I survived the Australian bush (and so can you)

‘I can do this’, I told myself, not knowing if I could actually do this.
Is there anybody out there? © Janna Bennett
By Oliver Pelling

My girlfriend is swearing at me. I duck and weave around the expletives as they zing past my head, ricocheting off the trees and branches we’re engulfed in.

Taking shelter from the obscene onslaught, I try and focus on my compass. My girlfriend, Janna, doesn’t think I’ve been following the coordinates properly. I don’t think I have either. I have led us into the mouth of Peril itself, and Peril is hungry.

We are deep in a particularly obnoxious part of the Victorian bush, fighting our way through thick and prickly scrubland. It’s cold and it’s nearly time for the sun to go to bed, which means we’re nearly in a not insignificant amount of trouble.

But then, just as we’re about to abandon all hope, an opening appears through the trees. It’s actually the same opening we left to go bushwhacking some 20 minutes ago. You see, we’re not actually lost in the woods armed with only a compass an encyclopaedic knowledge of obscenities – we’re halfway through a wilderness survival course. And we just failed our navigation lesson.

Left a bit, right a bit © Janna Bennett

Cheese fixes everything

Back at camp, Janna and I sit around the fire with the rest of the group and take a moment to ponder the reality that, if the navigation lesson was a real survival situation, we’d probably be dead. If not dead, we definitely wouldn’t be talking to one another, and that’s a far crueller purgatory.

“It’s not as easy as you think it’s going to be, is it?” says Paul, our instructor on this 3-day survival course. “Trying to stick to a bearing through bush as thick as that is bloody hard.” I shrug. I’m listening, but I’ve also just figured out how to make cheese on toast over an open fire (by shifting white-hot logs to form an aggressive and unpredictable grill), so I’m a bit preoccupied. I give Janna a slice as a peace offering. She accepts. Peace is restored.

Paul, an Englishman originally from Carlisle, informs us that we’ll be heading out after dark to practice night navigation, which will involve trying to stick to our bearings whilst climbing our way through dense undergrowth in pitch black, without a torch. With his manicured beard and his Prada sunglasses, Paul doesn’t look like your typical survival instructor, but years of training and honing his survival skills have turned him into a human Swiss Army Knife (I am more of a human butter knife).

Survival tip: cheese on toast © Janna Bennett

We make it through the night navigation without swearing or dying. The following morning, Paul gathers us all up at Survival Headquarters (a tarpaulin with a table and some chairs under it) and gives us the briefing for the day. The course, run by Paul and his company The Adventure Merchants, takes everyday schmucks (like me!) into the bush and teaches them the necessary skills they need to survive a life-or-death wilderness situation. We’re parked up slap bang in the middle of Victoria’s stunning Snowy River National Park; our tents a literal stones throw from the river itself.

Janna and I came on this course because we thought it would be interesting and kind of fun, and it is both of those things. On the course with us are Steve and John – two 4WD enthusiasts who fancied learning some tips in case they ever got caught out. There’s Hannah, Rachel and Onder, a trio inspired to sharpen their survival skills by the Survivor and Bear Grylls TV shows. And then there's Paul and Kate – our two survival instructors.

So far, we’ve learned about the psychology of survival (tip one: don’t freak out), how to source water and build shelters, how to signal a plane with a pocket mirror, and how to use a compass and follow a bearing. Today, Paul informs us, we will focus on the skill every single one of us is most excited about: making fire.

Related: Here's how to survive the Australian wilderness

You don’t make friends with fire

Paul begins our lesson in bush pyrotechnics by showing us a slew of different fire-starting techniques, from using a striker (a portable flint you can buy in most good hiking or camping shops) to rubbing a battery on wire wool and combining a glucose tablet with potassium manganate (science!). Then, he pulls out the star of the show: the bowline drill.

When you think about how cool it would be to be able to rub two sticks together and make fire, you’re thinking of the bowline drill. Paul gives us a demonstration on his kit. It goes something like this: you put the spindle in the hole, spin it with the bow, it smokes, out pops the ember and the rest is up to you. If you think it sounds simple, you’re out of your mind.

I’m watching Paul’s demonstration and assuming we’ll just take turns on his drill. How wrong I am. “Right, now you’ve got about three hours to find your gear and whittle up a bowline drill of your own,” he says. At a guess, I’d say nobody present – save for Steve and John – would have whittled anything in their lives, let alone a tool with which we’re expected to make fire.

Paul talks us through it, chucks us each a knife and away we go. The act of finding the right wood for the drill – one piece for the handle, one for the baseplate, one for the spindle and one for the bow – is satisfying. So is cutting the wood into the right shapes. I’m getting into it. ‘I’m about to make a fire with my bare hands,’ I think to myself. ‘This is a rite of passage, a sacred experience, one I’ll be able to tell my less survivally-inclined peers about for years to come.’

Janna and I finish our kit. It looks good. Our spindle is true and our bow is…bow-shaped. I lock the spindle into the baseplate, press firmly down with the handle and begin moving the bow backwards and forwards in a ‘I really want to make a fire’ kind of way. The spindle pops out. No problem – I replace it and try again.

Half an hour passes. My index finger is numb from having been struck by the bastard spindle so many times. An hour passes. I have had to make a new hole in my baseplate because I broke the first one. Two hours pass. I have put my back out.

‘I can do this’, I tell myself, not knowing if I can actually do this. Two and a half hours pass: everyone else has made fire; I have only made smoke. I am happy for them but I also think I might hate them. I seem to have developed something of a rage. I know this rage. It’s the same rage I get after conceding one too many goals to my mate Steve on FIFA. Eventually I decide, for the sake of my sanity and dignity (and because everyone else is waiting to pack up camp and head back to civilisation) to give up.

Pride and panic: your biggest enemies

My rage dwindles then dies. Paul reassures me that my technique is on-point. “It’ll be your kit,” he says. “The preparation is key for this – if your kit isn’t quite right, you’ll never get an ember. If you can’t get it going, it’s best to build a completely new drill.”

In fact, the same advice – the importance of preparation - applies to survival in general. One of the main reasons people wind up dead in the wilderness is because they panic and fail to come up with a plan. “It’s as simple as finding a shady spot, having a drink of water and taking stock of your surroundings and what you have on you,” says Paul. “Then you just need to hatch a plan and stick to it. Making a list of the things you need in order of importance, which varies depending on your situation, can be the difference between life or death. Even just a little bit of knowledge can help improve your chances drastically - that's what I'm hoping to teach people."

He adds that if you want to avoid potential survival situations in the first place, you’ve got to know when to swallow your pride. If you think you’re lost or that you might be a bit underprepared for a particular journey, turn around, retrace your steps and try it again when you have everything you need or a better idea of where you’re going. “If you fail to do that, if you can’t swallow your pride, that’s when you can wind up in a really dangerous situation,” he says.

I think I get it now. I may have got lost in the woods and failed to start a fire, but the fact that I’m able to swallow my pride and admit my shortcomings means that I’m essentially a one-man survival machine. That’s what he means, right?

Sound fun? You can learn how to survive the Australian wilderness too - check out the range of Australian survival courses on offer from The Adventure Merchants.

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

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