‘You have just survived a crash landing of your aircraft in the jungle’, bellowed the Warrant Officer.
It was 3am in the morning, bitterly cold and pitch black. I was one of about 150 officer cadets from the Australian Defence Force Academy, standing on a narrow dirt road in the middle of a thick forest, somewhere in the south-eastern corner of New South Wales.
There was no aircraft. We had been driven to the location from Canberra in the back of Army trucks. Welcome to survival training. This is what students at military university do during their semester study breaks, whilst their civilian counterparts are out doing what normal people in society do. Whatever that is.
We knew that we were going on survival training, but we didn’t know where. Rumours abounded that we would be deposited in an arid desert setting in central Australia or in the snowy mountains of New Zealand’s south island. We had to settle for a local state forest, where much of our field training seemed to take place, extinguishing any anticipation of a more intrepid experience. An episode of Australian Survivor this was not.
‘Before we start the exercise, you will be searched for contraband. Your group directing staff will now come through and conduct a search’.
Crafty cadets had devised all manner of ways to sneak food past the searchers, without going to the extremes that convicted felons do to conceal a shiv on their person. At least, not to my knowledge.
Those less enterprising, like myself, chose simply to load up on calories ahead of the designated report time of midnight. Armed with handfuls of coins, I hit the divisional vending machines hard, gorging on chocolate bars (known as ‘gumpy’ in cadet lingo) and downing sugary soft drinks (‘goffers’ in cadet lingo). I was a skinny bugger back then and needed every ounce of energy I could get for the ensuing ordeal. These days I’d probably be able to live off one of my fat rolls quite comfortably.
‘Your group directing staff will now take you to your crash site. A couple of rules: as we are operating in a state forest, you are not permitted to kill any wildlife or to cut down any vegetation’.
In the weeks leading up to the exercise, we had been taught the principles of survival and the priority of effort if you find yourself in such a situation: protection (build a shelter), location (establish visible markers to designate your location to a rescuer), water and food.
Any chance of applied learning was tossed out the window, because we were forbidden from touching anything in our physical environment to facilitate our survival. It was going to be a long, long week (although the exercise was open-ended, we presumed that we would be out there for a week, as there were other scheduled activities the following week).
Our instructor or ‘directing staff’, known to cadets as ‘the DS’, was a freshly-minted Army lieutenant by the name of Bob Worswick. He led our group of seven cadets into the forest; stopped after about 200 metres; uttered a single sentence: ‘This is where your plane crashed’; and then walked away. We were left to fend for ourselves, with only rudimentary equipment and rations that we had ‘managed to salvage from our crashed aircraft’. How very authentic this all was.
We set about building our shelter and rigging up some ‘location aids’. Our shelter came together in a couple of hours from dead branches, leaves and rocks, and we built a small fire alongside to direct heat into our new living space. Tick.
State Forest rules precluded us from building a big smoking bonfire to signal our presence in the forest – as we would invariably do if the situation were ‘real’ – so instead we put some vaguely-reflective object in a tree to attract the attention of rescuers from the air. A token effort. Tick.
A water source, a small running stream, was found a hundred metres away down a steep hill. Very convenient. Tick.
Then we turned our attention to the final basic need: food. We had a single 24-hour, one-person ration pack that we had ‘salvaged’ from our flaming aircraft, but that wouldn’t go far among seven people. We couldn’t kill anything. That just left us with vegetable matter.
We had been taught the ‘standard military taste test’ during our training which required that each seemingly-edible item be put through a series of tests to determine whether it could be safely ingested. For example, one of these tests involved rubbing the item on the skin to see if it caused irritation over the ensuing 24 hours. The problem: doing the entire series of tests would take 7 days in total, and we were slated to go home on Day 7!
Having resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to get extremely hungry very quickly, we sat down next to the fire and…basically did nothing. It was like sitting around a campfire, minus the alcohol, the guitar and the marshmallows. Survival by sitting around.
Days 1 and 2 were OK. Our bodies were still feeding off the calories that we had stocked up on before the exercise.
By day 3, the hunger pains had set in. Our conversation turned to food and seemed to remain on that topic for much of the exercise.
Tell me again, what are you going to eat when you get home?
Well, as soon as I’m through the door, I’m putting in an order for two family sized pizzas, one Hawaiian, one Meat Lover’s. Then I’m going into town to the all-you-can-eat KFC (yes, they existed in 1992) and I’m going to have my fill of the dirty bird. And if I’m still hungry after that, I’ll head to the Dog House (a well-known late-night food van in Braddon that no longer exists) to knock over one of those Dog House Burgers with the Lot.
And so the conversation went. Back and forth, semi-deliriously, trying to upstage one another with our intentions with regard to donuts, hot dogs, burgers and chicken wings upon our return. At this stage of the exercise, much of the banter was still good-natured.
On day four, DS Worswick made himself seven enemies for life. We were all sitting around the fire trying in vain to keep warm when DS Worswick arrived uninvited and plonked himself down, without a word, in our circle. After warming his hands for a couple of minutes on the fire, he reached into his webbing pouch and pulled out a…McDonald’s Cheeseburger. He carefully opened the distinctive yellow wrapping, all of our eyes fixating on that tasty little parcel of goodness. Theatrically, he brought the cheeseburger up to his lips, took a small bite, looked at it and frowned.
‘Tastes like shit’.
And then he tossed the burger into the fire. Our collective eyes followed the looping trajectory of the burger and watched despondently as it disappeared into the flames.
DS Worswick sat and watched for several minutes as the burger burned, revelling in the unspoken disquiet he had caused. Then he got up and walked away. When he was safely out of sight, we dove into the fire in an attempt to salvage what was left of the smouldering morsel. Eureka! We pulled the charred remains from the fire and divided in equally into seven small pieces. Even those who would normally pause to remove the McDonald’s pickles hungrily devoured their miniscule portion.
On Day Five, DS Worswick brought in the live chicken. Never a more rabid-looking specimen of a chicken has ever lived – clearly not a free-range chicken, it was scrawny, it couldn’t move, all its feathers were falling out, and it looked like it may have some weird chicken disease. But we were beyond caring. Like Wile E. Coyote imagining the Road Runner on a serving platter, we were seeing drumsticks and nuggets. Problem was, we had no sharp implement to slaughter the animal.
If you are from the RSPCA please do not read this next part.
What followed was a series of farcical attempts to kill the chicken. We all had a go. I tried to twist and pull the chook’s head off, which failed dismally. Another person unsuccessfully tried to kill the chook through brute force with a blunt rock. If we weren’t so bloody hungry, then this would all be very distressing, but it’s amazing how powerful our primal urges can be. Finally, after much faffing about, the chook was dispatched to chicken heaven and we set about plucking and cooking the bird, keeping all the unsavoury bits that would normally be disposed of – the feet, the head, the gizzards – for later consumption. An appetising meal it was not, but beggars can’t be choosers (and when I say ‘meal’, I mean a sliver of the most terrible tasting chicken you can imagine)
By day six, we were all sick of one another. The conversation had dried up and talk of food incurred the wrath of others as the hunger pangs and fatigue deepened. There was a very real chance of somebody going rogue, much like Jack and his rebel tribe in ‘The Lord of the Flies’. DS Worswick seemed to enjoy observing the group dynamics at play, with his annoying, smug little grin.
On that sixth day, what was to be the final day of the exercise, I was the designated water collection person. That job involved walking about 100 metres down a steep hill to a small stream, filling up a plastic bag of water, and then trudging back up the hill with the full bag. A seemingly simple task, it was actually a huge ordeal. Light-headed and disoriented from a lack of food, I had to sit down on several occasions, particularly on the uphill leg. To make matters worse, I stumbled and dropped the plastic bag full of water as I arrived back in camp. A return trip was required, which really tested my mental and physical resolve.
Soon thereafter, the exercise came to an end and we embarked on trucks for the return journey back to the Academy in Canberra. Our conversations about food recommenced with vigour now that we knew that we going home.
Upon returning, I immediately enacted my meticulously-planned food fantasy – a two-for-one family pizza delivery deal – but was only able to eat two slices before I felt sick. My stomach had shrunk and my celebratory feast would need to wait for another day.