ANU graduate Dr Kate Grarock used her background in ecology to brave the Tasmanian wilderness as a contestant on survival series Alone.
I’d never met Dr Kate Grarock, but after watching Alone Australia I felt like her proud friend.
As a Canberra local, an ANU alumna, a woman in STEM, it felt like she was just one degree of separation from me. Although never in a thousand years could I do what she was doing.
The SBS show saw Grarock and her fellow Alone contestants left in a wild, isolated environment to fend for themselves with nothing but ten carefully chosen items, first aid supplies, their own company – and a whopping 70 kilograms of video equipment to film the whole thing.
A year after she emerged from the Tasmanian wilderness, I speak to Grarock, a person who already seemed so familiar to me (and one million other viewers). I was now seeing her over Zoom instead of on the TV screen, but the authenticity we’d seen on the show remained the same.
I wanted to know what Grarock’s Alone experience was really like, and how it differed from what we’d seen.
“I was scared shitless,” Grarock says. “Because you’re both filming as well as surviving alone. I’d never done a survival experience that extreme – and I’d never tried to do bloody television!”
That’s not to say that she wasn’t super-qualified. As an expedition leader, ecologist and an avid hiker, Grarock had endured some tough outdoor environments, filming some for her YouTube channel.
But nothing can prepare you for the pure isolation, lack of decent food, and the sheer number of uncertainties in Alone.
“I filmed myself for about eight hours a day, for 22 days, but I had no idea what the hell the story would be that they would show,” she says.
She wasn’t privy to how the other contestants fared, or even which episode would be her last (spoiler: Grarock is the fourth-last person to tap-out).
“It is a strange thing being so intimately part of something but also not understanding what will happen, and the secrecies involved in it,” she says.
However, Grarock is grateful for the way the producers handled Alone Australia. It wasn’t a gotcha-style exercise, but a real, beautiful story.
“The reason why it’s got this huge following isn’t just for the hardcore bush-crafters, it’s the way it shows the pure rawness of humans.”
That helped her to feel more comfortable just being herself.
“I’m pretty competitive, I wanted to win,” she says. “But, my main driver was to showcase women outdoors, mostly for my daughter.”
Grarock has spent much of her life trying to protect Australian wildlife, including as an ecologist with the ANU Fenner School of the Environment and Society, so hunting mammals on the show wasn’t an option in her mind.
“Killing a possum would have really upset me,” she says.
She felt the same way about some plants too. The big, old tree ferns in her area were around 80 to 100 years old, and for Grarock, the sustenance from harvesting one little shoot wasn’t worth it to stop that beautiful plant in its tracks.
“I realised my mental health and happiness were more important than my calorie intake.”
Life on Alone is obviously much more eco-friendly than the typical modern-day existence, but being fully in it made Grarock viscerally aware of the impact we have on our environment.
That hit home when she found herself walking further and further every day to get firewood or to harvest food, for example.
“I wish people could see that, and experience that, and understand that impact because that was shocking. It scared the willies out of me. It’s inspired me to try to do better.”
In the end, Grarock proved herself to be a highly competent survivor. But, she knew that she thrived being surrounded by people: she ached for her family.
When she made that decision to return to her old life, she was actually starting a whole new journey as the show played out in our lounge rooms. More people than she could ever have imagined, all over the country, were watching her be lonely as a person could be.
“That was a mind-meld,” she says.
“It’s giving me chills just talking about all the community support, then to see the flow-on effects of that. Everyone’s watching and it’s just so beautiful to see that even the little boys can look up to a hero who is a woman.”
For Grarock, this ended up being the message of her experience on the show.
“The whole premise for me was that I couldn’t stay out there anymore because I needed my community,” she says.
“And then I came back here and I’m watching it, not just with my friends and family, but my extended Canberra community. And the love was overwhelming. It was beautiful.”
This article first appeared at ANU College of Science.
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