March 28, 2007

A Day In My Life….Beyond Human Limits

The ‘Mawson Adventure’ began long before the actual filming of the documentary commenced. There were many many long hours of preparation, sourcing and making props (including making two sleds). Most of this was done by Ragnar – his right hand man being Haakon with Joan & myself assisting. I would like to personally thank Ragnar for all the time spent on this project, he did an amazing job & his effort & commitment is a real credit to him.

On September 11 2006 Haakon & I along with seven Siberian Huskies headed off to the Snow Farm in Wanaka to take part in the filming of Mawson – Beyond Human Limits. We packed up the Iceberg Jeep, trailer & sled & set off.
We arrived at the Cardrona Hotel late in the afternoon & got ourselves & the dogs settled in. We were greeted by Nigel (aka James Bond), Rose & Amanda & had a lovely meal (along with a drink or two) together.

The real adventure began at 4:30am on Tuesday morning. We all dragged ourselves out of our beds, prepared ourselves & the dogs for the day ahead & headed up the hill to the Snow Farm, arriving at 5:30am. After a light breakfast we made our way in the Jeep as far as we could go which was to the first DOC hut.

Nigel (Mawson), Rose & Amanda headed to the set with the six Mals as did Haakon (Mertz) & Dick (Producer) with the seven Sibes on sleds. I ended up catching a ride in on a Skidoo. Part way in we came across the Mal team who were all looking a bit stressed, there had been a fight but apart from a few minor wounds all was okay so they continued, Nigel with his four Mals on the sled & Rose & Amanda with Rose’s two Mals on foot. We were told it wasn’t too far in to the set but it was actually quite a distance. The Sibes ended up riding in on the trailer behind the Snow Cat for the last part of the run. Eventually we all arrived on the set & got the dogs staked out, let them have a rest then it was time to get their harnesses on.

The Iceberg pack along with the ‘Brass Angels’ (as Ragnar fondly refers to my two), had run once in fan formation so Haakon & I knew what we were in for & how difficult it is to get the dogs started. There is no direction for the dogs to line out to & a slack line can quickly get caught under the runners which then of course endangers the dog/s & calls for a speedy stop. The plan was for six Sibes & six Mals to run in fan, Mawson’s team running out front with Mertz’s following close behind. Nigel & Rose’s team had never run in fan formation & with the incident on the way to the set there was tension between some of the Mals & it soon became very obvious that they weren’t going to be able to run the six Mals together in this way. Nigel attempted to run his four out front in fan & attached Rose’s two toward the back, one on each side, of the first sled. This was also unsuccessful. It ended up with Nigel just running his team of four.

The highlight of the day for me was watching Nigel eat his sandwich at lunch time. He was not only trying to eat his sandwich but the beard that had been glued to his face also. Apparently it was very unpleasant, to all that witnessed it, it was just damn funny.

There was a second incident with Nigel which included one of our Sibes, Fen. Nigel went up to Fen & guided his hand towards him. Fen decided he didn’t want this strange looking, funnily dressed mans hand in his face & proceeded to growl & try & nip at him. His teeth just caught the end of Nigel’s glove. Nigel then, for the rest of the filming, feared Fen & Haakon & I were told to ‘get that dog away from me’ numerous times.

A decision was made by the Director. The Sibes would have to perform the running shots with Nigel (Mawson) as their musher as they couldn’t have Mawson running four dogs in the documentary. Sometime during the morning runs Pharaoh got in a fight & ended up with several puncture wounds in his leg so was unable to run. We then put Que in the team in Phar’s place but that proved to be a bad decision as Que, Fen & Prince’s testosterone levels were running at an all time high & they ended up getting into a fight on one of the runs. The outcome was a few puncture wounds (including one in Haakon’s hand) & Que with a tear on his lower eye lid. We then had two team members that were unable to run, leaving us with five.

We called it a day (& a long one it was) & headed back to the Snow Farm then back to the hotel. First priority was getting the dogs settled & fed, then it was our turn. Evenings were a bit of a rush as after we’d eaten it was time to let the dogs out again for a stretch before they were locked away safely in the trailer for the night. Then it was finally time for the human heads to hit the pillow.

The next two mornings we had an even earlier start – up at 4am to arrive at the Snow Farm at 5am. After the first morning’s trek in it was decided it made more sense to transport the dogs in rather than wear them out before they even got there. Rose’s trailer was towed in by the Snow Cat with Nigel’s four Mals inside & the seven Sibes, Haakon, Nigel & myself piled into the back of the Snow Cat. Fen was in front of me & kept trying to climb up onto my knee (as everyone who knows him well will appreciate, he’s a big softy underneath that tough exterior). Nigel was sitting with his back to me & over to the side slightly. Every time Fen would put his feet on my lap his head would be quite close to Nigel. I told Nigel Fen was coming over to see him. The look on Nigel’s face was priceless followed by a quick ‘get him away from me’. Seemed funny to me that a man that owns four big Mals was scared of a Sibe:)

The plan for this mornings filming was to get the long distance shots (by helicopter) done. Once we got on set & got the dogs out we noticed one of Nigel’s Mals, Kayley, wasn’t herself. Her condition deteriorated & she ended up getting a ride in the helicopter back to the DOC hut where our vehicles were so Rose could take her to the vet. It was amazing how quickly she went downhill. The vet informed Rose that if she had of been left for a few hours longer it could have been touch & go. This of course left Nigel with three Mals which was not acceptable for the running shots.

Solution – disguise Mertz as Mawson & run the five Sibes. The chopper & film crew were late arriving on the set due to the Snow Cat blowing a fuse so it was heading towards lunch time when we started shooting. It went really well overall (a few minor hiccups as can be expected with fan formation & a few of the dogs were spooked by the helicopter as it came down really low over them). We were told there was some great footage. It’s just as well Haakon is fit as he had to do a fair bit of running to keep up with the dogs. There were a couple of runs where the dogs took off with the sled & Haakon wasn’t able to keep up & had to chase them. Bet they thought it was great, running without a musher:)

The film crew spent quite a bit of time with Nigel & his dogs filming the camp scenes & others where Mawson & Ninnis were pulling a sled up an incline. Nigels oldest boy Finn was amazing, he had to collapse & let Nigel pick him up & do various things with him. He’s such a beautiful big teddy bear, I hear that his tail was wagging the whole time. Nigel spent a couple of extra hours each night on set doing the twilight shots & he was absolutely knackered at the end of each day. I think he now realizes that being a star is hard work:)

On our last day on set (Thursday) we only had to do one or two runs. They were close-ups with some shots being filmed with the cameraman on the sled holding on as best he could Haakon, myself & the Sibes headed to the set in the Snow Cat & Nigel, Mark (Props) & three Mals on the trailer. Another memorable moment was when we looked out the back of the Snow Cat to see Nige & Mark signaling us. The reason for this was that the tow ball on the Cat had broken. Once that was temporarily fixed the Cat then blew a fuse. James (Producer) was at the wheel of the Snow Cat & quickly got that sorted.

Before leaving, the dogs decided to serenade some of the filming people. It was quite an effort to keep them howling, not too successful as there were only two or three participating in the howling at any one time. The camera lady (Fred) was there with her microphone & camera trying to capture the beautiful melody. I’m sure the dogs must have been getting back at us for the three days we made them run & lie in the sun because as soon as we started packing up & putting our gear in the Snow Cat they all started howling. Fred rushed over to capture the moment & Dick was there with his video camera too.

This was a wonderful adventure for me, very much a learning curve too. I think Haakon would agree with me when I say I would not want to be involved in running the dogs in fan formation again, unless there was a copious amount of time spent training & we knew the dogs were bombproof with each other.

The days were long for the dogs & the sun was constant which was really hard on them as there was no shelter. The dogs were all amazing, so tolerant & patient. They are truly unique animals & I take my hat off to them for their performances & look forward to seeing the finished Documentary which is due out early 2008. This was only the beginning of Mawson – Beyond Human Limits, the film crew are heading to Antartica in December to do some more filming.



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