From crossing Africa to living off the land with aboriginals in Australia, Ray Mears' love for bushcraft has seen him travel all over the globe. As he turns 50 this year he’s finally releasing an autobiography, My Outdoor Life, about his adventures. He tells Phoebe Smith about his idea of travel heaven and why the witchetty grub is nothing to be laughed at…
From an early age I needed adventure
And I still don’t feel I’ve had enough. I know that sounds really strange but I think if I’d have been in the military then maybe I would have had greater challenges than I would have had even in my life. I like to be in the front of things.
Canoeing in Canada for me is heaven
I haven’t done enough of that in my lifetime and I don’t think I will ever satisfy that itch. For me, when I’m in a canoe on my own, I’m in a place of meditation. It’s very, very profound. You’re completely at one with the elements – moved by the current, buoyed by the water, pushed by the wind. You’re open to the elements. It’s a very, very spiritual process and I wish I’d done more of that.
I didn’t particularly enjoy filming in India
I don’t like crowds so I find India very difficult. I don’t like the way that their civilization was built but at the same time I have to recognise it’s the oldest civilization on the planet.
I love all wild landscapes, but I have a very deep, spiritual connection with the forest
I don’t see a forest as an environment made up of many trees, but rather as one, living organism. When I enter a forest I feel like I am part of something bigger and older than me. And the more time I spend in forests, the more I learn about them, the more I feel that.
If you think of the habitat that you have in a forest compared to grass – grass is great for insects but there aren’t the larger animals that you find in a forest. A forest is like our lungs, it’s many folded, it’s got so many nooks and crannies there are just so many opportunities for wildlife.
I think turning 50 is a reasonable age to do a biography
I’ve been trying to avoid doing it, to be honest. I hate talking about myself so it’s been a very odd thing to do. I’m happier telling other people’s stories – which is what I have tried to do in the book.
I don’t live in the past. I live very much in the present. Of course, there are loads of things I’ve had to leave out so what I’ve done is chosen really interesting or key moments of the experiences in my life.
Making friends comes easily when you travel
You need help. You need each other. Particularly in Africa where there’s safety in numbers. We were massively vulnerable. We were entering a country that is as dark as it comes, those in charge had taken away all the radios and it was country in total darkness – you’d go to a village and there weren’t even oil lamps, no radio playing and it was in a state of chaos so you’re massively vulnerable.
There’s no point being scared when you travel
Of course, fear exists. But it’s largely a process of anticipation. If you’re sitting in a plane and you're about to jump out of it, you might be afraid. But you can concentrate on your training, you can concentrate on the drill, you can check the equipment – there are things you can do to push it out of your mind. And I think that is what I am largely able to do.
I think it’s very difficult to have an authentic experience when you travel
I honestly do. Television, without doubt, has been a massive advantage for me when dealing with a local community. Doors are opened where otherwise I'd be labelled ‘tourist’. Even more so now because of the internet. When I visit a tribe they have already looked up what I do. So I’m very fortunate that they see the veracity of my work and because of that they are excited and want to be a part of it.
Most people who go to Africa see it through rose tinted glasses
Or through the glasses of their guides. Africa is one of those places where there’s a lot of bullshit, a lot of guides telling you how much they know about the local people and nine times out of ten it’s not true. They haven’t walked among the villagers, they haven’t really seen the back streets of those locations. I think the old hunting safaris of the 1930s were much longer and much rougher and I think people had those experiences. In a strange way, I think that when people travel with a wanderlust for Africa they are harking back to the old days safaris and they’re not getting them.
When I get a moment I like to be home
That sounds really odd because I’m out so much. I also miss that filming isn’t done the way it used to be in the old days. We used to have more time to film. Now everything is a rush and budgets are tight. I dislike that. I like to immerse myself in a place and to live out outdoors. I’m not always doing survival these days. I’m doing more wildlife. So we’re often working out of hotels as it's more convenient. I don't like it but it’s the nature of the beast.
Some directors have wanted me to eat some wild food for shock value which I think is cheap television
I get really quite annoyed. I like witchetty grubs, I know how to find them, I enjoy collecting them and I enjoy eating them and they are a very, very important food for aboriginal people and when we laugh at people eating witchetty grubs we are not understanding the importance of this food. For children in desert communities who would go out with their mothers and collect witchetty grubs was a lifesaver food because children in many aboriginal communities are very often at the bottom of the pecking order for food.
In those communities the knowledge of the elders is very important because the food ripens in a very mosaic way – you can’t say on this day and in that habitat you’re going to find this berry. It doesn’t work like that. The knowledge of the elders and the land and the specific bushes and plants is really important and pushes the children’s importance low down so when meat was portioned the best cuts went to the hunter, to the elders and so on. Malnutrition was not unusual in aboriginal children.
We live in a new age where whites working with these societies try to gloss over these things. But I’ve lived with people and I’ve seen these things and I know that that’s how it was. I’ve seen with my own eyes. Why witchetty grubs are important – they are an easily digested protein and that’s very important because if you’re short on food you start to digest yourself. It was a survival food, so when you see the witchetty grub in those sort of terms it takes on a whole new meaning.
I have a very good memory
And for the people who work for me that is a requisite ability. It’s not something you can teach, you can either do it or you can’t and it’s very useful. I remember when I was at school there was this teacher who explained the process of live listening and that’s really helped because when I work with indigenous people I only have one chance to hear what they have to say, they don’t like to repeat things and if they do it’s never the same way twice, so it’s a really important skill and I like my subject – I think it’s very easy to remember things if you like what you’re trying to remember.
Insects – especially mosquitoes – are one of the most dangerous threats to any traveller
And increasingly so because of the disease that they carry. Ticks, too, because of Lyme Disease [Ray was famously diagnosed with this in 2011]. They are on the increase here so you have got to be careful.
Snakes aren’t such an issue. If you go to the places and do the things I do, you’re going to bump into snakes. I never pick them up. I always leave them. I think you’re a fool if you go near them.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was helping someone catch a freshwater crocodile and I made the mistake of trying to hold its head down with my foot . The croc was as fast as lightening and grabbed my shoe! And it’s not unusual! If you get too close to something, it’s going to have a pop at you.
Having said that, there are a few snakes you’ve got to be a bit careful of. The snakes are really aggressive in the rainforests of Central America. And you don’t want to bump into a black mamba in Africa. There are a lot of snakes in Australia but they’re not so aggressive. There is a time of year when they are aggressive, but generally they’re not.
I will never forget the time I met a grizzly bear face to face
That was a very profound moment and I will remember that for as long as I live. I felt we had a sort of stand-off and that was very special. But I think any encounter with a wolf is unique too. They are really lovely creatures , but they are on a mission, they’ve got a plan. When you meet wolves, they’re up to something. They’re not sitting around – they’re working at something. It’s like meeting people. I imagine when you meet wolves it’s like meeting a tribe of Indians on the great prairies. Their fur’s blowing in the wind and they’re looking at you with knowledge in their eyes. They really are profound.
I’ve never seen a tiger in the wild
But I'd really like to. I worry about the rate of extinction of things. I’m really concerned about what’s happening with black rhino. 450 were killed in South Africa alone last year. In a decade we may not have any more black rhino left on the planet and that would be a terrible indictment on humanity just because of the greed of a few oriental people. The more we can do the better. We have to get word out.
I do, in a very selfish way, like to travel alone
I don’t get so many opportunities now and because of that they become very special moments. Having said that, if I’m guiding a group of people I really enjoy watching the growth in the party and what they learn from it and it’s very special and that’s a special kind of magic that you get back from travelling with other people. And I love travelling with my wife because she loves it and it’s all new to her.
The Northern Lights are an amazing natural phenomena
And watching them isn’t the best part – listening to them is. This year the northern lights were amazing.
I’d really like to go to Japan
There are loads of places still on my wish list. Japan is probably top of my list.
There are lots of things I left out of the book
I couldn’t talk about all the places I’ve been to in my book – and there are special moments that came to mind after I'd finished. Like fishing with the local fishermen in Samoa. They took two really long lianas and kept joining them, wrapping palm around it so it hung like a skirt. Then about 200 people went out to a reef, one lot walking in one direction, the others in the opposite direction, meeting up on the far side of the reef so that there is a curtain of leaves hanging down into the water. The curtain stopped the fish from swimming through as they made the noose smaller and smaller and smaller until it was about 50m across. There was this boiling mass of fish in the middle and people went in and speared them. What an amazing experience. Most people will never see that, let alone take part.
Britain is still my favourite place
I'm at an age now that I’ve started to settle down and I’ve started thinking about going back to the places that I liked most. The west coast of Scotland, if you can bear the midges, has lovely landscapes and lovely light. Perthshire, where there are fewer midges, is stunning. I love the south of England, especially where there’s woodland. Sleeping in a bedroll under an oak canopy and waking up in the morning and the smell of rosewood smoking on the fire – that’s really special.
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