THE ART OF SURVIVAL by Nigel Summerley, photograph by Rowena J Ronson
In the morning we walked across the dry, scrubby wilderness of the Rodopos peninsula in western Crete. In the afternoon we returned across the same landscape and it was awash with fresh water.Yet nothing had changed, apart from my perception – thanks to a lesson in survival from my hiking companion, Ernst Tellegen.
Ernst had taught me that not only was water a key to survival, but that even when you thought otherwise, it was all around you – even in this apparently inhospitable environment.
Crete’s sunshine resorts are well developed for mass tourism. I managed to get away from all that by staying in the sleepy seaside town of Kissamos, way out west. But even its quiet, perfect beach and calm sea palled after a while – you can only relax for so long. In short, I wanted some action…
From the beach I had seen the long, mountainous Rodopos peninsula. I had been told by the locals how wild it was, and also how there was a wild guy who would take you out into the rough country there.
It seemed like a chance of seeing the real Crete – as it used to be. And to be even farther away from the crowd. As I found when I met up with Ernst, when you explore the Rodopos, you don’t see anyone else. You have a huge chunk of the island to yourself, complete with heart-stop views down over the deep-blue Aegean.
Ernst, 51, from the Netherlands, worked as a handyman and paramedic before settling in Crete in 2010. Realising that the Rodopos was the island’s most unspoilt area, he based himself there and single-handedly built a wood-cabin home in the hamlet of Afrata. He survives by leading day-long survival courses – equal parts walk and talk.
Afrata is the last stop before you go north, into parts that few visit. No roads, no tracks, no paths… it’s rough, tough, forbidding terrain with scrubby, scratchy vegetation and only the occasional tree. The Rodopos is the easterly of two peninsulas that form the Bay of Kissamos, and Kissamos town sits in the mouth of the bay.
So here we were, Ernst and I, hiking many miles away from the upmarket resort-hotels of Elounda, the booze and bikinis of Malia, the ancient remains of Knossos, and even beyond Crete’s far-western city, Chania.
“Where we are,” said Ernst, “we could be the first people ever to set foot.” And this wasn’t bullshit – he doesn’t deal in that. With him, you don’t get the usual stunts and tricks of the “survivalist”. Much of what you learn is about attitude – how to use your brain and trust your instincts.
It’s not a teacher-and-pupil lesson with Ernst showing you something and then you try to do it yourself. It’s more a dialogue on the move, in which he imparts knowledge and insights. It can also be a philosophical exchange about the essentials of life.
“Survival is in the head,” said Ernst. “It’s not 200 ways to make a fire, or eating the intestines of a snake.” In fact, on our trip, eating was not a high priority. At the start, I was offered the pick of five rucksacks. Each had different contents, said Ernst, but all had everything needed to cover the essentials of survival. When I opened my bag, halfway through the hike, I found those essentials did not include a sandwich.
“I never teach people to set traps,” said Ernst. “On TV it looks good – in 10 minutes they have a rabbit and a barbecue. In reality, the animals here – salamanders, lizards, badgers, snakes, field mice – are aware of our presence and will do everything to avoid us.” So we weren’t going to be eating? “You can go three minutes without oxygen, three hours without protection from a harsh environment, three days without water, and three weeks without food, ” said Ernst. No, we weren’t going to be eating.
“The biggest danger is dehydration. Collect water – that is numero uno for increasing chances of survival. If you don’t have enough water, then your body temperature is not regulated.” But where do you find water in the wild? “Trees and bushes breathe,” said Ernst. “In the daytime they exhale oxygen and water. If you tie a plastic bag tightly around a branch with one bottom corner of the bag hanging down, this should give you one cup of water every 24 hours.”
And if there are no trees? “Dig a condensation pit.” He showed me how to excavate a crater 3ft across and 2ft deep, put a cup at its centre, then cover the hole with a plastic sheet, weighted in the middle with a small stone to encourage condensation to run down the plastic and into the cup. Ernst’s most memorable tip was that you can use a condom to carry water: “A good one will take up to 40 litres,” he said.
But didn’t I have to learn to make fire? “If you want to make fire with two sticks,” smiled Ernst. “Make sure one is a match.” And the best way to make fire in the wilderness? “With a Bic lighter.” With a two-bits-of-wood fire plough, you have to practise for days to succeed, he said. “The fire plough is a romantic way of making fire. But if the ship has sunk, and you are on the shore with people panicking and screaming – and perhaps with other people coming towards you looking to eat you – you are not in a romantic mood.”
Ernst’s wit punctuated much of his teaching. “Humour is one of the greatest things on earth – essential to survival,” he said. I even began to see the funny side of the fact that my legs were being scratched to bits by hostile bushes. I had foolishly come in beach shorts, while Ernst wore sensible lightweight trousers.
As we walked through the 30C heat of the afternoon, Ernst came up with surprising gems. “Gut feelings are important – pay attention to them 100 per cent,” he said. “In a survival situation, animal instincts take over – and that’s good.” And he was scathing about costly gimmicks and gear: “What kind of survivor will you be, even if you have millions in the bank? You can have all your expensive equipment and still fall into that ravine and die. But knowing who you are is what is important. The key to survival is knowing who you are and understanding yourself and your needs.”
In the end, Ernst did show me two ways to make fire: one using dry grass and a magnifying glass; one using a firestone (you scrape magnesium slivers from the stone then run the back of your knife down the stone to make sparks to light the magnesium). Both were incredibly difficult.
And he did explain how to eat in the wilderness. “There are three rules for edible grasses: if stem and leaves both come directly from the roots, if the leaves are serrated, and if any flowers are yellow, then you can eat the leaves. They are full of minerals and vitamins A, E and K. Very healthy.”
Ernst reckoned that in any survival situation, you are likely to be rescued within three days (unless you have not told anyone where you are going): “I always tell two different people where I am going. I did that this morning before we set off.”
As well as group walks, Ernst does one-to-one outings, like the one I was privileged to be on. The group trips appeal to the curious who, like I did, want a day of action away from the beach. Those who pay a bit more for a solo trip with Ernst get to ask everything they wanted to know about human survival and to get some intense personal coaching in self-awareness. Either way, it’s a neat adventure.
Some of Ernst’s survival skills relate to the kind of hot and hostile environment we were walking through, but most of his self-preservation teaching could be applied to anywhere on earth – from the desert to the city.
Ultimately, survival is about staying cool when stuff happens. “With all that I know, something can still go wrong,” said Ernst. “The earth is a living creature – it changes continually. The mountains lose stones and rocks by the day – just as the human body sheds particles of skin. That rock that you are holding now, it might be the day that it breaks.”
* Ernst Tellegen (00 30 6940 682656, www.bushcraftcrete.com) takes groups of up to eight on his survival walks from €50pp.