When COVID-19 arrived in March 2020, a big chunk of the world locked down for the long haul in the relative comfort of their homes.
But expat Aussie stuntwoman and survival expert Ky Furneaux, then based in the USA, and her new boyfriend, English chef Calem O’Grady, had a more radical plan.
The couple had only been seeing each other for a very short time when they decided to ride out the pandemic together Down Under, isolating on a remote sheep station in northern South Australia.
“Our first date was Bristol and the second was a date with the outback,” Ky tells SBS.
She says there were definitely nerves before they arrived in Australia. “He was flying from England and I was flying from America. We had 16-hour flights to think about this decision we’d made.”
But what was meant to be a two-week quarantine turned into a much longer experience once the pandemic worsened and state borders closed. Viewers can discover how they managed living off the grid in the middle of nowhere in the fly-on-the-wall documentary series Outback Lockdown, screening on NITV.
Calem says he adjusted to his new surroundings straightaway and immediately felt at home.
“There was no dipping your toe in,” he says. “I just had to go gung-ho and acclimatise myself as soon as possible.”
In the first episode of the three-part series, the couple arrives at Merngenia Station – a 15,400-hectare (38,000-acre) property owned by Ky’s cousin – to set up camp at their new home, an old one-room stone hut.
“I was so nervous because I hadn’t really thought about it,” she says. “To me, that place was home. The red dirt gets in your blood and you can’t get rid of it. But as I was driving up the dirt road to the station, I was like, ‘What have I done?’ I’ve sold this place as being paradise on Earth and I started to look at it through the eyes of a stranger. ‘Ooooh, it’s pretty flat… there’s nothing here!’”
Early in the documentary, we see that having brought only basic food essentials and water, the couple must forage and hunt for their own food. Their main targets are the feral goats that infest the station. Ky and Calem make the moral and ethical decision to use bows and arrows rather than guns.
“It’s really important to us to live with as much symbiosis as we can, not just go out and interfere with the environment,” Calem explains. “When you’re shooting off guns, you’re scaring everything away and ruining your local ecosystem.”
It’s quickly revealed in the episode that goats are a lot harder to hunt than they first thought. After a fruitless day tracking a small herd, they’re forced to make do with some fresh kangaroo roadkill they come across in their travels.
It’s not just for food: after they bring it home, Ky also starts the tanning process on the skin to produce leather that she’ll later use to make a quiver to hold her arrows.
Meanwhile, Calem puts his chef skills to work, whipping up a dish of roo fillet with a salad consisting of local edible plants. They enjoy a romantic dinner together while taking in the starkly beautiful environment. However, this is just a brief respite to the couple’s ongoing struggles to find something to eat during the three-part series.
“The urgency of running out of food was probably our biggest concern,” Ky reveals, “but we’ve both spent time in survival scenarios where we’ve gone for very long periods of time without food.”
Viewers see the pair endure hunger as they struggle to find game on the station, all the while dealing with extreme weather conditions such as fierce heat and even a wild rainstorm. They also make an emergency run to the nearest town 50km away for supplies, which brings home how serious the COVID crisis has become in the outside world.
There are plenty of joyful moments, too, as Calem and Ky embrace the challenge they’ve set for themselves. Once they stopped filming the series, the couple remained on Merngenia Station and are still there two years later, when they’re not pursuing outside career interests.
“It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had,” Calem says. “I’ve been teaching survival skills for several years, but to actually implement it in a day-to-day scenario, sustainably, over such a long period of time was really putting the finer skills to the test. It was wonderful.”
Ky found her time in the outback to be life-changing.
“It was obviously tough, physically and sometimes a little bit mentally,” she says, “but we would just look at each other and say, ‘These are the moments that we will cherish.’”
Outback Lockdown is a remarkable series that morphs from a survival show to a cooking program to a wildlife doco and back again. But, first and foremost, it’s a story about the romance between two extraordinary people in an extraordinary setting. It proves that love can survive anything, even COVID-19.
Outback Lockdown premieres at 7.40pm, Sunday 6 February on NITV.