Surviving the Karoo

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Bear Grylls, the world famous survival specialist and television heart throb fromDiscovery channel’sMAN VS WILD series has long been an influence on my 8 year old son, Sam. Positive or negative, I couldn’t really say.
He, like Mr. Grylls, has leapt from the tallest of trees, oblivious to the unforgiving nature of gravity, and he has scaled rock faces and crumbling cliffs, scaring the hell out of his mother in the process.
He has slept beneath the stars in the garden in the depths of winter (and caught a cold) and he has constructed shelters for himself using my prized vines and hundred year old tree ferns.
“Look Dada. A dead mouse” he once said to me after prizing it from our cat’s salivating jaws “Can we eat it?”

Because that’s what Bear Grylls would have done.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Bear is a highly competent bush craft expert. Probably the best in the world. But he often choses to do dangerous and dramatic stunts which, to my mind, are contrary to the art of survival.
Does one really have to consume a live snake?
Is swimming naked in the Arctic a wise choice of action?
Should you really scree ski down the side of a mountain at break neck speed?
Probably not, but there’s no denying it makes good TV.

So, before my son ended up as a statistic (either in the hospital or in a juvenile correctional facility) I decided to take him along on a ‘real’ survival training course, with expert bush craft team who, I hoped, would teach us ‘moderate’ survival techniques rather than sensational life threatening stunts.

And that’s how we ended up in the ‘Ranger’s Reserve’; a small privately owned training facility near Touwsrivier in the Western Cape Karoo; where fynbos covered hills stretch from one horizon to the next.
Its also where we met Marcus Hargreaves, an outdoor survival specialist and a mentor of anti poaching teams.

“Now the first thing we must do is choose justtwo pieces of kit from the items on this table,” Marcus told the assembled group of parents and nippers. (myself and Sam included) “And then explain to me why exactly you chose them.”
We were at his camp, under the sun and surrounded by protea bushes alive with long tailed sugarbirds.
“We have canteens and compasses, trowels and knives and pieces of rope as well.”
There were other things on the table too too. A medical kit, some waterproof material, a bush craft handbook, and all manner of spikey implements.
Sam chose wisely. A canteen, “For collecting water and cooking things in”
and a special bush survival knife, “Because it has a flint for starting fires, and because you can stab things with it.”


My survival items consisted of a chocolate muffin, a wet wipe and a packet of cheesy puffs.
“You’re doomed,” whispered Sam into my ear. “Doomed!”
But this particular two and a half day course had been specifically designed for little kiddies, and as such, it seemed unlikely to me that Marcus would send us forth into a waterless Karoo to hunt lizards and drink our own urine.
“We will be staying close to camp,” he told us – much to my relief. “And no one will have to do any real surviving.”

Sam looked disappointedfor a moment. I think he was expecting a weekend of wrestling lions and eating termites, but then a blond girl with a compound bow strapped to her back joined the group. She looked like a contestant from the Hunger Games.
“Wow” said Sam “Cool”

“This is my daughter Minerva,” Marcus announced. “She’s just turned 16 and is proficient in martial arts, firing rifles, bow hunting and pretty much all aspects of bush craft survival.”

He then introduced us to the third member of his team; a tall young man named Geoff Phipps who, like Marcus, had a background in anti poaching.
“Between the three of us,” continued Marcus, “You will learn the basics of survival, camouflage, fire making, tracking, star navigation…”
“And of course, bow firing,” interjected Minerva.

But, first up was good old fashioned shelter building with Marcus trying (in vain) to teach us various knots that should have lead us into making a secure and weather proof refuge.
In our minds, Sam and I created a multistory lodge, complete with kitchen and dining areas, separate bedrooms and a whirlpool Jacuzzi. In reality, what we crafted was a poncho strung loosely between two trees above a carpet of itchy pine needles.

“Tada!” we announced as the final knot was put in place. “Welcome to the Hilton.”

Marcus then announced that we should consider sleeping out in our shelter that evening, but one glance up at the sky convinced me it was very likely to rain that night.

“But it’s sunny,” sulked Sam, but it took only a handful of pine needles thrown down his jumper and the appearance of a deadly scorpion to convince him that indeed, it was almost certainly going to pour down.
“I think well stay in the chalet,” I later heard him telling Marcus.

The next event was an important one. How to make fire!

We started off by collecting tinder (fluff from the inside of a protea and some wispy dried out grasses) and then we built up a little pile of twigs and larger sticks.

Sam got to work on making a spark with his knife and flint combo and before long, there were whoops of jubilation and a nice big crackling fire.

“But what if you had no flint?” asked Marcus before producing a string and bow kit. This consisted of some rope tied onto a bent branch (like a bow) which was then wrapped around a pencil shaped stick, the point of which was placed into a small indentation on a dry piece of wood.

“Friction is the key,” said Marcus before going into a frenzy of vigorous sawing,and before long, a smoking pile of dust was produced which he then tipped onto a carefully constructed nest of kindling.

“There you go!” he said “Let there be fire!”

But when it was our turn, all we achieved were sore arms, sweaty brows and smelly armpits.

No one in the group could get it right. We manically sawed left and right, and to our credit, we did produce a bit of smoke, but at the end of the day, we had to decide: “Are we going to die of exhaustion before getting this fire started?”

The answer to which was probably yes.


After lunch (served by Marcus’ wife Hilary) Geoff took our team of budding survivalists into the veldt to track down some supper.
He showed us how to differentiate between various animal tracks and how to read a story of what the animal had been doing.

“Here we have some toad spoor,” he announced whilst pointing out some faint markings in the sand.

“He hopped out from behind this bush and ambushed an insect,” there were some scuffs which, according to Geoff, demonstrated a struggle had occurred.

We followed the spoor for several meters more after which we found a glistening little pile of toad poop.

“Do we eat it?” asked Sam (probably because that’s what Bear Grylls would have done) but Geoff told us that we wouldn’t have to do that.
We then happened upon a set of enormous predator paw prints which Sam and I ‘expertly’ followed back to their point of origin; Marcus’ farm house where the monstrous beast we had been tracking; an enormous Great Dane, bounded out to bowl us over and lick our faces.

Hilary, emerged from her kitchen with iced orange juice and some snacks.

“We found our supper then?” said Sam, to which I replied: “Indeed we did. Good tracking son. Good tracking!”

The following morning, after not sleeping in our makeshift shelter, we awoke bright and early for yet another tracking session with Geoff.
After that, the boys learned all about the art of camouflage.
Special ‘sniper’ suites were provided which we further enhanced with leafy branches and bunches of grass.

“Now go and hide,” said Minerva, “and we will come try and find you”

It took us ages to locate our little boys, all of whom had found excellent hiding places amongst shrubs or up in trees. I suspect they would still be out there now, waiting for us to discover them, if it weren’t for the fact that Sam had on blue shoes which eventually, I spotted poking out from a protea tree.

“When hunting, be it for food, or even for an enemy, you must learn to be still and quiet and not be seen,” said Marcus; a lesson I will no doubt be reminding Sam of when he next does one of his ear splitting battle cries when playing ‘Man vs. Wild’back at home.

That evening Marcus took us to a beautiful cave deep in the reserve where we made our own fireswith flints and learned how to navigate using the stars, before hitting the sack beneath a busy colony of bats.

The course ended for us on the morning of the third and final day with a bow firing workshop led by Minerva ‘Lara Croft’ Hargreaves and her dad.
A selection of traditional bows as well as complicated and futuristic compound bows were given to us to play with, and a series of fake sponge animals were lined up for us to obliterate.

And thank heavens they weren’t real, because none of us could hit the targets very well, despite Minerva’s expert training.

Sam got a wolf in its bum (ow!), I took out a bear’s eyeball (double ow!) and the other kids penetrated the ankles and gonads of a bush pig (owowow!).

“Can I have one for Christmas?” asked Sam after shooting an arrow from a compound bow straight into a cute little fawn’s butthole.

The answer to which was a firm: “No”

We learned a lot about bush craft survival from Marcus and his team during the course, and my son picked up some very important lessons that the Bear Grylls television show had never managed to confer upon him.

When in the wild, you need to be slow and methodical, to be careful and safe and quiet and not to take risks unless absolutely necessary.

You must learn to understand nature and not battle against it and that survival is not about Man vs. Wild but rather Man working with Wild.
It’s also not necessary to eat a live a snake. You can shoot it in it bum with an arrow first.

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