What do you do after you walk the Amazon?
Ed Stafford — adventurer extraordinaire and Guinness World Record holder for walking the length of the Amazon River — likes a challenge. Casting about for an adventure that would top the extraordinary feat he recounts in Walking the Amazon, Stafford decides to maroon himself on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. His mission: to survive for sixty days equipped with nothing — no food, water, or even clothing — except the video cameras he would use to document his time. Detailing Stafford's jaw-dropping sojourn on the island of Olourua, Naked and Marooned is a tale of unparalleled adventure and of one man's will to push himself to the outer limits—and survive.
I interviewed Stafford by telephone last week.
Describe the island you were dropped on.
The island was a classical sort of South Pacific island. It was uninhabited. It was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was completely covered in forest. None of it has been cleared, and if you look at it, it's sort of encircled by a golden sandy beach on one side and jagged flat rocks on the inside. Outside of that, there was a coral reef that formed a lovely lagoon all the way around the island. If you look at it, it was an absolute paradise island, and one that you would pay thousands and thousands of pounds to go and stay on. That was pretty much what it was like.
One of the things that I think people don't realize about the South Pacific — and this is from my own experience of having spent quite a bit of time there — is that it actually can get rather chilly at night. You were dropped off on this island completely naked. How did you deal with the cold?
No one's actually asked me that before. You're right. It was very chilly. The winds come up at night, and, obviously, I did find a cave very early on. I set myself up in the cave, but the wind would howl through that cave, and, so, yeah, initially I was just covering myself in dry grass on the premise that the horse, in its stable just sleeps on hay, and so I figure out to cover myself in grass. The wind cut straight through, and it was freezing, and I had quite a few nights where I was pretty uncomfortable.
I tried to make a blanket, again, out of grass just by weaving it together, but it was pretty ineffectual, and covered myself in all sorts of things, leaves, sand, whatever I could basically do to cut out the wind. Eventually, obviously, the key to it all was getting a fire going which took two weeks, but once I got a fire going, night was a lot more comfortable, certainly.
Once you were able to get a fire going, were you able to stay warm on both sides of your body, or did you have to turn around every once in a while to get toasty on both sides?
Actually, I would just lie with the small of my back to the fire, so the fire would be about at my waist and about a couple of feet away from me, and it would warm up the small of my back, and, therefore, I suppose, the essential parts, the essential organs, and my head and my feet would be sort of at a lower temperature, but a comfortable temperature, as well. I could just stay there all night, and I had a pile of wood in front of me that I could then just reach out and put on the fire. I'd have to wake up maybe about every hour and a half, maybe two hours, in order to reach the pile of wood, but I was fine. I probably was half awake for about two minutes each time before it died down, and it would automatically wake me up. I could feel the heat the fire drew up, and I'd wake up and put more wood on it and then I would get through the night like that. It was a bizarre sort of animalistic experience, but it was quite a nice thing, actually. It was quite a nice little routine to the whole thing.
You were formerly in the British military, and I think you specialized in survival skills. Did you have to learn any special survival skills to go on this island, or did you kind of purposely avoid that so you could figure out how to improvise?
The mistake a lot of people thought was that I was a survival expert. I'm not. I came out of the military and went into a job leading expeditions, but expeditions and survival are completely different things. One, I've got a rucksack full of equipment, and food, and a lighter to light a fire with, and all of the kit that I need in order to run an expedition, whereas this 60-day [inaudible] on an island actually had me completely outside my comfort zone. I deliberately stripped away all of the things that would make my life easy, like help from other people, and equipment, and food, and water, and a knife, and everything that I would normally rely on.
That's why, for me, it was interesting. That's why I did the project because it wasn't going in there with a mosquito net, and a knife, and a bag of rice, and bits and bobs like that. Of course, there's no challenge there. Of course you could survive. It then does become that paradise island, and you get preoccupied with not getting bored. But to start from scratch, to actually trying to create an existence for yourself, and try to advance in terms of involving your comfort, that was, to me, as a massive challenge.
Therefore, I did have to learn new skills. When I walked the Amazon two and half years, I didn't know how to light a fire with two pieces of wood, rubbing them together, because I used a lighter, but I had to learn how to do that. I learned how to knap rocks into sort of basic cutting tools and to act as knives. I also learned how to make bows and arrows, as well, so it's just a few skills.
I think, what I was left with is — apart from lighting the fire — it wasn't really all of the skills you needed. It was more a mindset. It was more of an approach. It was just being adaptable, having your eyes open, not getting too fazed by the whole thing, and seeing what you have around you that you can make use of, really. It was far more of an improvising thing than having any sort of established plan, really.
It sounds to me like one of your big challenges was just dealing with setting up cameras all the time. Do you think that that was like kind of a major hassle for you?
It was a bit of a double-edged sword, if I'm honest. Sure, there was an extra hassle. It probably made the whole experiment about 40% or 50% harder than it would have been if I had gone on without any cameras. If I was walking down a beach, then what the documentary didn't show, I then had to walk back down the beach in order to pick up the camera and send it off, and then walk back down the beach. So it's three journeys for every one that's on the camera, However, it became a project outside of survival which I think I really needed. The artistic side of it — framing each shot, thinking about how you're going, all of the different footage that you need in order to make a sequence. It was nice. It was refreshing to have something outside of my own survival, a project to work on, and one the invoked a bit of, like I said, a bit of artistic flair, as well. I think it was quite healthy for me because when you're on your own, you really do need things to occupy you. I think that part was quite a healthy thing, and, obviously, talking out loud, speaking to myself, that's often quoted as being a sort of madness, but I was talking out loud from the very beginning because that was my job to document the whole experience.
You were there for 60 days, which is a really long time to be alone. What were your favorite times and what were your least favorite times?
Well, meal times were definitely the favorite. Actually, catching the food as well. Whatever I was working on at the time, at about 4:00 in the afternoon, just as the sun's beginning to set, I'd walk around the island, especially at very low tides, to try and catch food, so that I've got some supper. Essentially it was a beautiful time. It was a time when I could just have my head up, and look at the horizon, and fish, and the view, and stuff like that. Obviously, it wasn't an abundant crop of food. It was very pleasurable coming back and cooking it all, and eating it all.
The toughest times were when I was ill. I was ill a couple of times on the island, really quite, what I thought, quite seriously ill. I think that can massively affect your morale, and it can really bring you down in a way that you're not quite aware of. You just can't quite figure out why you're down. Then you realize, "Hang on. Am I ill?" I think they were the worse times. I suppose it was the good times, a learning lesson, and trying to motivate yourself, and getting a bit down because you just really are a bit low.
hat was one of the things I thought was pretty surprising — the epilogue to your book where you described having serious issues with post traumatic stress disorder. You almost didn't realize how lonely you were on the island, did you?
No, I didn't. Yeah. It was quite humbling, really, the whole experience. I did two and a half years walking the Amazon, and I thought that 60 days on an island, for a T.V. program for Discovery Channel, I thought that won't touch the sides in terms of how difficult it would be. I didn't really count on the fact of isolation. I didn't really understand what affect that can have on the human mind and what sort of emotional barriers you start putting in place, the survival mechanism. When I came home, life wasn't was easy as I expected it to be. It wasn't all roses. I started creating problems at home, and then eventually it did get to the stage where in January of this year, it wasn't that long ago, I think I had just hit rock bottom, as I describe it, like the most minor thing could occur, and I would be completely thrown by it, and be very nervous and timid, and had no courage at all. It was quite a disorientating place to be in.
I did have to take a step back and acknowledge that the experience had taken a toll on me, and I was running on empty, basically. I had a few months to recover before I resumed filming my current series, but I think, I would say that it taught me to take things like your mental health a lot more seriously. I would train myself into anything when I was younger, and even up until this project, and not really think of the consequences. I've always considered myself tough enough to just tough anything out, and I think this was one step too far, really, in that respect. I think it's taught me quite a lot in terms of just being responsible for what you do.