Surviving the Bear Grylls Academy in the Oman wilderness

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Action man Bear Grylls has brought his namesake 'Survival Academy' to the region to help participants push themselves to new limits. Hareth Al Bustani finds his breaking point

When you find yourself running after a bright yellow van in the wilderness, it is appropriate to question the decisions that took you to that point.

Add 40°C, a very heavy backpack and just three litres of water to last the next 24 hours and things can quickly go from bad to worse.

Welcome to the Bear Grylls Survival Academy, a course designed to push its enthusiastic students to their limits. Savour the feelings of dehydration, muscle ache, vertigo, arachnophobia and spheksophobia, the fear of wasps, and all manner of unpleasant sensations.

As unbearable as the one kilometre run is, it is an ideal time to make introductions.

The seemingly indefatigable Karin Edstrom runs back and forth, encouraging the stragglers, even returning from the finishing line to take the bag from a flailing member of the team. Her colleagues booked her on to the course as a leaving present, one she jokes could indicate that they either know her very well, or simply “don’t like” her.

The run takes us to the mouth of a huge wadi. Hearts pumping, blood boiling and feet wobbling, we trek up terrain covered in pebbles and rocks. Just when it seems time for a nap the team continues on, snaking up a sheer ledge, one after the other.

At this point, I am quite certain I have reached my limit. Conscious of not drinking too much water, sweat is getting the better of me. But we hike further until, fortuitously, instructors David Sculthorpe and Chris Coyle stop beneath a large tree.

We have to keep our rucksacks on, lest we expend even more energy than required standing back up, and an insolent wasp is buzzing around me. I have to persevere – we are learning an important lesson in procuring and purifying water in the harshest of climates.

The group listens in as David reveals the most dreaded of Bear Grylls’ survival techniques – drinking urine.

“It’s not a bad idea. If you were really stuck would you want to drink urine, really? Do you know much about that?”

The silence is deafening.

“In the very worst-case scenario, if you have to it will keep you alive but it’s not the best thing to do.”

A goat looks on in suspicion in the distance before travelling onwards, having heard enough.

For those who are not familiar with Grylls and his exploits, this is actually pretty tame stuff.

A 41-year-old former reservist in Britain’s elite SAS special forces, Grylls, who was born in Northern Ireland, has made his name by surviving the most extreme conditions, from Everest to rowing naked down the Thames River, often with only a television crew for company.

His survivalist techniques include a nausea-inducing diet that has featured deer droppings and using a dead sheep as a sleeping bag, among others.

Grylls’ commercial activities include a knife that can be lashed to a pole to make a spear and the Bear Grylls Survival Academy, which offers special courses around the world, including the UAE. Its motto is, “It may hurt a little”.

So here we are.

Split into two teams, the first task is to start making what is called a solar still. Raj Pal, 43, a paediatrician who describes “expedition medicine” as a hobby of his, batters the rocky ground with a shovel, frantically trying to beat the clock.

The rest of us stuff leaves and the bottom half of a water bottle into the hole, before covering it with plastic wrap secured by rocks.

Hoping for the best, we rise to the next challenge: “boulder hopping” further up the wadi; navigating over areas covered in larger boulders. This is slightly perilous and exhausting.

Higher up, we are given a brief lesson in the bewildering art of tying knots. To ease my suffering, instructor Chris explains an important one using a simple metaphor of a bunny running around a tree – it works.

Further up the valley our instructors stop us again, this time to recreate a medical emergency.

Chris lies on the ground and encourages the group to move him to safety. We are presented with a range of options: put together a makeshift stretcher using backpacks; two people providing support on either side; or making a seat by wrapping a piece of rope across two people’s shoulders.

Once done, we proceed back down the wadi, finally resting for the day near a site commonly used to light fires.

At this point, one of my worst fears is imagined when I am selected as team leader to gather wood before the sun goes down. I delegate in a very British manner, asking for volunteers and begging reassurances.

Chris sits down, and whips out a bag of party tricks – all for the purposes of lighting fires. The most impressive is a ball of cotton wool, “teased apart”, dipped in Vaseline, a potent fuel, and lit with a Bear Grylls signature fire starter, an artificial flint rod and metal striker.

After piling up the bark, small twigs and medium and large branches in the correct manner, we light a fire and David helps us to prepare two large fish.

We tuck in using our Bear Grylls knives and douse the meal in garlic salt, which we earned earlier by solving a riddle.

Ali Albasri teaches me a trick he uses when he camps with his family in Saudi Arabia.

“This is how we wash our hands,” he says with a laugh, grabbing a fistful of sand and rubbing it between his hands. I follow suit but realise I’ve picked up dried goat excrement and scramble for my hidden stash of wet wipes instead.

After dinner we stare at the fire while most soon retreat to their beds. My own “bed” consists of an inflatable mattress that I cannot fathom and instead convert into a futon accompanied by a mosquito-net pillow.

Although I have sneaked in portable chargers and a backup phone, neither of these are of any use. We lost phone reception a long time ago.

After taking off my boots and hiking socks, I eventually enjoy some intermittent sleep.

The next morning, fellow journalist Judy Cogan discovers a ball of tin foil she was given and carried around all day was starting to leak. She unwraps it, and discovers breakfast. And so, we kick off Escape Day by tucking into goat heart – the taste of which lingers for hours.

David says it has rained elsewhere in Oman and we are at risk of being dragged away by flash floods. Despite the cloudless sky, we follow instructions and don our helmets and harnesses before taking turns to propel ourselves up one side of the valley, frantically reaching for juts and then crawling like Spider-Man.

At the top, we encounter our second mock casualty. Karin has been bitten by an imaginary snake and we need to get her to safety. I courageously opt to carry her rucksack.

I have gone all morning without water, having run out. Just as panic begins to set in we are reminded of the solar stills we prepared the day before. While the other team has fared well – with perhaps five centimetres of pure, clean watery goodness – the goats have got into ours. But we are all promised water. Just around the corner. We run.

“I want you to just look around you,” interrupts David, “Are you sure everyone’s here?”

Frenchman Matthieu Soileux, whose girlfriend booked him on to the course, is missing. After another brief recovery effort, this time for sunstroke, we persevere towards the last stretch of the journey.

On the way, Raj goes missing. We find him nursing a hurt ankle. Chris gives us 20 minutes to get him to the van or he will move 100 metres further for every minute we are late. And there’s cold drinks and ice cream waiting.

Such promises invigorate me. Ali and I are of similar heights, so we decide to use the old rope-seat trick. Although the ropes hurt, we really want cold drinks and ice cream.

Not too far down the road, the yellow van is in sight. We’ve made it. Bear would be proud.

Speaking after everyone else has left, David reveals that the three litres of water was not really enough for 24 hours. “Not out here – that would be a minimum for maybe three to four hours if you were trying to stay really well hydrated.”

Chris can trace his career back to a single moment of inspiration. “I remember on a school tour, when I was 14 or 15, we were doing a climbing wall indoors and I couldn’t get to the top.

“Everybody else in the group did it and the instructor who was with us kept the teacher and myself behind. We spent an extra 20 minutes and eventually I got to the top.”

He remains passionate about encouraging parents to “let their kids out”.

“Our parents used to take us everywhere, and we’d go and do archery or rock climbing, even kicking a football in the park. It forms a bond and you start to meet new people.”

David, meanwhile, studied history. “At the end of university, I did a Kilimanjaro expedition and I just thought, ‘You know what? If I can make this my career – this is quite goal orientated and I generally am – that would be absolutely brilliant, and I would love my job every day.”

He takes great pleasure in helping people overcome their fears.

Concluding, Chris reflects: “The simplest things sometimes can make life a lot easier for you. There’s no point trying to light a fire with sparks if you’ve got a lighter.”

For information on the Bear Grylls Survival course, visit beargryllssurvivalacademy.com, or adventure.ae for details of alternative courses offered by Absolute Adventure.

halbustani@thenational.ae