Chantelle Kelly spoke to survival and bushcraft expert Ray Mears.
Back in December, I received a call asking if I wanted to speak to Ray Mears. The following morning the nerves kicked in as I waited for the call. But bushcraft doesn’t really do celebrity, and as it turns out, I needn’t have worried – neither does Ray.
Over the past two decades Ray Mears has become a world authority on the subject of bushcraft and survival. How did he get his start? “Outside tracking foxes, setting up camping equipment. Also, the school I went to we had to study judo, it was a compulsory lesson. The guy who taught it had lived behind the lines during the Second World War in Burma and his view was – you don’t need equipment, you need this knowledge.”
Kingsley Hopkins, Ray’s judo teacher, very much became his mentor: “I’ve learnt from lots of people, but in terms of a mentor – he really was.”
In 1983 Ray founded Woodlore, a company that offers wilderness bushcraft courses and products. I assumed he’d know everything about it, but he suggests otherwise: “When you first start Bushcraft there are big things that you learn, but as you move on you still learn subtly, or you better perceive the meaning of something you’ve learnt previously. It never ends.”
It’s important for kids too: “I think it’s a very important thing for young people to have the opportunity to engage with. I don’t believe they should be forced to engage with it, I think they should choose to, through their parents.”
It’s quite unique in outdoor pursuits that bushcraft puts the emphasis not on equipment, but on knowledge of landscape. And I think that is very appropriate for young people.
On Tour with Tales of Endurance
In March Ray embarks on his UK tour Tales of Endurance with 24 shows across the country.
“I’m going to tell stories of human endurance, these are people who survived or sometimes didn’t survive – but all of whom endured. I’ve drawn specific lessons from some of the stories, which are still relevant”.
“When I was a child we were introduced to stories like this on quite a regular basis, and I don’t think those opportunities quite exist today. I hope there will be some young people in the audience, although not too young because some of the stories are pretty harrowing!”
He is particularly interested in gap year students and the like: “We’ve had a few disappear over the last few years and I want to look at what went wrong, and how that can be avoided in the future.”
Over the years, Ray has become a household name through his television series’ and documentaries, including Ray Mear’s Bushcraft, The Real Heroes of Telemark and many more. He now has a new show called Wild France, coming to ITV later this year, exploring the remoter parts of the French backcountry and the wildlife that lives there. There’s also a Wild Australia in the pipeline.
But he has a favourite: “I did something back in the 90’s – World of Survival. We looked at aborigine people from around the world and how they live. I didn’t realise at the time, but we had the last opportunity to film with elders who had lived the old life. I was proud of the work we did – we did a good job I think, we had more time in those days to make the films as well.”
People and Place
“I think the thing that makes places stand out in your mind is largely the people that you meet when go to these places. It comes down to the experience of meeting other human beings. A favourite place? I could say there are certain places in Africa because of the tribe’s people I’ve worked with, but also Australia, all over the world. People are very important because the local experts interpret the landscape for you.”
His scariest moment had nothing to do with dangerous wildlife: “Being in the back of a helicopter that crashed; there’s nothing you can do about it, somebody else is on the controls. I was just lucky.” Ray was in a helicopter crash in 2005, filming for the BBC. The helicopter struck the ground during a steep low-level turn and broke apart, rolling to a stop. Ray managed to escape the wreckage uninjured, and rescued one of his crew who was badly hurt.
So what are Ray’s fail safe tips? “It’s all the basic, boring stuff, but you have to prepare, really well. And when you’re planning, keep your planning simple. And have a sense of humour!”