This man can teach you how to survive wild places

"These are skills that a lot of people should know."
Practicing some signalling © Janna Bennett
By Oliver Pelling

Looking at Paul Evans, which his manicured beard and his Prada sunglasses, you wouldn’t think he’d be able to survive in the wilderness. You probably wouldn’t even think he was the ‘outdoorsy’-type. But you know what they say about books and their covers.

Paul, an Englishman originally from Carlisle, has been running his company, The Adventure Merchants, out of Melbourne for three years now. As well as offering caving, kayaking and climbing trips and activities, Paul also takes paying punters out on survival courses, during which he can teach pretty much anyone how to stay alive in a life-threatening situation.

Having found a passion for kayaking at six-years-old, Paul’s built his career around his love of the Australian wilderness – and that’s no mean feat.

Keeping warm © Janna Bennett

Paul, you’re originally from England, what brought you to Australia?
I’ve been living in Australia for 10 years now. I came over here as an expedition leader in 2005. That was mainly dealing with teenagers – 13 to 16 year olds – and most of the trips were two weeks long. We’d meet them at one point, brief them, give them all the gear, and head off. It was all off-track, so we would just set a bearing on the compass and go through anything. We were basically just out in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere, just with a map, a compass and a backpack.

Had you done anything like that back in the UK?
Not to that extent. I was working as an instructor – climbing, abseiling, all that kind of stuff – in Switzerland, and then I got offered the job in Australia. I was pretty much thrown in the deep end. My work out here was completely different to anything I’d done in the UK or Europe. I was doing that up until three years ago, when I set up The Adventure Merchants.

Survival base camp © Janna Bennett

Where did the idea for The Adventure Merchants come from?
I’ve been working in the industry for 12 years now, and in all honesty I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was thinking about leaving the industry. I was working for another company who worked similar things to me, and I just thought I could do it on my own. I had ideas for better and more innovative trips, so I saved as much money as I could, bought some gear, got a license, and started running tours.

Why did you decide to get into the survival aspect?
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.

So you weren’t inspired by Bear Grylls and all that kinda stuff?
I probably go into it around the same time as Bear Grylls came out.

Survival begins in the classroom © Janna Bennett

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 for 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. 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.

Do you think the TV shows are realistic enough for people to glean any useful advice from?
I think with Bear Grylls, it’s pretty dramatized, but there is some good knowledge in there. The trouble is he doesn’t really go into depth about how to actually do something. He’ll light a fire or build a shelter, but he doesn’t always talk you through it. It has to be dramatised though – if you just watched some guy in the woods lighting a fire or building a shelter it’d be really boring. It has to be dramatised to attract an audience. He doesn’t have to jump off cliffs or abseil down waterfalls, but that kidna of stuff keeps the audience engaged.

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.

Building a shelter, fire and windbreak from sratch © Janna Bennett

If you got lost and you could only have three things on you – assuming you’re 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 with the striker.

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

What’s most rewarding about taking people out and teaching them about this stuff?
Just seeing people smile when they’ve learned a new skill and know how to do something they couldn’t do before. They feel more prepared to go out into the wilderness and more comfortable with themselves. That gives you a good feeling – to know you’ve taught someone a skill that’s being lost.

Laughing is key to survival (not a fact) © Janna Bennett

Have you ever been in a survival situation yourself? Or close to one?
I’ve been geographically misplaced…but never a real survival situation.

What were you doing when you got ‘geographically misplaced’?
I was looking at a map furiously trying to figure out where I was because I had 15 kids following me. [laughs]

Obviously you’ve got all the skills and knowledge you need to have to survive – if you got cast out there now, in a real, high-risk survival situation, would you be like: ‘Yes. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.’?
I think almost. It’d be a pretty surreal feeling to be out there and know I have a fairly good chance of getting out of that situation. It’d be a pretty interesting couple of days, I reckon.

Solar stills can collect up to 1l of water a day © Janna Bennett

If you got into that situation, had all your survival gear on you, and clicked into survival mode…I feel like you’d be disappointed if a chopper turned up all of a sudden.
Yeah! I’d probably ask if they could just wait a couple more days. ‘Hang on! I’ve still got to put the roof on my shelter!’

I see there’s a seven-day desert survival course on your website– what’s that about?
We’re planning that for the end of spring. It’s basically a combo between off-road driving skills and desert survival. It’s the same as the weekend course we offer, but it goes into much more depth and you actually have to implement the strategies. You also get given a 24-hour scenario in which you have to survive. You have to build a shelter, light a fire, source water, and put a plan into action.

Learn how to survive with The Adventure Merchants.

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