The Tanzanian landscape from above

Up, Up And Away...

7th August 2009

James Rampton talks to actor Stephen Tompkinson about his latest African adventure.

When ITV1 invited Stephen Tompkinson (star of Wild at Heart, the channel’s popular drama about a British vet running a practice in the South African bush), to make a documentary about Africa, the plans weren’t – initially – quite what he was expecting.

The actor takes up the story: “The first thing they offered me was canoeing a thousand miles up the Zambezi River. I said, ‘that’s a long way’ – or words to that effect! I’d recently seen a documentary about the Zambezi shark and thought, ‘I don’t want to see one of those up close!’ So I asked, ‘is there anywhere else I could go?’

The next idea was inspired by a Jules Verne book, Five Weeks in a Balloon… “and we were away. As soon as they suggested it, I thought ‘brilliant’. I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t do it. I realised it was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

The result was Stephen Tompkinson’s African Balloon Adventure, a dazzling three-part documentary in which the actor travels more than five thousand miles across Africa. This stunning series, seen on ITV1 in June, deserves to be watched again and again, and has already been released on DVD by 4DVD.

The show, in which the star flies over everything from deserts and great lakes to savannah and dense jungle, includes some of the most dramatic footage of the continent ever captured on film. With Robin Batchelor, an expert pilot and now his close friend, as his companion, Stephen travelled across some of the most striking landscapes this planet has to offer, on a captivating journey that took him from Zanzibar on the east coast, through Tanzania and across Lake Victoria, Uganda, Congo, Lake Chad, Benin, Burkina Faso, Timbuktu and St Luis, to Senegal in the west.

Along the way, Stephen was thrilled to be able to meet some of the continent’s most amazing animals – from the mighty silverback gorilla and the majestic lion to a baboon that thinks it’s a goat and the African Giant Pouched Rat, trained to detect two of Africa’s biggest killers: land mines and tuberculosis. Stephen also paid a visit to the only vulture restaurant in the world.

There was just one drawback: Stephen and Robin could not steer their marvellously impressive balloon – they were entirely at the mercy of the winds… guided by fate. So the pair had to endure appalling weather, death-defying crash landings, and close shaves with herds of stampeding animals. On one occasion, they were rescued by the timely intervention of some passing Masai tribesmen. For Stephen, all that only added to the glorious sense of adventure. He considers it the trip of the lifetime – and we are lucky enough to go along for the ride.

Today, sitting in a well-appointed central London office, sipping coffee, nibbling croissants, Stephen is slightly more comfortable than he was when standing in a ‘laundry basket’ several thousand feet above the earth. His African adventure seems a long way away now, but it still clearly had a huge and positive impact.

“It’s breathtaking up there,” he enthuses. “You would not believe the serenity and the apparent lack of motion when you’re in the basket. Even at thirty knots, it feels like you’re on a magic carpet suspended over the landscape.”

The actor, who has also starred in Ballykissangel and Drop the Dead Donkey, expands on the appeal of going up, up and away in a balloon. “When you’re in a plane or a helicopter, the ground zips by too quickly. But in a balloon, the sense of calm is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced – it’s as though the ground below has been laid out especially for you. You get this extraordinary, otherworldly birds-eye view.

“It’s the sheer size of the place that takes your breath away. We went on a six-hour journey from Tanzania to Rwanda around Lake Victoria – which is the size of Ireland. You have no comprehension of the scale of the place until you’re looking down on it from above. There is such an astounding array of different elements to the African landscape – from mountains and forests to lakes and deserts. They all have their own unique sights, tastes, smells and sounds. Mother Nature is at its peak in Africa.”

Flying in a balloon looks pretty hairy, but Stephen was commendably unfazed by it. “I’m lucky because I’m not scared of heights – I’d be rather foolish to have taken on this project if I were,” jokes the actor, who has spent much of the last four years in the continent and begins filming the fifth series of Wild At Heart in South Africa this summer. “I’d have been clinging to the bottom of the basket and crying out, ‘are we nearly there yet?’ It wouldn’t have made great TV!”

On one hair-raising occasion the balloon landed in the middle of a herd of buffalo. Stephen stayed remarkably calm. “Was I frightened at that moment?,” he ponders. “No, there’s no point. During my four years on Wild At Heart, I’ve got to know animals and how much they distrust humans… If you’re approaching them in a massive inflatable, they’re likely to run for it!

He does add, however, that buffalos kill more people in Africa than any animal, apart from hippos. “They’ll hunt you down till you collapse and then trample you. So, as we were somewhat outnumbered when we were landing that time, we did feel it was a bit like General Custer’s Last Stand!” Of course, in the event, Stephen and Robin remained unflustered and were completely unharmed.

The actor was equally brave when it came to his encounters with other animals. He was very cool, for instance, when he went walking with lions in Zambia. “They run a programme there to find abandoned lions and reintroduce them to the wild,” Stephen recollects. “So we went walking with them – there were no fences or cages. They didn’t turn on us, but they could have done. But what a way to go! Imagine the gravestone: Stephen Tompkinson. Actor. Eaten by lions.”

One of the other great thrills of making Stephen Tompkinson’s African Balloon Adventure was the chance to take guests up in the air. “That was a real treat,” beams the actor. “We loved going up in the balloon with Parakapurni, a Masai chief. He’d never been in a plane before, so he was like a little lad on Christmas Day when we took him up. He was a true warrior – he’d killed lions before – but as we landed he fell to the bottom of the basket with pure relief!”

Stephen has now evidently been seriously bitten by the ballooning bug. “I loved it – I’ll be boring them rigid about it when I go back to Wild At Heart. Dealing with wild animals will seem small scale after what we’ve done on this adventure. Now I want to see everything from a balloon… It’s the only way to travel.”

Most people might sense a certain vulnerability – but Stephen felt that up in a balloon, nothing untoward could happen to him. “You can look round 360 degrees and there is no sign of any people. There is nowhere in Europe where you can’t see a trace of man. In Africa, there is nothing to remind you of civilisation – it’s just you and the animals and the unspoilt scenery. There is a timeless beauty to it.”

Stephen concludes with a sigh of rare contentment. “When you’re in a balloon over Africa, it’s as if the world has stopped just for you – you feel like the only person on the planet. Luxury moments like that are few and far between in life. When you have them, you think, ‘you can take me now, Lord. I’m happy!’”

Stephen Tompkinson’s African Balloon Adventure
(3 x one hour episodes) is available now on DVD at £19.99

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