Catch me if you can

Former US Navy Seal Joel Lambert was in New Zealand in February filming an episode of Manhunt on...
Former US Navy Seal Joel Lambert was in New Zealand in February filming an episode of Manhunt on Mt Eostre and in the Matukituki Valley, Otago. Photo Supplied.

Being hunted through the southern wilds by a crack team of trackers is as tough as it gets, Joel Lambert tells Bruce Munro.

If the health and safety manager had seen the terrain they were crossing, he would have stopped the filming instantly, Joel Lambert says with a laugh.

The former US Navy Seal is talking about his time in New Zealand in February, filming an episode of the popular reality television show Manhunt.

Almost caught just a few hours in to the 36-hour escape attempt, Lambert had decided to evade his pursuers by bushwhacking through scrub on the steep lower reaches of Mt Eostre, northwest of Wanaka.

''As soon as we got into the timberline, there were portions I was going down that were a good 70 degrees,'' Lambert says.

''There were rocks and waterfalls. Hours and hours and hours. It was so thick we couldn't push through it in parts ... I remember thinking, if the safety guy on this show could see where I'm at right now he would stop production, this is so out of control.''

Manhunt pits Lambert, an escape and evasion expert with a decade of Navy Sea, Air and Land (Seal) experience, against some of the world's top military and law enforcement personnel.

After being dropped into unfamiliar territory with nothing but a basic survival kit, and constrained by having to travel with a cameraman and a producer, Lambert has less than two days to do whatever he can to evade capture and rendezvous with his extraction team.

In the first season, Lambert's mettle was tested in environments ranging from the South African savannah and Poland's border region to the Philippines jungle.

New Zealand was top of the list of places he wanted to visit.

So, he was thrilled to hear the second season was to include an expedition in the South Island where he would be hunted by former SAS soldiers and Maori trackers.

''I was excited in a nerve-racking way, because I knew these guys were very good. The New Zealand special operations tracking course you run down there, guys come from a lot of other units around the world to train with these guys.

''Then I found out that one of those who would be hunting me, that he had literally written the tracking course.''

The Otago scenery lived up to his expectations as ''hands-down the most beautiful place I have ever been''.

But that has its downside, he says.

''Beautiful terrain is beautiful because it is almost impassable.

''Last season the Philippines jungle was exceptionally tough. But this mountain was ... brutal.''

In the New Zealand episode, he has 36 hours to travel 25km from drop-off on the snowy mountain to potential extraction by jet-boat on the Matukituki River.

But how real is the chase?

How much licence is taken in order to create a more exciting show?

It is television, and the aim is to make it as exciting as possible, Lambert replies.

''But that said, the hunt is 100% real. I enter where I enter, and I extract where I extract. If I get caught or if I get away, that is what you see.''

Lambert admits he is competitive.

He wants to win every time, even though the constraints of filming stack the odds against him.

Getting caught three times in the six-episode first season did not sit well with him.

His producer told him that each time he got caught during filming of the first season, no-one wanted to be around him until days later.

''That's part of the reason I didn't want to do this show when it was first offered to me; it could be very risky to my ego,'' he says with a chuckle.

But, by taking those risks he continues to find echoes of the aliveness he felt as a Navy Seal.

''I've found my archetype in life ... is that of the warrior. By doing these things that I don't want to do: where my ego might be completely crushed; things that are extremely difficult at times ... I've found I get a lot out of that. I get a lot of definition in myself.''

Hopefully, some of those watching capture some of that for themselves, he says.

''Watching other people is so inspiring for me. Watching those fantastic Maori guys who were tracking me; they encompass all the best things of the true warrior culture.

''I watch the episode and I get inspired ... I hope it encourages somebody someplace to take the first steps on their path, whatever that path may be.''

 Manhunt season two screens on Sky's Discovery Channel from June 23, at 8.30pm.

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