Dom is waiting for us beneath the noni tree on the water’s edge. The tropical sun is still high. The rising tide has swallowed almost all of our beach, and the waves at his feet are close to slopping into the mangrove swamp beyond. Our ten-hour fishing shift has been unsuccessful. Our last meal was a handful of barbecued sea snails at sunrise, and we are returning hungrily now through the wet sand to our make-shift jungle camp. Eight-days-ago, when we first arrived on the island, our guide had insisted we sample the noni fruit. ‘Like hot blue cheese,’ was the verdict of the Mancunian DJ now sat beneath its branches, ‘served on a bed of armpit.’ The rancid fruit is almost tempting once more. But club in hand, and his eye on a flailing cormorant in the shallows, Dom has a better idea.
Of course, it’s all a game really. As the invited journalist at the start of an eight-day survival course, I couldn’t help but feel the artifice of it all. First of all there’s the two international flights (neither of which crash land in the sea forcing me to swim to shore); followed by the twitchy 12-seater propeller plane from Panama City to Contadora Island. A further hour’s motor-boating is needed to reach our uninhabited islet. Marooning yourself in the 21st century, it transpires, is quite logistically challenging.
And then there’s the rubbish. We begin our colonisation by constructing a shelter, propping logs vertically through washed-up Coca-Cola pallets. With the four corner posts in place, we strengthen the cross beams with salt-encrusted nylon, and separate coconut-fronds for roofing from Styrofoam peppered undergrowth. Over the next five days we will sleep in hammocks and have a modicum of food provided as we sharpen our survival skills. After this we will be on our own, sleeping instead under the shelter on a communal leaf-litter bed. But despite the attempt at isolation and embracing hardship – the flotsam and jetsam of modern living is pervasive. ‘Look!’ shouts a fellow castaway, ‘a memory foam mattress.’
Strange and wonderful things are meant to happen on desert islands. Our frames of reference are rich. In his final flight of literary fantasy, Shakespeare created a magical island where morality and love could find new breathing space, while coining the phrase ‘brave new world’ in The Tempest. A generation later, John Donne was reminding us about the irrevocably communal nature of existence in his prescient line ‘no man is an island’; and a century later, in arguably the world’s first novel, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has a spiritual awakening on his island, with the line ‘it’s never too late to be wise.’ Seemingly hostile and challenging locations have proved rich sounding boards for writers; and fertile ground for reflection for their characters.
I wake in the gloaming of pre-dawn in the 21st century. The complexities of modern living, found beyond the island’s shore, seem muffled this morning. Today is all about water: its collection, distillation and value – and nothing else. Down at the ocean’s edge I pull on a snorkel mask and dive into the darkness to check by feel the fishing lines that Tom our group leader set last night. My body already feels weaker from the reduction in calories. And while limited fresh water is provided on the course, it is perhaps not quite enough for the full eight days. Nothing edible thrashes away at me, and so I return to the beach where my cast-away companions are gathering. All our hopes now hang on making a solar still.
A vertical metre above the shoreline, we stretch a square sheet of polythene across the beach (Tom pulls the stowaway material from his pack). Marking its outline in the sand, we then dig down to the water level, creating a slightly narrower hole than the polythene sheet that is to cover it. Branches of deciduous leaves are thrown in, followed by placing a convenient cross-board of driftwood across the hole’s width. On to this, suspended above the centre of the hole, we balance the least-rusty tin we can salvage. The polythene is then re-placed and weighed down with sand on all sides. As the condensation starts to build, and the polythene begins to sag toward the tin can, we thirstily turn to Tom. ‘500ml of water per day will keep you alive,’ he informs. ‘If you can find shade, sit perfectly still and breathe just through your nose – you might get away with 300ml.’ It’s a very long time before the first drop of fresh water pings into our tin.
By day three the subconscious fidget for the iPhone has gone. Instead I constantly find my hands busy with a knife as I cut fishing line, shave kindling or gut the occasional fish. I’m up before sunrise again, stoking the embers enough to set our miniature chess pieces by the firelight.
For better or worse, I am finding my peace with the washed-up rubbish as well. ‘The fact is,’ Tom begins his fire lesson, cryptically gesturing to a plastic bottle ‘it might just save your life.’ Assured that we can use this waste to make the most elemental of human comforts, we examine its properties, holding it speculatively to the light like freshly found treasure. Adam the yoga instructor has the answer when he fills his plastic bottle with sea water. Focusing sunlight through the convex curve near the bottle’s neck, he applies his beam to some nearby driftwood, quickly creating a curl of smoke. Tom suggests concentrating the light onto a tinder of coconut fibre, laced with finely-ground dark bark. For an interminable amount of time we seem to hold our breath, watching with laser concentration as Adam tries to coax the ferocious midday sun into flames.
But it’s all for nothing. Towards evening, we try again, this time using the traditional bow-saw and wooden drill technique. Many years ago, as a Scout, in some dimly remembered woods, I recall conjuring smoke in the same way. As the light starts filtering through the coconut palms, we try to repeat the feat. Finally our blistering efforts with the friction saw creates a smoking bud of embers. Cradling it in the coconut fibre, Adam takes one deep breath, and blows a fire into life.
By day five I’m turning into a semi-aquatic creature. I’ve learned to improvise narrow-necked lobster pots from plastic bottles, baiting them with beach-combed limpets. We’ve sizzled sea snails in their shells and speared purple-clawed halloween crabs mid-scuttle, callously throwing them on our barbecue.
Instead of rods, we now simply use nylon line spooled around the ubiquitous plastic bottle. DJ Dom is successful with the technique on day six. I spy him afterward climbing back across the rocks, the fish quite naturally tucked in his mouth. On day seven we share sashimi from a recent catch to keep us casting up until dusk. Every waking hour is now dedicated to finding food. ‘Our currency,’ the DJ entreats wearily into the ocean, ‘is now fish.’ Only at night does our skin dry, forming salty Caliban-esque scales.
On day eight, Dom spies the cormorant. Two more of us fetch clubs. Surrounding the bird, we watch one another as much as the prey, calculating if we each are prepared to do it. At striking distance it squawks in fear, flaps – and then suddenly I’m in the ocean, half-heartedly paddling after the fleeing animal. I soon bow out. Each of us whispers seriously about food and family through that final night, waiting for our rescue boat at dawn.
Our survival game never did take us to the depths of real hunger. That is a very different experience, felt far beyond the waters of our tropical island playground. But, if it did serve for anything, it was the chance to whittle at our wantonly complicated lives. By ‘sliding gently through the world’ as Defoe says, we had recharged our relationships and reconnected with nature. Retracing our slightly leaner steps home, with noni fruit still to mind – perhaps we too could say we’d tasted the true ‘sweets of living’.
This was published in the January 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.