Hidden among the classifieds, the advertisement piqued Beverley Mead’s curiosity.
“SEEKING: SELECT PEOPLE FOR A WILDERNESS EXPERIMENT.”
A plane has crashed on an isolated stretch of the Australian coastline, the terms of the experiment warned.
Miraculously, all those onboard have survived.
But help could be weeks away, leaving you — the “survivor” — no other option but to live off the land.
“You were allowed to have stuff you could scrounge up if you were in a plane crash,” Beverley recalls.
“I was just interested because it sounded like an adventure.”
Armed with 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of oats, and the bare essentials — a knife, axe, torch, billycan, string, length of wire and box of waterproof matches — six complete strangers, including Beverley and her husband Greg, were sent to live in remote bushland for almost two weeks.
But this wasn’t a reality television show. Or, at least not in the traditional sense.
The experiment was orchestrated by Four Corners, and the aim was to test just how the “urbanised Australian” would survive in the wilderness.
“In effect, they had less equipment than the first settlers and far less knowledge of how to survive than Stone Age man,” the program’s host Jeffrey Watson explained.
‘He was very incompetent at lighting fires’
The year was 1975, and Beverley and Greg Mead, then both blithe 27-year-olds, were among the select few plucked out of a candidate pool of hundreds to try their luck in the wild.
“It was all Beverley’s idea,” Greg laughs now. “She had to sell it to me a bit.”
In the early hours of the morning, the pair were picked up in a Land Rover and driven to the drop-off: an isolated outcrop around Bermagui on the New South Wales south coast, where they would join their fellow guinea pigs.
In what was perhaps an ominous sign of things to come, the “survivors” were greeted by rain, and plenty of it.
With one axe between them, half a dozen soaked strangers found themselves wandering through unspoiled bushland in search of shelter.
“We got hold of a couple of pieces of wood and took weeds and branches off trees to weave across, which kept the water out to some degree,” Greg recalls.
“But most of us came with a poncho … We pretty much slept under that.”
Though the weather was at times unforgiving, within the first few hours, the “survivors” took to the experiment with gusto, Beverley says.
They collected discarded beer cans and bottles to fetch fresh water from a nearby creek, and set out foraging for food.
“The only big hassle was that we had only one box of matches and Jeff Watson (the host), he had control of them at the beginning,” Beverley says.
“He was very incompetent at lighting fires and we just seemed to use a lot of the matches up, so we had to make sure we kept the fire going.”
Oats, goannas and a bit of creative editing
With 40 pounds of oats in reserve, the group weren’t at risk of starvation.
But for the sake of their taste buds, they did have to get creative.
Despite laying rabbit snares and fish traps, the first 24 hours of foraging yielded nothing but a few ferns and a half-eaten apple that washed up on the beach (and was promptly eaten).
“We had a tin can and we made a soup out of oats,” Beverley says.
“And then we had oat cakes — we cooked those on a piece of corrugated iron.”
But morale was dropping, a voiceover warned, and as the days passed with little other sustenance, the “survivors” needed a win.
As fate would have it, a blundering goanna would present itself as just that.
While Greg and Beverley were out collecting mussels, the group knocked down a branch the reptile had been perched upon and swiftly impaled it with their axe.
“I must admit that I wasn’t particularly taken with [killing] it,” Greg told the camera at the time.
“It brings up… sort of a misgiving that I’ve had from the outset about knocking over Australian fauna needlessly.”
It’s a sentiment he holds to this day — despite what a bit of creative editing may have suggested.
“They had a close-up of his teeth gnawing into the goanna,” Beverley laughs.
“I was the one who induced him to try it because I said, ‘well it’s already killed, try it just for the experience’.
“They didn’t show that. I think they seemed to imply he was so desperately hungry he would eat anything.”
It isn’t the only “reimagining” of the experiment that they query.
Despite claims otherwise, Beverley’s makeshift coffee didn’t actually give the group “the runs”.
And there were no on-set tensions between “survivors” and the production crew, despite the fact that the crew had opted to stay in a nearby hotel and were rumoured to have taunted participants with freshly-cooked hamburgers.
“Although I do remember someone waving a Mars Bar at me,” Greg laughs.
For the most part, Beverley recalls, the experiment was straightforward, if not a little dull.
“There was only one book, and I think I read that from cover to cover,” she says: “It was a bit boring.”
As a fortnight rolled around and the experiment came to a close, the group — “clinging psychologically to the vestiges of civilisation,” according to the host — returned to Bermagui.
Their first stop? A local corner store, where they promptly ordered a round of burgers with the lot.
But though the credits may have rolled on their time on the program, for Beverley and Greg, the experiment followed them back home.
The show was a bigger hit than anyone had anticipated, and they found themselves as semi-celebrities.
“When I got back to the city… I felt quite bombarded by people at work, because it was quite popular,” Beverley says.
“It was a bit over the top, I couldn’t get on with my work. It was a bit stressful.”
However, despite the weight loss, questionable hygiene and perhaps selective editing, the couple look back on their time on the program fondly.
“I’d do it again,” Beverley laughs: “Not at this age, but maybe 15 years ago.”
“Yeah, I’d definitely do it again,” adds Greg.