I'm half Canadian Indian but I can't live off the land like my ancestors. On camping expeditions across Australia, Central America, the Sinai coast - even a relatively simple trip to County Cork - I have had nothing but grief from my wife and four kids for being "impractical", "use to neither man nor beast" or simply "irresponsible". I always get blamed for lacking survival skills and putting the family in danger.
So when my wife read that Ray Mears' Woodlore company did Ray Mearsish stuff for the general public, she booked me into a course with our seven-year-old. It's well documented that lots of women find Ray attractive and there can be few men who don't secretly admire Mr Mears for his ability to do what a man's supposed to do ... hunt, gather and survive. I am a Mears admirer. Watching him gather and catch his nosh, light a fire without matches and build a shelter brings out my wannabee outdoorsman.
Part of the fun of going camping is the preparation. In Australia there are camping shops for real men. Wellington Surplus in Perth is my favourite shop in the world. In Britain, we have the outdoors retailer Blacks. They are sensible enough to know that we don't have highly venomous snakes, deadly spiders or crocs but you can have as much fun buying miniature head torches and full-size towels that fold into packets the size of your hand. I went mad buying all sorts of stuff in case Ray Mears couldn't make a survivalist of me - waterproof matches, heat-in-the-bag meatballs, water purification tablets, mini fishing kits, multi-purpose tools, the works.
When I got home though, Mrs H confiscated the food, saying the idea was to live off the land.
So off we went to a rendezvous outside Tunbridge Wells from where we were taken in 4x4 cars into the Ashdown Forest. We were briefed on what we would be up to over the weekend: shelter building, animal tracking (good), fire lighting without matches or lighters, use of stuff that grows in the forest.
Happily, a friend and his young son hadn't had their food confiscated and we tucked in to pasta spiced with Tabasco sauce cooked on another one of my new gadgets, a burner that folds up into a bag smaller than a pygmy's sock. Why is it that packet food, which you wouldn't eat at home, tastes as good as anything from a posh restaurant when you're sitting around a fire in a forest? We were soon taught to add "healthy stuff" to our packet rubbish. Young beech leaves add vitamin C, while young thistles - with their sharp bits removed - provide valuable minerals (but they taste like grass and lacerate your tongue).
We were to sleep in shelters made from branches and dried leaves. It took each team of two adults and two kids a couple of hours to erect a teepee-type shelter frame. A couple of hours more and it was looking fantastic but the course leaders said that to withstand the elements it needed an "elbow to tip of finger" depth of leaf covering. I took this to be the depth of my seven-year-old's elbow to tip of finger and duly had a rest.
Fires are cool full stop. Show me a man who doesn't enjoy lighting fires and I'll show you a man who isn't a man. The ability to light fires without matches or a lighter has got to be one of the skills a man can learn. A couple of twigs or flints, a bit of dried moss, and Ray Mears has a forest-threatening roaring fire within minutes.
We were sent out to peel the thin outer layer of bark from silver birch trees for tinder; it has oil in it which is highly flammable. This was time-consuming but nothing like the frustration and grazed knuckles involved in lighting it. Eventually one spark led to a puff of smoke and then fire. We danced around it.
By 11pm we retired, and what a night it proved to be. The shelter is supported by a central pole and my little lad moves around a lot in his sleep. Every half hour he would bang into the pole, sending leaves, grit and millipedes woodlice and spiders on to our faces and mouths. By 3.30am I couldn't take any more. I scraped a slug off my glasses, crawled outside, found my hidden stash of matches and lit another fire. Rather than leave my laptop in my car at the rendezvous, I had stuffed it in my backpack. So there I was downloading emails in the wee small hours, deep in the Ashdown Forest.
Even after a night like that it was hard not to stand and admire the "house" that we had built. It had been a real achievement but even though we were told these shelters would last a year, after a couple of nights I would gladly have swapped a night in a soulless red-brick box rather cuddle up to all those creepy crawlies.
We spent the rest of the weekend tracking, knot-tying and learning how to use a knife to sharpen sticks. Watching her seven-year-old learn to handle a very sharp knife would have sent my wife apoplectic, but he loved it and it's a wonderful skill to take through life. We also learned how yew leaves in your cooking could make you very ill or even kill you. Oops.
This was a weekend to remember. It has given me loads of tales to tell and made me a fount of knowledge on country walks and stimulated my young lad to spend even more time making dens in the garden. He has stopped asking to go to theme parks. He just wants to go back to a forest. Whether it will help avert danger on our trips abroad remains to be seen.Reuse content