HE’S an adventurer extraordinaire, a plucky pioneer and a dashing daredevil.
And when I met survival supremo Bear Grylls I found he had the infectious enthusiastic spirit of a fearless and wonder-filled child.
I met him at the launch of his new Channel 4 TV show The Island, which sees men aged from 21 to 70 from all walks of life endure the perils of the wilderness with no food, no water and no technology – as an experiment in whether modern man can cope in the wilds of nature.
He left the 13 men on a remote Pacific island for 28 days to see what would happen but feared they could come a cropper.
He was scared one of them would be dead within 10 minutes after they were stranded without outside help days in a supreme test of their survival skills.
“I was worried about people dying. Genuinely,” Bear, 39, said.
“You let people loose with machetes and it’s like, ‘You almost took your knee off.’ It’s so easy to go like that – boom – and it’s straight through the leg.
“You cut an arterial vein and you’re dead within 10 minutes.”
He continued: “I could’ve found the island they expected which was a beautiful Fijian paradise. But I wanted it to be about the hardship.
“What they got was a swamp – a crocodile, snake and scorpion-infested s***hole.
“It tests what they’re made of. This was an experiment in trying to find some answers about modern man.”
He continued: “Men totally feel emasculated at the moment.
“In olden days it was always clear – they used their speed, their agility and their brains, their resourcefulness and their courage. All that stuff made a man.
“Nowadays we’ve swapped the bow and arrow for the iPhone. It only uses a fraction of what it is to be a man.
“What I wanted to do – and I didn’t know the answer to this – is if you strip man of everything – the microwave, the bed and all of this stuff that we take for granted – when pushed and the bravado’s gone would they crumble or are the skills still somewhere in there?
“In the modern world what is masculinity?”
Bear has tested his manly mettle to the max via paramotoring in the Himalayas to martial arts training with a karate grandmaster in Japan, escapades with the SAS, and, at 23, being one of the youngest climbers to scale Everest.
And Bear – whose eyes glisten with verve – reckons it’s all about your mind… and your heart.
“It’s more important what’s in your head and heart in these kind of situations,” he said.
“The mental battles that these guys went through, I think they’ll agree, were much tougher than their physical ones.”
Bear gave the lads just one day’s survival training before abandoning them.
“They had the clothes on their back, a couple of machetes, a couple of knives, water for a day and that’s about it.”
He said it was important they felt truly isolated and weren’t just playing up for telly, which is why four of the group were embedded camera and sound crew.
“I wanted it to be really authentic. As soon as you put a TV camera in front of someone there’s always that bravado so that’s not a true indicator of what’s really going on inside of people.
“You only get to know people when they’re under pressure and they’re being themselves.
“When you’re vulnerable with people you create a bond. And where’s there’s a bond there’s strength.
“If society started to live like some of these guys, you could totally change the world.”
He added: “It’s an accelerated course in manhood and I hope it’s inspiring and encouraging.”
I received an accelerated course in survival thanks to words of wisdom from Bear and a training session with his close pal Meg Hine – a mountaineer and expedition leader – in the tough terrain of the, erm, Channel 4 garden in the City of Westminster.
She taught me one of the most important things you need in a survival situation – how to create a fire.
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One of the major elements of her kit is a stash of tampons which, when smeared with Vaseline lip salve, become highly combustible.
She said: “They’re one of the best things for starting a fire. And soldiers carry them in their kits because they’re good for bullet wounds.”
I created a fire from the lady accoutrements and bark I’d peeled off silver birches. I ignited it with flint and a flick of the wrist, then added knife-chopped kindling to get it roaring.
Meg then taught me a vital skill needed in ANY situation – how to brew up a cuppa.
We positioned metal receptacles in the roaring flames, added water – which we’d collect from rain or a nearby stream but which was from the Channel 4 canteen – and then sprinkled in some nutrient-packed leaves.
After that I settled down under the canopy erected between trees to enjoy my wild nettle tea, infused with a smoky aroma and bits of ash from the fire, and became one with my surroundings.
But while Meg and Bear can handle themselves in such solitary situations, they both admit that in the long run, humans are social creatures.
Meg said: “You can go three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food and three months without company. We need other people around us.”
And Bear said of the 13 men on the island: “The thing I really noticed with these guys by the end, above everything, was an incredible respect for each other as human beings.
“They’ve walked in each other’s shoes a little bit and that’s an amazing thing.”
He added: “We need connection.”
Sipping my tea, I mused on metaphysical poet John Donne’s famous words: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Here are Bear’s top survival tips:
“What’s the most important quality in a tough, big, butch mountaineer? Kindness. That is not a word we associate with man is it? But it’s incredibly butch to be kind on day 29 when you haven’t eaten for 11 days. That is a man.
“What you really want from the people you are with is that they are kind.
“You want to be a great adventurer in life and in the mountains? It is simple: be kind.”
“The Royal Marine Commandos with whom I worked a lot in my military days, have the phrase ‘cheerfulness in adversity’ as one of their founding principles and it is a great one to live by.
“It is easy to be cheerful when everything is going like a song, but the real time to be cheerful is when everything is going dead wrong!
“My dad always said: ‘Be the most enthusiastic person you know!’”
“The key bit of survival kit you possess is your brain.
“What I have always loved about survival is the resourcefulness of it, how you can take a shoelace and a tea bag to make something useful.
“It is ingenuity that can change a situation dramatically.”
“I try to maintain fitness all of the time really – I consider it part of my job. I train hard most days.
“I also do a lot of yoga which keeps me flexible and bendy for hanging off trees etc. It is functional strength that I am looking to achieve rather than big muscles.”
“The key to survival is one thing – hard work. Everyone thinks it’s about the bandana around the head, the flexing the muscles, attacking the crocodile – it’s not, it’s about bloody hard work.
“Quietly get up early, be the first to collect the firewood, spend 12 hours trying to light a fire – it’s just hard work.
“The key to success on the island, as well as in life, is just hard graft. The rewards go to the people who work the hardest.”
“I can sum up survival in one quote: ‘When you are going through hell, keep going.’
“We’re all more resilient than we believe.”
Bear is the head of the Scouts whose motto is: ‘Be prepared!’