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Surviving the Outback by Michael Atkinson

Surviving the Outback by Michael Atkinson Michael Atkinson
14 Jan
One man’s recreation of an epic 1930s survival experience deep in the Australian outback, part of the 2019 Banff Mountain Film Festival

Don’t try this at home. More importantly, don’t try this in a remote corner of the Kimberley, western Australia, hundreds of kilometres from any human presence, with steep, rugged terrain, scorching temperatures, large obstructive rivers and a lack of obvious food, all of which seem like quaint brain teasers compared to the threat of gigantic crocodiles which literally stalk people along the coastline.

Outback Mike fears no such risks. Mike (real name Michael Atkinson) is an experienced survival instructor and has expertise vital for staying alive in such extreme locations, using his rich arsenal of skills and his knowledge of ‘bushtucker’ to keep himself safe during a long stint in the wilderness.

It’s a sharp contrast to Messrs Adolf Klausmann and Hans Bertram, German aviators who ran out of fuel on a flight to Darwin and were stranded in this exact location in 1932. After spending days trying to sail around the coast to safety, dangerously low on food and water, they prepared for death, only to be rescued at the last minute by local Balanggarra Aboriginal people, who cared for them until they could be evacuated. It was this experience that Outback Mike aspired to recreate in this film (albeit a little less perilously).

The film shows our protagonist building a raft in the small town of Wyndham, motoring to the location where the aviators were stranded, attempting to make his own escape via a home-made sailing raft, then heading further along the coast, before finally ditching the raft and taking an inland trek to safety. ‘What I’m doing is not reenacting what they did,’ he explains, ‘I’m just starting with the same materials, and seeing if I can use my own ideas and own techniques to make it out to civilisation.’

To maintain adherence to the historic tale, he does all this equipped only with a small bag that contains the same antique gear the aviators possessed at the time, therefore placing great demands upon his personal resourcefulness. This is accompanied by a far larger collection of camera and filming equipment, as is required for a modern one-person shoot. There’s no food, no water, nor enough fuel to get back home. Not even an emergency satellite phone. ‘Who wants to hear the bloody phone ringin’ out here?’ he quips, revealing his charm and childish enthusiasm for what would be, for most people, a potentially fatal endeavour.

outbackOutback Mike surveys the dramatic landscape of the Kimberley

The results are undeniably impressive. While there are a few minor technical issues (primarily around in-field sound recording) Outback Mike has produced incredibly beautiful footage of the remote Kimberley, utilising stunning cinematography. He provides an eye-opening account of his personal experience, which appears to surprise even him in its increasingly challenging nature. His training and expertise pushes him safely onwards, day after day, but the physical and mental exhaustion (plus a severe shortage of food) become increasingly obvious – the silliness of his first few days slowly replaced by pure, unfiltered fatigue.

It is highly commendable that our hero is so open about the difficulties associated with actually filming such an experience, as opposed to simply undertaking it but not filming anything. As well as emphasising the size of the technical equipment that needs to be carried around, operated, recharged and so on, he willingly includes a variety of ‘outtakes’ within the main body of the film, adding humour to what could otherwise become an uncomfortably intense situation. Neither the film nor the expedition emerge as particularly slick, and in that sense they reinforce the value and authenticity of each other, as well as playing into the rustic nature of the entire project.

Away from the extremity of Outback Mike’s escape from the wilderness, the most moving aspect of this film is his interview with Matthew Waina, descendent of the 1930s Aboriginal rescuers. Waina’s account of the incident is not only amazingly accurate (matching perfectly with the story in Bertram’s book, ‘Flight into Hell’) – a testament to the power of traditional Aboriginal storytelling – but it also reveals the generosity of spirit that his ancestors felt towards these two strangers. Mike’s insistance on visiting the key locations relevant to the story – such as the cave where the aviators, weak with hunger, were finally found – drags the account out of the past and makes it relevant to the present day. It’s a powerful addition, and provides a clear purpose that fully rounds out the endeavour, providing a three-dimensional legacy to Outback Mike’s ambitions.

Surviving the Outback is being shown as part of the 2019 Banff Mountain Film Festival, on tour across the UK and Ireland, starting on 19 January in Edinburgh. For more information and to book tickets, visit banff-uk.com.

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