A film crew which followed one of the busiest voluntary
search and rescue organisations in the country for new
reality television show High Country Rescue got less
than they bargained for when the usual high volume of back
country emergencies dealt with by LandSAR Wanaka did not
LandSAR Wanaka, together with Wanaka police, are involved in
40 to 50 search and rescue operations a year, the majority of
which occur during the summer months. But when a South
Pacific Pictures cameraman and producer came to town to
capture all the action during the summer of 2009-10, there
was a noticeable drop in demand for search and rescue
services for the lost, missing and injured.
"Those guys [film crew] seemed to be the calmers of the
storm," Wanaka police search and rescue co-ordinator Sergeant
Aaron Nicholson said.
LandSAR Wanaka alpine cliff rescue team leader Gary Dickson
"We didn't have any of those big drama stories that we'd had
previous or of late."
He and Sgt Nicholson understood there was not enough footage
captured in that first summer from the LandSAR teams in
Wanaka and Fiordland, which also features in the show, so a
cameraman returned the following summer to be once again
"tethered to being 10 minutes away for 24 hours a day", Mr
"You have no idea when something's going to happen.
"When it does, the film crew needs to be here within 10
minutes ready to go. That's what they committed to do, which
is no small feat, so that would have cost them bundles of
Plenty of life-or-death action was eventually captured on
camera, and while the time and energy involved in making the
show had been considerable, Mr Dickson - who has viewed the
raw footage and the first of the eight finished episodes -
was thrilled with the finished product.
"I thought it was great watching, because it's like a mirror
and it will be awesome for our team ... to have an outside
look in to show them what a great job they do.
"What you see on that programme is a summation really of
where we've got to with our professionalism in let's say 12
years, and that's a huge team effort, right from Aaron and
his [police] team to our helicopter operator to our guru
fundraiser Phil [Melchior]."
He congratulated South Pacific Pictures and executive
producer Tim Sanders on a job well done.
"Over numerous years there's been people who thought this
might be a cool thing to do, but if you think logistically,
it's a nightmare.
"[Tim] thought it was possible logistically. He wasn't one of
the ones that went ... 'it's in the too hard basket'."
However, Mr Dickson made no bones about the "operational
things" which needed to be sorted out before LandSAR Wanaka
and the Wanaka police were prepared to commit to the project.
"We don't wait. That was part of the deal ... And the other
part of the deal was they weren't going to come on our SAR
helicopter. They had to have their own so that didn't become
an ... effort and a liability for us.
"In the end they understood and it worked really, really
The other initial stumbling block was selling the show to the
search and rescue volunteers, who preferred to remain unsung
"They don't normally stick themselves in front of a camera."
Once LandSAR Wanaka leaders pointed out the project's
potential to raise the profile of the 60 LandSAR groups and
2500 volunteers nationwide, and to generate an awareness of
the scope of work and number of volunteer hours involved,
everyone came on board.
"Our objective is to become known for what we do and for
people to understand what we do. If people know who you are,
then they know where to send a cheque," Mr Dickson said.
"It's a horrible thing to say, but the reality is we can't
survive on nothing."
Mr Dickson joined LandSAR Wanaka about 12 years ago when it
was running on $1000 annually.
Now, the annual operating budget is more like $50,000, which
comes from grants and sponsorship from the general public.
The show also presented an opportunity to educate the public
on "the smart things to do" in the backcountry.
"You don't want to make it like a lecture. The reality is TV
needs to be entertaining and enjoyable and if you can
surreptitiously, with subliminal messages almost, get people
on to the programme of using the outdoors safely and
• High Country Rescue premieres Monday at 8pm on