Written by Richard Barber
Ray Mears is a happy man, he says, but a very busy one. He has a point. In April, his six-part series on Wild Australia will begin on ITV1. In the summer, a similar series on Wild France will be broadcast. He’s currently writing a book, his 11th or 12th (“I’m afraid I’ve lost count”) about travelling in the Arctic Circle, somewhere he returns to at least once a year.
And now he’s embarking on a 24-date UK tour appearing in theatres up and down the land beginning with Shrewsbury on March 1 and finishing in Gateshead on April 4. Entitled Tales of Endurance, Ray will share stories of survival that have inspired him, as well as taking questions from the audience. “People always seem to want to know whether what’s shown on television programmes like mine is real.
“But I like to think the viewer understands that, if you want to really know how to take care of yourself in the wild, I’m the person to talk to.” Which makes his a very different style from that of, say, Bear Grylls, left, who Ray describes as a ‘showman’.
“He has an audience who likes what he does and that’s great. But it’s not what I do. I’m happy to carry on doing my thing.” He’s sceptical, too, about much that comes out of America.
“When you look at a lot of US television, you can’t easily tell the difference between documentary and entertainment.”
Ask who he admires in his sphere and David Attenborough’s name quickly emerges. “And I loved Gerald Durrell. I’ve never forgotten his series, The Amateur Naturalist. That’s the one programme that used to tempt me back indoors.”
If you want to really know how to take care of yourself in the wild, I'm the person to talk to
All of this from a man who was brought up in Purley. Ray’s having none of it. “We lived near the South Downs. Surrey’s amazing; one of the UK’s most wooded counties.” As a lad, he says, he more or less lived on his bike.
“I was an only child, but so lucky with my parents. They were great. They gave me my freedom; they loved me with open arms.”
In his mid-teens, he read ‘an incredible book’ called The Forest People by Colin Turnbull, his study of the Mbuti pygmies of the then-Belgian Congo in the Fifties. Ray’s fate was sealed. “I knew then that exploring in its widest sense was what I wanted to do.”
Throughout his 20s, Ray made a living from teaching woodcraft. In time, he was approached by the BBC which was putting together a series called Country Tracks. He was invited to contribute five, three-minute slots about his speciality which quickly became ten, six-minute slots. Six series later, Ray’s secondary career had taken root. “In those days, you had to win your spurs to appear on television – unlike now when it seems that anyone can get their five minutes of fame and for no very good reason.”
He’s also openly contemptuous of reality TV in general and I’m A Celebrity… in particular. No prizes for guessing his reaction to the contestant in the last series being asked to swallow a live spider whole. “I thought it was incredibly disrespectful to the creature. It’s cheap television, both cruel and puerile. I was once asked to go on the show. Let’s just say they never asked again. And the contestants are not even in a jungle; more like the back lot of a hotel somewhere. It’s utterly ridiculous.”
If you want real tales of derring-do, Ray’s your man. Take his close encounter with a five-metre crocodile on the northern coast of Australia in 2000. “I’d pitched my tent on the beach. I’d speared a stingray and wanted to cook it in the shade, but the TV director persuaded me to do it on the beach because it made better pictures. What I didn’t know was that crocodiles have the most amazing sense of smell – and a particular penchant for cooked stingray meat.”
A large crocodile had been cruising the beach at the water’s edge all day. “As I was later to learn, when a crocodile watches you like that, it’s thinking about eating you. It was night time and I was asleep in my tent – no more than a dome made from mosquito netting. I was awoken by a noise and, looking over to my right, there was the crocodile four feet away.
“I put my hand on my machete which I had with me and which I reasoned I could use to hit it on its nose if it attacked, although I now know that would have been a complete waste of time.
“Luckily, though, it was just passing through on its way to what remained of the fish on the campfire.
“So the food had brought it ashore, but it also saved my life. Of course, I couldn’t be sure where it had gone at the time, so I didn’t dare venture out of my tent. I just lay very still indeed for the rest of the night.”
Anyone coming to his new show will hear plenty such tales as well as learning how to be safe in the wild, essential for someone contemplating taking a gap year, for example. He has a particular word of advice to those people: don’t stuff your backpacks to the gills with fancy gizmos. “My mantra is simple,” says the eminently practical Ray Mears. “Knowledge weighs nothing at all.”
- For tour details, visit www.raymears.com
- Wild Australia begins on ITV1 in April
- There's more star chat in every issue of Yours.