What do you do after you walk the Amazon?
Ed Stafford—adventurer extraordinaire and Guinness World Record holder for walking the length of the Amazon River—likes a challenge. Casting about for an adventure that would top the extraordinary feat he recounts in Walking the Amazon, Stafford decides to maroon himself on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. His mission: to survive for sixty days equipped with nothing—no food, water, or even clothing—except the video cameras he would use to document his time. Detailing Stafford’s jaw-dropping sojourn on the island of Olourua, Naked and Marooned is a tale of unparalleled adventure and of one man’s will to push himself to the outer limits—and survive.
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Ed Stafford is a retired British Army captain. He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Without whom I would never have met your mum
I love you, mate
‘It’s time, Ed. Take off your shorts and get out of the boat.’
The bubble of apprehension that had been growing for weeks moved up from my guts into my throat. This was it – the doors to the exam hall opening, the driving test beginning, first date and first parachute jump all rolled into one.
My fears were compounded by feeling utterly stupid and vulnerable taking off all my clothes in front of a TV producer and two warrior-like Fijian clansmen. The latter’s wide faces scrutinised me and, without uttering a word, their eyes told me they thought all westerners were fucked in the head.
Nakedness. Nobody likes a willy waver. There are some men, especially those from military or rugby backgrounds (I qualify for both), who can think of nothing better than getting drunk and taking their clothes off for the thrill of it. I would say I’m the opposite. My earliest recurring nightmare was of turning up at school without either trousers or underpants, and the feeling of ridicule still haunts me now if I think back on it.
Completely naked, I climbed down into the waist-deep tropical water to feel my toes settle on the sandy seabed and my balls shrink against the new, wet, exposed world. Camera in hand and at arm’s length, I knew I needed to record my emotions – every crevice of my brain needed to be laid bare to engage disbelieving people wedged into their armchairs in front of the TV. This was real and I wanted to document it all.
I couldn’t figure out how I felt and confided to the shiny black lens how overwhelmed I was. I padded slowly up into the warm shallows and on to the beach in a state of shock.
I watched the small metal fishing boat loiter inanely for a minute or two before the Yamaha outboard coughed up some brown phlegm into the turquoise water and began to back away from me, gradually shrinking in size and influence. As the vessel slipped out of sight, the life-affirming drone of the motor was snuffed out with a huge fluffy pillow of complete isolation.
I stood on the beach truly alone for the first time. This golden lip that encircled the rainforest-clad island was my doorstep to an intimidating new world. I would not see another person for sixty days. I was on an uninhabited tropical island and I had nothing with me to help me survive. No food, no equipment, no knife and not even any clothes. All I had was my camera kit so that I could intimately record my self-inflicted sentence.
An emotional attack helicopter rose from my belly, rotors lacerating my chest until it smashed violently into my ill-prepared brain. Logical thought was the victim and I was left stunned like an impotent witness of a brutal, bloody crime.
I had been travelling for over twenty-four hours – London, Hong Kong, Sydney, and now the capital city of Fiji, Nadi. My clothes felt greasy and my skin had acquired a layer of scum that made me feel grubby and in need of a steaming hot shower and a good soapy scrub, neither of which I was going to find at the end of this journey. We were being weighed along with the baggage to ensure that the total weight was OK for the single-propeller plane that we were about to board. I weighed in at eighty-nine kilos − deliberately not too trim − with surplus fat to shed. The Cessna would fly us over the volcanic Fijian mountains and onwards to the outlying tropical island of Lakeba.
We touched down on the wet grass runway of Lakeba and hung around for a few hours eating cheap white coconut biscuits and drinking sweet tepid coffee until our tin boat was ready to ferry us on the four-hour crossing to the remote tribal island of Komo. With bruised bottoms and balls sore from the boat slamming down into every oncoming Pacific wave we groggily and nauseously flopped out of the boat to meet the Komo clan.
Komo is on the very eastern outskirts of the Fijian islands and is closer to Tonga than mainland Fiji. It is home to a tribe of Fijians who are gentle giants. Women stand taller and broader than the average European male and wear their hair in large round Afros that accentuate their presence. Komo men, who have never heard of a dumbbell, have legs the size of kegs of dynamite and faces as wide and kind as you could possibly ask a child to draw. As we picked our way through the wood and tin village of small self-built huts we were greeted with broad smiles, waves and genuine interest as to what we pale, unhealthy, looking white men might be doing in this colourful corner of the world.
I was travelling with two men, Steve Rankin, a gentle, short, slightly balding TV producer from England, and Steven (with an ‘n’) Ballantyne, our local fixer, a tall, well-spoken and charming expat who lived in Hong Kong with his Chinese partner. The two physically contrasting men seemed to share an understanding of the resigned struggle of surviving in the suburbs of TV World and they had already struck up a close friendship fuelled by late nights and hard liquor. Together we had around thirty-five cases of cameras, laptops, hard drives and bottles of hand sanitiser and we unloaded all this into the house of the village chief who had moved out for the next two and a half months. The house’s sole occupant would be Steven, and he would remain on the island, administrating the filming and coordinating any emergency evacuations. Steve, on the other hand, would return to England shortly after I started filming and oversee the entire event from afar. He would return in two months to film my extraction.
The simple house consisted of two small rooms. The first had three single beds adorned with colourful nylon mosquito nets and the other contained a wooden table and four sturdy chairs. I lay among the black camera boxes on my yellow foam mattress. I didn’t need to unpack anything – that was for the others to organise. All I had was a tiny fifteen-litre day sack with one change of shorts and T-shirt and some toiletries. Where I was going I wouldn’t even be allowed to take those.
I looked up at the ceiling and knew that my job over the next two days was to soak up as much information from the locals as possible and get myself mentally prepared for what I was about to undertake. Don’t worry about anything else, Ed. The self-coaching voice had already begun to make itself heard.
After an hour or so, huge-haired women started to fill the crude wooden table with steaming plates of rice, chicken and fish fresh from the ocean. This was accompanied by colourful heavily iced cakes and sweet white biscuits. I was apparently expected to eat and eat. The walls of my stomach felt as if they had passed their elastic limit as I struggled to digest the mass of sugar and flour. Visibly straining, I escaped the nervous gorging to explore the island.
A dusty path rose through the village, past the communal generator and behind a small wooden school. I followed it to the highest point I could find. As I crested the hill behind the village the sun was setting low and orange in the west. Before me was a familiar shape that I had seen before only in photographs. Olorua: my home for the next sixty days. The uninhabited island had three topographical peaks and, from my viewpoint, two distinct saddles. With no scars from clearing or logging she was entirely cloaked in thick lush rainforest standing alone in a vast ocean. Although she was only eight nautical miles from where I was standing on Komo she seemed far more remote and isolated than all the other islands in this forgotten corner of the world. She looked bigger than I was expecting and, for some reason, with the warm evening sun lighting up her western side, she seemed peaceful and welcoming. But first impressions can be deceptive.
I passed out that night, having eaten my way through an evening of apprehension, with an uncomfortably stretched belly.
The next day I was introduced to Rama, the brother of the chief, whose job it was to answer any questions I had about local plants and methods. Rama seemed enormous and yet, when I stood beside him, he was only about six foot tall. I was an inch taller than him but he must have weighed four stone more. Well into middle age, his frame was powerful and muscular but softened by a comfortable layer of fat. Rama was clearly a kind man and had that aura about him, and an absence of ego, that allowed him to be entirely himself. I could tell by the affection in his eyes that he was genuinely flattered to have been given the responsibility of being my teacher and that we were going to get on well.
Fire by friction was the subject I wanted advice on from Rama. I could light a fire back home with materials and methods traditionally used there, but how did they do it here and with what? He said the best tree was called ‘tangalito’ – it had a black stem and there was plenty on Olorua – on this side (south-east), on the shore that faced Komo. He grabbed a couple of pieces of wood from a tree and, without any preparation with a knife or any other tool, he sat down and started to rub one against the other as if he were setting to with a chisel, fuelled by an overdose of amphetamine.
I recognised the simple fire-plough method of lighting a fire and witnessed the wood turn black and emit a little smoke and powder. ‘I’m unfit!’ he declared and gave up trying to build an ember. It was enough for me to know that this wood was good. I probably wouldn’t use the fire-plough method, because I wasn’t confident that I could consistently get an ember that way, but I could see that this wood was suitable for making fire and I left it at that.
I mentally ticked fire off my jumbled list of things to cover before my deployment and immediately flitted on to other worries. No pause, no consideration, no deep breath – I just pinged on to the next subject like a pinball. If I’d been less stressed about my impending ordeal I might have registered the ease of testing wood like this. Even if it was not yet a skill in my armoury I should have seen just how useful it was in itself. All you had to do was rub one piece of wood backwards and forwards on a flat surface of the other – there was no carving involved – and if the wood was good it would heat up quickly, turn black and start to smoke. But, blinkered by my apprehension about what lay ahead, only the tried and tested methods that I’d learned could possibly be an option. Everything else was stressing me out and so I let a valuable lesson slip through my sweaty fingers.
I spent much of the two preparation days relaxing. I was about to do something really hard and I deliberately allowed myself some down time. I lay on my bed, ate copious amounts of food and even played touch rugby with the local men and boys. The one further skill for which I did pick up the basics was plaiting coconut palm leaves so that they could be used to thatch a shelter. I hadn’t mastered it but I had seen it done well and had a go and felt that I could figure it out if the need arose. Notably, and slightly worryingly, I didn’t identify many edible plants that I would find on Olorua; I didn’t ask about a single method of fishing (or ask when or where they fished); and I didn’t even ask about how they used coconuts in their cooking. All in all, I squandered some very valuable time with local experts and instead put my feet up and relaxed.
I was so daunted by the enormity of what I was about to do that it made me feel uncomfortable even to dwell on the things that I didn’t yet know. Rather than preparing for the future by putting some work in now, I opted to go for immediate gratification – food, rest and play – in the knowledge that my times of hardship had not yet arrived and I should make hay while I could.
What an idiot.
Still, in a way it added to the veracity of the whole adventure. Viewers of survival programmes inevitably ask themselves the question: ‘Could I do that?’ But they don’t take a man full of pizza and tea whose idea of wilderness is the back of a garden centre and drop him unsupported in the middle of nowhere. They take someone like me who, nominally at least, knows what he’s doing. So, in failing to make the very most of my time with the locals I was actually moving closer to the sort of challenge that might face someone suddenly shipwrecked and washed up on an alien shore. When people find themselves in survival situations many of them have no preparation whatsoever. It was more honest simply to arrive on the island and work things out for myself. That was my excuse, anyway.
In fact, mentally I was already in a mess. I was already failing to cope with taking complete responsibility for my own welfare. I was already fast becoming out of control − reaching for any excuse to avoid putting in the work and grasping at superficial distractions. I wasn’t being honest with myself and, although I knew it deep down, I hid behind layers of self-deception that I would be fine. ‘Another cake? Ooooh, thank you. I shouldn’t but I will!’ The sugar would keep me happy for another thirty seconds.
The truth, of course, is that I would not be fine at all. I was about to undergo the most unsettling, soul-searching and frighteningly disorientating two months of my life.
· · ·
On the morning of Saturday 18 August 2012 I woke up charged with adrenaline. It was game day and I was up for smashing some people. Except this wasn’t a rugby match – and aggression was not going to get me through this challenge. Yet my mindset was simple and focused – let’s get this started now. I just want to get stuck in.
I was going in by boat but I had to wait for a helicopter to arrive that would film the insertion from the air. I sat on a wooden chair outside the flaky purple walls of my hut and wrote letters to my fiancée, Amanda. I wanted her to know how much I cared about her and for her to have a constant reminder that I was thinking about her. I knew that I wouldn’t have any contact with her for the next sixty days and that would be hard for anyone to cope with. I felt selfish that I was putting her through this and yet I knew she was supportive of what I was doing and so I just tried to stick to the positives.
The mechanical beat of the helicopter’s heart pulsed through the air towards my soft eardrums. The flying machine drew louder and closer, attracting an excited crowd on the rugby pitch in the centre of the village. I exchanged pleasantries with the Australian pilot and tried to be as sociable and normal as possible, but in my head I was already on the island and everything else was now just getting in the way. When Steve and Steven were ready, I walked through the village for the last time down to the metal boats and waved goodbye to these kind people who I had hardly made time to speak to. Camera in hand, I began to talk to the lens as if it were my true confidant. ‘Come on – stop fannying around – let’s go.’
The bashing of the hull against the waves didn’t bother me as we slipped out of the reef. I relaxed almost to the point of sleep. Then, as we circled around Komo, Olorua came into view. The small island was utterly compelling on t...
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