There is a certain madness that manifests when you are lost.
And a while back a friend and I got lost while camping in the Ob Khan National Park.
A day earlier we had set off, unheeding of the park centre’s advice that we take a guide, ignorant of the many dangers of the jungle, confident at having honed our survival skills on the bleak industrial streets of Middle and Northern England.
We walked headlong into the thick jungle, ambled along the river’s edge, lost it after a while, and after a few hours found it again. Both of us ran down to where there was crystal clear water and a sand bank where we could pitch our tents. We swam, built a large fire, incurred thousands of insect bites, shared a bottle of whisky under the stars while discussing space and infinity, gods and meaninglessness, then nearly froze to death in the winter night.
In the morning, we walked back into the jungle…and tried to find the path…but we didn’t, we couldn’t. So we walked, we climbed, we traversed and we began to lose our energy, our patience. Our water supply was low and we were unsure of the river water.
It seemed the jungle had locked us in. The only way out would be to go down the river. Unfortunately the river current was too strong, and with our backpacks, expensive camera, phones (which of course didn’t work), clothing, camping gear, we flailed, then failed.
And now the packs were wet, and weighed a ton. I had to dump half my belongings. Hours passed. No one knew where we were because we had told no one except my friend’s girlfriend who most likely assumed we were staying another night. My friend and I each prayed that God _ in whom we didn’t believe _ would take the other first.
As another night fell, we froze and shivered the night through, creeping close to pneumonia. As we had stopped at dusk it was hard to find firewood. We were miserable.
The next morning we set off, both agreeing that the only way out was to hack our way through the thickest part of the jungle while remembering where the river was (you’d be surprised how quickly you can feel disorientated). That we did, although my machete that I had purchased for 90 baht quickly broke. We were cut to pieces, stung, and began to be numbed and immune to spider bites and tumbles. The food was long eaten, the water long drunk.
After more hours we finally saw something that gave us hope. A snake skin we had seen the day before at the side of some boulders. We had come along back down the ravine and felt that surely we were close to some kind of trail. Dehydration had set in, we were hungry, and worn out.
But we got back, at about 3 p.m. the next day we found signs for some trails close to the park entrance. We almost ran the last mile. When we arrived back we looked monstrous; spattered with blood and cuts and very dehydrated. Both of us maintaining never to go into a jungle ever again.
Still smarting from my harrowing experience, I wanted to find out how one actually does survive in the jungle, so, I decided to tell my story to a couple of experts and see what they thought of my survival skills.
I first contacted Shane Beary, ex SAS & Selous Scouts, founder of Track of the Tiger T.R.D (www.track _ of _ the _ tiger.com), an Outdoor Education Specialist in the north of Thailand. Track of the Tiger runs Jungle Expedition courses, and Shane introduced me to one of the instructors, survival expert Sasha Kraft, who gave me some tips on survival in the jungle, commenting on our experience.
“I straight away noticed the lack of proper safety training. No one would attempt to climb Mount Everest without training. So it should be in the jungle,” he said. “The main problems seemed to be lack of preparation and planning combined with poor equipment. First of all water is always available in the tropics, knowing where to find it and how to make it safe for drinking is another thing.
Packing a 25 baht bottle of iodine for purification would make the water problem non existent! Food is also plenty as long as you know how to get it. You blokes were near a river. Sounds like BBQ to me! Remembered to take a fish hook? A few more navigation aids would have been appropriate in dense jungle like a compass and GPS if available. Back tracking is essential and very common on surveys. Assuming you have marked the trail you walked on!”
I then emailed James Manderville, an author and survival expert who explained to me what we did right. “Rule one of survival is for the survivors to stick together and you did that. Rule two is to formulate a plan of escape and you did that, and ultimately it worked for you, although you were lucky that it worked. It is not exactly clear where you were going, in an area of approximately 580 square kilometres that detail is important. However, if the girlfriend knew approximately the location she would at some point have raised the alarm. It appears you set off down the ravine using the river as a landmark.” However, he had a few things to say about what we did wrong: “You were ill-equipped for an expedition into dense tropical forest, (only one machete _ a cheap one at that _ broke), inferior sleeping bags, etc. And you were too arrogant to employ a guide. Drinking alcohol was unwise because it accelerates dehydration. You made a bad decision when you attempted to travel downriver in fast-flowing water passing through a gorge. You could easily have been knocked unconscious on the rocks, travelling into a log jam or faced a lethal drop down a waterfall. Worst of all, you attempted this with heavy backpacks which is verging on stupid. You faced a second night in the forest and left it too late to set up a decent camp and light a fire.”
The Right Way
He then outlined what we should have done instead, a humbling read.
“You should have given precise details to someone at the base camp. Hunger was not a problem, just a discomfort; you could have survived several days without food, although with survival training you could have found food. Near the river you had water and presumably the means to collect it and boil it to make it safe to drink (one minute at a fast rolling boil). The best place to collect the water was from an area where it splashed over rocks, oxygenating the water and reducing the risk of parasites. Noticing the snakeskin was good. Even dense forest has a look and a feel to it. You should have tried to relive the inward journey to give yourselves some clues as to the way out. To combat the night cold you could have made A-frame beds to lift yourselves off the ground. Sleeping off the ground also reduces the risk of snake, scorpion and ant bites. You should have had insect repellent with you. It is not wise to sleep on any stretch of sandy ground in tropical areas because sand fleas and ticks can carry disease. You could have coated bare skin with mud from the river, not attractive, but it stops the majority of bites although insects still swarm around attracted by perspiration and CO2. Alternatively, ash from the fire gives some protection as it masks human smells. Smoke deters insects at night and although not a pleasant environment, sleeping next to a smoky fire lessens the number of bites.
James Mandeville is an ex-army jungle warfare and survival instructor, the author of best selling: ‘Fighter or Freezer Understanding your Reaction to Disaster’. Mandeville’s latest book, ‘Survive Anywhere’, is possibly the most comprehensive book on survival ever written, it will be published later this year. Details of Mandeville and his books can be found on www.survival-expert.com.