Recently I received a phone call from a friend who run their own adventure holiday business and wanted me to spend a few days in the forest with a small group of people on their I'm a Survivour in the ancient forest of Kočevje and learn how to survive in the great outdoors using only a knife, rope and things you can find in a natural environment.
At first I was sceptical about the whole thing, but having given it some consideration, I agreed and asked for more infomation so I could prepare for this event – my first experience of such an expedition.
About a dozen of us met in the local tourist office. The guide explained where we would be heading, but to most of us the location itself didn’t mean a great deal. Only a few of us had heard of Studeno, which is an abandoned village in southern Slovenia.
The organisers had prepared some local food for us and, after introducing ourselves, we stood around, making small talk and enjoying cheese and sausage made of bear, boar or deer.
A fairytale cottage in the middle of nowhere
An hour or so later, a van came to pick us up. We collected our gear and climbed into the vehicle, which took us to an incredible cottage in the middle of nowhere. It was as if we had arrived in a fairytale. We couldn't imagine what the inside of the cottage would be like, and we all gazed around us in disbelief when we entered.
I would very much like to describe all the details and tiny touches that make this place what it is, but that would just ruin it for anyone who’d like to see it for themselves, not to mention that I would probably not do it justice. You have to see it yourself.
The 'lord of the cottage, a smiling chap with a grey goatie, was preparing dinner and answering our questions as we tapped each other on the shoulder, pointing to things that had captured our attention.
'Will you look at that?’ 'Did you see the bathroom?’
We later sat down at the table for dinner. Not only was every single thing that we consumed freshly prepared, it was also handmade, hand picked in the wild, home grown and well – meat doesn’t grow on trees or in a garden, so you do the math.
Brandy & pancakes - how hard could surviving be?
Starting off with brandy made, of course, by our host, we had soup, pasta, salad, roasted meat with potatoes and vegetables, another salad and, to seal the deal, pancakes with jam made from something I never even considered could be made into jam – spruce buds.
Every single thing was delicious, and it makes my mouth water just remembering that feast. That sure was some good eatin’! Afterwards, as we remained seated round the table, enjoying drinks and conversation, our guide, out of the blue – believe it or not! – sent us all to bed!
'Tomorrow is a big day for us. We’ll get up early, around seven, have breakfast and then we’re off. Two days in the forest, eating only what we can find. We are not taking with us any food whatsoever, only water.’ And he was not having a laugh!
Is it better to starve to death or get eaten by bears?
It was 7 o’clock sharp when a loud voice shouted 'Breakfast!', and bangs on a pot with a wooden spoon woke us all up. Our host had already prepared a large breakfast, advising us to eat, 'for who knows when you’ll have the next decent meal?’ And he was right.
As soon as we stepped out of the cottage into the forest, we were already on learning ground. Our guide, not older than 25, began telling us the names of almost every single plant that we stumbled upon, explaining its purpose and what use it might have, encouraging us to try those that were edible. How could such a young fellow have so much knowledge and experience, and be confident enough to take on responsibility for fifteen people who had probably never been in the woods for any longer then a couple of hours?
Well, if his guidance hadn’t been impeccable, we would probably have been lost and starved to death, or eaten by bears. Or all all of those things. But we weren’t.
We picked berries and ate them as we walked. He showed us which plants and roots to collect, and we used them to make soup; clear soup without noodles or anything else, but it was tasty and warm and exactly what we needed to keep us going for another two hours or so, just enough to help us reach a small creek where we stopped to rest and wash our faces.
'Fish!' someone yelled, 'there are fish in here!'
At this point I’d have been surprised and utterly disappointed if the man, in whose hands we had trusted our lives and our very existence, hadn’t known at least two different ways of getting those fish out of the water and into our bellies, and I was not mistaken one bit.
Not only did we manage to catch several fish, but we caught them using only our hands. Waiting, with my palms in the cold water, for the fish to become calm so I could grab hold of it and pull it out onto dry land, I realised I had never before, with the exception of mosquitos or some other creepy crawling creatures, taken a life.
The survival instructor was standing beside me, nodding. I slowly went in for the 'kill', grabbed the fish and pulled it out of the water. We were shown how to clean the fish and, please don’t mind the bragging, but I must say I did a proper job. I gutted it like I’d spent half my life on a fishing boat. We roasted our fish over a fire and they were finger-licking good.
Lunchtime was way overdue, so we travelled on. After all, we had to find a place to spend the night and prepare our 'tents'.
Time for bed - who knew leaves clould be so comfortable
On arrival at a spot where we were going to sleep, we started building our overnight lodgings. Some were bigger, some smaller, but we all followed the given instructions and did a good job. We put our sleeping bags inside the tents, which we had filled with leaves for warmth and covered with spruce branches for protection from rain.
We built a fire and prepared the rest of the fish for dinner. Since we were all pretty beat, we then went to sleep. The moon was very bright, so I didn’t get quite as much sleep as I needed, but I did get some rest and was up at sunrise, just like most of the others.
Well, we did leave the kids to sleep a while longer, because the previous day had been tiring for all, especially the children. Yes, there were four children with us. Yes, they enjoyed every minute, and no, not one of them complained or nagged. In fact, they loved it!
Our departure was scheduled for a couple of hours later, so we engaged in making spears, bows and other hunting equipment that might come in handy if we needed to spend a longer period of time in the woods, but we were leaving soon, so it was more like a quick presentation.
We hadn't starved to death or been eaten by bears so it was time to go home
Then the time came for us to leave. We were supposed to be at our rendezvous point – pardon my French – at thirteen hundred hours, where we were to meet with some undisclosed means of transportation of a type not previously seen. Being a group of good walkers, we arrived a bit early.
Our fearless leader told us to gather some dry wood for a purpose yet to be revealed. Having done so, we were sitting in the sun, having kicked off our heavy hiking shoes, when he announced he had a surprise for us, and reaching into his army rucksack, he presented us with chocolate. I don’t know what kind it was, but it must have been the best chocolate that ever melted on my taste buds. While eating chocolate in the warm sun, we heard a sound approaching. It was the vehicle that was going to take us back to civilisation. A big old jeep, manufactured in Soviet Russia, pulled over and the driver stepped out.
'Looks like you could use a ride to town… but first we must put some fuel into the jeep.'
We all looked at each other, confused, as the man started opening a barrel atached to the back of the jeep. He removed the lid, jumped from the vehicle and picked up the wood. The jeep ran on wood!
We couldn’t believe our eyes, but it did provide a ride, and we were, literally, out of the woods. It had only been two days, but it felt a bit weird being surrounded by buildings and traffic and roads, just half-an-hour's drive from all that peace and quiet – and Nature.
As soon as I arrived back I had a long hot shower, and after that I felt really hungry. Luckily, the organisers of this trip had the whole thing planned to the last detail, and I was soon on my way to town, where we all met for dinner.
We were given diplomas and green T-shirts with white writing saying: I’M A SURVIVOR – a great gift to remind us of the great experience that we had shared with Barefoot Bear survival school.
Must do it again!