Chapter one: THE WILL TO LIVE
Survival skills are important -- there's no doubting that. But having the will to survive is crucial. Knowledge is useless if you don't have the presence of mind to use it; focused determination is a singular force. There are plenty of cases where people, with absolutely no training or prior experience in the skills of survival, have managed to pull through life-threatening situations on willpower alone. I will never forget interviewing a woman by the name of Val Plumwood some fifteen years ago. She'd been out in a canoe all morning, bird-watching along a tributary of the East Alligator River in the Northern Territory's Kakadu National Park. It started raining, really bucketing down hard, so she began to make her way back to camp. She came around a bend in the creek -- which was already moving much faster because of the rain -- and saw a large piece of driftwood straight ahead. As she got closer to the driftwood, she noticed it had eyes. Two very beady eyes.
She realized it was a crocodile. A huge "salty." Within seconds of that realization it attacked her canoe. Val froze. Bash...Bash... It whacked against the fiberglass hull of the canoe. Bash...Bash... Behind her, beside her, a blur of thrashing madness. Val tried to paddle away to a clump of paperbark trees growing on a steep, muddy bank. She started climbing one of the trees but didn't get further than the first branch. The crocodile rocketed out of the water, grabbed her between the legs, dragged her along the riverbank, and deathrolled her three times. When the crocodile let go to change its grip, Val managed to escape and tried to climb the paperbarks again, but the crocodile was right behind her. It grabbed her for the second time and pulled her down into the water. Fortunately, the water was only about a meter (about 3 feet) deep, so Val was able to grab big gulps of air between the violent deathrolls. The crocodile couldn't drown her and relaxed its grip a second time; again she escaped, but the croc was right at her heels, snapping at and deathrolling her for the third time. Val was exhausted and in agony but, in a final bid to save her life, managed to get away and drag herself up the mud bank and away from her assailant. She then crawled and staggered 2 kilometers (1 1?4 miles) to the edge of a swamp a short distance from her camp, near the local ranger station. She had lost a lot of blood and could no longer stand or even sit but somehow she found the strength to call out. A ranger heard her feeble cry and came to her aid. Her ordeal was far from over. The extent of her injuries and infection from the wounds led to a two-month, touch-and-go battle in hospital. But she survived to tell the tale.
The will to survive is innate. As I write this, the breaking story on the 6:30 P.M. news revealed the plight of a three-year-old boy who'd vanished, some 18 hours beforehand, from an urban playground. He'd been found, relatively unscathed, a kilometer (half a mile) away from his home in bushland surrounding an unfenced water catchment. He'd survived a night alone in the wild by curling up inside a burnt-out log. Clearly, no one had taught him how to do that; he had instinctively found himself an appropriate shelter. He wasn't aware of the potentially fatal repercussions of his wanderings, so he didn't panic. He must have been scared, though -- in the pitch dark, all alone with nothing but the strange night noises tormenting him: owls hooting, rats scratching. If he'd been a bit older, the sound of a twig snapping would have caused his imagination to slip into overdrive, intensifying his stress levels and endangering his survival by robbing him of sleep.
It's only natural, given our ever-increasing understanding of consequences, that when we're faced with a fight-or-flight situation, a life-or-death ordeal, our first reaction will be one of overwhelming fear. In order to survive, we've just got to make sure the stress (and its source) is controlled and used to stimulate and inspire us into action rather than reduce us to blubbering, anxious wrecks incapable of anything but panic.
THE FIRST KEY TO SURVIVING: STOP
Order your priorities
Put that plan into action!
Okay, so it's easier said than done. But if you're going to come out the winner here, staying calm is mandatory. Right now you probably don't think you can do it in a life-threatening or survival situation, but if you can incorporate this strategy into your everyday life, you'll be halfway there when the real need arises.
Try it out in the office next time the shit hits the fan, or at home when the kids are screaming, the dog's barking, the phone's ringing, the milk on the stove is boiling over and so is your blood. Stop what you are doing and take a couple of deep, controlled breaths. Tell yourself that emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually it is within your power to bring the situation under control. It is not hopeless because you are not hopeless. Once you've got your pulse steady again, move on to the next step.
Never underestimate the power of positive thinking. Survival situations are like psychological warfare, and your mind can be either your worst enemy or your very best defense. The right attitude, from the outset, can make or break you. Accept your dilemma, then look upon it as a challenge rather than some unendurable torture. Altering your outlook in a positive way will have an extraordinary effect on your psyche and build your confidence. Don't set yourself up for failure by focusing on your weaknesses; tap into your "inner strengths." They're as good as full reserve-fuel tanks in the outback. Remind yourself that you are capable and you are not going to die. This will help you deal with any situation, moment by moment, step by step, one problem at a time.
ORDERING YOUR PRIORITIES
The next thing you've got to get a handle on is exactly what problems you're facing. You won't be able to do that unless you've made some sort of assessment of the immediate situation. If you don't know what you're dealing with, how are you ever going to determine what course of action you'll need to take? The time you spend sizing up the situation you are in will be relative to the immediacy of the danger you are facing. It could be seconds or it could be hours. Even if you're diving and an aggressive tiger shark starts homing in for the kill, giving yourself a poofteenth of a moment to size up your surroundings may be all it takes to save yourself from an attack. Just beyond the restricted peripheral vision of your mask, there might be a cave, or a huge rock you can temporarily hide behind. If your 4WD engine seizes on a sandhill in the middle of Western Australia's notorious Canning Stock Route, you obviously have a little more time up your sleeve to consider your predicament. Assuming the situation isn't immediately fraught with danger (that is, your broken-down vehicle is visible to other cars that may be coming from either direction of the track), you've probably got time to mull over your options with a nice hot cup of tea. Not a beer, okay? You can't afford to cloud your judgment or bring on dehydration. Just say, "Bugger," boil the billy, and move on to the next step. Here you have a choice. Do you find food or collect water first? Make a fire or build a shelter? Stitch up the huge gash in your leg with a thread pulled from your shirt or run around arranging rocks to spell out the word HELP on the off-chance a search-and-rescue plane is about to whiz overhead?
The ordering of your priorities will actually vary according to the type of landscape you're in; the season, climate, and temperature; the time of day; your physical state; the presence (and obviously, well-being) of others in your group; and the equipment you have at your disposal. The important thing to remember is to take care of your immediate physical needs first -- water, fire, shelter, and food. Comfort and rescue are secondary concerns.
Obviously, if you're hurt or someone else in your group is injured, make the administering of first aid your top priority. Help those who are physically incapacitated first, but don't turn a blind eye to anyone exhibiting signs of emotional distress. They need your assistance too. Calm and reassure them, or their escalating hysteria will drive you nuts.
If you are in a cold environment or you happen to be wet and shivering, make fire your next priority. If you're in the desert, water will be your main concern. If you're lost in the bush and night's approaching, finding shelter is your numero uno, closely seconded by the lighting of a fire. If you've fallen overboard or your boat's capsized, your prime concern will be flotation.
Food doesn't get much of a look just yet. You can actually go without it for quite some time. Put it on your list and keep it at the back of your mind while you're attending to your other tasks. At the same time, keep an eye on your surroundings. Being alert and aware is crucial to surviving.
PUTTING YOUR PLAN INTO ACTION
Once you've calmed down, convinced yourself you're going to be okay, taken stock of the situation, and prioritized your basic needs, it's time to take action. If you've gotten to this point and you're still in the here and now, you can safely assume that things are not as bad as they first seemed. This realization will provide enormous strength and impetus. Sure, you're stranded in the desert and it's 45?C (113?F), but Aboriginal people were able to thrive, not just survive, under these types of conditions for tens of thousands of years. You'll only have to do it for a day or two or ten. You'll have to do it exactly as they did, working with nature and not against it, so get cracking. The sun's going down and you haven't got a flashlight!
If there are other people with you, divvy up the tasks that need to be done. Whether they are adults or children, they'll all benefit from being involved and contributing to their own survival. Activity cleverly cancels out negativity. The act of taking even a small step toward improving one's situation lifts the psyche enormously. With kids, turn the situation into a bit of a game, a real-life adventure. If you can stay on top of your fear and have a little fun, they will too. Don't fill their hearts and innocent minds with a sense of desperation; give them your hope. Remember the film Life Is Beautiful and the character Guido? Let actor Roberto Benigni be your inspiration!
In all likelihood, the resources you need to survive will be well within reach. Don't bemoan the fact that you don't have a proper shovel -- improvise. You haven't got a sleeping bag? No use wasting your energy complaining; start collecting leaves and twigs and grass to insulate your clothing and protect your shelter from the wind.
This survival business really is as easy as ABC. Attitude. Basic skills. Confidence and common sense. We've pretty much covered attitude. Basic skills is next on the list, and you can be assured the confidence will come (without instruction) as a direct result of mastering your A's and B's. If you don't have at least some measure of common sense already, perhaps you should quit while you're ahead.
Copyright © 2001 by Sorrel Wilby