Survival of the fittest

When the BBC wanted to put Britain's toughest families through their paces, they had to find the world's toughest terrain. They chose the Pilbara, deep in the Outback. Matthew Cole reports
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The Independent Travel

When you make a television programme you always film a lot and use a little. But every now and then something happens that's guaranteed to be in the final programme, even after a week's footage has been condensed into a single hour of TV. And Aussie survival expert Bob Cooper had just uttered a line that could be filed instantly under "dead cert". There he was, the archetypal Aussie bush ranger, steely eyes squinting under the brim of his hat. And he just came out with it. "We're standing, if you like, in the epicentre of death."

When you make a television programme you always film a lot and use a little. But every now and then something happens that's guaranteed to be in the final programme, even after a week's footage has been condensed into a single hour of TV. And Aussie survival expert Bob Cooper had just uttered a line that could be filed instantly under "dead cert". There he was, the archetypal Aussie bush ranger, steely eyes squinting under the brim of his hat. And he just came out with it. "We're standing, if you like, in the epicentre of death."

The Epicentre of Death? The phrase instantly acquired capital letters. Well, we wanted a setting for a tough, life-changing experience. I looked at the heat haze on the horizon and the baked red earth. It seemed the Pilbara would be perfect.

The Pilbara is a remote patch of Western Australia, where we'd brought two families to film the final showdown of a BBC1 series to find Britain's toughest family. For "tough" read resourceful, determined and brave. The Creber and Gecks families had won through a series of challenges in some of the wilder parts of the UK, and now they were to get some warm weather at last. Perhaps too warm: Bob could point in four different directions to a spot where a hapless visitor had died in the past few years. And for all the talk of snakes and spiders - the Pilbara boasts the world's deadliest varieties of each - it wasn't the wildlife that did for them. It was the heat and lack of water.

After being trained in Outback survival, these ordinary families would spend four days trekking alone (apart from the TV crew, of course) through arid scrubland on which kangaroos, emus and cattle ranchers scrape some sort of living. They would fend for themselves without supplies of food or water. And, at the end of that exhausting trial, they'd have to race to the finish.

Landing at Karratha airport, 1,000 miles north of Perth, it quickly dawned on us how tough it would be. Even now, in autumn, the heat was so intense that the air was like treacle. It was tough enough pushing a trolley out to the waiting trucks. And then there were the flies. As Bob's team delighted in telling us, every fly in Western Australia was getting a taste of an exotic delicacy: Pommy sweat.

No one said it was going to be a holiday. And the Pilbara fitted the brief. But what about the production team? Surviving out here was one thing; filming people surviving was another. Perhaps we'd taken the quest for the real Outback too seriously. I'd already asked myself whether it would be interesting enough. The Pilbara lacks the image of Australia's red centre, the southern part of the Northern Territory that encompasses Ayers Rock and Alice Springs. The principal tourist draw here - the spectacular gorges of Karijini national park - was out of bounds to film crews because of its sacred significance to Aborigines.

So why did we choose it? Oh yes: we chose it because, if survival skills were to be truly tested, this was the place to do it. And that is why Bob has made it his patch. As we followed the trail in his 4x4, he appeared to know every inch of it, every waterhole and every cattle-well. He took barely visible vehicle tracks in the endless spinifex (needle-sharp grass) with the nonchalance of a commuter taking their regular turn-off on the M25.

Being in a place where you can imagine walking for weeks without a sign of anyone is sobering stuff. Then you stumble across the rusting hulk of a car from the days when the old Highway One that connected Western Australia to the north passed through here, before it was diverted to run closer to the coast. Now and again you come across the tin shack that used to be the home of an Aboriginal dingo trapper, paid by the cattle stations for each pair of dingo ears he brought in. If we wanted Outback - and we did - we were getting it.

As the 'roos bounded off in all directions, Bob pointed out the plant the Aborigines use as a cancer remedy and the one that can kill humans. He can name any species of bird or bug that flies by - and point out Willi-Willis, the Aborigines' name for the ghostly dust-storms of this wide landscape. And he told us how many times he'd nearly died.

Bob has been in so many scrapes that Danny on our crew nicknamed him Lucky Bob. As a result of doing so badly at so many other things, he became very good at surviving, and now he runs bespoke courses teaching people how to do just that. He's trained troops. He's taken middle-aged, overweight townies from Perth on 10-day treks. They wept by the finish - tears of joy. But until now he'd never faced what he considered the ultimate challenge - teaching a "bunch of useless bloody Poms" to survive in the Outback.

And it wasn't the families he was worried about. We'd be watching them every minute of the day. It was us - the production team. With temperatures topping 110F, vast distances between water sources and very little chance of help if we got lost, there was no margin for error. But the hardships aren't the only things that attract Brits up here; a headline in the local paper read: "Pommy sheilas look for love in Pilbara". It seems that this is a place British women come to find real men.

A prime specimen of the Pilbara's particular breed of bloke is Glenbo, our quad-bike expert. Glenbo is a cattle musterer (a kind of cowboy), only these days they use quad-bikes and helicopters instead of horses. He hadn't a Pommy sheila, "so I settled for a Kiwi instead". In the Pilbara, you get every Crocodile Dundee cliché of Aussie charm you could wish for. Glenbo provided a masterclass.

He met his wife when she worked behind the bar at the Whim Creek Pub. This roadhouse motel was the only sign of civilisation for miles around. That's "civilisation" in the cold lager and air-conditioning sense of the term; for opera and chilled Chablis, look elsewhere. The workers from the region's cattle stations and mineral mines come here to fish in the lagoon, sink some stubbies (small cans of beer), shoot some pool and catch a glimpse of any passing sheila - Pom, Kiwi or otherwise.

But it wasn't the locals that most aroused our families' interest when we rolled up, nor the tame kangaroo at the bar. It was something in the phone box. When Bob wanted to familiarise us with the deadly redback spider, a close cousin of the black widow, that's where he told us we'd find them. Right by the only phone. That was a talking point, but not one that we were in a hurry to call home about. The other common species here is the non-venomous, but much bigger and faster, Huntsman spider. I'm not an expert, I just recognised them from I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!.

Fairly soon, the locals' relaxed attitude to redbacks, death adders and scorpions rubbed off on everyone. Even the Crebers - who spent several hours on the first night combing every inch of their bedroom for spiders - were soon inured. Just as well: before they knew it they were trekking through the Outback with far more to worry about than creepy-crawlies, alone and hungry in the Pilbara. Well, almost alone: two kilometres away was our crew camp, a very different affair. But I still feel guilty mentioning it.

While they went hungry and fished for their supper, for us there were production meetings round the campfire and a big cook-out. Like the families, we slept out under the southern skies, but while they huddled together on the ground, we were zipped up in tents, or the swag bags favoured by true Aussies like Glenbo. This sleeping contraption is such a true Aussie experience that I had to have a go. A "swag" is an all-in-one bed-roll that unfurls to become a cocoon-like tent. There's just enough clearance over your face to breathe as you stare at the sky through the built-in insect net. Its appeal is the convenience - and the fact that wandering swagmen are so much part of the national heritage: one is the hero of "Waltzing Matilda".

Our camp spots were idyllic if you don't share our families' concerns about hunger, dehydration or debilitating sickness brought on by water purifying tablets. We promised them a chance to learn more about themselves than they ever could in a lifetime of family holidays. And I think that both families would agree that that was what they got. The going became truly tough as they battled on. There would be dehydration, sickness and plenty of fights (hunger and thirst are red rags to a bad temper). But, once again, they adjusted to their circumstances and got it all in perspective.

In each family's tiny survival kit were two stock-cubes - the only food supplied for four days. After 48 hours without eating, the Crebers excitedly boiled up this morsel like a long-awaited treat. Then, as the realisation dawned how far their priorities had shifted, they all collapsed in giggles. Not a bad achievement in the Epicentre of Death.

Matthew Cole is the series producer of 'Pushed to the Limit', BBC1, 7pm Wednesday

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

As mentioned on page 11, Perth is not currently linked direct from the UK by air, though Qantas is to resurrect the Heathrow-Perth route later this year. A wide range of airlines will take you there: Emirates has the biggest choice of UK departure points (Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow) for its flights from Dubai. One-stop trips are available from Heathrow via Bangkok on Thai, Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines, Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific or Singapore on Singapore Airlines. Through discount agents, fares for travel in September are likely to be around £750 return.

GETTING AROUND

A good reason to book a Qantas flight is to get low-cost connecting flights to the two main gateways for the Pilbara: Karratha and Tom Price. Public transport beyond these airports is almost non-existent, so a rental car is more or less compulsory, unless you risk hitch-hiking.

ACCOMMODATION

The main settlements have a range of accommodation options, but in the Outback camping is the norm. The Whim Creek Pub can be contacted on 00 61 891 764 914

SAFETY

As this story indicates, Western Australia is full of threats to health. Travellers should seek local advice on staying safe before venturing into the Outback.

MORE INFORMATION

Western Australia Tourism (020-7395 0580; www.westernaustralia.net)

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