What Alone Australia teaches us about home and community

Why is SBS TV's Alone Australia show so popular, and what does it teach us about ourselves?

Residz Team 4 min read

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Are you one of the growing number of people on the edge of their seats watching the final episodes of Alone Australia?

The survival series set in the wilderness of western Tasmania in winter is one of the biggest success stories for SBS TV and SBS OnDemand.

I’m a huge fan, and I read on TV BlackBox that five episodes of Alone Australia have now passed the one million viewer mark.

So why is it so popular, and what does it teach us about ourselves?

I’ve thought about this a lot, as I sit rugged up watching people get excited over a meal of eel, and I’ve come up with my interpretation of why Alone Australia resonates so much.

The shared pandemic effect

During the pandemic we all experienced a shock and a reset. We were cut off from friends and family, and had to do without stuff we’d taken for granted (toilet paper, travel, going out, doing face-to-face activities, enjoying group gatherings).

But, many of us found an inner-strength, grew closer to our immediate communities, and coped. With our lives pared back we understood what mattered, and what didn’t. We showed adaptability, vulnerability, and an appreciation of small things.

Like the Alone contestants, we went through something profound together, witnessed enormous change in our lives, and discovered new things about ourselves.

Fresh air, and wide open spaces

As a response to the pandemic lockdowns, we craved the outdoors and more space indoors. As jobs became portable, thanks to enforced remote work, a good number of us left the cities and went rural and regional.

Many people decided upon Tasmania as a good option. Domain reports that in CommSec’s State of the States economic performance report in 2020, Tasmania had a 1.12% annual population growth rate, 89.1% above its average for the decade.

As we watch Alone Australia, we see this love for open spaces and Tasmania taken to the extreme. How much outdoor time do we really want? Are we craving the idea of open space more than the reality? Could we cope in a colder climate?

Home is what you make it

Perhaps the most obvious difference between each contestant is what they build as their home.

Australians love to decorate their homes and discuss real estate. And, with little opportunity to travel during the pandemic, we became even more focused on making our homes fit our lifestyle.

But, what is a home?

As the 2021 “Altered Meanings of Home Before and During COVID-19 Pandemic” academic paper points out, home amounts not only to a functional but also symbolic substance beyond being a dwelling for shelter and security.  

It argues that home is an imagined space or site -  a set of intersecting ideas and feelings associated with safety, comfort, and familiarity.

On Alone Australia we see how some contestants throw up a tarpaulin and call that “home”, while others, like Gina Chick, prioritise building a substantial shelter (with door!) over collecting food.

We viewers mull this over. Would we prioritise food-collecting over shelter? Would a tarpaulin be enough to satisfy our feelings of home comfort?  

Being alone vs people frustrations

Of course, the main premise of the series is that contestants have no contact with others (bar rare visits by the medical team to be weighed and health-checked).

As we tuck up with family to watch each contestant talk to themselves (but on camera), we consider our own reliance on community and social contact.

How long could we last without human contact? As frustrating as living together can be (especially for grown adults forced to live longer at home with their parents), would we be any happier alone? Would we start to miss our disputes with neighbours, peak hour traffic, shop queues?  

Convenience food

Finally, there’s the compelling scenes of these near-starved contestants trying to catch food.

Michael Atkinson (“Outback Mike” on YouTube) breaks our hearts as he builds a kayak with sticks and a tarpaulin, and sets out to catch fish (with his hand carved rod and reel) - but without luck. In the end he catches and smokes an eel.

Here we are reminded of the enormous privilege of food abundance. We can pop down to the supermarket and get a tub of ice-cream, a tub of olives, or a pre-washed bag of coleslaw. We can order in UberEats, or book a restaurant.

Of course we complain about the rising cost of food but we know we are spoilt for choice.  As we watch Alone Australia we feel grateful for having a square meal. Would we last 20 days without food like some contestants are forced to do? Could we live this simply?

Imagining ourselves alone in the wilderness

So, there you have it. The Alone Australia concept is a wonderful wake-up call for appreciating what you have, and contemplating what you’d do if it was all taken away.

Week by week we can live vicariously through our favourite contestants, trying to imagine what it must be like to stay positive with nothing to eat and no-one to talk to.

And, each week, we turn off the screen, crawl into our beds under a fluffy doona, and switch on our reading light, perhaps with a cup of tea in hand, and think “Yeah, I could do that.”

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Image: SBS website