I woke up from a brief dream on the final night, night 20, in the swamps. I was chewing in my sleep so I must have been dreaming of solid food although I couldn’t tell you what specifically I was craving. The thing you don’t realize is just how much you miss something like chewing a full mouthful of food. We had managed to kill a nutria on day 17 and we had mouthfuls of food then but not nearly enough to satisfy and that was definitely the only creature we killed that had solid meat on it. I’m not sure how many of you have ever eaten snake but I’m going to tell you that unless you are eating an anaconda or large python they don’t actually have much meat on them as they are mainly bones like a fish.
I was so excited to be finally finishing the challenge. I can’t say that I have ever been that excited since I stopped believing in Father Christmas. I waited and watched the Eastern sky all night, willing the light of dawn to come faster. Finally as the sun came up and the crew arrived, I knew we could be on our way.
We had been fairly lucky until that day that we could largely avoid the areas that the big alligators hung out in. Our first camp was in the middle of a fairly shallow water system so although we had a few nights where something large moved through our camp, we weren’t having to keep an eye out all the time for them. The second camp had steep banks into a deep channel but we got never swam in the channel and we made sure we never got water from the same place two days in a row because alligators and crocodiles quickly learn habits and lie in wait. Billy and I could tell by looking at our map that our path to extraction lay through some fairly deep water and I was hoping that we would not have to swim to whatever craft was picking us up.
We happily said goodbye to our campsite and headed off across the log that separated us from the rest of the world with our spears in hand. Most of the journey was uneventful with the occasional snake sighting but as we drew near to the big red X on the map, we began to notice we were getting closer to some deeper water channels and lagoons. I remember seeing our first huge alligator that day. It was the first time we had gotten so close to such a big beast and to me, it definitely looked liked a dinosaur from some forgotten era (as well it is). It looked chilling and would have been at least 9ft long. We moved slowly to not attract attention and slid our feet along the bottom of the murky water so we didn’t give off frenetic fish signals and to feel if we bumped into one of the sleeping giants. We were soon surrounded by quite the crowd of them with one of them looking to be at least 11ft long.
I led the way as we both kept an eye out on different alligators and our map led us straight to the edge of a deep lagoon. From our vantage point I could see at least 5 alligators around the edge of the lagoon. The bonus was that if we could see them, then at least we would have some warning if they started heading our way to attack. Well at least that’s what I was telling myself. Billy and I double-checked the map as we stood waist deep in water. We were sure we were at the right spot but could see no vehicle to get us out of here. Suddenly in the distance I heard what sounded like the blades of a helicopter. But that couldn’t be right – helicopters don’t usually land on water… As the helicopter drew closer, I saw the floats on it and realized it was our rescue craft. My heart leapt with joy at the prospect of finally finishing this challenge!
The noise of the helicopter grew deafening and as I looked around, I noticed that I wasn’t the only creature to get affected by the sound. All of the alligators had disappeared underwater. Great! So now I had no clue where they were and what they were doing and I knew that we were the biggest, tastiest meal for miles. The helicopter landed on the surface of the water about 40m from where we stood and I knew we were in for a swim across this alligator infested pond.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Billy. You can’t go through what we went through together and not have some kind of bond for life but when I realized that we had to swim to that helicopter, I went from “we are both in this together” to “every man for themselves”. I realized I didn’t have to necessarily swim faster than an alligator, just faster than Billy. If you have watched the show, there is a moment where I look at Billy, then look to the helicopter and then I throw my spears away and start swimming. Billy wanted to keep his spears but nothing was more important to me than coming out of this challenge alive, souvenirs be damned. Luckily we both made it into the helicopter with all our limbs and I can’t remember a moment in my life more triumphant than that moment when the helicopter took off and I realized we had done it – we had survived for 21 days naked in hell on earth.
One thing I’m really good at is compartmentalizing. This means that I can be in an extreme situation and not miss the things I can’t have and then just as easily adapt back into the world without needing an adjustment period. Some people have trouble coming back to technology and comforts and food but for me it was as simple as stepping out of the swamp and back into the “real” world. Chemicals in foods, particularly artificial sweeteners, gave my mouth blisters at first but my stomach adjusted to eating meals as if I hadn’t fasted for 21 days. Some people say they can’t eat much and others binge on junk, but I just found myself drawn to dairy foods like cheese and yoghurt as there wasn’t much fat in our diet out there.
I remember going into a supermarket with Billy and him freaking out about all the people but it didn’t phase me much like sitting in the dark in a swamp naked with a stranger hadn’t phased me. My body had copped a hammering though. I had dropped almost 10kg (30 pounds) and malnutrition had set in. I had a severe case of poison ivy rash and deep holes in my feet. My muscles took a long time to recover and as I began to try to train again, they would frequently get strained or spasm. My hormones also were all over the place and that took about 6 months to settle. You don’t often hear of the impact that such a challenge has on the body afterwards as the show usually ends with extraction. People always comment about the weight loss saying how much they would love to do the show for that but I assure you, weight lost fast like this gets put back on faster (And generally more of it). The body goes into “survival mode” and any excess food that goes into the stomach gets stored as fat instead of being eliminated as waste just in case such extreme starvation ever happens again.
I often get asked if I would do it again if I knew how it would be going into the challenge and the answer is always “absolutely”. I am who I am today because I did this challenge. I was always stubborn. I could always take a beating and get back up. I was always able to see the positive in any situation. But now I knew one hundred percent that nature could throw her worst at me and I could deal with it in a way that I felt proud of and that I felt matched my ethics and who I wanted to be. I now knew that the person I was when I was at my most tired, my hungriest, my most exhausted and my worst was the same person I was when I was refreshed, well fed and comfortable. Something I had always wondered about. There is also a newfound confidence that comes with having made it through an experience as extreme as this.
Now if I am tired and don’t want to do something, I always say to myself that I know what I can achieve with no sleep. If I am cold, I know that it’s only temporary and that one day I will be warm again. I know that there are some things I can’t change and I know that I have a strong enough mind not to dwell on them. I know that I won’t starve if I don’t eat by lunchtime no matter how faint I feel and that I can continue on with energy for days without food if I need to. I know how powerful the mind is that it can adapt to anything, even getting eaten every night by a million mosquitoes, so the little things tend not to bother me so much any more.
In these ways the swamp changed me for the better. It gave me something that no other experience in my life could have given me and for that I will be forever grateful for how extreme this challenge was. So many stories and so little blog space, but thank you for sharing these ones with me. One day perhaps the whole 21 days will be able to be shared with Edgar the Night Heron, Jeffrey the garter snake and Ralph the lizard making appearances, along with more interesting facts like whether venomous snakes taste better than non-venomous, but for now this will do. Louisiana swamps, you were hell on earth but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.