I had agreed to go on an expedition, so I paid some money, waited at an airport, argued with a foreigner, got on a boat, stepped off a boat, and was left on a deserted island the name of which I couldn’t pronounce, with five other people I kind of knew. All I could think of was that I was going to have to spend the next month risking my life and survive these five people.
Almost instantly upon our arrival, an enormous mush of black flies descended onto my head.
Matt, on paper, was down as “Expedition Leader.” He had been to Greenland before, so when he said, “We will pitch camp here,” the easiest thing was to pitch camp there. Partially blinded by the fog of flies, I used touch to identify pegs, and up went a big blue tent that was to be the communal site for cooking and hanging out. Like berserkers we rushed the door to get in, hands and arms paddling insanely around our heads and faces.
Now zipped up, we turned to the blue internal twilight. I would estimate the tent held somewhere between two and four thousand flies. Oh, the humanity! For over an hour we applauded, until our hands were layers of black and red and the air inside the tent was a miasma of genocide. Tom put the kettle on, and we all had a nice cup of tea.
With nightfall the flies went to bed, and it was time to put up our sleeping tents. While I fumbled with a torch that worked intermittently, Ian selected a spot and made it final and official by rolling out the tent groundsheet. I muttered something about checking the ground for stones, but having lost the lead, I was forced to fall into line and get pegging. Ian quickly threw in his deluxe sleeping mat, very deliberately onto the right-hand side. That left me with the left. That night I struggled the hours away trying to find a spot where my spine and the row of jagged rocks below the groundsheet could live together like ebony and ivory. Ian’s baby-sweet snoring reminded me that I should get my headlamp fixed one of these days.
We spent the next day sorting out the campsite, arranging our possessions, storing perishables in the river, feeding the flies and their new friends, the mosquitoes, looking at the mountains, digging a shit pit and generally looking busy. A mountain of food had been stored around the periphery of the tent and in the evening, surrounded by cured meats, exotic fruits, fresh green vegetables, pasta potatoes rice beans eggs salt pepper peas and peaches—we opened and fried a can of Spam. The pink, heavily processed meat sizzled in a pan in slabs an inch thick, spitting grease over the tent walls and gushing quantities of liquid fat from its flanks.
We sat back on bags of provisions and relaxed, feeling pleased with ourselves.
“Now for the whiskey, Matt,” I called.
“No one is to touch ‘The Bond’ until we have rationed it exactly,” he declared. The Bond, Matt explained, must last the entire voyage.
Matt had a military background, and it stamped him through like a stencil. This background was actually a year and a half in the army cadets, but compared to the rest of us, he looked like German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. His large, square frame looked built for survival and I could easily imagine a hail of bullets ricocheting off his cranium. He referred to food as “supplies,” to climbing as “maneuvers” and to whiskey as “The Bond.”
“Don’t you lot know anything about naval tradition?” he replied to our impatient questioning. “It’s what sailors call the ship’s alcohol supplies. When the ship leaves port, only two people have a key to The Bond, the captain and the purser.”
With that, to all our amazement, Matt got out a pen and paper, and with great ostentation, counted us. Six. There had always been six. He calculated how many days we were staying, then reached for a large bag that contained our duty-free purchases, and withdrew six one-liter plastic bottles of Johnnie Walker whiskey. Dividing the six liters by the number of days, he worked out the quantity we were allowed each day and used a knife to scratch 28 equally spaced notches onto the six plastic bottles.
We complained, but he insisted that the rations must be stuck to. I would observe over the course of the weeks to come the power of these tiny scratches. Never did anyone overstep The Bond. It represented the self-control of the group, and in the absence of weekdays, communication or outside stimulus, the scale of the potential transgression of overstepping The Bond was obvious.
Ian and I went climbing. We all went climbing, but Ian and I climbed together. We picked a modest objective for our first venture from camp, and spent a day swinging up 10 pitches of fine grooves on Campsite Hill.
Late in the day we reached the summit. We worked well as a team: I, the more experienced rock climber, and he, the mountaineer. On the descent, he took over, setting up the abseils and going first. He would meticulously select and place several pieces of protection, and feed the rope through. He would then clip his slim, wiry frame into the rope, and before departing, instruct me to remove all the protection but one before I followed suit. He seemed not to notice that I was a lot heavier than he, and was carrying the bag. His silent descent allowed little room for my self-concerned witterings.
We traipsed back in the darkness across rough, slow ground, tired but pleased with ourselves, arriving at camp late at night. A soft glow from the cook tent suggested someone had waited up for us. We unzipped the blue nylon and went inside. On top of a tin can, a little tea-light gave off its shy glow and illuminated a piece of cardboard with the note: “Well done, you two. Went to bed. Here’s some dinner.”
We slumped down on bags of food, exhausted bodies folding over a pan of spaghetti surprise. A respectable level of Bond still sat above Matt’s marker line. It was poured into a cup and swallowed. Four biscuits sat out. The biscuit supply was rationed in the same way as the whiskey, and we were allowed two each per day. They went down the pipe. In the soporific gloom of the tent we realized that if we didn’t go to bed soon, we would fall asleep there. I struggled to right myself out of my hunched fold. As I did so, I felt a funny feeling in my belly. Its folded-over nature must have been constricting it, and the feeling was that of pasta, red sauce, a ration of Bond and two custard creams dropping like a lead weight to the lower floor of my stomach. That’s better. We slouched off to bed.
The island was huge and totally deserted, and every now and again it could feel a bit too big. At just about the halfway point of the expedition, when I felt the weight of time that must still be spent, a visitor made its welcome presence felt.
It had looked like the garbage bags had been disturbed. This could only have been the wind, so we covered them better, but it still happened. One night, over Bond and while combing the straggles out of her long blond hair, Lucy heard a rustle outside. Wearing her torch she stuck her head out of the tent and we heard a muffled cry of joy. Her head came back in and she reported seeing a fox. We all clamored for a view, and saw a cute little furball shy off into the night.
We all decided we should name it. Lucy suggested Sam Fox, in honor of the enormous-breasted pint-sized girl-next-door sexpot from the 1980s, who released a mid-chart single at the prime of her career.
Lucy, by far the best climber in our group, had come down off the rock the day before, and was in a great mood. She and the other female among us, Airlie, had completed a major route that they had been trying up the center of the rock face above us. Ian and I had already got to the top of the face, but by a line just to the right, and we were forced to admit that their route was the main event. The tension that the two girls had displayed previously—all knitted eyebrows and binoculars and worry about the weather—was now replaced by charming smiles.
Night after night we encouraged Sam Fox with scraps of food and tried to get it to respond to calls of “Saa-Amm.” We were all excited by the extra company that it provided, like the difference owning a pet cat makes to an otherwise empty flat. We marvelled over its little cheeky face, its cute tail, its sweet little out-turned front feet.
With our slack washing-up habits, dishes would often sit out overnight, or longer. Because of this, it took a while to notice a pattern. I probably noticed it days before I actually became consciously aware.
One morning, in a haze of insects, while gathering up a dirty plate and pot to have porridge, I saw a shiny brown pellet, about the size of the last two joints of the little finger, sitting in each receptacle. What are those things, I wondered. I’m sure I’ve seen them before. I looked more closely. Oh, no, I realized. It’s shit.
Sam Fox, I thought, you little bastard. I checked the ladle. A little brown finger. I looked in a cup. A little brown finger. The rodent was repaying our generosity by shitting in our plates. What twisted fox logic is this? Our love for Sam declined. Then I found one of the laces from my rock shoe on the hillside, leading me to notice the disappearance of two of my left shoes. Barely seven days after our first lovely encounters with our new friend, I pursued the shit bandit up the rough hillside behind the camp with an eight-inch Japanese cleaver in my hand.
One day Ian and I tried to climb an enormous granite cone a mile from camp. At dawn, the skies had been low and threatening. We carried on and got to within spitting distance of the summit. But when we rounded a corner, a ferocious wind, the sort of wind that plucks people from ridges, stripped any summit fever from us. On our tense descent the wind whirled around us so fiercely it nearly turned solid, and would bash into the rock, making noise like plastic bottles falling from the summit.
When we got back to camp the extended eyes of the other four revealed that they, too, had spent a day in wind. Their nerves seemed frayed. They were given to ducking at loud noises and broke into unreasonable giggles at inappropriate points in conversation.
“Oh my god. This wind. It’s hell. Hell,” Airlie blustered. “It must have been hell today for you.”
We explained that, for the most part, we were sheltered from the worst of the element, and it was only near the summit of the granite cone that we were in the teeth of it. But realizing that they all thought we were tough nuts for climbing in the wind, we started hamming it up a little, and tossed in “The Horror! The Horror!”
We huddled in the blue tent as it deformed in the buffets. It got dark and we Bonded, and wobbled off to bed. In our small tents, everyone lay awake staring goggle-eyed at the ceiling, listening to terrible boulders of wind rumble down the valley, then crush over our shelters. They would flatten and heave. The fabric would whip violently and the poles would strain under the force. In the morning, we arose sleepless and straggled to the blue tent. This had been damaged in the night. A big tear rose up its side and two poles had broken. We climbed inside the shapeless shelter, exhausted.
“My god, how many days has this wind been blowing?” asked Airlie.
Less than one.
The wind, the wind. It eroded your soul, flayed your nerves, ground your teeth and pulled your hair out: always the noise; the noise and the buffeting and the constant threat to your sense of safety. It seemed like it could go on forever.
The blue tent got worse and we were forced to flee to a cave-like shelter formed by several tumbled boulders, where we tried to cook. The wind throttled through the gaps. Mad noise, like an air-raid siren, lifted the pot with which we were trying to make porridge, scattering the bowls and spoons. The cave reinforced the sense that we were becoming animals. Someone had rescued The Bond from the blue tent in case it blew away. Swigs were taken and the level got dangerously close to the limit-scratch. The tension was electric, all wondering what would happen if one of the animals broke over the line. I looked behind me and saw, in the back corner of the cave, Matt holding a scalding hot saucepan in his left hand, his face buried in the pot, his right hand pressing porridge into his mouth. His face was smeared in the sticky white, wild eyes staring back. Perhaps the line had already been broken.
Over several days a small problem was becoming more significant. We had three stoves, and, due to whatever impurities were in whatever we had thought to be petrol, they were clogging up. Each day the flame became limper, and the boiling time for the chocolate milk became longer. Eventually, six of us gathered round the only surviving flame one damp morning ready to cut throats for the first mash-up.
Miraculously, a small boat went past. We waved to them. They waved back. We had met them before when they stopped off on our island for 10 minutes one evening. Then they had emerged from their boat dressed head to toe in dirty powder-blue suits. They were drunk. We couldn’t communicate much at all. We said friendly things to them about their craft and their suits. They didn’t say much, but they both seemed to find the sound of each other’s laugh very funny. We tried to pronounce the names of local food. They pointed at our tents. We mimed climbing moves. They left.
This time we hurried them onto our shore.
Somehow, through a pea-brained pantomime, which featured a flame, a boat, some houses, them, us, some local cash and a botched metaphor for the essential constancy of life, we communicated that we would pay to go to the next town to buy clean fuel.
In a fine display of leadership through example, Matt climbed aboard with the two tars and we watched him disappear up the dark choppy water, and around a distant headland to whatever humanity was upriver. I wasn’t sure where civilization was. I had been shown a map once, but couldn’t decide whether the long line that divided the light from the dark was our mile of coastline or the continental shelf. I silently delegated the map work for the expedition to a more experienced member. Hence, whether Matt was to be away for an hour or a day was a question I decided not to ask. We turned back to see flame number three phutter to a standstill.
Such was our desperation that I was glad to see Matt and craft reappear round the horn. Scrambling on land, he clutched a plastic bag.
We waved goodbye to the salts, who, from the enthusiasm of their response, had done pretty well out of the taxi ride.
“Did you get the gas, Matt?”
Instead of a canister of clean petrol, Matt pulled from the bag what looked like a golden dumbbell. With attempted pride, he looked at us.
“Oh Matt, you bloody tit.”
Airlie was Matt’s girlfriend, but would have said it anyway. The other member of Team Girl, she was the greatest, biggest character on the trip. Committed and accomplished, she had risen to become one of the most noted climbers in Britain, being one of the first females to dip her toes into the rarified male preserve of dangerous E7 routes and 8a sport climbs. Yet, while her climbing achievements were formidable, with a good collection of firsts to her name, it was her personality that made her who she was. Airlie wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and had an explosive temperament. She would erupt on a variety of subjects, with little need to appear reasonable. It was not unknown for her to turn physical. It made her terrifying, and terrific fun. But right now the force of her attention was focused on Matt, holding aloft what I soon recognized as a shining brass paraffin stove, a near-obsolete heating device for which the adjective “Shackleton-esque” sprang to mind. Airlie had her hands on her hips, she was fuming.
“What have you just bought, a fucking genie?”
Matt ran from the hail and in the blue tent, he unscrewed a brass cap and poured liquid, with much spillage, from a lemonade bottle into the bellied brass reservoir. The neck of the stove had a collar. This was filled with liquid B. Liquid B was sparked into flame. The theory was that the burning liquid would heat up the pipes of the cooker, evaporating the incombustible paraffin-style liquid into a combustible gas. Matt jabbed frantically at the pump to build up pressure, then, in the dying moments of liquid B’s life, opened a valve that allowed paraffin flow.
A stubby jet of flame growled from the machine’s throat.
Sensing a reprieve, Matt put a pot on. While this slowly and barely boiled, he explained it was the only option, as the next town up wasn’t the sort of place you could take back your goods and receipt. Grudgingly, we enjoyed our tea. I wished someone would fix stuff. From out in the field I heard a loud voice coming from the blue tent. It was Airlie’s. I went to the blue tent to investigate, and pulled back the flap to see Airlie on her knees, her death stare focused on one of our malfunctioning stoves, and, with her finger waving within inches, shouting: “Why does it always have to be about you?”
I declared there and then that I was going to fix the stoves.
In the tent we gathered, but it felt like my fellow campers were there for the show and not the solution. The boys had their doubts; we had all tried everything. It was true—there had been various loosening of nuts, small careless smears of soot across the brows—but I decided that the stoves couldn’t all be broken. They were just all not working at exactly the same time. It reminded me of the tales of groups of co-habiting females, whose cycles curiously fall into step.
I took the first stove apart, every single component, and laid it on some cardboard. Having done so, I cleaned every component carefully in a series of baths. I dried these and scrubbed them, then returned all the components, carefully tightening each screw, filled the container with fuel, turned it on, and lit it. It snarled to life.
A cheer. I purred out some facts, logic, etc., and a pan frothed to the boil in no time. Turning coolly to the other two stoves, I nursed these to life, too. An egg was boiled. Some Spam was fried. We were saved.
The edge had been taken off the crisis. I sat in front of the three boiling stoves, now even boiling some water for washing up. It would certainly not be my turn to do the dishes. I had liberated us. There was no question that I could sit in front of the three cookers and hog all the heat. The men sat at careful distances. I thought of how Matt had not only failed to fix the stoves, but had brought back a poor salvation. I, however, had fixed the stoves. I had conquered the males, provided food and heat for the females.
I looked around. The Bond, the heat, the women folk, all there for the taking. I reached out, grabbed the Bond, and heard a gasp from behind me as I swigged from the bottle.
There might never be a better opportunity than this, I told myself.
I could seize control of the expedition.
Contributing editor Niall Grimes lives in Sheffield, England.