'Titanic' Extra on His Own Epic Adventure

You might remember Graham Mackintosh's appearance in the epic movie "Titanic."

Then again, maybe not.

He wasn't a principal actor, merely an extra, part of the human scenery in the high-budget film about the ill-fated luxury liner that broke apart and sank on her maiden voyage after hitting an iceberg, killing 1,500 people.

But Mackintosh did stand out more than the dozens of other extras who spent weeks in northern Baja, working long hours on the flick that swept up 11 Oscars on Monday night, including one for best picture.

"Of all the redheads, and there were lots of redheads, Graham had the reddest hair by far," said Bonni Mackintosh, Graham's wife, who was also in the movie, along with their daughter Elspeth, 13, and son Andrew, 10. "He was a real camera hog. He was in it all over the place."

He was the falling-down drunk who was helped up and handed another glass of beer during a party in the social salon. You might have seen him cheering on the Irishman arm-wrestling the Swede.

Mackintosh and his family showed up for work every day on location at Popotla, near Rosarito, at 3:30 p.m. for makeup, wardrobe and instruction, began shooting at 8 and called it a wrap at dawn. It was six months of taxing work that concluded a year ago.

Yet Mackintosh, 47, a former teacher in England who now lives in San Diego, is probably one of only a few who wasn't in front of a television set to witness the ultimate fruits of their labor.

"I didn't even know it was going on," he said of the Academy Awards show.

Indeed while James Cameron was accepting his Oscar as best director, Mackintosh was back in Baja, walking to Cabo San Lucas.

Mackintosh's meanderings in the desert wilderness south of the border might also be the stuff movies are made of.

He's on intimate terms with Baja, having lived like one of its creatures during a two-year hike around its shores during a grueling journey completed 13 years ago.

That trip entailed covering 3,000 miles in four stages over some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. Mackintosh wore out seven pairs of boots. He carried stills to turn saltwater into freshwater. He lived off both the sea and the land, eating everything from fresh fish to the fruit of cactus to deadly rattlesnakes.

Surely one of the most entertaining scenes, were a movie ever to be made about Mackintosh's trek, would be one involving his encounter with a rabid burro on a remote stretch of sunbaked southern shore.

His fair skin seared and red, his clothes soaked in sweat, Mackintosh stumbles into a coastal shanty town, where he is cautiously greeted by a dozen or so curious fishermen.

They're friendly enough and, after giving him food and drink, they warn him of a crazed burro around the next point. The animal is foaming at the mouth, they explain. It has been terrorizing villagers and chasing fishermen up and down the beach, they add.

"You will never make it. You would be wise to turn back."

To which Mackintosh responds, "Why don't you just shoot this deranged donkey and reclaim your beach?"

By golly, they eventually surmise, "The peculiar-looking gringo has a point."

Two of the leaders of the camp, in a sudden display of machismo, grab a couple of beat-up rifles, push on their cowboy hats and motion for Mackintosh to join them in a skiff.

The hunt is on.

They shove off and, after a few minutes, round the point and land on the burro's beach. They step out of the boat and slowly make their way toward the brush.

Mackintosh, though skeptical that such a creature even exists, decides to keep his camera ready just in case. A moment later, to his surprise, a large black burro does indeed emerge from the brush, foaming at the mouth, looking like some sort of floppy-eared demon.

Then it happens. . . .

"It charges straight at us," Mackintosh recalls. "The guys are looking down the barrels of their guns and I'm looking through my camera, waiting for shots to ring in my ears so I'll know when to [take the picture], and this burro is getting bigger and bigger in my view finder.

"Finally, I turn to see why they hadn't fired, and there is nobody there! These guys are running back to the boat!"

And so goes Mackintosh, splashing through the water, hot on their heels.

From the boat, the intrepid hunters finally open fire, putting the poor burro out of its misery and paving the way for Mackintosh to continue on his way.

And under a relentless sun, following the trails of coyotes when impassable obstacles led him away from the coast, on Mackintosh went, stumbling into fish camp after fish camp, eventually teaming up with a healthy white burro, with which he eventually strolled into Cabo San Lucas, bringing an end to three years of excitement, agony and adventure.

Mackintosh returned home and wrote an entertaining book about his experiences ("Into a Desert Place," W.W. Norton & Co., $14).

And now, on a trip he says was financed with the money he made working on "Titanic," he's back in Baja, walking down its rugged, mountainous spine, following the old mission trail, making life hell for another burro he appropriately named Mision.

He began the trek last fall at the Tecate brewery in the border town of the same name. After many beers, Mackintosh decided to ride his new traveling companion out of town.

Mision whinnied and bucked, and the two went bouncing through the streets of downtown Tecate and, eventually, into the Baja sunset.

Since then, Mackintosh and Mision have had their ups and downs, nearly freezing to death in the San Pedro Martirs, fending off mountain lions, running from flash floods, following trails that often led nowhere and, on cloudless nights, sleeping under a sky filled with more stars than anyone could imagine.

Reached Thursday by telephone in the coastal town of Santa Rosalia, a little more than halfway down the peninsula on the Sea of Cortez, Mackintosh was told that "Titanic" had won 11 Oscars.

"That's incredible," he said. "Did I get one?"

He said the trip has been one titanic struggle for Mision, whose legs have begun to buckle under the weight of the load he has been carrying.

"The burro's in bad shape," Mackintosh said. "After he rests, I'm hoping to nurse him down to Mulege, maybe to Loreto, and then I'm going to have to consider coming home for the summer and continuing this journey next fall.

"It's been 100 degrees down here and the burro is beginning to cook. Plus, the scorpions and rattlesnakes are coming out. I'm seeing one of each every day."

He acknowledged that he isn't compelled to cover as much territory as possible every day, as he was on his coastal trek in the early '80s. He has been spending a lot of time studying historic missions, exploring old mines, enjoying the hospitality of Baja residents.

The most recent highlight, he said, was spending a week at a Baja Discovery "whale camp" at the mouth of San Ignacio lagoon on the Pacific side of the peninsula, while Mision rested at a nearby ranch.

"I must have touched a dozen whales," he said. "I was surprised how soft and delicate [their skin] felt--a bit like the white of a hard-boiled egg."

At Santa Rosalia, Mackintosh spent several days digging rare crystals from an old copper mine. He said he plans to visit the local prison before heading south to Mulege, by way of the Guadalupe mission.

At the Tecate depository in Santa Rosalia, he was given a case of beer as a farewell gift.

Mackintosh, however, gave his assurances that this time he would not try to ride his poor burro out of town.

"I think I'll give him a can of beer, though," he said.

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