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Wednesday
Sep142011

Into the Wild Meets: Michaela Strachan

Into the Wild has been lucky enough to get hold of a true legend of wildlife television. Made famous as a presenter on the popular children’s television programme ‘The Really Wild Show’, Michaela Strachan has been involved in many other interesting projects over the years. Michaela told us about her career in TV so far, her experiences with animals, and about life in Cape Town.

 

Into the Wild: Hello Michaela. Frontier understands that you’re now based in Cape Town in South Africa. How long have you been over there, and was your decision to live there related to your interest in wildlife and conservation?

Michaela: Not really. I bought a holiday home in Cape Town about 10 years ago and ended up meeting someone here. I have lived here ever since. But South Africa is a beautiful country, and Cape Town is absolutely stunning as far as nature goes. A lot of people wrongly assume that living here, you must have lions living in your back garden, but of course it’s not like that at all, it’s a city.

Into the Wild: What about the wildlife around Cape Town?

Michaela:
We’re very lucky to have Southern right whales that visit us, which are actually here now and you can sit on the shore and watch them. Obviously we’ve got the great white sharks and also penguins nearby, as well as the baboons. But I don’t live in the middle of the wilderness.

Into the Wild: So is the wilderness very accessible for you?

Michaela: To get to the nearest good game reserve would take about 3 ½ hours, but I don’t go that often to be honest. I try to make a trip to somewhere really wild once or twice a year. Unfortunately going to a good game reserve is really expensive; they are all very much aimed at the wealthy tourist market, so it’s not something you do every weekend. But we’re out-and-about quite a lot. Where I live is actually just outside of the city, with the mountains surrounding us. It’s the only place where the Fynbos habitat is found. It’s probably most comparable to the heathland habitat in the UK, with lots of low shrubs and bushes. I walk up Table Mountain regularly; it’s a beautiful place. I also run up Chapman’s Peak Drive which is one of the most stunning routes anywhere in the world. I never take the beauty for granted. We're surrounded by the ocean and mountains and I realise I'm very lucky.

Into the Wild: Sounds like an amazing place.      

Michaela: Yes, I’d recommend it.

Into the Wild: Are you involved in any conservation or wildlife projects at present where you are?

Michaela:
Well usually if I’m involved in anything in depth it’s for filming. One of the projects we have been trying to get off the ground, which we haven’t succeeded in yet, is to film the South African penguins. Basically it’s a project called chick bolstering. South African penguin numbers are dropping dramatically, for various reasons, such as over-fishing, habitat loss and global warming. So SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) are taking in the late born chicks, which would often die anyway because they are born as the parents begin malting, leaving them unable to dive for fish. These chicks are gathered up, bolstered then released back about 6 weeks later. This will keep the numbers up until a better plan can be established. So we wanted to film this process as a project and I wanted to get involved as a volunteer working with them a few days a week, but we’re having one or two funding problems at the moment.

Into the Wild: And what about projects elsewhere?

Michaela:
I’ve actually just finished a programme for something completely unrelated to conservation. It’s a programme called ‘Great British Ghosts’, which looks at various supposedly haunted places around the UK and their stories. Most of these places have a lot of history to them, so it was a really interesting thing to be involved in. We went to some amazing places around the West Country, London and the east of England. I found it fascinating because it’s not something I’ve really done before.

Into the Wild: Anything conservation related in the pipeline apart from the penguin project?

Michaela: I’m actually replacing Kate Humble on this year’s ‘Autumnwatch’ which is really exciting for me. Other than that, I’ve also been putting together a book of animal poems, which has been really fun. It’s all about the adventures that I’ve had with animals over the years. It all started with a poem I wrote about orphaned elephants when I was working on ‘Elephant Diaries’, then I wrote another about orangutans after having done ‘Orangutan Diaries’, and then another about the penguins in South Africa.

Into the Wild: So you have a nice little collection now?

Michaela:
Exactly. I’ve really enjoyed it. I was actually trying to write a verse today and struggling to make it rhyme. Some of them come really easily, but some are a bit tougher. I’ve been writing about how the Langur monkeys are so highly revered in India, which is all linked to the Hindi legend of Hanuman, the monkey god. So getting all that in, and making it rhyme is quite a challenge.

Into the Wild: So is that a project aimed at children?

Michaela:
It began like that, yes. I have a little boy who is 6. So it started off as an illustrated book for his age group, but as it’s developed, the age group is probably a bit older than that now. We’re now at the stage of getting an illustrator on board.

Into the Wild: How did you first get involved in wildlife television?

Michaela:
I started on Saturday morning children’s television, on a show called ‘The Wide Awake Club’. Before that I was in musical theatre. So I’ve come from quite an odd background to end up as a wildlife presenter. My first wildlife programme was ‘OWL TV’ on ITV, which I literally just fronted for them. From that I was asked to do ‘The Really Wild Show’, which I did for 15 years. From then on I was known as an animal TV presenter. But I am always very quick to put my hands up and say I am not an animal expert, I’m an animal enthusiast. I have learnt my trade as it’s become my profession.

Into the Wild: That’s interesting because I suppose most people assume you have a biological background.

Michaela:
That’s exactly what most people think. But I will always admit to having no formal qualifications in the area. I think I would be found out very quickly if I did pretend. Obviously having done 20 years of this, my knowledge is pretty good, and I think my speciality would be conservation and animal issues.

Into the Wild: Are they your main interests when it comes to making wildlife television then?

Michaela: Yes. If I could choose a series to do, it would be about conservation or animal issues. It’s actually very difficult to get that kind of stuff on television. Programmes like 'Elephant Diaries' and 'Orangutan Diaries' worked because they were about animal issues but done in a general way for a wider audience. I remember when we started ‘Orangutan Diaries’, I said we can’t let the series go the way of just showing the animals looking cute and cuddly outside the rescue centre because we wanted people to go away knowing that there is a problem. Gorgeous as they are, it’s still really sad that they are there. By the end of it though, I think we had got so deep into the conservation side of things that I was asking for more shots of cute orangutans. But it’s a great way to get people watching programmes about animal issues which would otherwise make the viewer feel quite detached.

Into the Wild: So what do you think about other forms of wildlife documentary?

Michaela: For me personally, the big money programmes focusing on the beauty of nature can become a bit like a coffee table book. They are amazing to watch, but I feel they sometimes don’t give the viewer enough information on the issues behind those beautiful images. I want to know about the problems faced by these animals. But there is definitely a place for that type of production because it gets people interested, and then you can hit them with the problems. So you need both, but personally I’m more interested in conservation television.

Into the Wild: You said in a previous interview that you are a big fan of sharks and primates. So in an attempt to get a fresh angle, which animal would you most like to be?
 
Michaela: Funnily enough, it’s neither of those. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a shark, and at the moment I definitely wouldn’t want to be a primate. It would be a dolphin. In fact, that’s one of the poems I’ve written, about being a dolphin. I look at dolphins, particularly bottlenose dolphins, and they just look like they’re having such a great time in the ocean. To have that as your playground would be incredible. I like to think of myself as quite an upbeat person, and they always look like they’ve got a smile on their face. Just being able to swim that fast and have a gang of other dolphins around me would be amazing.

Into the Wild: Dolphins feature in the great sardine run on the east coast of Africa. Have you been?

Michaela: Yes, I went with my partner who was trying to film it. I stayed there for about 10 days, but unfortunately it didn’t happen while I was there. It’s one of those things I’d love to see though. The thing is, you have to have a lot of time and a lot of money to be able to get away for that long. Or you just have to get very lucky. It’s not predictable enough to be able to guarantee seeing it though.

Into the Wild: What has been your most memorable animal encounter so far?

Michaela:
Wow. There have been loads. As a big fan of sharks, I think it would have to be when I had to hand-feed reef sharks for ‘Michaela’s World Challenge’. I had to go down in chain mail and stand on the bottom and hand-out fish to sharks. So I went down and eight hungry sharks came towards me with their teeth showing; it was pretty nerve-wracking. It was pretty eventful, one of them got its teeth stuck in my chain mail and another got stuck in between my equipment. But an amazing experience. I think because I do genuinely like sharks, I really enjoy my shark experiences. So I don’t panic when I see a shark, I swim towards it.

Into the Wild: Have you swum with great whites?

Michaela: I’ve done a cage dive with them, but not swum with them properly, no. I did dive with Zambezi bull sharks though, which are actually known to kill more people than great whites.

Into the Wild: Do you have any phobias?

Michaela: I really have a strong dislike for mosquitoes. I guess everyone does really, but I really am not their biggest fan. I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t expect animals to try to eat me. I’m also not great with heights. Every time I’m on an edge I get a slight urge to jump, so my knees are usually a little wobbly. I’ve had to be in high places quite often though, so I guess I’ve overcome it a little bit.

Into the Wild: You’ve obviously travelled extensively. Do you have a favourite location and city?

Michaela: One of my favourite places, just because it’s one of the last remaining true wildernesses, is Antarctica. I was lucky enough to go there for ‘The Really Wild Show’. I was just astounded by how beautiful it was, and how empty it was. When I look out of my window I see lots of houses and roads, whereas there you just see natural habitat, mainly snow and ice, not a house or a road in sight. So it was really nice to go there and get away from it all. I also love Namibia for some of the same reasons; it’s got a very low population, and a lot of wilderness left. Favourite city would have to be Cape Town. If you have to be in a city, it’s got lots of culture and entertainment, but it’s very beautiful at the same time. Every time I come back to the UK now, I just can’t believe how many people there are, particularly in London.

Into the Wild: Which country would you most like to visit that you’ve never been to?

Michaela: There are loads. In the last 5 years I really haven’t done that much foreign travel. When I was working on ‘The Really Wild Show’ I used to travel all the time, and there was one year when I went to all 7 continents, in fact I did them in 6 months. So I was putting pins in my map left, right and centre. But since I’ve had a child, I certainly choose to travel less, and also the programs I happen to be working on just involve less travel. But there is plenty of central Africa that I’d like to see, like the Congo. I’d love to go to Peru as well. And the California Baja to see the blue whales would be good. That’s one of those ‘must do’ things for me.

Into the Wild: Do you have a particular hero?

Michaela: There are many. I’ve met so many people, who are often women, who have given up their lifestyles, their homes, and everything that we consider normal to save wildlife. I am so impressed with what these people do. For instance, Lone Dröscher Nielsen, who used to be an air-hostess, and then gave up everything to work with orangutans. Now she’s running the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (B.O.S.). I think a lot of people in the UK have this very romantic vision of what it must be like. But they couldn’t be more wrong. The politics, paperwork, and the brick walls that they come up against mean that they have a constant uphill struggle. I completely take my hat off to these people. The same with Pauline Kidner at Secret World in Summerset; she’s given up her life to look after and rescue animals in her own home. Another incredible woman is Jill Robinson at Animals Asia, who now lives in China and saves bears from the bear bile industry. I just think that women like these are absolutely unsung heroes.  

Into the Wild: If the world was ending, what would you do with your last day?

Michaela: I’d take all of my family along to California and see the blue whales.      

Into the Wild: Which Frontier project would you go on?

Michaela:
Madagascar marine conservation and diving. I’d definitely want to do a marine diving project if I was having a gap year trip. I absolutely love diving, and I’d love the chance to do some marine conservation work. I think Madagascar is such an amazing place. It’s got different wildlife to anywhere else, all those chameleons they’ve got, and I adore lemurs.

By Alex Prior

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Reader Comments (1)

A shark got stuck in between her equipment?

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterA?

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