Into the Dragon’s Lair


A while ago, we posted an article called “Going deeper” about underwater cameraman Didier Noirot and photographer Roger Horrocks filming crocodiles in the famous Okavango Delta for their upcoming documentary “Into the dragon’s lair”.
Now that the documentary has finally been released, we watched it and were completely blown away (it was amazing!) so we decided to re-post the article. Read on for more information on the making of this extraordinary and stunning movie!

A couple of famous South Africans also contributed to the success of this documentary, namely the legendary Craig and Damon Foster. They directed and produced this fascinating movie which marks the beginning of a trilogy called the “croc trilogy” and focusses on the lives of (guess what?) crocodiles. We are eagerly awaiting the release of the next two episodes!

Tiara Walters chats to a documentarian who took a dip on the wild side to get to understand the Nile crocodile

ENVIRONMENTAL documentarian Roger Horrocks has a beef with airbags. „The modern world has sanitised our lives,“ he yawps as we manoeuvre our way through De Waal Drive’s Saturday-afternoon traffic towards his Kenilworth home to watch the documentary on crocodiles he has co-produced.

„Don’t get me wrong. I dig the benefits of my car and all that,“ the 41-year-old says, gesturing towards the bonnet of his bakkie. In low-key silver, his ryperd is nothing flashy. A bushwhacker workhorse. „But we’ve very cleverly insured absolutely every single thing you can possibly think of. And, yet, living in jeopardy is what makes you feel alive, right? Jeopardy is what shaped our ancestors’ consciousness. It’s what makes us human.“

Horrocks’s answer? Go find yourself a dragon. A crocodile. Preferably a wild one in the Okavango Delta. And none of that croc cage-diving malarkey that’s recently taken off in Oudtshoorn, hear. You need to go scuba-diving. Just you, your wetsuit and your camera. To record it for posterity. Oh ja. And your stun gun, but like only if you really need it. Otherwise, leave it on the houseboat. Hundreds.

At least Horrocks armed himself with a human shield when he first wafted into the delta’s subterranean caves three years ago. The shield was 52-year-old Didier Noirot, marine titan Jacques Cousteau’s chief cinematographer for 10 years. They first met in 2007 when they both worked on The Great Tide, a BBC documentary series about the sardine run.

Horrocks considers Noirot to be his mentor. He is one of the most experienced underwater cameramen in the world and, hypnotised by a phantasmagorical underbelly never-before captured on film, Noirot was the one who dreamt up the idea of slipping into the delta‘s mostly unexplored bowels and flushing its mythologized beast – the Nile crocodile.
„I wanted to film crocodiles already in 2005, because this is a very unknown animal,“ the Frenchman lilts in Into the Dragon’s Lair, the Animal Planer/NHU Africa documentary that premiered on Dstv on Wednesday and chronicles Horrocks and Niort’s adventures in the delta. And I think we deserve to make something nice with this animal. Because no one likes crocodiles. They all end in bags and shoes.“

In 2006, Noirot dived solo, but the animals were just flitting shadows that kept ghosting into the papyrus.
„As we discussed filming, the terrible reality dawned on us that we would need to go deep into the crocodile’s lair,“ recalls Durban-born Horrocks, whose Freudian stills of the planet’s liquid viscera do for local underwater photography what Dali’s pocket watches did for surrealism.

“We had heard stories of how these crocodiles dragged their prey into the underwater papyrus cave systems. And we just knew that, if we were going to achieve our goal, this was where we had to go.“
Into the Dragon’s Lair attempts to be more than just a machismo display of derring-do and it does this well as an arresting psychoanalytical meditation on the human condition and its relationship with fear. In it, Noirot too, warns of the perils of the over-insured life.

„Maybe we need to relook at fear and relook at the things we see as being dangerous. And fear of a crocodile… how do you get over it? You go face to face with a croc,“ says Horrocks.

The documentary is a fitting nod to Captain Cousteau, the marine frontiersman who invented the aqua lung and pioneered the idea that the oceans are worth conserving. Given that there is no record of men diving with crocs, Into the Dragon’s Lair has indeed opened up a new frontier in the documentary business.
We think we saw stuff there that no one has seen,“ says Horrocks. „One of the things we were told by scientists was that crocodiles do not feed in winter because it’s cold and they’re hibernating. But we saw a crocodile on a river bank with a sitatunga in its mouth in the middle of winter. We’re not trying to compete with scientists – all we’re bringing is actual observation in the field, and I can tell you now those crocodiles definitely feed in winter.“

„Humans are the most distinct creatures on the planet because they walk upright… they’ll quite readily take a human being, knowing full well what we are,“ says the crew’s river guide, Gregory Thompson. „I was thinking they would show more aggression towards the divers. (But) the way the croc sort of hides his head in the undergrowth, the way they expose their back, they don’t make eye contact, they don’t show their teeth… to me this was pure and simple submissive behaviour.“

If their misadventures aren’t enough to convince you that these netherworld explorers are a few scales short of a full croc-skin purse, consider Horrocks once touched a croc while filming in the delta’s waters.
„Didier’s very anti touching. For him it’s a respect thing. I’m slightly different – science plays an invaluable role, but I don’t bury into the myth of the objective observer. The danger is you can’t develop a relationship with that animal, but we’ve engaged with animals since antiquity. It’s helped to define our understanding of ourselves, of human consciousness,“ says Horrocks. „But, for the record, I’m still wary of crocodiles – one wrong move an they’ll nail you. There aren’t any guarantees.“

What does a croc feel like?
„Quite soft. Pliant. A bit like a handbag, actually,“ remarks Horrocks.
One of the most extraordinary encounters in the film is the moment when Horrocks and Noirot follow a 4m croc into its aquatic dungeon beneath the papyrus.
Squeezing our way through some quite narrow tunnels was terrifying, because it was quite possible that the animal was right next to you and you would never know it,“ Horrocks reveals. „ And then we saw it. This incredible golden dragon… It was almost as if all fear and all of the anxiety fell away, because we had such a strong sense that this animal was inviting us to be in this very private place.“

As they follow the dragon through the undulating tunnels, it seems as if the two divers are also making their way through the darkest passages of their own subconscious and find that, in the face of the thing that scares them the most, that thing becomes something else.
„One can be fearful of many things, but most of the time you’re actually fearful of the idea of the thing… One of the biggest journeys in life is learning how to move more away from being in a world where you fear, to being in a world where you love and engage and appreciate.“

For all their kvetching about how the 21st century has trained the life out of our dragons – those things that scare us the most but often make us feel most alive – Horrocks and Noirot seem to have spent a good lot of time trying to train their own. But perhaps they’ve chosen their dragon more carefully than they might’ve let on. What would a life be if you knew for certain your dragon would never whip around to bite you?


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