Bear Grylls’ Dubai Survival Course

There’s a YouTube clip in which British adventurer Bear Grylls plucks giant grub from a fallen acacia tree trunk in the Australian outback. He holds it up to the camera and before you can scream “He’s not going to eat it is he?”, he pops the bulbous creature into his mouth and bites down. Yellow goo hits the screen and spurts down his chin.

This is what Bear Grylls does. An ex-SAS action man turned TV presenter and author who thrives in the world’s most hostile environments. He became one of the youngest ever climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest – and just 18 months after breaking his back in a free-fall parachuting accident. This guy is gung-ho. Even his loyal cameraman describes him as “the real James Bond”, not that the suave secret agent would slice up a rotting camel corpse and hop inside its ribcage for shelter, warmth and protection.

It’s his enthusiasm, likability and “just eat it” attitude that mean his TV survival shows now reach 1.2 billion viewers worldwide and the likes of Kate Hudson, Channing Tatum and Barack Obama are queuing up to go into the wild with him.

He isn’t selfish with his knowledge, either. He launched Bear Grylls Survival Academy in the highlands of Scotland in 2012 and it has since spread across the British Isles, the US, Australia and, yes you guessed it, the UAE. The motto is the slightly disconcerting “It may hurt a little”, but it didn’t deter us from signing up to the 24-hour Adult Survival Academy course in Oman. After all, it could save our life. Look at Reg Foggerdy, 62, who recently survived six days in the Western Australian desert by eating ants – having seen Bear do the same on TV.

Of course, the night before I set off, I was nervous. “You’ll probably have to get in a camel, you know,” was some of the well-meaning advice I received before setting off. It didn’t help.

Things didn’t really improve when, after a sleepless night, I arrived at the pick-up point the next morning. “We like people to feel a little scared, to feel out of their comfort zone,” said David Sculthorpe, one of the course instructors. “We can tell by looking at someone how far to push things.”

Great. His colleague Chris Coyle then delivered the briefing before we headed off into what was clearly a huge slice of the unknown. “We won’t tell you what we have in store, but all you need is the clothes you’re standing in and the equipment we provide and bags of enthusiasm.”

Here’s what happened next…

The kit 
We were told to arrive wearing robust mountain boots, walking socks, light but tough trekking trousers, a t-shirt and a sun hat. As for toiletries, only a high-factor sun lotion was on the kit list. We are each given a 30-litre rucksack, a roll mat, a mosquito net and a few items to share – compasses, first aid kit and, for dinner, two raw fish. Before we set off, one of the team, Hareth Al Bustani, cracked a riddle and won us some garlic salt as a “luxury” item. I snuck in a packet of wet wipes, a clean t-shirt and lip balm, too, and was then handed an unidentified item wrapped in tinfoil. “A treat for you all later,” David smiled. And with that, we were ready to go.

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The run
After a short bus ride into the mountains, I am running up a steep slope in 40-degree midday heat. There’s no shade and we have 15 minutes to reach the bright yellow van we can no longer see. Frenchman Matthieu Soileux, who had been booked on the course by his girlfriend after he watched Bear on TV and stated “I could do that”, is running next to me. He is holding the two dead fish in a plastic bag. “Sorry, I didn’t have time to pack them in my backpack,” he pants. I have a feeling the smell of fish will be the least of my worries this weekend.

“Keep going, the van will be around the next corner,” says Karin Edstrom, weaving in and out of the group to encourage the stragglers. Karin’s colleagues in Sweden enrolled her in the course as a leaving present – one that could indicate they either know her very well or simply “don’t like” her, she says.

The run has shocked us all into gear. But Chris and Dave aren’t finished with the physical exertion just yet. My heart is still pounding in my chest and my legs are like jelly but we’re soon scrambling upwards over loose rocks, boulders and pebbles. We’re at the mouth of a huge wadi and just as I feel like my muscles about to combust, David and Chris stop under a patch of shade.

We have three litres of water to last us for 24 hours. David says that’s a luxury and tells us how to set up “solar stills” to purify water. Perched on rocks – rucksacks still on because taking them on and off wastes valuable energy – we listen to David talk fluids. “Bear is known to drink his own urine,” he says. “It’s not a bad idea. If you were really stuck. In the very worst-case scenario, it will keep you alive even though it does contain a lot of waste toxins.”

We split into two teams and manufacture a makeshift water purifier from an old water bottle, some cloth and gravel as a filter. “To make this interesting, I’ll drink the cleanest water,” Chris offers. “The winning team gets breakfast tomorrow morning.”

Sadly, despite having Raj Pal, a professional who describes “expedition medicine” as a hobby, on my team, the others do a better job and Chris is saved from our murky efforts. Next, each team sets up their solar still, which manipulates photosynthesis to collect water. We dig a hole, fill it with leaves and place half a water bottle into the hole. I help secure a sheet of clingfilm over the top with a ring of rocks and we leave it to (hopefully) work its magic.

Boulder hopping
We’re now all ready for our next challenge: “boulder hopping”, which sees us skip across the large rocks lining the wadi. My movements range from a brave leap to a sort of full-body boulder hug and slide, but it’s fun and, putting all my trust in my new walking boots, I take longer leaps. Yeah, I’m really doing this!

First aid
Our instructors stop us again higher up the valley to remind us that while hopping around like a mountain goat is great fun, getting a team member back home with a sprained ankle is not. Chris drops to the ground in mock pain and encourages us to throw in ideas on what to do next. We’re all a bit clueless so David nudges us in the right direction. We use two backpacks as a makeshift stretcher to lift him to “safety”.

Fire starter
By now we have less than an hour of daylight left. We make our way down the wadi to a site with piles of rocks left by locals who regularly camp in the area, and scatter in different directions, collecting small twigs and medium and large branches. We are also on the look-out for  carving bark which, with our Bear Grylls knives, we can use as tinder. Chris sits down and whips out some matches and a lighter. Wait. Isn’t that cheating? “The simplest things sometimes can make life a lot easier for you,” Chris says. “There’s no point trying to light a fire with sparks if you’ve got a lighter.”

For the sake of non-smokers, Chris shows us how a ball of cotton wool “teased apart” and dipped in Vaseline burns a treat when lit with sparks from a Bear Grylls signature fire starter, an artificial flint rod and metal striker. Fire ablaze, David helps us prepare the fish for dinner. I don’t know if it’s all the fresh air and exercise or the thick layer of garlic salt on top, but the fish, which we pick at with our knives, tastes delicious.

Night time
After dinner, there’s little to do in the dark other than gaze into the fire. We lost phone reception a long time ago and there’s certainly no TV. Thankfully, no one suggests camp fire songs, but a small group of us exchange polite stories about previous camping experiences before retiring to patches of flat ground to sleep.

My bed consists of a roll mat and cotton sleeping bag. I keep my boots on and use my rucksack as a pillow. It’s so peaceful I forget all about creepy crawlies and fall into a deep sleep. I only wake once during the night, spot a shooting star and drift away again.

The next morning I remember the ball of tin foil I carried around the previous day. It has started to leak. I unwrap it and nearly vomit. I find two hearts – goat hearts I’m told – in my hand. I try not to think about it as members of the group stoke up the fire and cut the “treats” into slices to cook for breakfast. “Just imagine it’s beef,” Chris says. I bite into a piece and it actually tastes pretty good.

Escape day
Today is escape day and all about putting what we learnt yesterday into action. We’re told to pull on harnesses and helmets and David announces it has rained elsewhere in Oman and the wadi we’re in is at risk of flash floods. There isn’t a cloud in the sky but we obediently follow him towards a dried up waterfall at one side of the valley. If this weekend was about facing fears, this was it for me. I ate heart no problem, but I’m no good with heights and need to be coaxed upwards by a very patient David at every step, reach and pull. I make it, just, and am delighted it’s over.

Back down in the valley, I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. Chris gives us ten minutes to locate our solar stills and find some much needed refreshment as most of us have run out of water. “Are you sure everyone’s here?” David calls out. Matthieu is missing. And after a brief search we find him slumped behind a boulder with pretend sunstroke. A few minutes later he is back on his feet and we find our solar still with at least two inches of water in the bottom. Hurray!

Ice cream
Getting closer to finishing, Chris promises ice cream and cold drinks. The thought of an ice cold 7-Up is enough to keep us going, but then Raj goes missing. We find him nursing a hurt ankle, very convincingly, too. Chris gives us 20 minutes to get Raj up and back to the yellow van. “I will move 100 metres further away for every minute we are late,” he says. As a team we go with a rope-seat – a trick learnt yesterday. Two team members carry Ali, the rest of us the rucksacks. The van is in sight and we make it in time. The ice cream tastes as good as I hoped.

I think Bear would be proud.

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