A welcome antidote to these housebound times
By Will Hersey
British winters are indoorsy enough without throwing a pandemic into the mix. At this rate, it’s likely your stand-out memories of autumn 2020 will include the time you nearly fixed the toilet door and that Tuesday when you didn’t turn the television on.
So numbed have we collectively become by the vista of our own four walls that I know I’m not the only one who has daydreamed about trading the central heating for a short dose of something properly adventurous. And no, ordering Lebanese on Deliveroo isn’t going to cut it.
The kind of adventure that involves howling winds, a 360-degree horizon and a mild brush with mortality. If I survived, at least I’d start to appreciate being stuck at home again.
Call this a cry for help, mid-life crisis or just an overly long explanation as to why I have found such comfort in the unexpected shape of Ed Stafford’s First Man Out.
Stafford, for those that don’t spend a lot of time in that run of channels in the high 200s between National Geographic and Discovery, is the survivalist antidote to Bear Grylls; less polished, less pleased with himself, and far more likeable because of it.
He first came to prominence as the first man to walk the Amazon, later marooning himself naked on a desert island for 40 days in the efficiently-titled Ed Stafford: Naked and Marooned. And efficiency is a Stafford watchword.
In First Man Out, now into its second series on Thursday evenings on Discovery Channel, he is dropped into a suitably remote and inhospitable terrain – be it jungle, mountain, desert or archipelago – with another survival specialist, who is equally capable of fashioning a rudimentary bungalow from a banana plant.
They’re given a target. Or as they call it, an ‘exfil point’. And then it’s a week-long race to the finish.
The fact that Stafford often looks slightly sick at the prospect of the unpleasantness ahead goes some way to explaining his charisma.
His military rigour and resourcefulness is softened by a healthy dash of the unhinged – and total self-awareness that what he’s doing is often ridiculous. There is no front on show either; he can switch from blokey bonhomie to man-staring-into-an existential-precipice in the time it takes a cup of nettle tea to warm up.
Conditions are invariably brutal. In one episode, he races Australian stuntwoman Ky Furneaux over a mountain rage at high-altitude and in blizzard conditions. Furneaux was hiding an horrific injury just so she could take part – two days after shooting wrapped, she had to have her hamstring removed as the screws holding it in place, legacy of a previous stunt injury, had been tearing through her leg muscles. Stafford, inexplicably, did it in a baseball cap.
Occasionally he seems to make errors of judgement; easy to say from the sofa of course.
Because of this there are stolen moments when you imagine that you could have been this handy too, if you’d grown up in the country and listened more in woodwork class. Then he uses a yak’s scapula as a paddleboard after sifting through dung for some protein-rich maggots and you realise these guys are cut from a very different cloth.
The magnitude of the landscapes on show is itself a reason to watch right now, but somehow the most compelling part is watching the contestants scrabbling for their evening meal and deciding where and how to make their nightly shelters, some of which look improbably comfortable.
Each time Stafford manages to get a fire going, he lets off the same primal, joyful and uncensored shriek. Staring into the embers of a wood-burning stove in suburban London isn’t quite the same.
“I feel this is somewhat reckless, but it's working,” he says of one of the many snap decisions he needs to make in an average day. “Which is kind of the story of my life to be honest.”
During one exhausting run to the finish line, Stafford hears the voice of his father encouraging him to keep going. Some of the attraction of watching is knowing that you will never have to wade through a marsh in homemade snow shoes.
The other part of the attraction is wondering what your equivalent might be.
Adventurers and survivalists get a bad rap for being self-indulgent, something that Stafford himself is well aware of.
What they’ve known all along is that mixing it in the wilderness from time to time is a pretty damn effective way of feeling alive. However unpleasant, even torturous, it might feel at the time. After this year, it’s likely a few more of us will realise this too.