One of the great advantages of living in a place like Victoria Falls is the people you meet. It draws the adventurers and the explorers, though modern day they share the same old-world wanderlust leaving behind footprints in our souls.
On being introduced to National Geographic photographer and cameraman Andreas Kieling I asked what had brought him to Zimbabwe to which he replied matter-of-factly: “Well, it’s now winter in the Arctic Circle so it’s too dark to film bears.” The remarkable conversation that ensued is in keeping with the life he has led as a National Geographic filmmaker. Our dinner gathering transformed into an evening of Inuit folklore as we listened in fascination to the story teller who had travelled to the Northern Lights, lived with Arctic tribesmen and had seen the wondrous creatures that lived there.
Born 1959 in East Germany, then the German Democratic Republic, Andreas escaped his communist childhood by devouring books like Jack London’s White Fang and the Call of the Wild. Reading tales of adventure and Alaskan wolves fed the young boy’s imagination and appetite for another world. A world he risked his life for on his sixteenth birthday when he dared to swim across the Danube river and escape to Western Germany. Shot in his back by guards patrolling the Eastern Bloc border Andreas dragged himself to freedom as he crawled for a kilometer to the nearest village. It would be six long years before he saw his family again, his self imposed exile forbade it.
Pursuing a photographic career with the National Geographic and now famous for his films about bears, having won the Panda Awards which remain the highest accolade in the wildlife film and TV industry, ‘Andreas tracks and films some of the rarest and most inaccessible species in the world – sometimes capturing them on camera for the very first time’. In these remote regions of the planet Andreas through his award winning cinematography gives lessons in animal behaviour, fieldcraft and natural history filmmaking. The eldest of his four sons, Erik Kieling, follows in his fathers footsteps who at age ten joined Andreas for a three month expedition on the Alaskan island of Kodiak to film coastal brown bears, A Life with Bears.
After 24 years in the field Andreas speaks of the bears he has come to know so well with rapture, it took ten years to familiarise himself with them something that led Timothy Treadwell to his untimely death in 2003, when he was attacked and killed by one of the very grizzlies Andreas knew and filmed.
A life this extraordinary yet lived with humility is enviable. When not baby sitting bear cubs – fact – Andreas is signing photographic books at the Frankfurt book fare. Perhaps it is the fine balance of wilderness and civilisation that keeps the mind strong and the spirit untethered. Or is it because when we are close to death we revel in life? Who knows? There are no questions when you are living the answer.
Photo by Erik Kieling