Davina McCall talks about stepping outside of her comfort zone and the challenges she faced as she filmed Davina McCall: Life at the Extreme. The new series can be seen on Monday evenings at 9pm on ITV from February 29th.
What appealed to you about making Life at the Extreme?
The series was so what I was interested in, the idea of physiology and how humans react in extremes, and how animals react, it just seemed like such an interesting subject matter. I mean, going 1000-metres under the sea, I saw a shark down there that has only been sighted alive once, 10-years before, by the two people that I was with, and I thought, ‘Oh god, what else is down here that we don’t know about, a whole world.
It’s not what I normally do, it’s completely out of my comfort zone, but there were a few things about the series that interested me. One of them was the prospect of running with cheetas, though I was like, ‘How’s that going to pan out, because they’re really quick…I’m pretty fit but I’m not that fit!’, and swimming with whales, amazing.
I thought that doing this series would be an opportunity that I really shouldn’t pass up, but then I really got cold feet, I suddenly got very worried about leaving the kids and wondering why I was doing it. Some of it is quite dangerous. I’m quite risk-averse, even though everybody thinks I’m quite gung ho, and the older I get the more risk-averse I get.
Before setting off, what were your feelings on each of the four programmes – Hot, Cold, Deep, Wet?
I was really excited about doing the Namibia episode (Hot). I’d never been on any kind of safari before, I’d never seen any game in the wild, I’d never been to a desert. It was really into the unknown.’
The Azores (Deep) was the one I was really looking forward to, because I love the water, but at the same time I was a bit frightened and a bit nervous. I knew that going 1000-metres under the sea (in the deep-sea submarine) was going to be a big mental block, and I ended up actually having to get myself hypnotised in order for me to not freak out. It takes 45-minutes to get down there and 45-minutes to get back up again, and you can’t rush it, you can’t panic.’
Costa Rica (Wet), which I thought would’ve probably been my favourite, ended up being my toughest. It’s very, very wet, and just that humidity, it’s so oppressive, nothing ever dries. You can’t wash your clothes because they won’t dry. I washed one set of clothes and I just wore them wet until they dried off on me, by which point they were dirty again. Also, I cut my foot and I couldn’t keep it dry, it wouldn’t scab.’
I was walking around bare foot over there and I think that’s where I got my hookworm. I think it’s from animal faeces and it gets in your skin.
With the Cold episode (Svalbard, Arctic), I was sort of dreading it, because I am absolutely pants in the cold. I have this thing called Raynaud’s Disease, but actually I didn’t get it once out there because I was wearing really good gear. Though I was on high alert at all times because of the polar bears, which are killers. If you frighten a mother with her baby then you have to be held responsible for her reaction, because that’s your fault. And you can’t see them, it’s a whiteout everywhere.
The scenery there is the most extraordinary and the most beautiful I think I have ever seen, a lot more jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring that I thought it would be. I was just taking in panorama, after panorama, after panorama, because there was nothing, no houses, no roads, no buildings, no cars. It was so peaceful. I just thought I was going to be miserable in the cold the whole time, but actually it was incredible.
And I had this amazing guide called Jason who just knew so much about all the animals, he was so fascinating and so passionate, it was completely infectious. I have to say, for me, doing this series, it was as much about meeting all these incredible people in all these places. I met so many really interesting people on my journey. That aspect of it I loved, the animals and the people.
Tell us about some of the experiences you had during the making of Life at the Extreme?
The free driving in the Azores was pretty frightening. It’s unnatural to hold your breath beyond the point where you want to start breathing. I had so much respect for these guys. I could hold my breath for about 25-seconds before I wanted to breathe, and I think Fred (the instructor) got me up to about a minute-and-a-half, maybe even 1:45, which is kind of fantastic in the open ocean, below 10-metres. And I remember getting down to 10-metres and thinking, ‘Oh look, there’s a fish,’ and then thinking, ‘I’d quite like to breathe right now,’ but then looking up and going, ’Oh crikey, there’s 10-metres to go up.
Though what was amazing was feeling the fear and doing it anyway, and I’ve always been a big advocate of that as far as training or working out goes or a physical challenge. This felt like a physical and emotional challenge and I was really frightened about doing it. Then I did it and I felt so proud of myself.
In Namibia, being up close and personal with a cheetah was extraordinary. You know, I’ve never really thought about how ridiculous it is that cheetahs have fur and they live in such a hot climate, and how do they get rid of the heat? Then learning that’s the reason that they run so fast and then have to lie down, because they get so hot.
Also, there were moments where I put myself in harms way. I mean, me and ski-doos do not get on at all, I crashed my ski-doo a couple of times, and I got dragged along the ice at least three times behind the huskies. The one thing they said was that you must not let go of the sled whatever happens, so I didn’t, and I was literally being dragged along. The thing is, if you let go, the huskies just go home, 30km away!
How did you find sleeping out in the open in Namibia, in such close proximity to lions?
I’ve never been a great camper, much to my husband’s horror, and in Namibia there’s this kind of wall of thorns that I’d built, which in itself made me feel not 100% safe, because I’m thinking, ‘I’ve sort of built this and I don’t really know that it’s done properly.’ Anyway, I did the best that I could and I’d gone to bed, we were all going to take it in turns to keep a look out, and about midnight I woke up to (shouts of) ‘Hey, hey’, and I see Henco (the guide) standing there, and I’m like, ‘What is it?’ and he goes, ‘It’s a lioness,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, how far away?’ and Henco says about 50-metres, and I’m thinking that’s about three big leaps for a lioness, and she’s just looking at us, sat there staring. Then she just started walking around. I’ve never been so awake in my entire life. I was pretty freaked out.
Was there anything during filming that you just wouldn’t do?
There was nothing that I wouldn’t do, but there were things where my heart sank. I remember going to stay in the hut (in the Arctic) and there was this mattress, which was kind of grubby, and I was like, ‘Okay…’ and somebody said, ‘At least bugs can’t live in minus-15,’ but that really did not make me feel any better. And I remember that night, I went to bed and I made sure my sleeping bag covered the whole area and that my head was tucked in, and that none of my body actually touched the mattress. So I did struggle a bit with the rancid mattress.
You say that you’re not actually a gung-ho person, which must have made this series a challenge for you?
That’s the funny thing, I’m not that kind of person. I’ve done glamping, but there’s really nothing camping about glamping. I like my creature comforts. My husband Matthew thought it was hysterical. I like my duvet. And I really, really missed my family. When things are tough, or when you’re feeling really, really cold and you’ve been on a ski-doo for eight hours, exhausted, numb, or you’ve been frightened about something and you want to share it, and quite often we were in really remote places and I can’t get hold of anybody, or it’s the wrong time zone, that’s when you really want your family or you just want a hug.
I did get pretty emotional just as I was about to free dive and suddenly got really frightened. But the free divers, they are so calm, they’re a bit like climbers, really zen-like in their energy. Fred was such a calm guy. I also had a very emotional moment when I got up close and personal with the polar bear, I felt incredibly humbled.
Was your husband, Matthew, anxious about you making the series?
He wasn’t worried about me, he was jealous. I think I’d definitely take the kids to Svalbard, it wouldn’t normally be a holiday that we would choose, but there’s a marooned boat in the middle of the ice and you can stay there. What an amazing trip for the kids to do.
What did you learn about yourself from making Life at the Extreme?
What this series has made me realise is that I can achieve so much more than I thought I could. It’s also made me realise that doing something different, or trying something different, is very life affirming. Experiencing a different culture or a different climate is exciting.
Do you think there’s an inherent yearning in us all to be more adventurous and to experience the great outdoors?
I think the thing that we all yearn for is happiness. I often looked at the people in these environments that I visited and it seems to me that they do feel true peace. Like this extraordinary woman called Carol who I met in Costa Rica, she is very calm and happy. And I met this beautiful girl who was releasing turtles into the sea, she started up this amazing charity out there, she married a Costa Rican, she’s got a baby on the way, and there’s a simplicity to her life, and I think the key to happiness is simplicity.
Sometimes with these people, they are so focused on what they do, and that is everything they do. We get so wrapped up with busy, busy, busy lives. I spent maybe two-and-a-half hours with this wonderful girl on the beach releasing these turtles into the sea and I’d never been so happy, it was just such a calming experience. There was no hurrying them, they just took their time, it was wonderful.
Finally, what can viewers expect from the series?
Viewers will learn about human and animal physiology, and how in some ways we are terribly alike and in others we are so very different in ways that we deal with life at the extreme, and meet some really interesting people along the way.
Davina McCall: Life at the Extreme, starts tonight, 9pm, ITV