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Sir Ed Hillary's last great expedition revisited in new doco

 

HILLARY: OCEAN TO SKY
directed by Michael Dillon

Hillary: Ocean To Sky is a nostalgic look at Sir Ed's jet-boat ascent of India’s sacred river.

Having knocked the bastard off, been knighted, motored to the South Pole and hunted Yeti, Sir Edmund Hillary set off in 1977 for some much-needed R&R: a voyage up the Ganges from the Bay of Bengal all the way to the Himalayas – in a trio of roaring Kiwi-made jet boats.

The adventure was given the ambitious and apt name “Ocean to Sky”, the climax being an attempt to summit one of the lesser Himalayan peaks. The expedition included Jon and Mike Hamilton (son and grandson of Bill Hamilton, the inventor of the jet boat), as well as Sir Ed’s son, Peter, and fellow mountaineers Graeme Dingle and Murray Jones, and a film crew shooting for a television documentary released two years later. After four decades, that film’s original director, Michael Dillon, has delved into the archives, dusted off the reels and recorded some new interviews for this release: part journey of nostalgia, part action replay.

Ocean to Sky resounds with a comradely, No 8 wire jocularity: a bunch of hardy lads (some in distressingly short shorts) blasting their boats across half a continent. Parked in the front seat is Ed’s titanium jaw and jagged grin. Everywhere he ventured he was greeted with extraordinary crowds and treated as the near deity he was. It became a “pilgrimage”, honouring the sacred status of a river better called by its right name, the Ganga. But the trip carried no small amount of peril. Any of the dozens of rapids they encountered could have swamped the boats, and a stint in a mangrove swamp bore the threat of leaping tigers. The concluding mountain climb almost killed Hillary – a cruel twist given that, for him and Peter, there was a therapeutic aspect to all this: Sir Ed’s wife and daughter – Peter’s mother and sister – had been killed in a plane crash just two years earlier.

This new film is not much more than repurposed footage with some added anecdotage – the illustriously bearded “spiritual adviser”, Jim Wilson, being a particularly charismatic guide. Yet it is full of the roguish ambition of a different era, a testament to ingenuity and the allure of a simple idea. Above all, Hillary: Ocean to Sky is a fine addition to a documentary canon of Hillary’s splendid, selfless legacy.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Rialto Distribution

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.