Modern adventurers awaken pioneer spirit

ALASTAIR PAULIN
Last updated 13:24 26/07/2012
Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald
MANY RIVERS TO CROSS: Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald retrace the steps of pioneer Kiwi explorers.

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REVIEW: First Crossings, 8.30pm Tuesdays, TV One

Before our adventurers have taken their first step in the wilderness, First Crossings opens with an odd disclaimer.

"Kevin, Jamie and the crew receive support when in potentially life-threatening situations as required by current health and safety regulations."

The effect is two-fold. It makes it sound that, if it were not for those pesky regulatory requirements, the gung-ho stars of the show would have been happy to face danger without help, and also alerts us to the presence of the crew.

The genetic forebear to the show is Man Vs Wild but, happily, First Crossings is not all about Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald, the daring duo who, before they set about recreating pioneering Kiwi explorations, did things like row across the Atlantic together.

On Man Vs Wild, Bear Grylls is forever turning to the camera to tell us how gnarly what he just did was. Kevin and Jamie turn to the camera to marvel at how tough the original explorers must have been. The bravado on display does not feel like hollow boasting, but hard-earned admiration for the men who opened up New Zealand's early routes.

On this week's season opener, the pair recreated the ill-fated 1863 attempt by Henry Whitcombe and Jakob Lauper to find a potential road route over the Southern Alps to link Canterbury with West Coast gold.

They promise to "push ourselves to the limits to show you what happened when Whitcombe and Lauper tried to traverse one of the most challenging and dangerous landscapes in the world and reveal just how remarkable their first crossing actually was".

The show's gimmick is that Kevin and Jamie retrace the steps using the same types of gear the original explorers had. In this case, that means no tent, no modern climbing ropes and a few scones and dead hens for sustenance.

They sleep rough on a couple of blankets, although they are spared the fate that befell Whitcombe and Lauper: their blankets became fly-blown and thus their "bed" was shared with thousands of squirming maggots.

Thankfully, the glorious scenery of the Southern Alps makes up for such a disturbing image. As the men descend the Whitcombe River, we see spectacular views back up to Mt Evans, a view obscured for their forebears by 14 straight days of rain.

Kevin and Jamie's scary efforts to cross a wild tributary swollen by just 24 hours of rain illustrate the incredible dangers faced by the pioneers, as well as by modern trampers in New Zealand's fast-changing back country.

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It is also mind-boggling to think that crossing from the East to West Coasts was once a fatal adventure (Whitcombe drowned trying to cross the mouth of the Taramakau River) and is now done in one day on the Coast-to-Coast race, essentially for fun.

Kevin and Jamie are rugged blokes who love that type of adventure and they make good company on the trip.

Jamie summarised that pioneering spirit: "If we didn't have people like this, we'd all be living by the rules, in square boxes, and life would be pretty boring. We wouldn't know what's over the edge. I think we need more Whitcombes and Laupers."

The spirit lives on, especially in people like the crew of the show. On Kevin's blog, he pays tribute to the man who makes them look good.

"If what we're doing looks a little whack, then think of the cameraman [Murray Milne], doing it backwards with one eye on the viewfinder and the other hand pulling focus. He's a mountain goat!"

- © Fairfax NZ News

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