A Life of Extremes: The life and times of a polar filmmaker by Max Quinn
IT’S PROBABLY MY BAGGAGE, BUT I’M SUSPICIOUS OF THE PLETHORA OF “HEY-LOOK-WHAT-I-DID” BOOKS WEIGHING DOWN ‘OUTDOOR ADVENTURE’ SHELVES IN BOOKSTORES AROUND THE WORLD. (REALLY? I WAS IN LABOUR FOR TWO DAYS, GAVE BIRTH TO A NINE- POUND BABY, THEN DIDN’T GET A FULL NIGHT’S SLEEP FOR THREE YEARS. BUT THAT’S A PRETTY MOUNTAIN YOU CLIMBED.)
When it comes to these two reads however, my suspicions were unfounded. Both are humble accounts of impressive feats, and both are chock full of fascinating and useful factual information about things like penguins and bikes. I think we all agree there is no such thing as too much time devoted to penguins and bikes.
A Biker’s Tale (Upstart Press) is John Hellemans’ account of completing the 2018 Tour Aotearoa, a 3000-kilometre on- and off-road cycling event that runs over 30 days from Cape Reinga to Bluff. John is a triathlete of more than some note – he was the World Masters Triathlon Champion eight times – but you wouldn’t know reading this. He takes on the Tour just like the rest of us, with trepidation, and suffers similar challenges, including getting lost (often), huffing painkillers (also often), and taking the asphalt “chicken route” instead
of braving the alarming drop-offs on the Kaiwhakauka Track. He comes across as charming, if a little old fashioned, and there’s plenty here to enjoy for anyone planning to ride the Tour, or not planning to ride it, but wanting to experience it from the comfort of an armchair at home. Either way, his advice works: “Have a plan but be prepared to adjust your plan from day to day.”
The front cover of Max Quinn’s A Life of Extremes (Exisle Publishing) shows Max looking very very cold, which he is for much of this enthralling account of his career as a polar film-maker. He made his name in this niche occupation when he directed Emperors of Antarctica, a documentary charting the
life cycle of Antarctica’s emperor penguins. Max and his soundman wintered over at Scott Base, and had to invent workarounds for filming in the extreme cold, such as designing DIY covers for the cameras out of closed-cell foam and storing batteries in belt packs against their torsos to keep them viable while shooting in the perpetual dark at the emperors’ winter colony at Cape Crozier.
Emperors of Antarctica was the precursor to global penguin-related phenomena like Morgan Freeman’s March of the Penguins and Warner Bros.’ Happy Feet, and Max won a best director award at the 1994 NZ Television Awards for it. One comical moment from the film, in which a penguin falls haplessly through the ice, lives on as a popular GIF. (Google “penguin GIF” to brighten your day with seabird-related mirth.)
The penguins only fill the first half of the book, with the rest devoted to further filmic adventures in icy locations such the Yukon, where he covered the Yukon Quest dog sled race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse. His up- close experience of the Arctic and Antarctica also meant Max was early to the climate change story, addressing it years before An Inconvenient Truth woke the world up, sort of.
As with A Biker’s Tale, there’s no skiting here, just a well-told tale of adventures had, though this one is definitely best enjoyed from home. – LW