You’re sitting in front of an intimidating board. It’s the interview of your life. That dreaded prompt – the one you’ve rehearsed over and over, which pops up all too often – finally comes around.
“Tell us about a time you worked in a team environment in a high stakes situation.”
I’ll let you marinate in thought for a moment, ponder over which of your group assignments at university were the least painful, while we backtrack a little.
If you’re reading this, it means you live in a comfortable world. That’s not to say life doesn’t have its hardships, but rather you’re already in a better position than the vast majority of people on this planet.
Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone might sound like a workplace retreat cliché, yet few can actually say they’ve done something dramatically different in their lives or had a truly tough experience that has changed them in some way as a person.
Late last year, we were made aware of an opportunity that rivals all adventure travel experiences to date.
As far as we know, it’s the only of its kind in the world. No Roads Expeditions, in partnership with No Limit Journeys, have taken the popular ‘Survivor’ reality TV show and flipped the concept on its head, offering a real island survival experience that takes life back to basics.
No cameras, no script, only an objective to survive. Nine days and eight nights on a remote island with nothing but a handful of survival tools, the clothes on your back, and a group of complete strangers you’re acquainted with only 24 hours before.
Despite my mother’s best attempts at talking me out of it, a few months later I found myself on the way to Tonga, the South Pacific archipelago a five-hour flight from Sydney. Our on-the-ground guide was a middle-aged Frenchman named Cyril. Growing up in the Chamonix region of France and completing an impressive portfolio of adventure survival experiences – most notably a solo 11,000 kilometre trek across Siberia, Mongolia and Laos living off the land in up to -50 degree temperatures – it’s safe to say this guy was as hard as nails.
We were briefed in our first 24 hours on the ground. Cyril laid out the risks, the contingencies and teased us with past stories of previous trips. It was only then that I began to look objectively at the task we were about to undertake, and despite all the previous hype, it was the first time I sensed a slight nervousness in the back of my throat.
Our team was tight on this occasion, a group of four, including Cyril who would accompany us on the island. We were an eclectic mix: a 20-year-old diesel mechanic from suburban Melbourne, a late-fifties filmmaker from North Sydney, and myself – just a twenty-something guy who gets to do a lot of cool shit here at Boss Hunting.
We were permitted to select one ‘survival’ item and one ‘comfort’ item each to take with us on the island. Don’t think ‘comfort’ is a euphemism for an inflatable mattress or your iPhone. The rules were strict, and our inventory consisted of the basics between us, such as a knife, a machete, and a flint, among a couple of other things.
There are two key differences between this experience and a real-life survival situation. The first, is that we were already aware we were being marooned on the island. Some may have enrolled in survival school or watched fire-making tutorials online, others might have trained for months to become as physically capable as possible. For me, I tried my best to keep it authentic. Despite a few months training to boost my general fitness levels, I purposely refrained from any further preparation. I thought to myself, if my plane went down tomorrow, what physical and mental condition would I naturally be in?
The second, is that you know you’ll eventually be extracted from the island – there’s a definitive end in sight. There’s nothing that can be done about this one, either, as they can’t exactly leave you there forever. But for the former, Cyril and his team know how to keep you guessing each step of the way, until, whether you realise it or not, you wake up on the island and the biggest challenge of your life has begun.
As the day finally came and I stepped ashore, the balmy 27-degree water lapping at my feet, I pictured a corporate drone in their office cubicle staring at their computer’s screensaver of the exact scene that I was now living.
The island was small. Like, really small. Stretching a mere 150 metres wide by perhaps 60 metres across, the pile of sand and palm trees in the middle of nowhere was more than 7 kilometres from the next closest island and surrounded on all sides by a circular coral reef anywhere between 400-500 metres from shore. If you swam east beyond the reef, the next form of land you’d reach would be Chile over 10,000 kilometres away. We unanimously decided we’d only explore the west reef, to avoid that worst-case scenario.
Roughly two dozen coconut palm trees dotted the lush centre of the island. Wind and swell erosion had established a definitive sheltered side where we quickly agreed was the best place to set up camp. It was paradise, it truly was. For most, it would be the ideal setting for a marriage proposal or a week lying on a sunbed drinking piña coladas.
The menacing reality of our situation didn’t take long to rear its head, however. My initial amazement and excitement soon came into direct conflict with emotions of uncertainty and ambivalence. It was tough trying to comprehend that the most beautiful spectacle of nature I’d ever seen would soon become my mental prison.
The first and last nights were notably rough, although those in the middle seemed to just blur into one. When I talk about my attitude changing, I can pinpoint this to almost a single moment during our first evening, about half an hour before sunset.
Crabs. Crabs everywhere.
I’d noticed a few here and there when we arrived – and I’m not apprehensive towards crabs any more than the next guy – but when literally thousands of them appear from everywhere, all around you, just before you lose all natural light, you discover a frantic feeling you never knew you had in you. As the sun fell behind the horizon, every hole in the sand, every leaf in the undergrowth began to murmur and slowly move, like zombies awakening from a graveyard.
At first, our primitive excuses for beds were a mere two or three palm leaves stacked on top of each other, split down the middle and turned inwards to make a mattress (take that word loosely) about the width of a stretcher. The crabs loved hiding in these. I was waking up at least a dozen times a night anyway, let alone from multiple crabs the size of my hand scurrying cunningly over my legs, their pincers finding themselves half way up my board shorts.
You could hear them everywhere, like a really fucking good surround sound system, but you just couldn’t see them.
Sometimes I’d jolt awake, thinking another had run across my foot, when it was in fact just a spiky palm frond tickling my ankle. This went on for ten hours a night, for eight nights. The crabs turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg on a nine-day see-saw of ongoing mental mind games.
Routine was probably the last thing I expected to experience on a deserted island. To be perfectly honest, I thought I’d be bored shitless, trying to make a beach cricket set or elaborate sand castles. This was not the case, at least not for the first few days.
We always woke with the sunrise, a pleasant experience that I wouldn’t normally make part of my daily routine. With no curtains or warm blankets to roll over in for another hour’s snooze, we didn’t really have a choice – we found ourselves awake and being productive with the mild temperatures of the mornings.
These first few hours were critical as we’d have more chance catching fish at dawn than any other time, and we couldn’t catch them before sunset as there wouldn’t be enough light to prepare and cook them safely. So fishing became the priority of the mornings.
It took four days to get our first fish. Four days. Spearfishing, as the primary concept for catching food, was quickly binned despite sounding like the coolest option to four blokes wanting to go complete Castaway on the experience.
Cost-benefit wise, however, it wasn’t worth our time. We’d spend hours in the water, wasting vital energy for no guaranteed result while our morale gradually eroded from failure. Instead, we fashioned our own casting reels from washed up drink bottles. It was sad to see the amount of rubbish that had found its way onto shore, yet it was met with excitement when we found something useful.
Examining every foreign object on the island evolved into a massive treasure hunt. Among my finds were a Nescafe instant coffee sachet from Indonesia, unopened baby wipes from Chile and a 200-litre drum – complete with ropes and barnacles – labeled ‘ASFALTO SANTIAGO’. I was a bit salty I never found a diving mask with “P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney” to add to my collection.
The drink bottles, however, were the start of this survival mentality; turning rubbish, flotsam and jetsam into game-changing survival tools. After wrapping fishing line around the bottles, we’d tie it off on the neck and carve a hole in a piece of coral to use as a weight on the opposite end. All we had to do was crack open a hermit crab’s shell, throw him on the rusty hook and toss the weight out to sea. The line would fly off like a normal fishing cast and we’d reel it in immediately to tease the fish with moving bait.
For four days I didn’t catch a thing, casting dozens of lines at sunrise and sunset. Normally, frustration would get the better of me in this situation, but with our stomachs shrinking rapidly and no discernible meal in days, I didn’t have a choice. Then one afternoon, almost at breaking point, I caught three fish in about 10 minutes.
Ecstatic from my first catch and hustling to get the strikingly colourful – yet incredibly tough – Parrotfish I had just caught prepped for cooking before sundown, I wandered to the water’s edge to clean my knife. As I knelt down, I noticed a large, sand-coloured octopus laying incognito about a metre and a half off to my right, partially submerged along the waterline. It took me a moment to realise what it was, as after no progress catching food, suddenly everything was happening at once.
I shouted to one of the boys to come running with the spear, and as he handed it to me, the octopus darted towards a nearby rock. I threw it down with huge force, clipping a tentacle just before it found safety under the coral. Huge pools of black ink stained the clearest water in the world, but when it dissipated, the octopus was gone. I played cat and mouse with that octopus for the rest of my time on the island.
Food was an ongoing tug-of-war with nature, so we were extremely lucky that the issue of water was a challenge promptly solved by tropical showers on day two and three. Our tarp became a catchment and we’d funnel the water droplets to the centre, which would eventually become a trickle and this trickle found its way into empty water bottles or coconut shells. We collected about four or five litres of water from this method which we stored and alternated between the coconut juice.
No artificial lighting was one of the biggest shocks to the system. You take for granted how much your daily life depends on light bulbs. Come 8 pm, when the sun had well and truly set and dinner was cooked (usually just slivers of a single, potato-like root plant between four) , we’d have to let the fire die out to conserve firewood. This meant we had two options: try to sleep (and let the crabs keep you from getting anything longer than 30 minutes at a time), or lie on the far end of the island and stare at the stars.
And thousands of stars there were. On clear nights with little or no moon you could see the infinite band of the Milky Way stretch dramatically across the dark sky. With nothing on the horizon in any direction except for the island we were on, it felt as if I was inside a child’s snow globe, mesmerised by an overwhelming number of stars, most of which I had never seen before and will probably never see again.
Fish, coconuts and the odd root plant don’t satisfy the hunger of four blokes for nine days. Many of the Tongan islands are also home to wild pigs, with fisherman from a bygone era bringing them to the outlying atolls and reef islands to cultivate the land and perhaps even as a possible food option. On the second day we discovered our island had two small pigs, a black and a brown one, rustling about in the undergrowth. As our optimism towards fishing slowly dwindled, the pigs began to look like a more and more attractive option by the day.
When you get the luxury of eating what you want, when you want, taken away from you, your mind begins to torment itself with the flavours of meals you forgot you’d even eaten. A burrito from four months ago becomes the focus of your concentration for hours before your mind decides to add this to a showreel of other mouth-watering flavours to play on repeat day after day. This was probably the mentally toughest aspect of being on the island.
It wasn’t long, then, before we agreed it was time to fashion an elaborate trap to capture one of the pigs.
This conversation went on for hours, strung out over a few days. We even dismantled a bed frame I had constructed to use the branches for a pig pen, which we put open coconuts inside. Pigs (and crabs) love coconut, as they normally can’t access the inner flesh, so it was easy to lure them close by – and we had plenty of open coconuts.
Late one afternoon during optimistic discussions on the progress of our traps, the little black pig wandered unassumingly out of the bush, straight in between myself and the mechanic. Much like my earlier encounter with the octopus, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“Fuck it,” the diesel mechanic said, as he hurled himself on top of the pig. I grabbed a sack and we threw the pig in. The commotion subsided, and we stood there in silence, unable to speak in pure amazement at what had just happened. Survival is as much about luck and (quite literally) jumping on every opportunity as it is skill and planning. The following morning was a Sunday, a day of rest, indulgence, and one of the best roast dinners I’ve ever had.
On our final night, it poured with rain. Since we could only store a certain amount of water, and we were being extracted the following day, the relief brought by the storm shortly became an annoyance. As darkness crept in, the four of us lay ourselves side by side like sardines, trying to directly stay out of the rain under the 4 by 2 metre tarp.
We were soaked. It got cold, really cold. Water splashed off our faces like some sort of Chinese water torture ordeal. This kept our eyes closed but our minds alertly awake the entire night. With the end so near, the minutes dragged for what felt like hours. It wasn’t really until this moment, the final test I suppose, that I truly second-guessed why the hell I had chosen to do this experience.
That thought was quickly extinguished by the rise of the sun the final morning. I’d never been so happy to see the sunrise. We were some of the first people in the world to watch the sun break that day – every day, actually – with the international dateline just a few kilometres beyond our reach to the east. The four of us silently starred into the horizon as it blew up with the light of the final day, casting a welcome warmth on our skin.
There are too many words I could close this story with. Perhaps that golden piece of advice, that life-changing take away, so to speak – can’t be articulated.
As I sat back at the hotel bar, nine days after being dropped onto that beautiful bitch of an island, I suddenly remembered that a world outside this small archipelago in the middle of the South Pacific actually existed. So I connected to the average-at-best hotel WiFi.
I didn’t react the way I expected. The messages came pouring in, those little red notifications jumping to ridiculous numbers, the work inbox furiously pounding my phone with an overwhelming amount of emails. The thing nearly buzzed itself off the bar.
I sank into my chair, pausing for a moment, before turning my phone to ‘Do Not Disturb’ and facing it down. Then, picking up my beer, I walked a few metres over to the water’s edge, parking myself in for the long-haul and burying my feet in the sand.
I watched the sun disappear yet again on another day, like I had done for the last week or so, despite having the freedom to resume life as it was before. But for that brief moment, I chose not to.
Somehow it just didn’t seem like the best idea.