Sunday, 10 January 2010

Christmas Fish

I roll up my trousers and walk barefoot into the sandy ripples. Ahead, Ozzie floats our small rowing boat out into the mountain lake. His figure, together with oars and boat, cut a stunning silhouette into an ochred rainbow of dawn colours. It is Christmas day and we must hunt for our dinner.

Water laps at the bow as we coast stealthily along the river bank. Oz drags the line behind us as I paddle as quietly as humanly possible – the ocassional, rhythmic grind of metal from the rollocks emanates into the lake. It ruins our cover, but every 10 minutes or so we are greeted with the spashing sound of a fish on the water, so tantilisingly close.

Half way around the lake we drift into a bay and back in time, to the Jurassic. The beginnings of a new sun pick up an ethereal mist which wanders as a pink demon over the clear glass. Dead wooden limbs stretch petrified out of the water and claw their points at the air. A big fish swims beneath the boat.

We catch nothing.


I wake to feel the sun chewing off my skin. I shrug myself upright to see Oz passed out on the middle bench of the boat. The hull knocks against a bank I haven't met before... the breeze has blown us to the other side of the lake. The sun beats hard. I have a fish hook buried painfully into the sole of my foot. We'd stayed up all night before pushing out, and I feel destroyed. My face seems to drip from my skull.


I try to wake Oz. He doesn't want to move. No catch, no food, no energy and a huge distance to row home. I don't blame him. We are low. But we must get back. Agonisingly, I poke him again.

We row. Forever.

At long last we arrive back at our camp, I hop through the shallows as Oz drags the boat up the sand and we collapse back into our hammocks. Our sentences are of single words only. Through midday and early afternoon, sleep does not come, the heat does not relent. Sand bugs hound my ear drums. I begin to feel at a loss. We have failed. Reality turns brittle and chaotic. What am I doing again? Why am I here facing this wall? It consumes me, the realisation that we are incapable of surviving on our skills is horrible. I try desperately to staunch the loops of worry that accelerate through my mind, try desperately to cling to context. I admit to myself that I look forward to going home, right now that thought is a solace. But four months seems an eternity.

I am consoled with a memory – this is exactly why I am here: to meet this reality face to face.

I cannot lie here thinking any more, worrying, but I am so exhausted it's the only thing I, Edward Sells, am able to do. I have tried to sleep and cannot. I need reality back, I need a plan. I reach for my watch and strap it to my wrist. I have not worn it for a few days, and the digits on its face offer a grip on time. Relativity returns. I swing my legs to ground – they feel like sacks of potatoes - and mutter a mantra to myself so I do not forget: hydrate... hydrate... hydrate... I fumble for a cup and some salt sachets and neck a litre. I blow weakly on the fire to boil another billy can with two tea bags and the rest of the sugar, pouring myself another half of tea. I fix Oz the same, and nag him to down the lot. I hate it, it's hard, he's waking-grumpy and I hate forcing it, but we need to rescue this Christmas.

The ingredients stimulate my head and I reach for my music and the axe. Using the ipod is a defeat, but now I've admitted it, my moral needs a repair job and I take comfort in familiar tunes from technologies far far away. Oz cranks himself out of the hammock. “Kraak and Smaak”'s funky house beats pulse through my earphones as I hack up a limb for the fire, and I force myself to dance. Energy flows through my fingers again, and there is work to be done. We can still do it. This Christmas ain't dead yet.


In retrospect this was the best Christmas ever*. Curiosity was satiated. I got to see the ragged edge I've been looking for. Now I've been and met it face to face I can get on with avoiding it. I never want to go back there again. The whole point of survival seems to be to establish hope – we sew up the holes of despair by completely integrating with the resources around us, through tools and skills. Oz and I are integrated in fire, shelter and water, but not food. Without all four things we can never be truly wild. Christmas's lesson to us was that hunting is not a dream you can just go out and immediately realise. It is not an easy gift. It takes years of practice and awareness. But unfortunately it is the most expensive of the four things, burning a huge amount of calories and time. And when we return with an empty catch, it has been devastating to our mental states.

I now think the best we get out of this trip will be the skill to sustain food - that'll be all the big gaps sewn up. I hope Father Christmas brings us hunting lessons.

* this post is only about the hard fish, I could write a book on all the good stuff that happened ;-)