Just A Machete, Knife and Lighter

Gap Year Programs

Belt night is the toughest night of our Expedition Leadership Course. Participants are left alone in the jungle for 48 hours with nothing but a machete, a knife and a lighter. Keep reading for an amazing insight into the experiences, thoughts and feelings in this final part of the Expedition Leadership journey.

Time flies when you are having fun. Yes I am talking about our time in the jungle. After our introduction to jungle at swamp camp going to Doug’s land for the second time came with no grudging or moaning from anyone on our team. Doug’s land is like a little slice of paradise compared to swamp camp. Although I am glad we spent time there and can see both sides of the spectrum. What I love about being in this particular bit of jungle is how normal it felt to be living and doing our daily tasks and sessions. The rest of the world disappears, life becomes simple. I don’t think about my bank account, home.. Wherever that is, Facebook, the media, people outside of the course, or what I will do after this course ends. There is a certain kind of peace that you get from sleeping under the trees, listening to the river, birds, and bugs singing on a daily basis.

This particular stint in the jungle was dedicated to us bonding more as a team and working through the kinks that are enevitable with people living in such close proximity to each other and in challenging/stressful environments. Besides working through the kinks we were learning how to teach so body language, power posing, styles, structure, planning our sessions, and a little bit of flaura fauna and survival skills thrown in the mix. I really enjoyed our days learning in the jungle. Before coming here I worked as a scuba diving instructor. Teaching isn’t brand new to me but I love having the opportunity to grow in my skills and find what style works best for me.

We ended our time in Doug’s with belt kit night. Belt kit night is I think one of the big selling point of this course. Knowing that you are going to learn enough to be able to survive in the jungle for 48 hours with a machete, knife, and lighter AND get to test it out. Let’s set the scene. We have perfect weather all week.. And the night before we embark on our solo nights it pisses down rain. I laid in my hammock listening to the rain dance off my basha with nervous excitement on the challenge that lie ahead when I would wake in 7 hours. The rain did not seize. Wet and alone we each set off to find a suitable place to build a shelter and “bed” in an area the instructor designated for us due to the weather conditions.
Two of us had an extra unexpected challenge of being put in an area of mostly banana trees.. Very wet and not a whole lot to build off.

I found an area to call “home”. So keep in mind our instructions: minimal impact on the jungle so try not to cut much down. No cutting down trees, can cut a few branches, and try for no more than 10 leaves , which was later retracted and said we could cut down more leaves in order to keep dry in the rainy conditons. Being the person I am… a rule follower. And having wanted to do survival nights for a few years now I wanted to do this like I really was alone in the jungle with nothing and the challenge of minimal impact.

My area did not offer me much.. I started with making a shelter for my fire. A tree had vines hanging down from branches. I decided to use those vines as a frame, they would be my side anchors to lace more vine across them. I then cut down other vines as to connect the 4 vines that were lined up in a square and create a lattice as to lay leaves on. So now I had my hanging natural structure under the tree..and 5 leaves on top to protect my fire. At this point I was not completely convinced this would protect my fire but it was a start.

I then put all my wood in between two large protruding roots of a rubber tree and bent down branches with large leaves to cover my wood by using vines to tie the branches together. This allowed me to keep my already wet wood from getting more wet without cutting anything down.

Next to get a fire going. Easier said than done. I hunted for wood.. All wet, all rotting, and limited supply because of the area I was designated to. Hours went by.. No fire. No matter what I found and tried nothing would light. So I went back and forth between making a fire and trying to build a bed. Both failed. I tried to make a hammock but couldn’t find strong enough vines to hold my body weight, they kept snapping every time I tried to get my full weight in it.. Feeling defeated between no fire, no bed, no proper Meghan shelter I struggled for a moment keeping my mind focused.. I wanted to cry. But there was no time to cry to have an escape of the reality of my situation, night was approaching. I knew what lay ahead, a whole day and night with no food, no fire for warmth, no fire to keep misquitos and other critters away; just darkness. At this point I had only drank one tiler of water, and only porridge for breakfast. I mentally prepared myself for what was going to come. Night. Night came. I stacked a few rotten logs under my “fire shelter” and held my face in my knees to try and escape the mosquito army buzzing around my face.

No bug spray I think was more painful than not eating. I was getting mauled. I started shoving leaves down my pants and in my shirt to try and create a layer of protection between me and the blood thirsty army. I really should have heeded the ad that said:”best solar powered mosquito zapper“. I stretched my buff over my face, tied vines around my arms and put flower petals under the lacing to add a layer. My head torch was covering my ears to try and tune out the constant mosquito battle call for blood.

Eventually our leader came by to confiscate out lighters because we were suppose to have a fire going at this point and once the fire was established we would have to keep it burning on our own for the next 30+ hours. Leader came to find me under a pathetic excuse of a shelter and no fire. She tried to persuade me to come back to our original camp to have a bite to eat or take some wood for a fire. I wasn’t having any of it. I came on this course to see what I can do, not just technically but mentally. I knew I was going to be miserable, but I wanted to be. I wanted to feel what “failure” to get a shelter and fire built felt like. Because in a real situation that may happen. I want to know what the “worst” feels like it, it shows you what you can handle, appreciation, greater respect for the outdoors, and makes you stronger, plusI don’t know if I’ll ever do something like this again. Cold, wet, eaten by bugs, hungry, thirsty, and sleep deprived. She left and then it was just me and the jungle. I decided to move my tiny remains of a hammock if you can call it that under my fire shelter and prop it up off the ground with a few logs. There I lay curled up, but only for 20 minutes at a time. I religiously set my alarm for every 20 minutes so I could patrol the area with my head torch to make sure no jungle nasties found me since I was basically on the ground and no fire to steer the animals away and already had my unfortunate encounter with a mystery bug a week earlier that caused intense Pain in my hand and up my arm and numbness and tingling up to my jaw. I didn’t want to recreate that experience.

It was amazing however seeing how alive the jungle was at night. The glowing blue eyes of spiders glittered the floor and trees, sleepy millipedes lurked under leaves, even the ants continued their march. During the day I was visited by hummingbirds.. Not to be confused by a giant black beetle that’s wings make the same loud vibrating noise as a hummingbird and always got too close for comfort. Spiders that look like something straight out of Predator.. Stayed away amd kept my eyes on those and their hair raising sized fangs/pinchers, a lizard I had not seen before that let me invade his tree with my hammock or maybe he bit through all my vine, and plate sized butterflies gracefully fluttering about.

Okay back to the night. Did I mention the rain started again. My fire shelter (maybe 4ft by 2.5ft) it poured but my shelter proved to be better than it looked. My feet did get wet to a point where i was pretty miserable, realized I wasn’t going to eat my food .. No fire. So I took some of the food out of the bags and took off my socks and put the plastic bags on feet and then back into my boots. Sweet relief! The rain continued and so did the Mosquitos in waves. They demolished my face. Both of my eyelids were bit making me probably look like a gremlin, lip bit too so that was swollen, and a forehead bumpier than a greasy teenager’s face.

But no worries the count down until 5:30am was in full swing. The sun rises at 5:30 (sets at 5:30pm). The start of a new day. I can do it! The singing started around 3am some church hymms, Michael Buble, and I can’t recall now what else decided to hop out of my mouth, machete sharpening started at 4:30 all to which is weird because I don’t sing to myself but then again I don’t normally spend a night alone on the jungle floor.

5:30 arrived. At first light.. Once the rain stopped I started splitting all my wood. Wet. Rotten. Tried to make tinder. Nothing. Djdihdndo .. Swearing commenced. Tried collecting more wood. So I was pretty pumped up when I first started looking as I had all night to get myself pumped up to feel like the Rocky of the jungle and then spirits were pretty low.. And so was my energy after my efforts with the fire wood seemed hopeless.

I eventually went down to the river to get some dry wood to start a fire with, a tampon, and a bit of cotton. I proved I can be miserable and make it out. Now It was time to eat and and create an environment that I could live in. I ate breakfast!! 27 hours with no food. First meal you ask? Plain pasta. Tasted amazing well “jungle amaZing” which means anywhere else you would not eat it.

The rest of the day I tried to make a new home.. I moved to another area. My creativity and strength was lacking from little to no sleep and food. I created another shelter from vines and brought my leaves from the night before over. 9 leaves in total. And once again tried to get my hammock to work. Still not enough strong vines. I settled for tying part of the hammock to a tree and resting the rest on logs making a very ugly “reclining chair”. A breeze circulated through the jungle. Rare. Very enjoyable. Between th breeze and my fire the Mosquitoes took a break from feasting on my body. Maybe there was nowhere left for them to munch but I took the break from their army and army call with open arms.

The night came to visit again as it always does. Fire was still going but I knew I didn’t have enough wood to make it through the night. I was too tired and weak to collect as much as I should have. I was already tripping over everything and was not safe to use my machete anymore. I had 2.5 meals that day. I struggled to eat both . I maybe ate 200g of pasta and maybe 50g of porridge over two days.

During the night I laid in my recliner and had a moment of realization of what I was doing and how amazing it was even through all the challenges. The fire danced and crackled emulating the energy I wish I could have shown to express my delight. Then fatigue set in and I drifted into a daze Like state .. I was talking to .. Yeah exactly talking to who? Telling them about the importance of keeping s fire going and that we will take shifts so some of us can rest and now it is your shift and forget food we need fire for warmth. And then I realized .. Sh*t no one is tending the fire and I’m so cold!! I scurried back to my “bench” by the fire and started blowing to get it to come back to life. Contemplating my sanity.

The wood pile was shrinking and shrinking until only a few scraggly pieces remained. It was now midnight. I had kept my fire going for 14.5 hours. And like Cinderella’s carriage Turning into a pumpkin at midnight my fire turned into small remains of the dancing flames it was hours earlier… Just one glass slipper remained if you will. Only a few more hours and then the challenge would be over. Fair enough I was too tired to blow anymore. I set my alarm for every 30 minutes this time. When 3am hit and I did my patrol of the area as once again I was pretty much on the ground and the Predator spiders were forming their own army I caught the glimpse of a few bright embers. I excitedly started blowing and added the tiny bits of wood I had remaining. Yes!! fire!!! But then realized I had no more water. So I couldn’t boil water to make porridge. Too uncoordinated to wander in the dark and wasn’t clever enough earlier on to leave a mess tin out to collect water I laughed and then curled back up to try and hold in my body’s warmth while listening to the rain and wind hoping deadfall wouldn’t come crashing down on to me.

When light started creeping through the jungle trees I excitedly, clumsily, wandered to camp to meet the rest of my team. I grabbed a jacket to try and warm up. And we all then made our rounds to look at each other’s shelters. Theirs were beautiful! They looked like palaces. I wish I would have been more coherent or coherent at all to really appreciate what they looked like but it was awesome to see everyone’s creations and hear about their experience nonetheless.

The others didn’t go as extreme as me so their experiences were a bit more pleasant. We all came out winners in my opinion. How many people would want to try and survive in the jungle, let alone actually do it, and actually do it and stick it out?

I didn’t do as well as I hoped but more incentive to try again right ? I did however manage to only cut down 9 leaves and only use vines to create my mmmm “shelter and bed” if you can even call it that. No trees were hurt 🙂 that did feel like an accomplish in itself. And I did manage to stay dry for the most part and have something to recline in.

What’s next? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I spent all this time trying to get to this point it feels weird knowing it is over. New challenges do await as we get to teach a few groups jungle survival and become the leaders we hope to be all with a new sense of confidence.

What did I learn from that experience?

  • I am crazier than I thought
  • Keep singing as an activity when no one is around

Ha but on a more serious note, pain/discomfort it is all temporary

  • Always stronger than you think you are
  • Find beauty in what you are doing even if it seems impossible, it is there.

One more month to go and off to the pacific coast!

About the Author

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Gapforce run independently inspected and award winning expeditions, outdoor training courses, volunteer abroad programs, conservation and aid programs. From 2 weeks to 1 year, your adventure starts here!