Here you can find some background behind my trans-Atlantic race win, South Pole trek and First Crossings TV show
Here you can find some background behind my trans-Atlantic race win, South Pole trek and First Crossings TV show
The trans-Atlantic race has been billed as the world’s toughest endurance race. Which is of course overstating things a bit – no, not the ‘world’s toughest' bit - the ‘trans-Atlantic' bit. The race doesn’t even go the whole way – it starts just off the coast of Africa (at the Canary Islands) and finishes just off the coast of South America (in Barbados). Sure, that still makes it about 5000 kilometres long.
I think that everyone has a dream that you don’t think is going to happen, an image that you bring to mind, entertain for a few moments, then snuff out with a longing sigh. Mine was going to the South Pole.
The seed was planted when I first heard ...
[Apologies for the text below - needs some updating!]
It's been a busy summer - and now eight brand spanking new episodes for Intrepid NZ are out!
Here's a brief summary of some of the things that you can look forward to ...
The trans-Atlantic race has been billed as the world’s toughest endurance race. Which is of course overstating things a bit – no, not the ‘world’s toughest' bit - the ‘trans-Atlantic' bit. The race doesn’t even go the whole way – it starts just off the coast of Africa (at the Canary Islands) and finishes just off the coast of South America (in Barbados). Sure, that still makes it about about 5000 kilometres long.
But that’s only a bit longer than say walking from Sydney to Perth, or from Cape Reinga to Bluff five times. Yes you’re towing a ton of food but you’re not doing it yourself. There are two people in each boat. You only have to row half the way.
The first rowing race across the Atlantic was held in 1997, and won by two kiwis – Rob Hamill and Phil Stubbs. In 2001 Rob was back to defend the title but had to withdraw after breaking his hand trying to stop a fight just a few days before the start. Then there was a crew mutiny and … but I digress. The important thing is that two kiwi guys from Auckland came first.
I was told that 90% of the race was getting to the start line. That isn’t true. It’s more like 99%. The ups and downs, the rivalries, and fisticuffs could fill half a book. Actually they fill exactly half of a book – ‘The Oarsome Adventures of a Fat Boy Rower'. I called it that because I was going through a quarter life crisis at the time. I was broke, jobless, girlfriendless, living at home with my Mum, and quite a bit overweight when I first heard about this race. It's not exactly true that I didn’t have a job. My job was to sit on the couch and stop it floating away, while I ate fast food and watched reality TV shows.
I was watching the news one night when I saw a clip about the boat that had just arrived last in the previous race. It had started out as a husband and wife team. But after two weeks the husband had found that he had a phobia of the sea and couldn’t stand being out in the open ocean out of sight of land. So he hopped off the boat and his wife rowed onto the end. Took her 111 days. Ouch.
I did some more research. It turns out that six boats had been lost at sea trying to row across the Atlantic. So I decided to write a pros and cons list to decide whether I should take part in the race or not, starting with the cons. Here it is.
1. I could die.
2. I’m not into pain (the books about rowing the ocean are pretty united about the pain involved, what all those weeks at sea do to your backside and hands etc).
3. I hate getting out of bed. (A 2 hours on, 2 hours off rowing schedule means getting out of bed 6 times a day. Can’t fool me.)
4. I don’t know how to row.
People sometimes ask me what the hardest thing about the rowing race was. If by that they mean when was the time that I was most likely to quit then this time was pretty much it. It’s when you first have a big idea that it’s easiest to kill it. It just didn’t make any sense to even consider taking part in the race any further. Particularly not when Mega Home Makeover 3 was about to start.
Yet two years later I had won the race and set two new world records along the way. How I transformed myself from couch potato to Atlantic rowing race winner, got my act together, the tips and tricks that I learned about taking on major daunting challenges is what I share in my presentations. Enough from the sponsor, back to the story.
The first part of taking on a project is making sure that all the stakeholders are on-board. First there was Mum to deal with, who I hardly need to mention was violently opposed – strangely even after I pointed out that my plan would at least get me out of the house. To resolve our increasingly fierce arguments we agreed that we needed arbitration. Her idea was that we would write in to a TV show that we were great fans of (How’s Life) and let them decide if taking part in the next trans-Atlantic rowing race was a good idea or not. They thought it was.
I then teamed up with Rob Hamill and we started approaching companies. Turns out that selling is a very difficult career. Particularly if the product that you're selling is an ocean race that takes place not just out of sight of the NZ domestic market, but pretty much out of sight of anyone or anything at all. And it’s a Rugby World Cup year, and there is another kiwi boat in the race, and you have a strange knack of getting offside with your sponsorship targets. For example, when the CEO of Bell Tea asks you if you want tea or coffee, you really should think about the implications before you respond. Fortunately what we lacked in charm we made up for in perseverance. (This is a recurring theme.)
We start building a boat. I enlist the help of some brilliant Auckland University professors to optimise our rowing route. I struggle to find a rowing partner – you might be surprised how few people think rowing across the ocean is a good idea. We finally get the boat into the water.
Soon (actually about a year later) I am at the start line in the Canary Islands on a perfectly hot calm still morning. My blood is fizzing though as I am about to row the Atlantic Ocean – with someone who I’ve only just met. What's that? The guy who I had trained with the previous year had had to pull out (he had some back problems) just a few weeks before the race, and that left me running around trying to find someone new. Turns out that Mum wasn’t keen. Nor for that matter, was anyone else. So when Rob Hamill told me that he had managed to arm-twist a 22 year old now at Waikato Uni who had done a bit of rowing, I was relieved. Meet Jamie Fitzgerald.
However, I was nervous because we didn’t seem to have much in common. I was 11 years older, I was from the city, he was from a farm, I had a paper round growing up, he had a home kill business. The only thing that we had in common was that we both held a world record each. I had a world record for rowing a million metres on an indoor rowing machine. This took about three days. Jamie had a record for eating a can of Watties ‘Big Eat’, in 3.2 seconds.
The start gun goes off - and Jamie and I row with the fleet of 16 boats out into a beautiful flat calm ocean. Later that day the sun went down, and it started to cool off. We rowed away from the other teams until they were dots on the horizon. We were quite possibly, as far as we could tell, winning the trans-Atlantic rowing race. The next few weeks stretched out in front of us. ‘So tell me about yourself,’ I suggested to Jamie as we pulled away.
Later that night as the stars came out, and as I dipped my oars in the water, I sighed and thought, ‘So this is what rowing the ocean is like. Well it’s not too bad.’ That was day 1. Want to know the worst day of the trip? Day 2 of course.
Day 2 we were hit by strong winds that built up to the point that we weren’t making any progress at all. The temptation was to put out our sea anchor (imagine a parachute that you lower into the water off the front of the boat). You get to have a rest but while you’re doing so you’re slowly drifting backwards. We knew that there were some pretty tough crews in the race, who almost certainly weren’t going to flinch at this first hurdle, and if they weren’t going to stop then neither could we. So we kept on rowing and had a very lousy and frequently frightening night out at sea right at the limits of our endurance. Watching the GPS closely it was all we could do to stay in the same place.
Lunchtime the next day we called up our shore crew to find out our race position. They said ‘Whatever you’re doing keep it up.’ We said ‘why?’. They said ‘You’ve got a 25 mile lead on the rest of the fleet’. We thought ‘This is great! We’ve stayed in the same spot and now we’re 25 miles in front!’
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be out in the open ocean, miles from any land? It certainly is spooky, your mind can’t quite compute that there isn’t anything solid out there. You keep seeing imaginary islands out of the corner of your eye. Have you ever thought about what it would be like to see a big yellow full moon rise up over a watery horizon? Certainly got plenty of that. And whales. And dolphins doing somersaults and saw some pretty hairy thunderstorms come and go. At these times I did wonder if it was a good idea to be holding onto several meters of graphite rods as lightening bolts jab the water.
Then there are the waves. Big? Hard to judge. But when you are only three feet above the water every wave looks big. Certainly they were bigger than the boat as it was the job of the person at the oars to call out to the person trying to sleep inside the cabin to pull shut the back hatch should it look as if a wave was about to break on top of the boat. Mostly the boat would somehow float over the top of even the most fierce and looming waves. Mostly. The exceptions were pretty entertaining, particularly for the rower. Then there were the heartbreaking days when the sea was like glass. That’s when it becomes really hard to motivate yourself.
As we grew closer to the equator the days were often smouldering hot. I would look up at the fat fluffy clouds and try to guess if one was going to float under the sun and give me a few seconds of shade. Night times were better, it was cooler, and we would row long overlapping shifts where we could tell stories.
By week two we had lost our early lead to those two guys from Auckland, the previous race winners who were back to prove a point against the upstarts. ￼By halfway we still hadn’t caught up. There was only time for one more big push. But so far nothing had been working. We had been ramping up our rowing hours but hadn’t been able to pull back the lead. We could probably cruise to the end and come a solid second. Is that so bad? Coming second on our first attempt? This was the topic of much debate through several nights. Finally Jamie said that he thought we could win. I said ‘why?’, he said ‘I think we can win?’ and I said ‘Sure, but why?’ he said, ‘Because they’ve got two Aucklanders in their boat. We’ve only got one in ours.’
We couldn’t row any harder but we could row longer. Our shifts had always been tough and now quickly moved through ‘horrendous’ on their way to ‘insane’. We would typically row for one and a half hours and then have a break that could be as short as half an hour. That’s not a lot of time to get up from the oars, get something to eat, take off your clothes and get into the back cabin to sleep before getting on your clothes and getting back into your rowing position. We were getting only a few hours of sleep every day and certainly not much more than an hour at a time.
We started to hallucinate. One time I imagined that I was passing a Japanese fishing village. Another time I woke Jamie to a loud cry of ‘If you want to come down take the spiral staircase!’
But we started to catch up. Then with just a week to go we were neck and neck, the same distance from the finish. We couldn’t see them as they were coming in from a different angle, but we imagined that we could see their silver coloured hull in every white cap in the distance. This meant not slowing down even when the rollers began getting bigger and bigger.
So there we were, in big muscular swells 120 miles out from Barbados, just after sunset. The day had been so hot that I was happy to see it go – until it occurred to me that I’ll now be rowing in the same boat eating seas, only now I couldn’t see what was happening. I had just finished a shift and was standing at the back of the boat about to get into the cabin when a wave came that was a bit bigger than the rest. We started to fall down its face. Faster and faster, the boat was carving off to the right and as the wave steepened it dug the port side dug into the wave. The boat suddenly stopped, Jamie and I didn’t. We were flicked head first into the dark churning water.
The fear didn’t really register until a couple of hours later when I was lying shivering back in the boat, trying to get some sleep, now knowing that the ocean (which we had thought we could handle) could pretty much take us out any time it wanted to.
At the time I went into the water my only thought was how to get back to the boat. The worst way to die at sea would be to be separated from your boat and spend your last hours flailing towards a receding dot on the horizon with your strength fading. Because that’s just what happened to those six crews lost at sea right? The boats were always found again afterwards.
I swam to the surface, and luckily the boat was right there. Couldn’t see Jamie though. That’s because, as he pointed out later, I was standing on his shoulders at the time. He climbed on board, and I tried to hold onto the boat with one hand, as waves swept over us, while with the other, I tried to grab some of the things that had been flung out and were still bobbing in the water.
Couldn’t get everything though. Lost a couple of really important things including one of our rowing seats, which meant that we lost about a knot of speed, and Jamie’s only pair of shorts. He had been rowing al fresco. This meant that he would have to finish the race similarly unattired. But necessity being the mother of invention, and desperation being the evil stepfather of necessity, Jamie managed to find a spare top and put his legs through the sleeves.
We survived the night. Then one more day and into one more weird Alice in Wonderland night. Conversations started to go like, ‘Wake up it's your shift.’ ‘But I’ve only just finished my shift – look I’m still dressed!’ ‘You’ve been lying there for half an hour.’ ‘No you’ve been rowing with your eyes closed the last five minutes.’ Etc
At about 4am I came out for my shift and saw the lights on the horizon, too bright and steady to be stars. This being approximately the twelve thousandth time I had looked at the bow of the boat hoping to see land, it takes a while before you let yourself believe it might be true. Especially since our main GPS had stopped working and we were navigating like Christopher Columbus. But then finally the horizon lightened and we could start to register the outline of the island. Barbados from the sea looks strangely like the Coromandel: green fields, houses. A few hours later we rowed through the entrance of the marina and up to the pier.
Now I have to confess that there had been brief occasions during the race, usually late at night, that it had occurred to me that Barbados enjoys a convivial climate. It was just possible that, during the holiday season, there might be one or two, possibly bikini-clad, girls on the pier at the end, brimming, even bouncing, with enthusiasm to meet us. As we came in sight of the pier it was certainly crowded, unfortunately not with many ladies in their swimmers. In fact, not any.
I can’t complain though. Forty days and five hours after setting off, we had won the race. We had also set a new world record. Soon after arriving while we were still on the boat the crowd parted and this beautiful creature appeared, in a long clingy dress – apparently a local beauty queen. She got on board the boat, and while the flashbulbs were going off, gave a lovely speech of welcome to Barbados to the both of us.
Subsequently, however, she took a particular liking to Jamie. Similarly, Jamie seemed to be very much taken with her. Jamie himself being a very affectionate guy, and he had been six weeks at sea, it was still hard to overlook the fact that his new friend was six foot six and had a large Adam’s apple. It took us an hour to convince Jamie that the queen was in fact a bloke.
A strange and funny way to end what had been a very strange, exciting and frequently very funny adventure!
I think that everyone has a dream that they don’t think is going to happen. An image that you bring to mind, entertain for a few moments, then snuff out with a longing sigh. Mine was going to the South Pole.
The seed was planted when I first heard about Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s race to the bottom of the world in school and how, after heroic effort, he arrived at the pole only to find that he had been beaten by the Norwegian chancer Roald Amundsen. Exhausted, starving and freezing, Scott’s men started to topple over on the return journey to the coast. Evans was first to go, dying in his tracks. Oates, handicapped by frostbite, sacrificed himself by crawling out of the tent into a blizzard, but not before uttering the best exit line ever: ‘I’m going out for a walk now. I may be some time.’ Despite this, Scott died a few days later, tragically, just 13 miles short of a huge depot.
You think that the days of Scott and Amundsen are a long time ago? So what do you say when the man who led the third team to travel overland to the South Pole offers you a scone?
That’s right, in the 1950s our very own Sir Ed Hillary was using tractors to lay out supply lines for Vivian Fuchs’ Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition. Finding himself just a few miles short of the pole, Sir Ed made a cheeky dash in the last few miles on his Massey Fergusons.
When I had been sitting on Mum’s couch wondering what to do with my life (see the trans-Atlantic rowing story) I even briefly considered mounting a trek to the South Pole. But that was as far as it went. Too hard, too long, too cold, too painful. Antarctica is the kind of place that makes snow statues out of suburban slobs.
But then I rowed across the Atlantic and suddenly trekking to the pole didn’t seem so bad. After all, it just required learning some new skills and I had proven I could do that, and pulling heavy things for a long way, and we certainly had a bit of a track record doing that.
By ‘we’, I meant Jamie, my old rowing buddy. It hadn’t been hard to put the gang back together, I just had to search the length and breadth of the living room. After the euphoria of the rowing race had died down Jamie and I had washed up in Auckland and were flatting together.
We did some research. There have been a lot of amazing treks done in Antarctica (although far fewer then you might think) but no one has ever done a really simple (conceptually) one. An unsupported, unresupplied trek from the coast to the Pole and back again. All it takes is pulling 160 kgs, 2400kms across the coldest, windiest, highest, driest, most ‘est’ place on Earth. We decided to trek to the pole, but use snow kites (very similar to kite-surfing kites) to make our way back.
Sir Ed was even happy to be involved again. We had some wonderful morning teas with him and Lady June at their house in Remuera. The timing for our attempt was going to match with the 50th anniversary of Sir Ed’s own trip to the South Pole.
“How cold did it get?” I asked.
Sir Ed leaned back in his chair.
“Cold? It used to get so cold that sometimes the petrol would freeze in the metal fuel lines. Then we would draw straws. The person with the shortest straw would be given the blowtorch. It would be his job to unthaw the fuel lines – while the rest of us stood well back.”
The most important thing was to get fit to pull the massive loads that we would be taking. We trained for pulling sleds by dragging old car tyres. We tried to go to secluded places initially to avoid making a fuss. But it was just easier to hook on and pull straight out of the garage into quiet unsuspecting suburbia, chased by four bobbing, weaving lumps of smelly old rubber. They each have a life of their own, wrapping around lamp posts, dropping into drains, gouging up the grass and otherwise scraping noisily and reluctantly along the footpath. Security lights flare, curtains twitch, dogs howl, cars swerve – but after ten minutes you’re beyond caring.
We travelled up to the far north of Canada, just short of the Arctic circle to learn the skills we would need to keep us alive at -40C. We also had to learn how to fly the giant traction kites that we were counting on to pull us back from the Pole.
They have an extraordinary amount of pull, those kites. I use to practice flying them at the large Bastion Point park on the Auckland waterfront. On one particularly windy day it seemed like a good idea to tie myself to the trig station to avoid being flung into the sea. I set the kite up on the ground, backed away carefully, tied myself to the trig and then flicked the kite lines. The kite came off the ground unevenly — in three quick bounces it repositioned itself directly downwind, paused for a moment, then rocketed into the air. Immediately behind me, the line twanged tight and I was hoisted off the ground, eyes bulging and legs kicking. I had created a giant slingshot, and I was the marble. Right on cue the strap tying me to the trig broke. I will leave the rest to your imagination.
A Twin Otter flies you to the coast of Antarctica. The view from the frosted window shrivels your baby-makers. Its an ocean of ice. Barren, forbidding, gigantic, and hostile. There is nobody. There never has been anybody. The loneliest spot that I’ve been to seemed like jostling madness compared with this. The landscape is completely and utterly indifferent. We were as insignificant and ephemeral as any two of the billion flecks of snow down there. I bet when the first two people land on Mars they will feel the same thing I felt — we’ve got no place being here.
Things went wrong right away. Due to a misunderstanding the plane dropped us nine nautical miles further away from the Pole than our planned starting point. No problem, we’ll just walk them. I hooked into my sled. Leaned forward. Nothing happened. Leaned forward harder. Still nothing happened. Oops. It took three days of desperate, desperate hauling, with the sled harness cutting me in half and massaging my stomach against my spine every step of the way.
We were in deep trouble. You see as soon as you step out the plane the food clock starts. You have only brought enough food for a certain number of days. And don’t think about cutting down the ration, you’re already running short. If you take the amount of food that you actually need, say eight to ten thousand calories, and then multiply by the amount of days estimated to reach the destination, the total is a very heavy sled. So heavy in fact that you decide it will definitely take longer than your first estimate. So now you have to take more food for the longer trip and so on until your sled weighs three and a half tons and is going nowhere. You end up taking the barest quantity that you get away with and count on using your own fat reserves. Which is a polite way of saying eating yourself inside out.
Slowly we crawled towards the pole. Day after day we got out of the tent in fierce chilling winds and stumbled back in at night completely disheartened. We were falling further and further behind schedule. The scale of the task was overwhelming. We were throwing our best at it, and it wasn’t good enough. We were pushing the proverbial uphill. We had bitten off more than we could chew. Worse, we were running out of cliches. It was a good time to practise some of the lessons that that we had learned out on the Atlantic. (The ones I talk about in my speeches).
People get frostbite in Antarctica which, when you think about it, is a bit strange. You know it’s going to be cold, you take warm clothes. The problem is that you also get told that in Antarctica, if you sweat, you die. Which also sounds strange, does your sweat become toxic in the cold? Does the extreme cold trigger some ancient dormant gland that causes your skin to exude snake venom? In fact, I can report that you can sweat quite happily in Antarctica: the problem is when you stop. Then you become encased in ice. To avoid this you tend to wear fewer clothes than you need, especially at the start of the day. ‘Why not just start out wearing an extra layer which you take off when you’ve warmed up?’, I hear you very reasonably ask. Good point. Unfortunately, the difference between being warm and being freezing on a lousy day in Antarctica is about 30 seconds. To stop, remove a jacket and put it on the sled, takes more like 45 seconds. You are now cold again and have to repeat the pain of warming up, not to mention that you don’t have 45 seconds in your day every time you feel hot or cold. The clock watching is that extreme.
Somehow, very slowly, we began to make our daily target. Even, on some days, to make a mile or two back on our deficit. Then the hunger really kicked in. Then Jamie started breaking things. Like one of the tent poles, then the tent. It could have been worse though, we could have had the problems that an RAF team had when they were down there. They had to be evacuated, and we didn’t know why for the longest time until one of them texted us on the sat phone to say that he had got frostbite ‘on his private parts’ (sic). Turned out the poor guy had to get an inch taken off. Now for the blokes out there, I don’t know about you, but an inch when its -30 is quite a big percentage!
Then we were starving. To say that I was day dreaming about food doesn’t convey the degree of obsession that I had. I would spend hours in my head buttering a piece of Vogel’s bread and laying on a thick swipe of honey.
A testing time for both of us was every four days when we would have to divide up the next bag of chocolate. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Escape to the Pole’:
Firstly all the good and true squares are selected, turned about and carefully secreted into our snack bags. When this is done it's time to play chocolate jigsaw. Each of us takes a turn examining the remaining fragments and then pulls out two, or more, pieces that form more or less the volume equivalent of a square, holding it up for inspection and an approving nod. Creating more than a square is met with a slightly raised eyebrow and the production of a reciprocally oversized square.
And so on, until there are only chocolate shards left. A pile is made of these and split down the middle. Now there is only chocolate dust, which is coaxed from the bag and also divided. Finally the bag itself is split in half and handed out so that the chocolate molecules can be licked from the inside. Finally the clean plastic sheets are now folded and kept for homeopathic and spiritual purposes. They once held chocolate and are therefore sacred by association.’
Then there were the days when something like a fog came over the landscape: the dreaded ‘white out’. The sleds were turning over by themselves. It was liked being attacked by stealthy white ninjas.
After years of adulation and hagiography, Captain Scott got a kicking by biographers in the 1970s. Out with ‘brave, noble sacrifice’ and in with ‘bungling, autocratic amateur’. Shackleton became the fashion, who, as well as being a man of the people and an inspired leader, had a lot more buckle in his swash. Fortunately Ranulph Fiennes wrote an inspired book more recently that attempted to answer the accusations against Scott. I am firmly in Fiennes’ camp. There is nothing like trekking across a snowy wasteland for a few months to appreciate what Scott went through. Facing the same difficulties and making some of the same mistakes. Lighting a paraffin stove without setting fire to the tent. Having the wind blow away pieces of clothing. Having to repair pieces of equipment with icy frozen fingers. A careful analysis of the decisions that he made, the course that he chose, the weather that he got shows that in fact if you had been a leading polar expert at the time, you would have chosen to go on Scott’s expedition. And revered him the way that his men did.
You navigate by compass in Antarctica. You don’t head to where it points though because you would end up off the coast (where the magnetic South Pole is) instead you point about 40 degrees away. As you can imagine, it is a relief to see something on the horizon after nearly two months of trekking.
At the South Pole there is a barber shop pole, with a mirrored ball on top. After 52 days we finally saw it, in the distance. It's not often you go to a point on the Earth that has astronomical significance. A few more slithers on the skis and then there we were. The axis of the world. The spindle around which several trillion tons of matter noiselessly spins. Not that I was thinking lofty thoughts at this time – I was just happy that the pain had stopped and proud to be the first New Zealanders to have trekked there unsupported.
You won’t believe who was at the South Pole (nor what they were wearing). I certainly didn’t. I don’t want to drop a spoiler here in case you are reading this before coming to hear me speak. But if you’ve read my summary of the trans-Atlantic trip, then you know what I was expecting at the end of that trip.
There is nothing like time in a frozen wasteland to make you think of your loved ones, and Jamie had been doing a lot of thinking about his girlfriend Kate. When we got to the pole he asked me to take this picture of him with the pole in the background. He said that the plan was to get it blown up and use it to propose to her when we got back.
I’m pleased to say that he did use the photo, she did say yes, and it’s the same photo that he uses now when he wants to go hunting.
It had been much harder than I had expected. Without doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most worthwhile.
Here is a clip from the TVNZ documentary ‘ICE’ presented by Marcus Lush. It gives a pretty good summary of our Antarctic expedition.
[The following was written about series 2 of First Crossings]
What can we expect?
Well if you liked First Crossings 1, then you'll love this because its more of the same. More cracking NZ pioneer stories from the last century, and some not so pioneer stories. This time we go right up to Kelly Tarlton's diving on the Elingamite wreck in the Three Kings Islands in the 1960s and 70s. We also do a story about the young RNZAF cadet's E. P. Hillary's attempt on Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku in 1944.
So what are the episodes?
You will hear about Alphonse Barrington's insane four month gold prospecting odyssey around the Hollyford valley and how he was let down by his treacherous dog and became so hungry he ate rat. I mean so hungry he 'enjoyed' eating rat. My advice for eating rat is that it has to be cooked until it's well done - it can't be Bearly Grylled.
Then there is an amazing story in the same area about Jack Holloway, the university student who in the 1930s overcame two enormous mountain ranges to find one of the last remaining white spaces on the map of New Zealand. We say 'vertical walls of rock' often on the show, but it couldn't be more relevant in this episode. You will see alpine NZ scenery at its very, very best. You will want to hang this episode on the wall.
The complete opposite of this was the episode on the discovery and exploration of Harwood's Hole in Takaka hill near Nelson. This caving trip starts with a 200m descent down a rope. I think you skipped over that sentence a bit quickly, so I'm going to repeat it - a TWO HUNDRED METRE DESCENT down a rope. That's like abseiling off the observation deck on the Skytower. When you are half way down, the rope looks like a tiny bit of dental floss in this vast cavern. The scale is out of control. Then a few hours later you are squeezing through tiny cracks in the darkness in 4 degrees C. Some of the travel was so extreme we had to shoot it on an iPhone in a waterproof case. Forget what I said about Holloway, it might this episode that is the most visually stunning and there is a surprise, tragic twist at the end.
At least we are back up in the sun for the Motu river episode. In 1920 the Fisher Brothers and three friends made their way down the Motu river in three wooden punts. So we take this on in replica boats and experience pretty much everything that they went through. The rapids start small and scary and end up very big and very scary. We are in a race against time in what is perhaps our most thrilling episode that we have shot.
In 1944, E. P Hillary rode out of the Blenheim air force training camp on the back of an old motorbike to take on what he was to later call his 'first decent climb'. He would take on the highest mountain outside of the Southern Alps, solo and in winter. It was a huge thrill to walk in his footsteps, but when the whiteout rolled in at the end, just like it did for him, it started to get a little too real!
Kelly Tarlton is NZ's very own Jacques Cousteau, and I kept hearing a French accent saying 'the myriad tiny citizens of the sea' when we dived at the Poor Knights and Three Kings as we unravelled the mystery of the Elingamite. We were diving using the same diving gear as he did, and tested out the same technology that he used to raise silver and gold bullion from the Elingamite. The scenes of the air vent sucking up sand are some of my favourite.
Ebenezer Teichelman was a doctor on the West Coast at the turn of the century who was incredibly important to the history of NZ mountain climbing. For a few years he pretty much kept the sport going, making a number of first ascents including the first crossing of Harper saddle as he travelled from the West coast down to the Hermitage. The highlight for me was when the horse fell over with me on top.
Charlie Douglas was an extraordinary explorer who lived like a hermit when he wasn't deep in the valleys of South West Fiordland. We recreated one of his survey expeditions up the Arawhata valley, including an ascent of the beautiful Mt Ionia, a first in its time. You remember in the first series where we uncover the walls of what was probably the original 1810 hut built by the sealers on the Open Bay Islands. We have a moment like this on this trip, that makes it one of the most special episodes of the series.
What was the scariest moment?
There's an abseil in the Holloway episode that springs to mind. But then there was when my mask got knocked off in the Tarlton episode, then I never thought I would get out of Harwood's hole. And then the rapids near the end of the Motu were out of control. It was really spooky at the top of Harper Saddle, and so cold my lips weren't working very well. We did a very steep ascent up a snow face in the Hillary episode that could have gone badly wrong, but if I had to pick one thing it would be the descent into Harwood's hole. Have a look at my face.
Do you still fall over a lot?
At least once an episode.