Co-ordinator) and Jonathan (one of the Researchers) are throwing themselves into their work with a fury. They get fewer days off than anyone else it seems. They've been involved for several months now, and they both play a very significant part in ensuring that things run as smoothly as possible - no mean feat in Africa.
  • The Drivers are all working longer hours than they're paid for, and are at the Team's beck and call, day as well as night.
  • There are advantages as well as disadvantages to the living arrangements. Ellen, Kate and Kathy live out at Chuini, while Jonathan, myself and the two Camera Crews (Keith and Rob, and Tony and Simon - the same crew that worked on Rough Science IV) live in Stonetown. The BBC members of the team are all accommodated somewhere in between the two, at a backpackers' beachside resort. I enjoy the company of most of the Team, but living so far apart, it's not that easy getting us all together for an evening meal, for example.
  • We six males have been billetted in the 'House of Peace', a private house in Stonetown, belonging to the Zanzibari President's daughter. This explains the two 'armed' guards outside the place every night. We're a 5-minute walk from the 'centre' of town, and even nearer to one of the best Indian restaurants in Stonetown. Zanzibar, at a cultural crossroads on the mid-east coast of Africa, has an eclectic cuisine (African, Arab, Indian, French and others).
  • As for my housemates, you couldn't ask for more pleasant company, and we all gel. I enjoy almost every minute in our shared home. The humour is relentless and highly entertaining. From some very amusing breakfasts to the drive into work and back with Kitende, it's been one long laugh. Last year's experience in California was never like this. This is so much more fun.
  • Going into the villages, it's apparent that there's a lot of 'poverty' on Zanzibar. At times, you feel an overwhelming sense that the so-called Developed World has turned its back on Africa (it's even worse in Central Africa). So much more could be done for so little cost and effort.

    Rough Scientists on boat Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 3

This morning is spent round the swimming pool of one of the luxury hotels in Stonetown. No, we're not skiving. For reasons of safety, we have to try out our amateur SCUBA device in a pool rather than open water. With so many brains already on the case, I choose to spend most of the time on a sun-bed, writing postcards. We've finished by lunchtime, and are given the rest of the day off. Hooray!! I need a break, and a few hours off the treadmill are very welcome. Thanks, Graham (Barguss) for your advice and company over the last few days!

Day 4

Another long journey before we can put our home-made diving gear to the test. This time, a car and boat trip to Mnemba, a small island off the north-east coast of Zanzibar. It all goes swimmingly. Kate Humble's a true professional, and worth her weight in gold. Not only is she as deeply committed to the Science and the Series as anyone on the set, but she's a very intelligent programme maker herself. Her advice is invaluable, and will help make this series the best yet. The Open University, who actually pay for the series (the BBC is effectively just a production company in this case) really get their money's worth out of Kate. She's a great presenter for the series, and she throws everything she's got into the filming process. What a woman!

It occurred to me last night that each BBC member of the Team has been ill, or otherwise troubled, at some stage during the shoot. Jonathan (one of the researchers) has had a bout of diarrhoea and was electrocuted (simultaneously it seems; not worth thinking about). One of the Assistant Producers, Rosie, was mugged a few days after we arrived, and lost all her credit cards and cash. The other AP, Emma, was laid low for well over a week with a dose of malaria. Series Producer Alison shared John's discomfort, as well as spraining an ankle. Claire - I can't remember what happened to Claire. Sarah had a '24-hour bug' (probably down to sheer exhaustion - she's working so hard). Apart from cuts and bruises, the rest of us seem to have been alright, although by this stage, we're all very, very tired. I think we can see the home straight now, and are looking forward to going home. After all, the BBC crew has been here for almost eight weeks now. The exotic novelty of Zanzibar is probably wearing off a bit.

These four-day challenges are a pain in the butt. Not only do we get fewer rest days as a result, but it irritates me to think of the more interesting ways in which I could be using the time. For instance, I've not done any SCUBA diving yet, and am unlikely to be able to, giving the filming schedule. I've carted my diving gear all this way, and am missing out on seeing some of the best coral reefs in the World.





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