Bush survival course in the Blue Mountains

“We’ve never had an all girls group before”. I grin at Darren’s comment as he swipes my credit card.  “We’re pretty tough chicks.” I reply, confident that my three girlfriends and I are going to prove it.  It is 9am on Saturday and we’re checking in for a Bush Survival Weekend in the Blue Mountains.

The course is to provide us with essential knowledge that could mean the difference between life and death should we ever get lost in the woods. Not anticipating ever being in that kind of situation, we just want to learn to light a fire by rubbing sticks together.

The previous night the girls and I had driven up to Glenbrook and dined on a delicious white-linen-table-cloth-meal of pork belly and cinnamon jus at local restaurant Mash. Clinking our wine glasses together, the four of us had giggled at the complete contradiction of what was to follow that night: bush camping and a pit toilet.

At course headquarters in Katoomba we meet the rest of our diverse group. There’s Mark, a 10 year old Bear Grylls fan who has dragged his father Ivan along, a lovely Filipino lady who introduces herself as a young grandma and aspiring model Melanie who has never been camping. There are 13 of us plus our guides Nathan and Sean who we smell before we see – obviously cleanliness is something that takes a back seat when you teach survival. That’s OK because having bush camped last night we haven’t showered this morning either.

From Katoomba, the 1 1/4 hour drive north west to our destination takes us off Google maps and into the wild.  We are less than three hours from Sydney yet completely free from the whirr of city life. It is energising to be out in Mother Nature and from the minute we step out of the 4×4 we start to learn just how well she can provide for us.

As we hike the 600m descent into the campsite, Nathan and Sean let us in on the secrets of ancient aboriginal bush medicine.  “Under the black bark of this Gee Bung tree lies a powerful antiseptic you could wrap around a wound. Nothing (natural nor man-made) can compete with the healing properties of this lemon-scented Tea Tree. And for much needed vitamin C, snack on some of these tasty bush currents”. In fact we learn that most of the edible plants in the Australian bush have far more vitamins and nutrients in them than the fruit and veg in your local supermarket.

The base for our course is a grassy clearing surrounded by large shady gum trees and steep sandstone cliffs. There’s a small creek trickling by; not big enough to swim in, but perfect for re-filling our water bottles and washing our grubby faces.

“You can survive 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water and 30 hours without what?” asks Nathan.  To my surprise the answer is shelter and that leads us to our first practical task – building one. Like busy little ants we gather sticks and debris to create a skeleton that gradually becomes a kind of leafy igloo, capable of keeping us warm and dry and most importantly, alive. You would have to be in dire straits to want to sleep in one though. It would be a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. You worm your way inside and block up the entrance. It would be pitch black even at high noon.

Next comes the skill we most want to learn: making fire with sticks. It looks so easy when Sean and Nathan demonstrate it and in just a few minutes they achieve a flame. “Just rub your hands back and forth down the stick and keep your elbows at 90 degrees. If you don’t make a fire we can’t cook dinner”, they threaten.

We form groups and the race to create fire is on. Amanda has the nak and soon creates smoke putting us in the lead.  Sarah, Hayley and I jump up and down in excitement but smoke isn’t enough – you need an ember to create a flame and rubbing sticks together is exhausting work.  An hour later every single one of us has bruises and blisters on our palms but no fire. My advice? Take lots of lighters, waterproof matches, a flint and even a magnifying glass just in case.

Nathan eventually comes to our rescue with his superior stick rubbing technique and a campfire grows.  Our evening meal is somewhat more rustic than the night before; foil wrapped potatoes, onions and sweet potato thrown into the glowing coals and sausages sizzling like marshmallows on the spikes of green sticks.

But the coals aren’t the only things glowing tonight and after dinner we are treated to a surprise night walk into an underground cave.  Led by a waxing moon and armed with torches we head towards the towering dark rock. As we awkwardly squeeze our way down its vertical cracks and descend into the earth, tiny blue bulbs appear.  Squeals of delight escape our lips and like little children we yell out to each other “Glow worms! Glow worms!”

When I booked this course I had the impression we had to spend the night in a home-made shelter, under a rock-hang or in a log. Thankfully though, tonight we are allowed to use our tents and I sleep so peacefully that it feels as though I’m in a 5 star hotel. I wake to find our guide Sean has slept in the debris shelter we made yesterday. I don’t know why anyone would choose to do that of their own free will but Sean has spent an entire year surviving in the bush for fun, so I guess that’s his thing.

As I eat breakfast, I watch 10 year old Mark pick up where he left off yesterday and try to make fire with a flint. He is determined and he’s almost there. Mark has already been on a couple of overnight hikes, abseiling and now this bush survival course. His father Ivan comments on what a positive role model Bear Grylls has been. Mark is obsessed with him but Ivan doesn’t mind. He’d rather his son was into Grylls than Playstation. Outdoor pursuits like these are new to Ivan and he is being led into the wild by his son. His main line of questioning to the group is regarding camping gear – tents, mats, water purifiers. Anything to keep the weight down as Mark is still too young to carry much of the necessary equipment.  He mentions how they had missed out on tickets to see Grylls at his show in Sydney so had flown to Melbourne for it. That is a sure sign of fatherly love and I admire his devotion.

“These days it is not likely you will be lost any longer than 72 hours but who wants to learn to build an animal trap anyway?” says Sean. We all put our hands up. I’m not into killing animals and would probably rather starve but would still like to know.  Once again Sean and Nathan make it look so much more simple than it is in practice but we eventually build a snare with a trip wire and catch Nathan’s ‘shoe-rabbit’ as it sneaks past.

With his shoe back on Nathan grabs two sticks, puts them in the ground and announces that soon we will be able to tell where north is using only shadows. About half an hour passes and Nathan picks up another stick, places it in the ground near the others and points to North. I place my compass down and sure enough it is 100 percent correct. How easy. With the direction sorted, we also learn to tell the time using our hands and the sun and even take daylight saving into account. I am amazed at the simplicity and lack of modern tools needed to determine such essentials as time and direction.

After lunch we pack up, strap on our gear and begin our trek out through a canyon. We are surrounded on either side by tall rock walls and as we progress the air gets cooler and ferns replace gums. We get wet feet walking up the river as we clamber over slippery rocks, occasionally hoisting ourselves up using ropes. We pass pools of water, small cascades and finally come to a five metre waterfall that gushes into a freshwater swimming hole. “Who wants to jump?” No one answers so Nathan unbuckles his pack, scoots up the rocks with the ease of a gecko and jumps off the water fall. “Who’s next?” I summon my girl power and do the same. Teetering at the top I looked down and want to change my mind but it looks scarier to go down the way I came up than jump so I count to three and spring from the ledge. The water is cold and takes my breath away but it’s well worth the thrill.

On the final leg back to the car park I’m kicking myself for not knowing this was all here. I’ve lived in Sydney for almost 7 years and never thought of The Blue Mountains as anything much more than the Three Sisters and Katoomba. Nathan tells me that there are more than 1000 canyons to be explored and I realise I don’t need to go overseas for adventure. I don’t even need to go to Kakadu. The beauty, the sense of peace in nature and the excitement from activities such as canyoning, bushwalking or caving are only two hours away from Sydney.