Wildlife photographers Rory McGuinness and Rebecca Scott spent nearly two years capturing on film the animals of Australia's Kakadu National Park for "The Living Edens," airing Wednesday at 8 on PBS.
Although their photography often is strikingly beautiful and the creatures themselves can be intriguing, stay tuned to see McGuinness, Scott and their assistant Matt Cadwallader at work while the end credits roll. There they are, wading through murky, reedy river water and swinging a boom camera out over a precipice to shoot a thundering waterfall -- in short, looking very much like a sort of Crocodile Dundee-as-filmmaker.
If that seems like fun, think again.
McGuinness once invited English friends to go with him on location. They had thought his work was exciting but soon changed their minds.
"They said, `I could never do this. It's too stressful, too exhausting, too uncomfortable. And you don't get paid enough,' " he said. "Once they're actually out there in the field, they find the glamour is in their imagination. The reality is very different."
As much as he likes his on-location work, and as much as he dislikes stay-at-home editing and post-production chores (he and Scott are the principals of Arafura Films), McGuinness agrees that life as a location photographer can be dangerous. He's had life-threatening encounters with crocodiles, polar bears, lions and scorpions. But of all the animals he's filmed, it's the mosquito he most fears.
"They're the most dangerous animal in the world today," he said in a telephone interview from Australia. McGuinness has fallen victim to dengue fever and Ross River fever, caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitos, and six bouts with mosquito-borne malaria. Scott, 43, mother of their 5-year-old daughter, Bella, has had malaria; Cadwallader has suffered Ross River fever.
"Every time you get one of these things, your liver has to deal with it," said McGuinness.
Still, Scott, who did research, writing and production work for the documentary, came away from the project with one conclusion: "Kakadu's a wonderful place. You really have to go there to see it."
But she also was candid: "What you don't see [in the documentary] is the heat. It's incredibly hot up there, with high humidity and the mosquitos and the flies."
On the other hand, ice isn't nice either. Last fall, McGuinness, a Japanese TV cameraman and a Russian guide were trapped by early blizzards for six weeks in an isolated hut on Russia's Wrangel Island, a desolate place in the Eastern Siberian Sea above the Arctic Circle northwest of the Bering Strait -- in short, in the middle of nowhere. Running out of food, the trio awaited rescue as light dwindled to just three hours a day. Polar bears, the animals McGuinness had planned to film, clawed at their hut.
The men communicated to the outside world by e-mail via a battery-powered satellite telephone. But no one could get in to rescue them, not even the 24 people who live on Wrangel Island. The situation drew media attention.
In October, the men had set out to make a film for Natural History New Zealand Ltd. and the Japanese television network NHK and planned to stay just a month. "The weather is far more stable in the fall," said McGuinness.
They hoped to film Wrangel Island's rich selection of wildlife including walrus, snow geese and polar bears. But white-out blizzards arrived early, sending temperatures to minus-22 Fahrenheit.
On Dec. 1, a Russian helicopter finally rescued them. Since then, McGuinness, 46, has stayed home in Victoria, recovering from his ordeal.
"I didn't feel confident to go back to Wrangel Island this spring," he admitted.
The son of a Sydney advertising executive, McGuinness grew up near a national park. He began making wildlife films in the mid-1980s after working as a camera assistant for Movietone newsreels.
For this film, McGuinness and Scott spent 18 months over two years at Kakadu, the 8,000-square-mile park on Australia's north coast. Bella marked her third and fourth birthdays there.
In the tradition of "The Living Edens," Kakadu, which has World Heritage status, appears in the film to be an almost limitless wilderness devoid of humans. But McGuinness said Australia's Aborigines live there, as well as people who work in a uranium mine and in the tourist business. Humans can imperil the preserve's ecosystem.
"It's probably Australia's highest-profile national park," McGuinness said. "It is a fragile place, a fragile sanctuary. I sometimes think that the name of the series, `The Living Edens,' could be `Fragile Sanctuaries.' "
"The Living Edens," an award-winning series created in 1995 by Dennis Kane to film areas of the globe undamaged by man, won five Emmys in 1998.
Much of the land down under is threatened not so much by man but by the proliferation of non-native, hard-hooved animals that damage the land.
"Australia has more wild horses, wild camels, wild donkeys, wild goats, wild rabbits than any other country on Earth," said McGuinness. "It's teeming with European animals that have gone wild. Australia had no hard-hooved animals -- it had only kangaroos and the like, which were all soft-footed. Which meant the topsoil and native grasses were very different from what they are today. It's changed. Kakadu itself is an example of where, if hard-hooved animals were allowed to run freely, it would change the character of the place dramatically."
"Kakadu: Australia's Ancient Wilderness" pictures only native animals trying to survive the weather cycles of the area's six seasons. Weeks of monsoons -- the Big Wet -- are followed by drought between April and September. Spectacular electric storms striking about 80 times a day spark fires that consume a third of Kakadu each year.
Among the animals pictured in the film are Australia's kangaroo, wallabies and dingos, as well as frill-necked and blue-tongued lizards, green ants, flying foxes, fruit bats, archer fish and many birds. Several minutes of footage are devoted to magpie geese, whose mating pattern (one male, two females) has resulted in more than 2 million of the birds in the park, far more than any other species.
The film follows several saltwater crocodiles, the largest of the reptiles and the most dangerous of all crocs, but one of McGuinness's favorite animals. Saltwater crocs have survived for 200 million years.
In one scene, a croc digs out her newly hatched babies, then carries them in her huge jaws to water.
"They're capable of gentle parenting," he said. "When you get to know them, you see there are good crocodiles and there are bad crocodiles."
In other scenes, a dehydrated female croc drags herself over parched ground toward a pool, only to be chased away by an old male. She moves on to a muddy river and wages a fight against other crocs to stay, only to lose and be forced to leave.
In other footage, a baby croc swims away from mother and siblings, then falls prey to a baramundi fish awaiting a meal. According to Peter Coyote's narration, half of all hatchlings are lost in their first year; only one in 100 survives to age 5.
McGuinness also filmed crocs for "Crocodile Territory" and the BBC's "Too Close for Comfort: Australia Underwater." He and Scott are completing a film about their adventures in Kakadu, "They Shoot Crocodiles, Don't They?"
CAPTION: Rebecca Scott and Rory McGuinness, at work in Australia's Kakadu National Park.
CAPTION: This surprisingly maternal saltwater crocodile fights to save her hatchlings and, later, her own life in "Kakadu: Australia's Ancient Wilderness."