Monday, July 22, 2002
Ray Mears is that rare and perfect combination – a practical visionary. When he’s talking you through the challenges of surviving in the world’s wildernesses, you trust his judgement and expertise, but you also warm to his more philosophical side.
I’ve always been disappointed they make astronauts out of fighter pilots and not writers. Sure, you need someone who’s good under pressure and will do as they’re told, but if you’re sending a spaceship off the planet, shouldn’t you have someone on the trip who can explain what it’s like to be doing such an amazing thing? ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ might get the job done, but it’s not exactly deathless prose. It’s like asking footballers how they scored a breathtaking goal – ‘Well, Smodger knocked it over and I just hit it – it either goes into the stands or it goes in.’ Being good at some jobs means being bad at talking about them.
And Ray Mears is definitely good at his job. Send him to the Arizona desert and he’s finding water in no time, send to Siberia and he’ll knock you up a waterproof shelter and have the kettle on while you’re still trying to unfreeze your toes. He can spot a poisonous fungus at thirty paces and watching him make fire is a constantly amazing sight.
His ruddy bulk and boyish face help him in this. He was definitely the kid who built camps and swings in the woods and knew what all the things on his penknife were for.
The hero of the Just William stories meets John Rambo. When he tells you not to leave your vehicle if it breaks down in the desert, you believe him. But there’s a more reflective element to even his most gung-ho TV expeditions. He has huge respect for indigenous people living simple lives in difficult places, and he relies much more on old wisdom than new technology.
There are lessons to be learned from living a life closer to nature, and while Ray’s never going to be a tree-hugger, it’s clear he appreciates the perspective his adventures give him. And in his gruff no-nonsense way, he shares this with us armchair travellers.
The chances are we’ll never need to know how to find food in a tropical swamp or make sure we can light matches when our fingers have got frostbite. But we can still get a lot out of watching Ray show us how.