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TV REVIEWS : Hardy Couple Tracks Namibia's 'Survivors of the Skeleton Coast'

April 14, 1993|MARTIN ZIMMERMAN

"Survivors of the Skeleton Coast," a "National Geographic Special" airing tonight at 8 on Channel 28 (at 7 on Channels 15 and 24), is different from most nature documentaries in that easily the most intriguing animals on parade are the humans.

Actually just two humans: Des and Jen Bartlett, the husband-and-wife team of photographers who have voluntarily taken up residence in Skeleton Coast Park, a 300-mile-long, 25-mile-wide slice of Namibia's harsh Namib Desert.

Veteran filmmakers and adventurers, the Bartletts--who produced, directed and photographed "Survivors"--came in 1984 intending to stay a year; nine years later, they are still at it, documenting the animals that manage to survive the fierce desert conditions.

There are a wide variety of animals, all captured by the usual "National Geographic" superb camerawork: an ant drinking droplets of moisture from spider webs, a nesting ostrich, a lion dining on a beached pilot whale.

Much of the drama of "Survivors" is generated by a nomad herd of elephants that wanders from water hole to water hole. These are desert elephants that, unlike their well-known savanna-dwelling cousins, can go for four days without drinking, who have longer legs and larger feet adapted for slogging through sand dunes. It took the Bartletts 18 months to finally see and photograph these giant pachyderms crossing the dunes single-file, "surfing" down slopes like a group of Cub Scouts let loose at Pismo Beach.

Surfing elephants notwithstanding, the Bartletts are their own best subject. Living off vegetables from a sand garden, fish and supplies they get in a town 280 miles away, the duo is dedicated to their task and devoted to each other--and struggling to survive in much the same way as the wildlife they film. Though "Survivors" is a bit slow at times, the Bartletts make the show a worthwhile journey.

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