Packed with creatures and landscapes that quite simply boggle the mind, the Nature Collection showcases New Zealand's impressive menagerie of nature and wildlife films. Many of the titles were made by powerhouse company NHNZ, which began around 1977 as the Natural History Unit, a small, southern outpost of state television. In this backgrounder, Peter Hayden — who had a hand in more than a few of these classic films — guides viewers through just what the Nature Collection has to offer.
This documentary follows a Southern Alps ski competition for local and off season northern skiers. Organised by Coast to Coast impresario Robin Judkins, the ‘grand slam’ series begins with a chopper ride to Black Peak for powder 8 and telemark skiing; and then it's above Lake Wanaka for slalom, ski jumping, and a grunty "air, style and speed" mogul. Après-ski competing there's a springtime descent down Mt Taranaki. It wouldn't be Kiwi skiing without kea, and the discipline of the inner tube. The crisp sax and synth 80s score is by Hello Sailor's Dave McArtney.
This documentary tells the story of the inimitable kea. The 'Clown of the Alps' is heralded as the world’s smartest bird (its intelligence rivals a monkey’s). Kea are famous on South Island tracks and ski fields for their insatiable (and destructive) inquisitiveness. Curiosity almost killed the kea when it was labelled a sheep killer, and tens of thousands were killed for a bounty. After shots of baby kea being fed, there is extraordinary night footage in clip four of the 'avian wolf' in action. The award-winning film makes a compelling case for the charismatic kea as a national icon.
"These mountains have always been a challenge. Now there's a new type of skier facing that challenge in a new way." Across the Main Divide follows NZ mountain guide Shaun Norman, US telemark skiing champ Whitney Thurlow and German skier Babette Bodenstein, as they cross the Southern Alps in free heel skis. Flown up the Tasman Glacier from Mount Cook, a 2,000m haul up to Graham Saddle is rewarded with sweet spring snow skiing and cheesecake at Alma Hut, before the tramp down to the West Coast. The doco screened worldwide and won awards at mountain film festivals.
This 1960 tourism film, produced by the National Film Unit, is aimed at a particular market niche: hunter holidaymakers. It follows a visitor from Omaha, USA, ‘JD’, who flies down to the “land of countless deer”: Dart Valley in the Southern Alps. A folk song extols the joys of answering the call of the wild — “The very best thing for a man: To hunt and fish and sleep out of doors, eat his tucker where he can” — as JD and his guide climb via bird-filled beech forest onto scree slopes to nab a 14-point stag; before a ciggie on the ridge and a squiz at the scenery.
Train enthusiast David Sims captured the dying days of steam trains in this 1968 National Film Unit short. It features arresting images of a Kb class locomotive billowing steam as it tackles the Southern Alps, en route from Canterbury to the West Coast. Kb Country was released in Kiwi cinemas in January 1968, just months before the steam locomotives working the Midland Line were replaced by diesel-electrics. Sims earned his directing stripes with the film. As he writes in this background piece, making it involved a mixture of snow, joy and at least two moments of complete terror.
‘Moa's Ark' set sail 80 million years ago. David Bellamy becomes an ancient mariner and retraces the voyage of the islands of New Zealand (using contemporary science as his guide). In this first episode he finds out why New Zealand is called the Shaky Isles, gets face to face with the "living fossil" the tuatara, is inspired by meat pies, and discovers geography as he competes in the annual Coast to Coast race over the Southern Alps — with directional and gorse eradication aid coming from legendary race organiser Robin Judkins.
Off the Edge was director Michael Firth's ode to the exhilaration of adventuring on the spine of New Zealand's Southern Alps. Something of a snowy Endless Summer, the film follows an American and a Canadian as they ski, hang glide, climb and delve beneath glaciers, in the Aoraki-Mt Cook area. Thrilling footage amidst spectacular scenery was shot over two seasons, where extreme weather and geography meant few chances for second takes. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1977. The Los Angeles Times called it "beautiful and awesome".
Jackie van Beek directed and starred in this 2014 short film, playing a tramper who finds her solitude interrupted in a Southern Alps hut. The short was filmed in Arthur’s Pass, where van Beek spent time climbing and exploring near her family crib, while growing up. Uphill won Best Film at an international showcase for organisation Women in Film and Television International; van Beek also won Best Actor at Kiwi festival Show Me Shorts. She would collaborate again with producer Aaron Watson on her feature directing debut, 2017 drama The Inland Road.
After bad weather curtailed an ambitious film about Mount Aspiring in 1949, Brian Brake returned to the Southern Alps the following year to shoot Mount Cook — the first NFU film to feature Brake's mountain imagery in glorious blue and white colour. The wait was worth it: the longtime mountain-lover coaxes a succession of breathtaking images of the cloud-piercing mountain — plus a rollicking snow fight scene. The plot, what there is of it, centres on some skiers wandering closer to Aoraki/Mt Cook to get a better look, then demonstrating the joys of descent.