Bug eating, abseiling and fire building: welcome to the new Bear Grylls Explorers Camp in Ras Al Khaimah
The National's Sophie Prideaux is put through her paces as she takes on the British explorer's new survival course in the wadis of Jebel Jais
I’m stood on the edge of a sheer rock face, the aftertaste of dried meal worm still fresh in my mouth, cursing the me who a few days earlier thought signing up to a Bear Grylls camp would be a walk in the park.
You see, I’m scared of heights, and I can’t say I’m a huge fan of snacking on bugs either, yet here I am, a willing volunteer at the new Grylls-fronted Explorers Camp in Ras Al Khaimah, which opens its doors officially on Friday, October 16.
Still sweating from the scramble up the boulder-filled wadi that got me to this ledge, I take a deep breath as I will myself to step backwards off it, trying to control the violent shaking that has started in my tired legs.
Luckily, John, the abseiling instructor, knows exactly how to deal with acrophobics like me, offering a few reassuring but ultimately stern words to get me trust the rope enough to lean backwards over the 120-foot drop.
If I don’t go now, John tells me with a nod over to the top of the ledge on the far side of the wadi, I might miss my rescue vehicle. Sure enough, I glance across to see said saviours (a line-up of jeeps) waiting for me, and it’s enough to push me to take that first fateful step down the side of the cliff face.
Of course, participants on the Bear Grylls Explorers Camp’s survival courses are not actually stranded in the wild wadis of Jebel Jais, but over the course of four, eight or 24 hours, the instructors will almost have you believing you are, carrying out tasks and missions with the same sense of urgency as if your life might actually depend on it.
The previous two hours up until this point have been spent learning essential skills to help us survive in the wilderness. Though Grylls is not here himself, the instructors have all been trained at his survival academies, and one of our session’s leaders, Martin Norton, has worked directly with the famous explorer for a number of years.
“When it comes to survival, you need to remember the rule of three,” says Norton. “You can survive for three weeks without food, three days without water, three minutes without oxygen.
“And three seconds?” he asks, drawing blanks stares from my fellow media colleagues and I. “A bad attitude.” Oh.
To be fair, it’s hard to have a bad attitude around the instructors, who switch from barking orders to cracking jokes with ease, keeping the group engaged, but always on our toes.
The day starts at 7am, allowing us to make our way into the mouth of the arid wadi without the glare of the October sun, which is still finding its way out from behind the towering cliffs around us. It means we can take our first lesson – knives – in relative comfort.
Knives, as it turns out, is the perfect lesson in the time of Covid-19, as social distancing or not, we are all told to draw an imaginary "blood bubble" around us at an arm’s width circumference, making sure nobody enters this danger zone as we are taught how to turn a simple branch into a handy peg with a knife you definitely don’t want to be messing around with.
Naturally, my peg looks nothing like Ben, our instructor’s, but I get where he is going with it. And should I ever find myself stranded without a peg in the wilderness, I reckon I could give it a better second attempt.
We are also taught the many, many variations of knots and their many, many uses – who knew? Being the least physical part of the course, knots turns out to be my strength. We learn the basics – overhand, figure of eights – before moving on to the more complex like the reef, the clove hitch and, my personal favourite, the alpine butterfly.
Alongside the practical skills we pick up along the way, we are being taught Grylls's principles of survival and the order we’d need to think about them if we were lost in the wilderness.
We try to keep this in mind as we are set a task, told to imagine we have just crash-landed on this rocky terrain, with nothing but the limited supplies we have around us – tarp, string, some hay and, somewhere in the distance, some murky water buckets mimicking a stream. From this, we need to build shelter, find rescue, fetch water and source food – in that order, according to Grylls's holy grail of survival – and we have 20 minutes to do so.
It’s hectic as we divvy up jobs and quickly figure out team tactics and, as my team manages to successfully build a trap for food, collect water, erect a shelter and get a fire going, I think for the first time that I may not be immediately eaten by a bear, or in the UAE’s case, a passing goat, within seconds of being cut off from civilisation.
Before we set off for our abseil finale, we are given a more in-depth lesson on starting fires, or as Grylls puts it, “nature’s TV”. It’s not the rubbing together of sticks I imagined; Grylls always comes prepared. The most reliable way, we’re told, is to always carry a flint stick with us, something our instructor Jake tells us he never goes into the outdoors without. Sure enough, within seconds, he’s producing sparks, while telling us the best way to stack wood to get the flames going. Thin twigs on the bottom, heftier at the top, and they should always be dry, where possible. “Starting a fire is 90 per cent preparation,” he tells us. “Once you get that right, the flames will come.”
Grylls has made his name for many things over the years. He broke the world record to become the youngest Brit to reach Everest base camp at the age of 23, he taught former President of the United States Barack Obama how to survive in Alaska, but perhaps, most famously, he’s eaten some pretty grim things in the name of survival (and television).
But I’m still surprised when Norton offers us some “breakfast” for successfully completing our mission, which we hungrily accept, before he produces a granite platter of dried beetle larvae for us to tuck into, inducing a collective dry-heave from the group. “Come on guys, what did you expect?” he asks, as we do what we are told and each grab a pinch.
“Rule of three,” he reminds us. “It takes three seconds to talk yourself out of something.” So I drop them into my mouth and chew, the dusty, earthy taste lingering long after they’re gone.
There are some fears you are glad you faced head on. Eating bugs, I can confirm, is not one of them. But as my feet safely hit the ground after abseiling down into the wadi, I feel pretty invincible. Perhaps more Teddy than Bear, but still.
About the Bear Grylls Explorers Camp
The Bear Grylls Explorers Camp is the latest branch of the world-famous explorer’s Survival Academy, which puts adrenalin junkies around the world through their paces and teaches them outdoor skills along the way.
The camp is set to open on Friday, October 16, and will offer visitors of all ages and abilities the chance to learn some of the British adventurer's top tips and techniques with expert-led courses including half-day options, lasting three to four hours, as well as eight and 24-hour options. Later in the year, 48-hour and instructor courses will follow.
In 2021, Bear Grylls-branded accommodation will open at the camp for overnight stays, made up of 20 recycled and repurposed shipping containers. These will be able to host up to three guests with basic self-catering, including a private barbecue on a private outdoor terrace to prepare meals.
Updated: October 15, 2020 10:30 AM