Long walks on the family farm outside Mbombela with her oupa instilled a fascination for birds in Samantha Tarrant-Phillips, a fascination that grew into a lifelong love affair with the bush.
Sam always wanted to be a wildlife rehabilitator or vet. “I was always taking in orphaned or injured birds and animals,” she laughs. “I have hand-reared so many animals, from a baby giraffe in the Kalahari, to a thick-tailed bushbaby in my matric year, his name was Powie! I used to walk around the garden after a storm and look for any baby birds that needed rescuing, I was obsessed with birds.”
This fascination grew into a love of the bush, which prompted the vivacious Sam to study her FGASA 1, which she did through EcoTraining. “That was an amazing time. Part of my course was spent interning at Tswalu, where I went to habituate the meerkats,” explains Samantha, now a mum-to-be with baby Milo due in a few months. “I also took guests on tours, one of them being JK Rowling! It was so cool.” It was at Tswalu that she met the WildEarth team, who were there to film the meerkats. “It was probably then that I first considered filming as an option. I spent a lot of time with them and it made me contemplate nature from a different angle.”
Soon after, Sam decided to study a BA and left for Cape Town, where she started working at a gear hire store. On a trip back home, her boss called her up and said she’d received an email about a UK company coming to South Africa to film penguins, and they needed an assistant on the shoot. “I got home, turned around and went all the way back to Cape Town, where I stayed for two months, taking on the post of assistant to one of the directors. I also worked on and off for Beth Brookes, a producer, and we just hit it off immediately.”
Beth thought Sam had great potential in the industry, especially as a producer. “When she told me she would be coming back to Africa shortly to film in Zambia, I suggested that she tell her film company that it would cost them far less to hire a local (me!) than to import someone from the UK.” The company contacted Sam, who worked on 50 films in Zambia for Love Nature, a Canadian online platform, and then going on to film Africa’s Hunters for National Geographic.
It was just after this that Sam got engaged to the love of her life, Cameron Tarrant-Phillips. “Basically, Cam and I decided we were going to get married when we were 25. We’d set the date and everything was arranged,” she laughs. “We’d finished filming for Apple TV’s Tiny World when I got a call to say they wanted me for an upcoming three-month shoot, but this time the film crew wanted to film me filming! It would be my very first job where I would be the DOP – director of photography. Which is obviously what you want to be,” she adds.
But what about the wedding plans? Sam laughs. “I said to Cam, what now? What are we going to do?! It was hectic. I told them I’d love to do it, but they would have to fly me back to get married. So I ended up spending eight weeks in the bush, flying home for two weeks and having a bachelorette, a kitchen tea and a wedding, and flying back to Zambia two days later to continue filming! That was called Big Cat Country, which aired in America and the UK. After that I did an amazing shoot in Zambia, which was called In the Womb, also for Nat Geo, focusing on humans, dogs and lions.”
Sam’s latest production is Wild Babies, which she has been working on for the last two years. It was scheduled to start in 2020, but then Covid hit. “The sad thing about it was that I was supposed to travel, and I would have filmed animals that I hadn’t ever filmed before,” she says. “But then, in a way, it also kind of worked out. Because we have the Sabi Sands right on our doorstep, we decided to just change location, and ended up filming at Mala Mala for six months. The best thing was that because it’s only two and a half hours away, I got to come home to my family once a month.”
This was an amazing experience for Sam, who describes how they first filmed small cubs, and then the following year, went on to do a segment on older cubs in Zambia. “I remember sitting under the gazebo,” she says, “and it was so hot! We were having lunch, and everyone was talking about where they’d be next year, and I said, well, I’m having a baby. They all laughed, but then I came home and three months later I was pregnant!”
It’s obvious that little Milo will live a life of adventure right off the bat. Sam and Cam love to travel, and while it won’t always be easy or possible to travel with him, she says they won’t live their lives around the baby, but rather incorporate him into everything they do.
Family is also very important to Sam. “We see my parents for a braai or dinner at least every week,” she says, smiling in the direction of their home, which is a stone’s throw from her own. “Milo will have plenty of babysitters, and my sister, Skye, is a Montessori teacher, so that’s amazing. She’s really good with kids,” she adds. “We plan on spending a lot of time in the bush, and hope we have a little boy who’s just very in tune with nature, who loves an outdoor life.”
Sam has recently bought a new camera, intending to explore wildlife photography, which up until now has only been a hobby. “I’d also love to go into decor,” she muses. Whatever the future holds for this little family, we can be sure that little Milo will keep his mum on her toes and there will be no shortage of adventure!
Make-up: Elsabé Steyn
Photographer: Savannah Greeff