Kiwis cutting it across the ditch

16:00, Nov 23 2013
Great Barrier Reef
INCREDIBLE: Australia's Great Barrier Reef is a wonder to behold.

It is ironic, there's no doubt. New Zealanders are given the funding and the canvas to make a landmark, high quality and highly anticipated series about... Australia.

It's called Coast Australia - and yes, it is a "re-version" of the BBC's epic series Coast. It's even more ironic - and borders on a gag - when a Scotsman who's never been to Australia is thrown into the mix to make the series.

Luckily, the broadcaster, Foxtel, believed in the New Zealand producers, the Scottish host and our mutual ability to tell stories about their people, their culture and their heritage. They commissioned Coast from Great Southern Television for The History Channel in Australia, which means it will also screen here on SKY.

To get things started, we put a call through to Sterling, Scotland, to a long-haired world renowned historian with a Billy Connolly burr named Neil Oliver. He's one of the hosts of the United Kingdom series. We called him because Coast wouldn't be Coast without Neil Oliver. It's like fish without chips, or, in his case, vinegar.

Initially Neil thought we were pranksters when we offered him the gig. But he eventually put his name to the project - and months later was climbing off an A380 and into Sydney's hottest day for decades, a mere 47 degrees Celsius.

Luckily we'd found him a home with a pool and his young family spent the first day in Sydney floating in it like pale, stunned refugees - trying to breathe. Australia!


Later, Neil and I drove to a supermarket to get the family some food - and without meeting before we were suddenly wandering around a supermarket in awe, bagging up incredible tropical fruit and, yes, huge fresh prawns for the barbie.

Then it was off to work. For 30 days Neil was to become the most travelled man in Australia, somehow jetting around the continent in a bizarre order: From Tasmania to Darwin, and then from the Kimberley to the Gold Coast. He transitioned from his white winter coat - through a distinct red phase which you can follow through the series - into a bronzed Scottish god.

We quickly learnt that Neil is one of the best in the business. He'd done his research. His memory is that of a genius. His ability to relate to the audience while handling technical stories was a marvel. And the people of Australia seemed to love him.

So... what happened in between? Where do you start when you are asked to glorify and examine one of the greatest coastlines on the planet? Obviously, with a map. And with some great Australian intellectuals and producers (we're Kiwis but we're not know-alls!).

We signed a meaty Australian production team in our Sydney office and recruited legendary Australian minds, such as Professor Tim Flannery, as a co-host and advisor. In a single meeting Tim laid out a plan, with the assistance of our series producer, Ellissa McKeand, who had just worked on a show in Australia called, ironically, Great Southern Land. Yes, this did lead to some confusion.

Coast is an intelligent show that explains archaeology, anthropology and social and ancient history in plain language.

It's a wonderful journey, identifying a small strip of the continent for each episode and then, with the host and five reporters, examining the people and the history.

You never leave the coast - you always see the sea - and I am told it is the best hangover show on television. It is gentle, yet a giant for information. And it looks really simple to make.

The BBC warned us: "It looks really easy, but it isn't!"

Coast was a logistical nightmare and only came to life through the expertise of the Australian producers and film crew, who knew things we didn't know.

"Let's shoot in Darwin in January," the Kiwis would say.

Then the Aussies would mention the small issue of monsoons.

I live in Queenstown. I know Milford Sound. I adore the Hauraki Gulf, the Marlborough Sounds.

In some ways I'd always thought Australia was like Los Angeles: Concrete and sand meeting a slightly boring coast. And that we had it all over them.

We were wrong, and from the first episode in the Kimberley viewers will see what I mean.

For the Kimberley episode we used a helicopter kitted with the very latest HD Cineflex cameras. It's a world first.

The results are breath-taking, and a couple of Australians who have seen the first episode have wiped a wee tear away in pride.

There were great moments, and places that blew us away, such as:

Lizard Island: White, blue, green. A symphony of pristine water, islands and joy. The northern most resort on Great Barrier Reef. Heaven sent.

The Kimberley, so flaming red, we couldn't even colour-correct the episode. It was on fire with massive deep red rock formations, and so vast. We filmed Neil enjoying a ridiculous sunset on Cable Beach.

The Loch Ard Gorge in Port Campbell National Park, Victoria. Sculptured by a greater being for human recreation. Perfect.

Wineglass Bay and Coles Bay, gorgeous spots along the Freycinet Peninsula, hugely kitted out for tourists and way under rated.

Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world; a World Heritage Site which rubs shoulders with Great Barrier Reef and Uluru for cultural significance.

Coral Bay, Ningaloo Reef, on the Coral Coast of Western Australia. Epic coral reefs just off the beach. There is no better place in the world to snorkel. We could not get Neil out of the water!

We haven't even scratched the surface in the first series of Coast Australia. Where is Margaret River? The Great Australian Bight? Hopefully they will come later.

And hopefully one day we will shoot the equally blessed New Zealand for the series. That's the plan. Neil is as keen as mustard.

Phil Smith is the owner of Great Southern Television. Coast Australia screens on SKY The History Channel from December 2.

Sunday Star Times