freelance writer & editor

An absolute idiot’s guide to surviving the Australian bush

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If you’ve ever watched those survivor shows on TV and thought, “That looks piss easy,” you are dead wrong.

My girlfriend is swearing at me. I would normally swear right back but I refrain, because her mistreatment of me on this particular occasion is not unfounded. We’re deep in a particularly obnoxious part of the Victorian bush, you see, and we’re a bit lost.

I focus on my compass. Janna (the girlfriend) doesn’t think I’ve been following the coordinates properly. I don’t think I have either. I didn’t even know how to read coordinates until about half an hour ago. It’s cold and the sun is about to turn in for the night, which means we’re nearly in a not insignificant amount of trouble.

Just as Janna runs out of obscenities, an opening appears through the trees. As it happens, it’s the same opening we left to go bushwhacking some 20 minutes ago. We’re not actually lost in the woods armed with only a compass and an encyclopaedic knowledge of obscenities – we’re halfway through a wilderness survival course. And we just failed our navigation lesson. (With gusto.)

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 had been a real survival situation, we’d probably be dead. If not dead, we definitely wouldn’t be on speaking terms, and I know which of the two I’d prefer.

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. Then you just need to hatch a plan and stick to it.
— Paul, survival instructor

“It’s not as easy as you think it’s going to be, is it?” says Paul, our instructor on this three-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, so I’m a bit preoccupied. I offer Janna a slice as a token of reconciliation. She accepts.

Paul, an Englishman 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 a 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).

We somehow make it through the night navigation without swearing or dying, which may or may not have had something to do with the fact that we basically just followed everyone else. 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.

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.

We’ve 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.

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 – ahem – 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.

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 dead fucking wrong.

I’m watching Paul’s demonstration and assuming we’ll just take turns on his drill. This transpires to not be the case. “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 they’re expected to make fire.

Paul talks us through it, chucks us each a knife, and we’re off. 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.”

If you think you’re lost or that you might be a bit unprepared for a particular journey, turn around, retrace your steps and try it again when you have everything you need.
— Paul, survival instructor

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 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 hate them. Janna has no luck either, and eventually we give up.

My disappointment 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.”

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 unprepared for a particular journey, turn around, retrace your steps and try it again when you have everything you need. “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 don’t know if there’s a moral to this story. If there is, I suspect it involves not getting lost in the woods with your partner in the first place and, if you are dead-set on getting lost in the woods with your partner, making sure you carry a survival course instructor with you at all times.