It is midday and the baking hot summer sun is burning a sports-bra-shaped tan line into my back. I am holding a water bottle up to the light, trying to work out whether I can stomach swallowing the ashy-grey, lukewarm liquid in order to avoid oncoming dehydration. A few dead flies floating on the top are freaking me out a bit but I’m conscious that I’ve literally had one pee in the past 24 hours. I shut my eyes and gulp down a couple of mouthfuls, my portion for the moment, before passing the bottle to my teammate.
This was one of many memorable moments during my survival challenge in the forests of rural Wales last month. It may only have been five days, but judging by the richness of experiences lived and the strength of friendships forged, it certainly felt like a lot longer than that. And it is therefore only now that I feel able to write this post, having had a few weeks to reflect upon everything that I learnt.
As I previewed in my last post, the premise of this expedition was to inspire ordinary women to get outdoors and create their own adventure challenge. Our team comprised of 10 women from varied walks of life and our mission was to make through five days in an unfamiliar, forest environment having access only to very basic kit and minimal, bland food rations. So how did we get on?
When I’ve discussed this challenge with my friends, the food question has been the first one on their lips, often accompanied by “There is no way I could do that!”. I’m with you all on that – before the trip it was food I was most worried about. Our food rations were based upon those given to Syrian refugees (rice, chickpeas, kidney beans, red lentils, flour and oil) but the portions were scaled down to make it much more of a hunger challenge.
In actual fact, we were all surprised that the hardest part about the food wasn’t necessarily the small quantities, it was how bland it all was. We successfully foraged a wide array of edible leaves to add some vitamins (e.g. wild garlic, jack-in-the-hedge and dandelion leaves) but in reality these added limited flavour compared to the complex tastes our twenty-first century palates are used to.
We calculated that our portion sizes equalled roughly 540 calories per day per person. A bowl of rice and lentils can seem like its filling you up, but it doesn’t hold much calorific value. So we weren’t doubled up in hunger exactly, but we spent much of the trip existing in a permanent state of low energy. Rather than bouncing around to do whatever we fancied, it was very much a case of conserving energy for the most necessary of tasks. This was a new and odd sensation for me, and it was not comfortable at all.
Thirst was actually a bigger challenge than hunger, thanks to some freak bank holiday weather that graced us with 30 degree temperatures for the whole five days. Never again will I take for granted the water purifying tablets I usually use when camping, because ensuring there was enough drinkable water for 10 people during a heatwave using just basic tools was bloody hard work.
Lugging water uphill from the stream, boiling it without a pan lid (difficult), managing the fire, straining and storing the water… all an unexpectedly laborious and fuel-intensive process that we had to repeat multiple times a day. The worst part perhaps was the fact that the water just never got colder than lukewarm once boiled. Drinking it was the utter antithesis of the ice cold lemonade my body really wanted during that heatwave.
The only kit we took with us for fire was flint and steel – and it took us over an hour to spark an ember on the first day. We used deadwood lying on the forest floor for our fuel, and gathering enough for water-boiling and cooking for five days was an eye-opening insight in the sheer energy needed for these simple enough tasks. We all hear that kettles are very energy-intensive appliances, but you really realise why when you see how much wood is needed to boil just a couple of mugs of water.
The other memorable takeaway about the fire is how unpleasant it is to have to cook over an open wood-burning fire. Any romance of campfires is long-forgotten when your eyes are smarting, your throat is burning and your lungs are gasping from the horrendous levels of particulate matter in the smoke. Countless women in the developing world still rely on open wood fires as their main energy source and I can better understand how they are subject to unavoidable long-term health impacts because of this.
Tents and roll mats were not on the kit list, but we did have sleeping bags and bivvy bags (a waterproof liner to cover the sleeping bag). Somewhat surprisingly, I actually managed to sleep quite well each night. I’m not sure if this is due to the makeshift mat I put together (empty rucksack frame plus spare clothing) or if it was a sign of how exhausted I was at the end of every day!
If you have never done it before, then I highly recommend that at some point you go outside to experience what it is like to fall asleep under the stars. On a clear night, there is no other feeling of immense tininess and wonder! The dark skies of rural Wales revealed so many more stars that I see in my usual urban habitat. It was very peaceful to drift into a slumber watching the stars slowly inch across the night skies.
In my chill-out time, when not chatting with the group or attempting to whittle a spoon out of hazel wood, I spent a lot of time just observing the abundance of the forest life around us. You probably think this sounds quite hippyish. And I will admit, it does a bit to me too. When I normally go for a walk or a run in some woods, my mind is usually on other matters to truly observe what is going on around me. Yet with no phone or book or music or TV to take my mind to its usual “other place”, it was strangely novel to be left existing solely in the present, unexpectedly aware of the teeming activity of life surrounding me.
I saw roe deer, hares, owls, pheasants, a buzzard, woodpeckers, bats and countless beetles, bees and butterflies. Watching bugs battling for territory on a lump of deadwood isn’t quite Love Island, but it is somewhat surprisingly entertaining. The plant life was also incredible – seas of bluebells, lady smock, wood sorrel, bramble shoots, wood anemones, yellow archangels… Flowers and plants my unseeing eye would have previously passed over in incomprehension are now etched into my memory thanks to the incredible woodland knowledge shared between the group.
When you spend most of your time between four walls and a roof, as I do, the “world” becomes something distinctly external to you and your marked internal territory. Bugs, plants, soil, animals, swept neatly out (apart from the odd domesticated friend of course). Not so in the woods. You have no right to remove bugs, soil, plants or animals; you must simply co-exist alongside them. And doing so is a reminder that we are, ultimately, part of it all too.
We started out on the trip as complete strangers but left with a strange sense of a new but strong connection. The team of women I had the privilege to spend time with were most definitely the best part of this challenge. The team bonding process, looking back on it, was actually fascinating. On the first day, we were asked if anybody would like to be ‘group leader’. Without exception, everyone looked at the ground and shuffled around awkwardly – no leader was appointed.
As well as no leader, we also did not have much in the way of day-by-day planning, task rotas or organised activities. But, contrary to probably every productivity book ever written, chaos did not ensure! Decisions were made by brainstorming and reaching consensus among the group. For the various chores that needed to be done collectively, everybody identified their own turn to step up and take charge without being told to. And all of the group’s achievements emerged organically through suggestion, discussion and experimentation.
Group clashes was something I had been somewhat apprehensive about prior to the challenge (thinking of Bear Grylls’ The Island here), but I was pleasantly surprised at how harmonious it was to cooperate with this incredible bunch of women. Clearly I’ve been over-exposed to reality TV shows; but it was really wonderful to see a gentler, more cohesive part of human nature that doesn’t receive enough credit.
Back to civilisation…
Now several weeks on from the challenge, stuck once again between four walls and a laptop screen, I am firmly plugged back into the twenty-first century lifestyle. But cheesy as hell as it does sound to say, something of the woods has stayed with me every day.
The main thing I realised is how virtually every aspect of our everyday lives has been utterly transformed by modern conveniences we don’t even notice anymore. Go back to basics and you immerse yourself in not only how we used to live back in deep history, but also how so many people are still forced to live due to the structural inequalities of our world today.
I am keen, therefore, to not romanticise the deprivations we voluntarily submitted ourselves to over just five days. I definitely did find many aspects of the challenge very difficult – both physically and mentally – and it was also a pretty eye-opening check on my own privileges. Yet all of it together, the ups and the downs, shared in the company of a very special group of women, made this woodland challenge one of the most life-affirming five days of my life yet.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
To front only the essential facts of life,
And see if I could not learn what it had to teach,
And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
All pictures courtesy of Bex Band, aka the Ordinary Adventurer.