Published in The Times
It’s day three of my stay on a desert island in the Pacific, and as it rains ceaselessly in London and temperatures hit zero, I am lying under a tree on a bright white beach alongside two young women who have quickly become friends, watching the Moon shimmering over the surface of the sea and listening to the crashing of waves and the chirruping of exotic wildlife. Sound like paradise? Well, not quite.
Growing up in the landlocked West Midlands, and having poor swimming skills, I’ve long struggled with the popular notion that the sound of the sea is soothing. I’ll tell you what the ocean sounds like in the dark and in a gust: like a fighter jet coming in to crash land.
Frankly, I only agree to go to escape interminable building work at home. Yet it slowly becomes apparent that it would have been easier to sack the builders, set off a grenade in my flat then reassemble the whole thing myself by hand. Looking back, the best thing I can say about the experience is I don’t, at least, fare as badly as my companions.
My concern for Conway grows over our 36-hour journey to the island, as she reveals, variously, that she so fears insects she can’t “even look” at a woodlouse; that she once didn’t go in her sitting room “for a year, because there was a spider in it”; and that she is so fair she “can get sunburnt on a rainy day in Wales”.
Once we arrive, her agony is hard to witness. Even now, if someone asks about my time on the island, I shock them by showing them the picture we took of her bite-ridden face on our return to civilisation.
As for Langley, she comes with a more positive attitude, but the memos in my battered notebook convey plummeting morale. On arriving there is excitable talk about “going to see the crocodiles in the freshwater lagoon”. She claims she is “all for killing a wild turkey for food” and sincerely proclaims that she wishes “we were here longer”.
Yet this upbeat talk quickly descends into admissions that she is “counting down the hours”, complaints about swollen feet and nausea triggered by a coconut, the only food we have during our stay. My lasting image of her is of her standing on the beach at dawn, a bug going up her nose as she retches in the semi-darkness and declares: “Who are we kidding? This is f***ing s*** all round.”
In short, we may survive, but the experience leaves us barely wanting to live. Which is not to suggest we are not provided with advice and assistance before getting on to the island. We have about an hour with Grylls himself on the nearby production island of Contadora, and are dropped off on our desert island by some survival experts.
Yet we spend our time with the former, asking whimsical questions such as “why do so many Etonians become survivalists and explorers?” and “are men suffering a crisis in masculinity?” instead of posing more pertinent queries such as “what should you do if you wake up to the sight of crocodile footprints on the beach?” (as we did). Meanwhile, the survival experts, understandably exhausted from six weeks of filming, and, assuming that it is quite hard to get yourself killed in three days, give us about an hour of training, whereas the contestants got two days.
According to my smudged notes we are told how to make friction fire using the “bow drill” method. Then we are advised, among other things, of the following: beware of the “death apple tree” because “in the rain, the poison from the tree can drop down and cause blistering and one apple can kill four people”. Don’t fear the native crocodiles: “They might eat a dog, not a person”. Don’t fear the even “bigger American crocodiles” because “they are not aggressive, and protected, so don’t kill them for food”. Don’t fear the boa constrictor snakes: “they are more scared of you than the other way round”. Avoid swimming out too far: “there are treacherous currents”. Wear shoes at all times: “everything in the tropics gets infected”. Avoid wearing black because it is “the worst thing for heat and mosquitoes” (I am entirely in black). And don’t sleep under palm trees because “a falling coconut can kill you”.
Then they leave us with a radio in case of emergency, a machete, a small knife, a big dressing in case one of us gets “a big bleeder”, a metal canteen with enough water for one day and the concluding remark “If you slash your femoral artery, we won’t be able to get here in time. You will bleed to death.”
The desolation I feel when they depart is total. The only thing I can compare it to is being left at school for the first time, aged four. All my references are gone: there is no phone, no books, no internet. And my irritation at my fellow survivalists is instant: we land on the island late in the afternoon and while I gather wood and coconuts in aimless panic, they go for a leisurely wander, a splash in the sea and some light sunbathing, and dither about where best to sleep, as if hunting for a room on Airbnb. Needless to say, when the darkness comes, as it does abruptly, like God has switched off a bedside lamp, we are unprepared for the night ahead.
It turns out that sleeping on palm fronds under a tree is about as comfortable as lying on a bed of seashells. Not long into the night we discover we are lying on an ants’ nest. We move only to have to get up again when it starts raining and we have to put on waterproofs. Lying on the beach, we have to get up again to avoid being swept out to sea by the high tide.
However, that night and the early hours of the following morning provide us with an important lesson: survival is basically a bunch of bad choices. You can sleep under the shelter of trees in the jungle, but then it is dark and it is impossible to tell the difference between snakes and crocodiles and scorpions and things you’ve imagined. You can sleep on a beach, where there is better visibility, but then there is no shelter from rain, you risk being swept out by tides and bitten half to death by sand flies. You can burn to death on the exposed beach or be bitten to death in the shade.
The second key lesson about survival comes later that morning when the three of us set about the increasingly urgent business of attempting to build a fire, light it and boil some water so we don’t die of dehydration. It is this: everything takes a very long time in the heat. To start a fire using the bow drill method you need to make and assemble, from raw materials lying around you, a hearth board, a drill, a bow with string, a bearing block, an ember pan and some tinder.
It takes me about two hours to carve the drill with a small knife. It takes Conway, in between leisurely swims, some time longer to craft the hearth board. Then it takes Langley, in between some persistent and heroic sunbathing, longer than all these times combined to assemble everything.
In the end it doesn’t work: I have carved the drill from wood that isn’t dry enough. Gasping and dehydrated, we decide to regroup and partially rehydrate ourselves with the content of the coconuts we have gathered. Unfortunately it takes three of us 45 minutes to open a single coconut with a machete — and having sweated so much in the process, it leaves us more dehydrated than ever. It is only while we gasp and panic quietly in the shade, where it still feels as if it is about 39C, that I notice Conway is smoking a fag. She only has a bloody lighter!
There ensues a lengthy debate that proves to be even more enervating than the task of trying to build a fire. Conway is of the view that she isn’t really taking part, is only there to facilitate a “realistic” experience for Langley and me, and that we cannot “cheat” by using any of the materials left by the cast or any of the modern luxuries she has brought.
I am of the view that if we want to make the survival experience truly authentic, we should be allowed to use whatever is available, which means anything up to and including the contents of her handbag, hailing and bribing the fishermen who sail past periodically or pleading with the crew over the radio for food, drink and vodka.
In the end we reach a sort of compromise, which makes a perverted kind of sense in the heat: we can use the lighter to start a fire, but we will all, including Conway, have to go into the jungle to find some fresh water.
Gathering vessels in which to ferry the water turns out to be simple: depressingly, plastic bottles are forever being washed up on beaches in this part of the world. However, walking into the jungle, up a small cliff and through bush in the hot afternoon sun is shattering. Already dehydrated, we stop to nap and complain every couple of hundred yards or so. Grylls had instructed us to choose a “positive attitude” on the island, “even though it might hurt and you don’t feel like it”, but the brutal reality of the wilderness means we mainly opt for lethargy and whining.
Fortunately Langley is made of stronger stuff than Conway and I, and, brandishing the machete, she drags us through the acres of foreboding flora and spikes and thorns until, incredibly, we actually find a freshwater lagoon. Ignoring the threat of crocodiles, she immediately volunteers to fill the vessels with water, which, as a feminist, I am more than happy to let her do.
Then I realise I will probably be outed as a coward in the glossy press, so I volunteer to fill the bottles, with Langley holding a machete over my head in case a crocodile makes an appearance. Afterwards, we leg it back to our “camp”, feeling, frankly, disproportionately exhilarated. Did we boil and drink the water? Of course not. It looked like urine. The thing most people ask when you mention you’ve met Bear Grylls is whether he made you drink your own piss, but I wasn’t going to contract cholera for a Times2 feature. Without properly discussing it, we all individually reach the conclusion that the best strategy is to lie still under a tree until we are rescued, which, as it happens, is exactly what I would do in the event of being an actual castaway on a desert island. We drink the final thimble of water in the metal canteen as if it were a rare whisky and settle in for the longest and thirstiest night of our lives.
Did I learn anything from the experience? Yes. I learnt that the experience of “survival”, at least as it is created for TV, is packed with ironies: not least that it increases significantly the chance of sudden injury and death. I learnt that we don’t need to eat as much as we do: we pigged out when we had food put in front of us on our return, but we weren’t exactly dying of hunger at the end of the exercise.
I learnt that is the simple things that you miss the most, such as chairs (nature doesn’t produce comfortable seats), concrete (sand is a tedious surface), mirrors (we had to rely on telling each other if there was anything disgusting on our faces) and music (it is a delight to even hear Bon Jovi playing in a café when we get back).
I learnt that there is nothing sexy about the desert island experience: it leaves you dirty and smelly and full of self-disgust. Indeed, we had all been grossed out when we heard that the cast had found a toothbrush on the beach and shared it, but by day three I was almost ready to do the same.
Yet none of it was, as Grylls had forecast, profound or life-changing. I went knowing that the secret of happiness is love and work, and it was no particular surprise that it made me unhappy to be deprived of both. I am full of respect for the people who managed to survive six weeks of the torment and I can’t wait to see the show, but I am also bemused why anyone would want to volunteer.
Which brings me to the island’s final gift to us. On a recent train journey, Langley found herself talking to someone who was a contestant on the new series. They had a hoot laughing about the mosquitoes, the crocodiles, the plastic bottles. Yet then she discovered that the tree we had slept under was actually where the cast went to the toilet. They called it “the dumping tree”. So basically, we slept on a cesspit.