Your guide to the best adventure documentaries: Part 3

By Justin Walker 20 April 2020
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In Part 3 of this series, Aus Geo ADVENTURE Editor Justin Walker reveals another five unforgettable adventure films. Included are one of the world’s most famous survival stories, a tribute to a river-running conservationist, an incredible overland journey, a story about a certain NZ beekeeper who was the first to climb the world’s tallest mountain, and a film that shows the challenge of a solo journey is not always just a physical one.

A still from the award-winning Touching the Void – an incredible story of survival.

Touching the Void 
This award-winning tale of climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and the former’s amazing survival of a climb gone seriously wrong is a truly memorable story. The crux of the story – the moment where Simon Yates, believes the only way to save himself from joining his presumed-dead partner (Simpson) hanging unseen at the end of a climbing rope, in the after-world, is to cut the rope connecting the two, has to be seen again, and again. What happens after – Simpson survives the fall into a crevasse then, amazingly, crawls deeper into the crevasse before eventually dragging himself three days later all the way back to base-camp where a shocked Yates initially thinks he’s hallucinating and seeing and hearing a ghost – is something no scriptwriter could conjure up. This film really does this incredible true story justice.

Martin Litton tackling some wild Colorado River rapids in one of his dories.

Martin’s Boat
“The river has a tremendous force… It has an appeal about it that I can’t describe, but when you have people in a boat, to sense the kind of life that the river has; it’s mind expanding for sure”. Those words from the late Martin Litton open this film by Peter McBride that is dedicated to Litton, a conservationist and pioneering Colorado River dory guide. A dory is a small four/five-person wooden boat, with a flat bottom, splayed sides and upturned ends; in the 1960s, Litton tweaked the design to enable it to run the river, thus allowing him to start his famous guiding company, Grand Canyon Dories (GCD). The film uses archival footage of interviews with Litton (he passed away in 2014, at the age of 97) as he discusses both the river and conservation efforts to stop it being dammed. Viewers also follow the arrival of the latest dory in GCD’s fleet – the Marble Canyon – that was built by guide Duffy Dale (it took between 1100 and 1200 hours) and dedicated to Litton, as it is launched on to the wild waters of the Colorado River. A fulfilling and entertaining film.

Ben Page’s tough journey through Canada’s wild Arctic in the middle of winter is enthralling.

The Frozen Road
An epic in every sense. This self-filmed doco (by Ben Page) captures the highs and, impressively, the lows of an around-the-world solo cycling journey, encapsulated in the incredibly challenging part of Page’s global journey when he traversed Canada’s imposing frozen Arctic north in the middle of winter. It runs for not much over 24 minutes, but this film packs in plenty in terms of showcasing the physical challenge of the route at that time of year, as well as the raw emotion of an adventurer at his absolute mental limit, alone and scared. It’s a totally different take on an adventure doco, contrasting incredibly with the uplifting success stories you’ll find in other films, but it is all the more enthralling for it. You won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen.

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary near the top of the world on that very famous climb.

Beyond the Edge
Still probably the ultimate adventure story: Edmund Hillary, a humble New Zealand beekeeper and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from the lofty heights of Nepal, are the first to reach the top of Mt Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. In 1953 it was an incredible achievement; when viewing the colour archival footage, newsreel footage and photographs, mixed in with the filmmakers’ faithful recreations and interviews, it is, today, an even more brilliant story. The climb is the main focus of the film – and rightly so; the achievement of both men to make it to the summit is awesome in itself. More impressive is that achievement when you see the “primitive” climbing equipment the team was using. The backstory reveals just how important this climb was to the still-powerful British Empire; instilling pride and restoring confidence after the devastation of World War II. For New Zealand, it well and truly put the small, remote Pacific country on the world map.

Tim Slessor, one of the original expedition members from First Overland, with ‘Oxford’.

First Overland
It’s the 1950s when a group of (relatively) penniless university students from Oxford and Cambridge hatch a plan to undertake (and film) an overland vehicular adventure, from London to Singapore, through some of the most inaccessible country on the planet. They approach a certain young BBC employee by the name of David Attenborough, who convinces his employer of the team’s need for film and a 16mm, wind-up film camera (with the promise of more film if initial footage looks the goods – and it did). Land Rover also comes on board, supplying two vehicles (aptly named ‘Oxford’ and ‘Cambridge’ in recognition of their crews). The resultant footage was originally broadcast in three short black and white segments upon the team’s return but has since been remastered in its original colour. The doco offers a fantastic view of what are now some of the world’s most inaccessible (and closed) roads and includes interviews with the remaining expedition members who recently celebrated the trip’s 50th anniversary, along with Sir David Attenborough himself. The book based on the expedition by Tim Slessor is worth a read, and this film is just awesome. A real Boy’s Own Adventure.