Kate Grarock on being Alone, while a million people watched on

Publication date
Wednesday, 30 Aug 2023
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Woman on a rock
Photo: James Walsh/ANU

I’d never met Dr Kate Grarock, but after watching Alone Australia I felt like her proud friend.

As a Canberra local, an ANU alumna, a woman in STEM, it felt like she was just one degree of separation from me. Although, never in a thousand years, could I do what she was doing.

The SBS show saw Kate and her fellow Alone contestants left in a wild, isolated environment to fend for themselves with nothing but ten carefully chosen items, first-aid supplies, their own company – and a whopping 70 kilograms of video equipment to film the whole thing.

Sitting on my couch, I was with her every step of the way. My friend and I texted each other as we watched Kate catch an eel, elated that she was the first contestant to secure protein (suddenly, we’re using all the survivalist terms).

One episode down the track, I got another text: “Kate does noootttt love those eels”. It felt like we were sitting by the campfire while Kate was trying to stomach the revolting, oily fish that had become her lifeline. We were on first-name terms with her, sharing in her successes and struggles.

A few months later, I actually got to speak to Kate, a person who already seemed so familiar to me (and one million other viewers). I was now seeing her over Zoom instead of on the TV screen, but the authenticity we’d seen on the show was still the same. I wanted to know what Kate’s Alone experience was really like, and how it differed from what we’d seen.

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Group of Alone contestants
Alone Australia Season One. Photo: Narelle Portanier/SBS

“I was scared shitless,” Kate says. “Because you’re both filming as well as surviving alone. I'd never done a survival experience that extreme – and I'd never tried to do bloody television!”

That’s not to say that Kate wasn’t super-qualified for the gig. As an expedition leader, ecologist and an avid hiker, Kate had endured some tough outdoor environments, filming some for her YouTube channel. Plus, as one commentator noted, she’d already made it through “the harrowing survival experience” of completing a PhD.

But nothing can prepare you for the pure isolation, lack of decent food, and the sheer number of uncertainties in Alone.

“I filmed myself for about eight hours a day, for 22 days, but I had no idea what the hell the story would be that they would show,” she says.

She wasn’t privy to how the other contestants fared in their own pockets of Tassie wilderness, or even which episode would be her last (spoiler: Kate is the fourth-last person to tap-out).

“It is a strange thing being so intimately part of something but also not understanding what will happen, and the secrecies involved in it,” she says.

However, Kate is grateful for the way the producers handled Alone Australia. It wasn’t a gotcha-style exercise. The production team made it clear they were trying to find a real, but beautiful story for everyone.

“The reason why it’s got this huge following isn’t just for the hardcore bush-crafters, it’s the way it shows the pure rawness of humans,” she notes.

That helped her to feel more comfortable just being herself.

“I’m pretty competitive, I wanted to win,” she says. “But ultimately, my main driver was to showcase women outdoors, mostly for my daughter.”

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Ecologist, Kate Grarock.
Photo: Elsie Percival

Kate has spent much of her life trying to protect Australian wildlife, including as an ecologist with the Fenner School of the Environment and Society at ANU, so hunting mammals on the show wasn’t an option in her mind.

“Killing a possum would have really upset me,” she says.

She felt the same way about some plants too. The big, old tree ferns in her area were around 80 to 100 years old, and for Kate, the sustenance from harvesting the terminal bud wasn’t worth it to stop that beautiful plant in its tracks.

“I realised my mental health and happiness were more important than my calorie intake.”

It was impressive how Kate prioritised her values,  over winning the show, although ultimately the decision to go pescatarian didn’t seem to hold her back, maybe thanks to her extensive knowledge of ecology and the landscape.

Life on Alone is obviously much more eco-friendly than the typical modern-day existence, but being fully in it made Kate viscerally aware of how many natural resources it takes to live, and the impact we have on our environment.

That impact hit home when she was walking further and further every day to get firewood or to harvest food, for example.

“I wish people could see that, and experience that, and understand that impact because that was shocking. It scared the willies out of me. It’s inspired me to try to do better.”

In the end, Kate proved herself to be a highly competent survivor. But she knew that she thrived being surrounded by people: she ached for her family.

When she made that decision to return to her old life, she was actually starting a whole new journey as the show played out in our lounge rooms.

More people than she could ever have imagined, all over the country, were watching her be lonely as a person could be.

“That was a mind-meld," she says.

She found herself embraced by all the people who, like me, felt like they went on this crazy journey with her, even if we were in fact on our couches eating ice cream.

Kate’s local Downer café hosted watch parties as the episodes aired, and more and more people turned up to support as the weeks went by. Little kids drew pictures of her fishing for eel to give to her.

“It’s giving me chills just talking about all the community support,” Kate says.

“Then to see the flow-on effects of that. Everyone’s watching and it’s just so beautiful to see that even the little boys can look up to a hero who is a woman.”

For Kate, this ended up being the message of her experience on the show.

“The whole premise for me was that I couldn't stay out there anymore because I needed my community,” Kate says.

“And then I came back here and I’m watching it, not just with my friends and family, but my extended Canberra community. And the love was overwhelming. It was beautiful.”

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