‘It was horrible. It was glorious’: Alone – the most gruelling show on TV – comes to Australia
It takes a special kind of person to want to be on the survival series Alone. Who would voluntarily go to the coldest, wildest, remotest parts of the world to see who can survive the longest with no company, no food, barely any equipment and 70kgs of camera gear to film it all yourself?
Answer: people like Gina. The 52-year-old bushcraft teacher, who lives off-grid in a tiny shack with no running water or power in New South Wales (“The front door doesn’t close, so the possum gets in and trashes everything”), is one of the 10 contestants on Alone Australia, the country’s first take on the reality television global hit.
In preparation for potentially months of living outdoors on the freezing west coast of lutruwita/Tasmania, Gina gained 19kgs – an extra 150,000 calories to work with – and handmade a possum-skin coat to sleep in, rather than taking a sleeping bag. (“I loathe plastic, I’m not going to sleep in it.”)
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So when we meet at the show’s recent premiere in central Sydney, it is quickly clear that drinking champagne and eating canapes isn’t really her vibe. “Out of the jungle, into another,” she says cheerfully.
The Australian edition, which was shot in Tasmania during a “polar blast” last year, premieres on SBS on Wednesday night. Whoever lasts the longest wins A$250,000, using just 10 survival items from an approved list of 50 to navigate difficult terrain, wild weather and starvation. But the contestants still don’t know who won or if they were one of the first to “tap out” – they can use an emergency radio to call the crew whenever they’ve had enough.
What was the hardest part for Gina? She barely has to think about it.
“Wearing shoes,” she says. “I have barely worn them for a decade.” And she hoicks up her dress to waggle some very neat toes at me.
When Alone began airing in the US in 2015, many of the show’s early contestants were macho, gun-toting prepper-types; the first season was entirely male, American and white. But with subsequent seasons, as the show grew in popularity and began moving around the world, the tone changed. The contestant pool became more diverse and all the more interesting for it: on Alone Australia, there are three women, and all of them are queer; there are three First Nations contestants and many more show a deep respect for nature, rather than any survivalist notion of conquering it.
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Alone Australia is also noticeably funnier than other seasons. When the crew drops contestant Chris at his isolated spot, he shouts back, “See youse in two years” (the longest anyone has ever lasted on Alone was 100 days in northwestern Canada); Gina almost immediately takes off the dreaded shoes to do a little dance on the moss.
When Alone emerged as the most popular factual program on SBS On Demand, a local version became “a no-brainer”, says Alone Australia executive producer Riima Daher. They received thousands of applications. “The [viewer] demographics are all over the place. It feels like a show that should have a niche audience – but it really doesn’t.”
While most reality TV is known for being anything but real, Alone is the antithesis: many of the contestants – including Gina – barely watch television themselves.
“It’s as real as reality gets,” says Daher. “People are getting as close to touching the void as they can – and there is nothing between you and them, no producer, no narrator. It’s just you and them, together in the wilderness.”
The west coast of Tasmania provided enough geographical separation with mountains and water to keep all 10 contestants apart. It is also so remote and so inhospitable in winter that few unsuspecting hikers would be there to accidentally wander into shot.
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The first criteria for a successful Alone contestant is: “Can they keep themselves alive?” Daher says. All the contestants have some survival expertise. “Then we wanted storytellers who caught our attention, and we wanted people who were ecological, respectful, authentic humans who were genuinely invested in the experiment. None of them cared about the money. They’re not doing it to up their Insta-followers.”
Each went through psychological and physiological tests and received cultural and survival training from palawa consultants, the traditional custodians of the land who worked on the show from pre to post-production. “It was such a privilege – we had real-deal, OG experts on hand,” Daher says. “It doesn’t get much more informed than 60,000 years of survival.”
But as contestant Duane, a 35-year-old environmental officer, points out, “the palawa people didn’t live there in winter – they were reading country before the season would change and they’d move closer to the coasts where living conditions were much better. They were smarter than we were!”
Like Gina, many of the contestants bulked up beforehand, knowing they’d likely be frequently eating what 39-year-old army veteran Chris calls a dingo’s breakfast: “That’s a drink of water and a look around.”
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“I was eating lots of parmies and strawberry yoghurt,” Chris says, who gained about 12kgs beforehand. “I was so sick of eating.”
But preparations didn’t always go to plan. “I ended up going into the show lighter than I was before because I was losing weight through stress!” says Duane.
The contestants are expected to file at least five hours of footage a day and are not allowed to tape over or delete anything. (Both are disqualifiable offences.) The producers have no idea what’s being filmed until each contestant gives their gear back.
“You’ve handed over complete control of the show’s content to 10 people, some of whom have only just learned how to use a camera and a microphone,” Daher says. “I still can’t believe I worked on a show where the end date is set by the participants. That is insanity.”
Her parting advice – or plea – to many of the contestants as the boat left them on shore was: “Don’t fuck it up.”
Alone is ultimately a study in human resilience, in the face of loneliness and boredom. Some contestants have hand-carved boats, made shacks, even a rather rudimentary ukulele. Anyone can “tap out” at any point. Some go home on day one.
“I’m not afraid of being in the wilderness,” says Gina. She thinks this attitude stems from losing her three-year-old daughter to cancer 10 years ago. “I lost my little one, my only one. And the resilience that I developed in that loss has meant that I have really sort of plumbed the depths of my character and my heart and all my feelings. And what I’m left with on the other side is a deep knowledge that there’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that all the contestants I meet would do it again.“The only reason I wouldn’t is that I wouldn’t want someone else to miss out. I have already had a go on that ride!” Chris says.
“Best experience of my life,” says Duane.
“It was wonderful. It was horrible. It was dirty. It was muddy. It was frustrating. It was glorious,” says Gina. “Nature is the most incredible mirror and in that mirror, our stories can’t hold up. Instead of seeing who we think we are or who we want to be, we meet ourselves. That is an incredibly humbling and liberating experience, and I live for that.”
Alone Australia starts with a two-episode premiere on Wednesday at 8.30pm on SBS. Seasons 1-8 of Alone US, along with Alone Denmark, Alone Norway and Alone Sweden are on SBS On Demand.