Here's how to survive the Victorian wilderness

An essential lesson in staying alive.
This is how it's done © Janna Bennett
By Oliver Pelling

Victoria’s Snowy River National Park is a beautiful part of the world. And our camp, located in the heart of the park right next to the river, is possibly the most beautiful part of this beautiful part of the world. All told, it’s pretty nice.

But we’re not here to smell the roses, no. We’re here to learn how to survive. With the help of Paul Evans and his company The Adventure Merchants, this weekend will see us put our survival instincts to the test as we learn all about building shelters, navigating in the dead of night (without a torch), collecting water, making (and starting!) fires and much, much more.

Paul’s been running this show for three years now, and The Adventure Merchants offer a range of adventure and survival courses around Victoria and the rest of Australia. This course, the one I’m on, is the ‘Born Survivor’ course, which is handy, because that's basically what I am. Ahem.

I grabbed some of Paul’s time to find out more about his penchant for survival.

Why did you decide you wanted to teach people how to survive?
I’ve always had an interest in it. In 2009 I was working for a company in the UK and I the guy I worked for had a really keen interest in survival. He knew loads of stuff, so I learned a lot from him: we used to go out into the woods after work, build shelters, navigate, all the rest of it, and it just went from there.

I got more and more into it and began practicing the skills until I was pretty good at it. That’s basically how it came about. I just had the interest and came across somebody who could further my knowledge.

Do you get people on your courses who’ve sought you out because of Bear Gryll’s shows and Survivor?
Yeah definitely. Bear Grylls has done a lot of survival – he’s opened it up to the mainstream. Before that, people didn’t really know much about it. Now they see it on TV and want to learn how to start a fire or build a shelter…how to do something in the wilderness.

Using a pocket mirror to signal (fictional) planes © Janna Bennett

Do you think the interest is solely up to the TV shows?
I think at the moment it’s pretty much down to TV shows. They’re skills that a lot of people should know…the knowledge is disappearing rapidly. So it’s really good to try and reignite it.

In your eyes, if someone finds themselves in a survival situation, what are the most important tools they need to help them survive?
The first thing is definitely some knowledge. You need to know what to do. If you don’t know, you’ll start panicking and fear comes into it. In that situation, it’s ultimately not going to be a great ending.

But if you have a bit of knowledge, you can pull yourself to one side, have a drink, have a think, take stock of what you have and come up with a bit of a plan. Then it’s important to stick to that plan. I reckon that’s the best advice.

What are the most common, easily avoidable mistakes people make in survival situations?
It’s normally something as simple as not having a plan. Someone might drive through a desert with a vehicle that’s not properly maintained, have barely any water, food or provisions on them, then break down. They might not have let anybody know where they’re going or for how long and from there things just go downhill.

Or it could be a hiker who’s got a bit lost who decides to just keep going the same way. If you think you’re lost and you just stop, swallow your pride, turn around and go back the way you came, a lot of negative outcomes could be avoided. Pride comes into it a lot actually – people don’t want to admit that they’re lost.

If you could pick one key skill people could learn to massively increase their chances of survival, what would you choose?
Know how to make a fire. You can do a lot with a fire. It gives out heat, boosts morale, purifies water, sterilises knifes, can be used for signaling... Knowing how to prepare and start a fire is a huge one.

The famous bowline drill © Janna Bennett
Making embers with a piston © Janna Bennett

We’re in a pretty stunning spot here – are there any survival tips that are really specific to Victoria? Any specific plants or trees to look out for in times of need?
Every situation is always going to be different as many variables are always at work. One easy tree to spot is the Golden Wattle. With only a few exceptions as far as we know, most known species of wattle are edible in Australia. Out of the 960 known species, about a third flower in winter so they’re a very reliable food source. If you pick seed pods that are turning brown and allow them to dry out completely, you can then open the pod and grind the seeds into a powder. Mix the powder with small amounts of water and kneed into a dough, make some patties and put them on hot coals. After 10 minutes of cooking you’ll have some nice damper bread!

Another useful tree would be the grass tree - this little beauty has a number of uses. You can use the woody stalk - which grows in summer - for friction firelighting (rubbing sticks together to produce an ember). Look for stalks that are dead and lying on the ground; you should never break them off as this can damage the plant. This stalk can grow as much as a few inches per day and can get to heights of three metres tall. The flowers that this stalk produces can also be eaten or dipped in hot water to make a sugary drink. Resin balls can also be found at the base of the plant which can be melted down and use it as an epoxy resin to mend items.

You can get up to a litre of water a day from this © Janna Bennett

How would surviving in the Victorian wilderness differ between the seasons?
This depends on where you are and what resources you have available to you, but spring and summer is when natural bush foods blossom. You have everything from Cherry balart, small leaf clematis, swamp paperbark trees, wattle, kangaroo grass…and heaps more!

Even in winter months if you look hard enough you can find an abundance of materials and foods. You’ll have more rainfall in winter so water is more attainable, but the cold weather makes surviving with limited equipment more challenging - especially at night.

If you got lost and you could only have three things on you – assuming your clothed, have boots and a bit of water - what would you want those things to be?
Probably a striker, a clear plastic bag and a knife. From those three things I can make a shelter with the knife, get water with the bag and obviously start a fire start a fire.

Potentially with those three things, and if the conditions were right, you could survive for quite a long time.

If you had to choose to get lost somewhere in the Victorian wilderness, where would you choose and why?

Hands down the Grampians. Not only is it beautiful it also has great resources for survival, from natural rock shelters through to fire lighting materials and an abundance of bush tucker. Steeped in rich aboriginal culture it is easy to understand why they choose such a gem of an area to live.

You can learn how to survive the Australian wilderness with Paul and The Adventure Merchants too. Head over to their website to learn more.

The Adventure Merchants are supplied by Sea to Summit outdoor equipment - purveyors of gear designed to equip and inspire.

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