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Secrets of survival in the African bush

“I’m a firestarter”, sang The Prodigy. “Twisted firestarter!” The song ran through my head as I repeatedly struck a steel penknife against a piece of granite, hoping to generate a spark. Was I a firestarter, I wondered? After half an hour of diligent effort I concluded I wasn’t. I wasn’t even a conventional firestarter, let alone a twisted one! Merely an increasingly frustrated girl equipped with a stone, a knife and a growing dislike of scraping noises.

At least I wasn’t alone in my frustration. Sally angled her glasses towards the sun, hoping they’d converge the rays and ignite a small pile of dried grass and twigs. Helen was bashing together two pieces of granite. Linda, meanwhile, had gone for the ‘rubbing sticks together’ option. Marjolein was trying to reflect the (by now, setting) sun from a Coke can. And Ivan wandered from one failing firestarter to another, asking whether anyone was having any luck. We weren’t.

We tried. And tried. And turned the air blue (alas not with smoke). And did anything happen? Nope.

It looks so easy on TV! Ray Mears, Bruce Parry, Bear Grylls, THEY can all start fires without the use of matches or a cigarette lighter! Alas the Tough Trio are former Forces guys and/or outdoor survival experts. We most definitely weren’t.

Nevertheless, I’d envied the Tough Trio their exciting adventures for some time. My indoors-y London life lacked both challenge and meaning. So I’d ditched my job and enrolled on a Wildlife Conservation course at a private game reserve in South Africa. And at last I was experiencing things I’d never had the opportunity to before. Like a 24-hour survival exercise in the bush.

The priority of course, was the small matter of transforming piles of wood into dancing, crackling flames. For fire is rather important when you’re sleeping outside. Not just for warmth and cooking, but to deter predators such as lions and leopards. Even hyenas – scavengers – can pose a serious threat. They sometimes mistake sleeping people for dead people, we were told. And bearing in mind the tremendous power of their jaws, you wouldn’t want to be mistaken for dead…

Accumulating enough wood to build four fires surrounding our makeshift camp had taken… a while. Ages, actually. As budding conservationists we weren’t allowed to simply start hacking down the nearest trees; instead we had to collect dead bush wood. Taking great care. For there’s one tree that’s particularly important to recognise: the Tamboti. Three drops of its sap are enough to kill you. And used as firewood? The resulting smoke evokes a similar effect to devouring a vat of laxatives…

I decided I couldn’t rest until I’d mastered the secret of lighter-less fire-starting. After another half-hour of scraping, scratching and striking stones, I decided I didn’t care about the secret of lighter-less fire-starting. Assuming I survived the night, from now on I’d carry a box of matches with me 24/7, just in case. Better still, I’d take up smoking. Then I’d ALWAYS have a lighter with me!

 By now it was getting dark. We were fed up. And we DID have two smokers in our group…

Comforted by the warmth of flames, listening to the gentle crackle of burning branches and with tears streaming down my face (the Tough Trio neglect to mention the effect the smoke has on your poor peepers. Or maybe THEIR eyes are tough…), thoughts turned to food.

Let’s make one thing clear: this exercise wasn’t entirely authentic. The winter-time bush doesn’t yield much in the way of fruit, berries or water. Okay, there was plenty of bush-meat running around but, having been in residence for just three weeks, we weren’t about to be let loose with a .458 just yet.

No doubt keen to prevent us whinging about being hungry for the next 24 hours, group leader Marjolein brought with her ingredients to make stick bread. We mixed flour and beer, moulding the resulting dough around the end of sticks which we then held over the flames to cook. With a dollop of butter slid inside, the steaming bread proved delicious!

I decided that from now on I should also carry flour, beer and butter with me, 24/7. Just in case.

Hunger satiated, there wasn’t much to do except keep the fires alight and sleep. Obviously it’d be somewhat tricky to do both at once, so we decided on a watch-pattern, taking it in turns to stand guard while the others slept.

The second watch relieved the first at 12.30am. I, however, needed to relieve my
bladder. No I didn’t, I told myself. I could wait till morning. Rubbish, said the sensible
part of my mind. You’ve got hours to go before daylight! I groggily groped around for my torch then (somewhat anxiously) left the warmth and safety of our circle of fire.

You don’t normally consider having a pee dangerous. You do when you’re out alone in the chilly, pitch-black bush, your trousers round your ankles, wondering whether a pride of famished lions might be sneaking up behind you. Ears strained for any hint of animal-like noise and scouring the trees in every direction, you pray your eyes won’t meet those of anything else. Camp seemed so far away… “Come on!”, I silently urged my bladder. ”Hurry up!” Did it listen? Of course not.

For the next couple of hours sleep eluded me. Fear? Discomfort? No. The horrendous snoring of one of my fellow ‘survivors’. I felt like slapping her. Or feeding her to the lions.

At last it was 3am. My watch! I stoked the fires. The flames flickered, danced and crackled. This was cosy. Too cosy. My (seemingly seared) eyes felt like they were supporting bricks. COFFEE! CHOCOLATE! screamed my brain. Alas my supplies consisted of a third of a bottle of water and half a (smuggled in) muesli bar. Okay, I thought, add coffee and chocolate to the ever-growing ‘carry 24/7’ list. Just in case. 

Time dragged. The animal noises that unnerved the watch before mine had turned out to be pranksters trying to scare us. But they were long gone. Couldn’t we have a visit from something that wasn’t too dangerous, just to liven things up a bit? Perhaps some zebra? Another hour crawled past. Even a few lions would be quite nice, I decided. As long as our fires served as adequate protection, of course. I longed for SOMETHING to happen.

And then it did. It started to rain. We hadn’t seen a single drop since we’d been in South Africa; the rains weren’t even due for several weeks. I anxiously prodded the fires again. The thick lumps of increasingly damp wood shrugged off the diminishing flames. Our supply of fire-friendly elephant dung was gone. So were the dried twigs. And the only sizeable fallen branches in the vicinity were those of the Tamboti. Should I risk the fires going out and put us at risk of attack by lions? Or should I save us from the lions but give us all a violent attack of diarrhoea instead?

Scenario 1 could result in fatalities, but the likelihood of a lion attack was substantially less than that of Scenario 2, which would be an almost-definite. For how long could the decision be delayed? Like a village girl in a Dracula movie, I prayed for the dawn to come and save us.       

Gradually the blackness of the sky gave way to increasingly lighter shades of grey. We’d made it!  Alas everyone else was sound asleep. Including The Snorer.

Shivering, I tried to ignore both the racket and the rain. If the Tough Trio could do this stuff – and do it properly – I could handle the cheats’ version! And despite the sleep deprivation, occasional boredom and the cold and wet, it HAD been fun…

So do I still envy Mears, Parry and Grylls? Yes! Do I actually like outdoor challenges? Yes! And do I still want to master the art of lighter-free fire-starting? YES!

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