Coas stt ories

Neil Oliver on the spooky Aus­tralian is­land you’ll never visit

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - TV Guide - - FRONT PAGE -

IT’S sun­set at By­ron Bay’s main beach, and ar­chae­ol­o­gist, his­to­rian, jour­nal­ist, au­thor and Coast Aus­tralia pre­sen­ter Neil Oliver is sip­ping a cup of tea, his Scot­tish lilt all but drowned out by a ca­coph­ony of lori­keets farewelling the day in a nearby tree.

The screech­ing might eclipse Oliver’s voice in vol­ume, but after a day spent film­ing around Aus­tralia’s most east­erly point for the sec­ond se­ries of Coast Aus­tralia, noth­ing can mute his en­thu­si­asm.

Ear­lier in the day, the seem­ingly un­flap­pable Scots­man, known world­wide for his orig­i­nal se­ries, Coast, which he pre­sented for five se­ries in the UK be­fore head­ing to Aus­tralia to present Coast Aus­tralia last year, has in­ad­ver­tently show­cased his beach cre­den­tials after a tour of By­ron Bay light­house. Wan­der­ing down for the next spot of film­ing at Aus­tralia’s most east­erly point, en­grossed in chat, we over­shoot the turnoff and in­stead of hit­ting Lit­tle Wat­e­gos Beach, wind up one beach too far, at Wat­e­gos.

No film crew. Oliver turns silent, and rather than re­trace his steps up the track, heads un­err­ingly for the

beach, then, like some kind of myth­i­cal merman, van­ishes.

I follow his foot­prints, which peter out at a rocky out­crop. There’s no sign he’s turned back, so I scram­ble on. Five min­utes later, a rush­ing tide brings me to a halt. How the hell did he get across that? I pick my mo­ment, leap­ing into wet sand, bolt­ing as the next wave bear­ing waist–deep wa­ter rushes in at my heels. A leap and I’m back on pointy, wet rocks. Top­ping them, I fi­nally see Lit­tle Wat­e­gos. Another mad dash be­tween wave sets, and shoes squelch­ing, gasp­ing for breath, I’ve made it.

About 100m away, an un­ruf­fled Oliver is al­ready film­ing. His shoes are dry. The bug­ger hasn’t even got the bot­tom of his long pants wet.

The first sea­son of Coast Aus­tralia wasn’t enough for Oliver. It served only to whet his ap­petite.

Se­ries two sees him and his team of palaeon­tol­o­gist and ex­plorer Pro­fes­sor Tim Flan­nery, marine ecol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Emma John­ston, land­scape ar­chi­tect Bren­dan Moar, an­thro­pol­o­gist Dr Xanthe Mal­lett, and his­to­rian Dr Alice Gar­ner, take in eight new lo­ca­tions in­clud­ing the Pil­bara, Tor­res Strait, Nor­folk Is­land, South Aus­tralia and the Bass Strait dis­cov­er­ing the his­tory, the sci­ence and the sto­ries of its peo­ple.

One place – an un­touched is­land show­cased in the first episode that few Aus­tralians would ever have heard of – cap­tured Oliver’s heart. He un­re­servedly de­scribes it as “the most spe­cial place I’ve ever seen”.

Of­fi­cially called Cleft Is­land, but known lo­cally as Skull Rock, it sits 5km off the coast of Vic­to­ria.

“It looks from cer­tain an­gles like a skull, and a huge cav­ern takes up one whole side of it,” Oliver says. “You can’t climb up – it’s 50m of sheer cliff. You can’t land on its shore. “Twelve peo­ple have been on the moon. On Skull Rock, in­clud­ing us, I think it’s less than that num­ber – prob­a­bly since the Ice Age.”

Oliver and two sci­en­tists he­li­coptered to the top of the is­land, ab­seiled down to the cav­ern. And it took his breath away.

“The cave is 130m wide and 60m deep, the roof is 60m above – you could fit the Syd­ney Opera House inside it,” he en­thuses.

“It must have been cut by the sea when the sea lev­els were much higher, thou­sands of years ago. That, and the pos­si­bil­ity no­body has ever been in it was amaz­ing.

“It was like be­ing on the set of King Kong, you ex­pected pre­his­toric beasts. It sort of felt like no­body had ever been there and your foot­prints were maybe the first foot­prints.”

It was a re­minder to Oliver to savour the de­lights of his job amid the lo­gis­tics of film­ing in beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tions and telling sto­ries.

“It’s like peo­ple who spend their whole hol­i­day tak­ing pic­tures. You have to re­mem­ber to stop and soak in the mo­ments. We are here, this is real,” he says.

It’s a feel­ing re­flected across the whole sec­ond se­ries.

“Last time we were show­ing Aus­tralia off like a sort of a trophy prize – which is partly how it came across,” Oliver says.

“This time it’s been like a case of get­ting to know the per­son bet­ter and see­ing beyond the im­me­di­ate, delv­ing into the his­tory of that per­son. The sto­ries I think are more jour­nal­is­ti­cally strong and in depth and you find out more about Aus­tralia and all its dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. I don’t want to be seen to be telling Aus­tralians about their coun­try. It’s not my style any­way.

“My ap­proach has al­ways just been shar­ing my im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion to things. I am an ar­chae­ol­o­gist who re­trained as a jour­nal­ist and on Coast, I am an in­ter­ested tourist.

“Coast doesn’t have an agenda. It’s not say­ing the world should be a cer­tain way, it’s just an ob­ser­va­tion of what is hap­pen­ing on the coast, what an­i­mals live there, what the ge­ol­ogy is that formed it, who lives there now and what are peo­ple do­ing with it.” COAST AUS­TRALIA MON­DAY, 6.30PM, HIS­TORY CHAN­NEL

Un­touched: Cleft Is­land, or Skull Rock.

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