Focus on LandSAR Wanaka

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 eventuate.

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 agreed.

"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 Dickson said.

"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 money."

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 well."

The other initial stumbling block was selling the show to the search and rescue volunteers, who preferred to remain unsung heroes.

"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 responsibly."

High Country Rescue premieres Monday at 8pm on ONE