Now here is where I need to make a decision. There are so many untold stories to choose from. I’m sure when people at home are watching an episode of this show they rarely remember they are seeing a chosen 35 minutes (after ads and repeat footage) of an experience that went on for 21 days and was filmed for almost all of the 24 hours each day.
The questions I see asked on social media about why we didn’t try this or how one person never did that or on whether we did enough to eat or better our situation always make me laugh. It’s always easy to judge when you aren’t out there in the situation yourself and get only a small snapshot into what really went on out there. I find it hard to watch people get judged for how they dealt with their situation compared to how someone else dealt with theirs. No two environments are the same, not even when they are the same but on different days. Tap outs are all relative and if I’m not there, it’s not my place to judge. That’s why I never understand how one survivalist can say they are better than another in different episodes, different locations and different times of year.
I also feel like if you have never been out there, never put yourself into a similar situation (including the nudity and the lack of items), there is no way of relating to this challenge at all. I didn’t know how I was going to respond out there. I knew how I hoped I would go, but there is no way of telling how good you are at surviving with this lack of protection from the elements, lack of sleep and lack of food unless you have done it before.
Being season one of a show that no one had ever heard of nor ever attempted meant that we were the experiment. Producers weren’t sure how people would go in such an extreme situation. There is an assumption that having other people out there (in the form of crew) helps but they did their best to establish a “third wall”. This meant they wouldn’t talk to us at all. In fact they rarely spoke, not even if we said “good morning” or asked them a question. This was designed for us to feel mentally like it was just the two of us out there and also for us to realize they were not there to help. They also left us alone from 5pm to 8am each day so technically we spent more time alone out there than we did with a crew. In these times we would self-film if anything happened and also had infra-red cameras around camp to capture our every move overnight.
I have heard some stories of participants of this challenge stealing into the crew’s base camp and taking some food which has lead to people doubting the authenticity of this experience but I am here to tell you that every moment of my challenge was as real as it gets. We were never given food, water or assistance of any kind. There is a reason that this show is called the “Everest of survival shows”.
Billy and my challenge in Louisiana has a reputation of being one of the more extreme episodes due to the fact our location was a low-lying patch of mud in a swamp filled with angry reptiles and on night 4 we had a storm hit that went down as one of the biggest storms on record for that area. We had been struggling a bit building a shelter that worked for us both. This was probably the main practical lesson I learned in survival while I was out there. I had always been able to get away with building an A-frame as I had only ever tried to survive in a shelter in warmer climates. The thing I have now found with an A-frame shelter in colder climates is that there is always some part of you that will be freezing. The fire, if you have one, will be positioned at the front of the shelter and you have to choose whether your feet are burning or your face is burning. The other body end is freezing at the far end of the shelter.
We also were contending with plague proportions of mosquitos. I had never seen anything like it in my life. As the sun would start to go down, you would hear a hum begin in the treetops. It was audible. And then you would see a cloud begin to move down the tree. It was then on until the sun rose again. And there was nothing you could do about it. I hear people suggest coating yourself with mud, we tried that and all that happens is that the mud dries, the mosquitos are attracted to the moisture and they bite more between the cracks in the mud. Maybe it works with some type of mud in some parts of the world but it has never worked for me. Then there is the theory of smoky fires… tried that. The mosquitoes here don’t care – they will hang around anyway. As for the “rub some kind of plant that repels mosquitoes on you” there wasn’t such a plant where we were so we were out of luck there.
I don’t know about the mosquitoes where you are from, but most places in Australia, the mosquitoes are kind of small and polite. They do have that annoying buzz to them but if you can fall asleep through that, they can bite away and you don’t really feel it so you can sleep through it. These Louisiana mosquitoes were beasts. They actually looked like they were on steroids and when they stuck their snozzle (not an official term for their proboscis) into you, it felt burning hot, like an injection and it was so painful, it would wake you up if you managed to get to sleep at all. They were relentless. The only way we were able to get mini naps throughout the night was that one of us would fan the other with a palm frond to try to keep them off enough to sleep. But then the touch of the palm frond would keep you awake too. It was here in this swamp that I learned how far you can go and how much you can do with no sleep. It’s been an important lesson to me, and one I carry with me still when I don’t get my 8 hours a night and feel a little tired. I simply reflect back on the fact that for 20 nights straight I hardly slept at all and I managed to survive, and I know I can keep going now.
Back to the shelter and the mud…
One thing that I’m not sure is emphasized on the show is the temperatures we were dealing with. It was the coldest May on record for that region and if we didn’t get a fire going on that first night and keep it going 24/7 for almost our entire challenge, we would have had to tap out due to hyperthermia. We were lucky we got a fire going on that muddy patch of land that first night and that was largely due to bringing a ferro rod fire starter as one of our two items since all wood there was too wet and rotten to make a friction fire with. We managed to find wood that was stranded up high out of the water and keep a fire going most of the time, which was the only way we survived.
As far as keeping warm at night, everyone always believes that cuddling is the best way but believe me if you have a fire that is by far the very best way. Unless it rains. I have spent many nights simply sleeping curled up by a fire and even when it is cold enough for ice to form on the ground, I have stayed warm. This was where the notorious night 4 storm found Billy and myself, curled up away from our shelter and by the fire. Suddenly the heavens opened and the icy cold rain poured down so violently that it hurt on our bare skin. My first thought was to protect our precious fire as I knew that it didn’t matter how wet or cold we got, we could stay in the game if we warmed up afterwards.
I have this very vivid image in my mind of crouching over the fire holding a couple of palm leaves over it in an attempt to keep it burning. The rain was pelting down on my skin and jagged forked lightening was striking through the trees about 30 ft from us. You could feel the electrical current pulse through your body each time another bolt came down. I remember the whites of Billy’s eyes as he explained to me that the thing he is most terrified of in life is lightening and wondering at that fact as it really just seemed exhilarating to me. I don’t know that I had ever felt so alive until that moment when there was nothing between me and such an impressive display of nature.
The next image I have is looking down at the fire and realizing the glowing coals were actually about half a foot underwater. That’s how quickly the water levels rose. Enough that our hot coals smoldered still as the water flooded our once dry patch of land. They quickly faded to black and with it, our last bit of hope.
There is no footage of this storm as our diary cams were quickly drowned by the monsoon rains and died a sad death.
Luckily dawn came soon afterwards as we spent the remainder of the storm standing huddled under palm leaves shivering as our body temperatures plummeted. My body dropped into a hyperthermia state that was recorded and then closely monitored by the concerned crew who arrived quickly after dawn having come in earlier than usual having sensed how destructive such a storm must have been. I don’t think any of us were prepared however to see no dry land in sight. Our camp was flooded and where we once slept was now knee deep in murky water. This truly felt like the end of the line for us. How do you survive this?
I think the looks on our faces say it all if you have seen the episode. I never entered the challenge thinking that I would have to tap out but here we were in a position that surely in a real world survival challenge, this would be the end of the line for us. The thing with survival scenarios is to look at the world with a problem/solution mind rather than just a problem mind. It took me a minute but looking at our priorities, we needed to make a fire again in order to continue to survive here. How do you make a fire in water? You need to get it out of the water. So raise it up. How would we do that? What do we have plenty of? We have mud and wood. The solution became clear. Build a mud platform and get a fire going on that. We could line the top with dry bark to get the fire started and then once the fire was roaring, it would dry the top of the mud and then we would be good to go. We were going to create our own dry land.
By the end of this crazy day we had managed to get a fire going, build a bed platform to raise ourselves out of the water and have a roof over our head. Words don’t do justice to the moment we saw the flame rising from our fire platform. I know I almost cried tears of joy. From a moment of complete hopelessness at the beginning of the day to knowing we had pulled ourselves back into the game by the end of it was indescribable. Sure we were still living knee deep in water but we had warmth and we could boil water to drink so we could survive. Louisiana hadn’t beaten us this time.