I wake up needing a piss more than any man has needed a piss before. I’m drunk, but I piece things together as I pull on my boots and stagger around looking for a tree to go against.
I’m in the woods somewhere near Brisbane, surrounded by snoring people on beds made of leaves. Over by a campfire, a drunk man with waist-length hair is telling a blonde in hiking boots the world is f-ked. In the next few hours, I will probably have to eat a witchetty grub…
Survival expert Sean McBride has invited me up here to try one of his regular basic-survival courses. He is one of surprisingly few bushcraft instructors in a country with a lot of bush. I’m a city boy. I picture myself crouched deep in the bush, wearing a flayed wolf-skin for warmth, smearing hot pig-s blood on my cheeks and nursing a grievance against the establishment. Or something. I’ve seen how to do that reed-breathing thing in rivers, though, so I should be alright.
When I meet McBride, he’s not only a friendly bloke; he puts me straight about the aim of the course. “I want to teach people how to survive short-term in the Australian bush,” he says. “After this you might stay alive for anything up to a week.”
I’m here for two days.
McBride’s a tall, lean man, who’s been teaching folk how to not die for over 17 years. He’s taught commandos how to stay alive in the bush; he’s even been to Sweden, even though they have no bush; and now he’s teaching me.
I arrive on Saturday morning, to find eight people sat around a fire, whittling.
I am give a knife and a length of wood, and told to peel off the bark. “This stick will be your baton,” says McBride. “You use it to knock the knife-blade through thicker tress, like an axe.”
I sit on a log and look around. We are in Samford Wood, a 40-acre site to the north-east of Brisbane. It’s owned and used by the scouts, so isn’t exactly untracked wilderness. There’s a main road and shops nearby, and down the hill some Scouts in tents. If things drag, we can mount a daring raid on them and steal their lollies.
Some people on the course got in last night, and their shelters look crude. Katrina, a slim girl of about 20, says it wasn’t a bad night, despite heavy rain.
“Our beds were just debris scraped up, but it was pretty comfortable and I didn’t get wet.”
I scrape a satisfying length of bark from my baton. “Debris?”
She points at the ground. “All this stuff: leaves and twigs and so on. Today, we actually have to make the beds.”
Katrina is here with her father, a grey-haired, silent man, in a Singlet he should have quietly binned in 1973. The group is a mixed bunch. Lee and Johnno are two huge Pom ex-pats with a talent for telling horrible jokes; Mandy is a field scientist working on the red-ant problem. There are also two students who seem to have taken a vow of silence.
McBride’s assistant is a loopy ex-biker named Danna. Every time he opens his mouth, something weird comes out. The first time I talk to him, he asks me where I’m from, with a look that says he won’t like the answer.
“Sydney,” I say. He screws up his face.
“Ah yeah, Sydney. I used to live there, but the whole city is just f–ked. No one cares about you. They don’t give you the time of day. They’ll walk straight over you. I prefer being out here in the woods. Real people out here. Sydney’s f–ked.” He sticks on a grin and turns back to his frying pan. I back away, slowly.
It’s true: we have to make our beds. McBride leads us to a stand of saplings, shows us where to chop so we can make the head, foot and sides of the bed, and away we go.
We hack brutally at thin trees for a while, and it slowly becomes clear I have a skills gap. Within two hours, Katrina’s father is already about ready to varnish up his bed and go for a smoko. Mine is a pathetic pile of twigs on the floor.
It’s ridiculous. The guy’s some kind of architect; he’s submitted plans. Every time McBride comes over, he shows me something a two-year-old could have figured out.
By the end of the afternoon, the stand of saplings looks as though migrating elephants have been through. Danna is in a rage because we’ve been using his firewood to build beds. The area is scattered with coffin-size piles of leaves, topped with curling bedrolls and covered by squares of tarpaulin. Mine leans at a strange angle, and I don’t think my base has enough sticks across it. My only consolation is that Mick the photographer’s is even worse.
Afternoon is wearing on, and I still haven’t come up with a bed worth the name, when McBride announces we’re going to find water.
I’ve seen at least one tap since my arrival, but it seems petty to mention it. We spend some time whittling digging sticks, then head down a hill through the woods to a dry creek-bed.
“Each time the level of the bed changes, the water is slowed down a bit and sinks in,” explains McBride. “These drop-offs are the best places to find water.”
We split into groups and assault the creek-bed with our digging sticks. Rain the night before has made the task one-million-per-cent easier. A few centimetres through the soft mud, water wells into the ragged hole. “You can lie down and suck it straight up, or filter it through a sock or something,” says McBride. We weigh up our options and do neither.
If you’re nowhere near a creek, dry or otherwise, you can always tie a bag over the branches of a tree,” says McBride, waving a large plastic bag in the air. “The leaves will transpire into the bag and will probably give you about a cupful of water by morning.”
I’m face-deep in a clump of branches, readying my bag and string, when I have a sudden, terrible thought. “Listen,” I say to the Mick the photographer. “I forgot to bring any booze out here. I meant to get some at the airport but I forgot. Sorry.” Mick doesn’t look bothered at all. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ve smuggled in a bottle of vodka.”
I let go of the tree and clutch at his shoulder a bit, overcome with emotion. “Thank God,” I whisper.
At that moment, the brothers, Lee and Johnno, announce their intention to go and fetch a slab of cider from their truck. McBride looks uncertain.
“We don’t normally have alcohol out here… ” he starts, but Danna is already talking about a reunion with “his friend Bundy”. A queue forms in front of him. I am at the head. “Get me some beer,” I tell him. “I need beer.”
The good news is that, although we have to cook our own dinner, we don’t have to hunt it down and kill it. If my car ever breaks down out back of Bourke, I’d better hope the area’s littered freely with dead, plucked chickens.
We dig holes, line them with paperbark, then put in heated stones from the fire, the chickens and a bit of veg, and cover it all up with more bark. Danna arrives from the bottle-o and is greeted like a relative home from the war. We all stand around inhaling beer while Johnno tells shit jokes. Lee cracks on to Mandy, who’s not having any of it. Everyone starts calling me “Ralph”.
By the time dinner is ready over an hour and a half later, we are almost too pissed to care. McBride tries to coordinate us while we stumble around with digging sticks and shovels, trying to dig up our food. When it’s uncovered it looks like a mess in a hole, but smells great.
Mick tells me he can still take pictures even though he’s drunk. “It’s not a problem,” he says seriously. “It really isn’t.”
Danna weaves around, hugging any woman who’ll let him. Katrina’s father has a box of wine by his feet and a large cigar in his face. He looks as though he’s in his easy chair at home, not on a log in the bush. McBride sits near the fire with a slightly pensive expression on his face, as though the vision he had for the course is taking a bit of a beating. The fact that Lee is taking him through Eddie Murphy’s entire stand-up routine can’t be helping.
By the time I get to my sagging pile of debris and branches, it could be a queen-size at The Sheraton. I take off my boots and place them upside down. “That’ll stop snakes and spiders,” I say to myself wisely, proud of my bush savvy.
Breakfast is a rather civilised fry-up, with a cereal option. I continue to have doubts about whether we are “surviving” or just “camping”. There’s going to be a trade-off for this luxury, though; there always is. Sooner or later, I’m going to have to eat a witchetty grub. I can feel it.
One of the students sits on a log, steadily and silently sharpening his knife. Suddenly his watch alarm goes off. “What’s that,” I ask him, cheerfully. “Time to kill everyone?” He just draws the blade slowly along the whetstone.
Mick is absent. We find him unconscious on his badly built bed. He later confides he slid off the huge pile of branches in the night and landed on his vodka bottle. “My ribs are hurting like f–k,” he complains. He’s still doing better than Danna, who put himself outside an entire bottle of Bundy and is face down in the back of his station wagon.
It’s starting to rain as we set out on the food walk. We pick rip, black lantana berries from the bush. Roots are dug up. Matt sedge grass is as high as your waist, but you can only eat the last two centimetres. Natural food sucks the big one. Its nutritional value is almost nil; it tastes like nothing squared, and a proper meal is not on the cards unless you can make a bow and arrow and you’re Robin Hood. Even if you survived, you’d be really, really depressed.
“The important thing is to learn what’s edible and what’s not,” says McBride. Sometimes even the taste-test is no guarantee. You can spend ages rubbing a bit on your skin then on your lip, chewing and spitting it out, eating a bit and waiting four hours – and you’ll still eat something that’ll kill you.
“The first signs you’re looking for are nausea, cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting or persistent belching. However, with death-cap mushrooms, none of that will happen. But you’ll be rushed to hospital the next day, let out a week later, and then die.” McBride leads us down to a dammed lake, choked with weed and bulrushes. “At the base of these bulrushes, or cumbungi, are roots you can eat,” he tells us, as we wade into the cold water. I feel my penis shrivel to the size of an acorn, but Mandy’s looking just fine.
I ponder the mysteries of nature as I grope around among the weeds. The photographer stands on the bank looking smug and tells us to get on with it. I can’t seem to find my root, so to speak, so I just pull up the whole damn rush and wave it about like an idiot. What would this taste like? I ask McBride. “Nothing much,” he replies.
Later still, we stand in a circle in the rain, while McBride scoops mud out of some tyre marks. This mud needs to have lots of clay in it,” he says. “We’re going to cook fish.”
Back at the fire, Danna is sat looking like death that tried to warm up, but failed. “Some bastard stole the rest of me Bundy,” he complains, holding up the rest of the bottle. He is hurt when we suggest it might have been him all along.
We don’t need to catch our own fish because, happily, they’ve turned themselves in. All we have to do is cover them in mud and bury them at the edge of the fire. By now it’s belting down with rain and I’m thanking God I don’t have to spend the night giving my pathetic little shelter a proper test. “I thought this was the sunshine state,” I say to Mandy. She gives me the sort of look I’ve seen before.
“Stand in the rain and look depressed,” says Mick.
It isn’t hard.
We dig up the fish. The mud has baked to it, and when we knock it off, the scales come off, leaving juicy, ready-to-eat meat beneath. This cheers me up no end. For about five minutes.
I’m alarmed to see McBride carrying around a bag of dead witchetty grubs. “These are very nutritious,” he says. He lifts out a nice fat one and passes it around. It has the consistency of a thin sack of pus.
“Well, I’m not eating that,” I say.
“Do it for Ralph,” says Mick, leaning in with his camera.
Bending the rules of survival once again, Danna fries up the grubs with garlic. Katrina picks a piece of grub out of the pan and chews heartily. “Mmm,” she says, predictably. “Just like chicken.”
I give up and pop a piece in my mouth. It’s like eating a sausage, only it’s got legs. I beat down a gag reflex. It’s nothing like chicken, either. It tastes like something you have to eat because you’re in the wilderness with nothing but a frying pan and garlic. I’d still rather give up and die than eat them raw.
The light is fading. The weekend is nearly over. In the last 30 hours I’ve honed my survival skills to the point where I won’t, at least, die in a stupid way. I won’t freeze to death or eat the wrong thing – and when I need to find water, I might at least know where to begin to look.
Danna is packing away the traps and the cooking gear. “Out here is great,” he says. “But the rest of it. It’s just f–ked, you know? F–ked…”
I head for the airport, exhausted. I want a beer in an air-conditioned bar and a steak so big it’s hanging off both sides of the plate. The bush is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to survive there.
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