Imagine a human brain, with all its mushroom-like protrusions and deep creases. Then magnify it to the size of central London and you have the bizarre Aktau mountains of Kazakhstan.
In June of last year I was dropped right in the centre of this topographic anomaly with just a knife, two hands, and half a brain. My mission, should I choose to accept it, was not simply to survive for more than a week in this lifeless desert, but also to take part in a unique race against an ex-South Korean special forces officer (and former Navy Seal) called Ken Rhee.
I had to exit the mountains, hit a river to the south, then follow it west until I hit a monster sand dune. Simple.
Too weird to be true? Oddly no. Although the race was a construct, a survival challenge that formed part of my new series for Discovery Channel, everything that was happening was all too real. Ken was confident to the point of annoyance – some might say arrogant – and he was treating this race like a war between East and West. Ten years younger than me with abs like Batman, he was sure he was going to whip my pasty (and comparatively ageing) bottom. And, in my current predicament, it looked likely that he was going to be right.
"I’m too old for this!" I cursed under my breath, feeling like the mature Wolverine in that chapter in the X-Men saga, Logan. In the planning, this concept had made sense to me. Surviving on my own in remote parts of the world had fallen increasingly within my comfort zone and I needed to raise the bar if I was genuinely to be pushed to my limits. This wasn’t a craving for a macho nor masochistic fix, rather a knowledge that by throwing myself into situations that humble me, situations where I don’t have all the answers, I am forced to adapt and evolve. I’m forced to become a better version of myself.
To get a handle on my exit strategy I made the somewhat bold decision to climb the 1,300ft high spur in front of me. As a geologist, I was fascinated by the sedimentary rock that had been tectonically twisted and then sculpted by the infrequent deluges. Forget the surface of the moon, this was closer to feeling like I was standing on Mars than anywhere else I’ve travelled to. As I neared the summit it felt like I was trying to breathe the Martian atmosphere too – my throat was coarse and my lips were beginning to crack.
As I stood on the top I could make out a thin green strip on the horizon. That had to be water, the river to the south that I’d been aiming for, and so my plan was hatched. Get out of this lifeless desert as quickly as I could and at all costs, and consolidate and rehydrate when I reached the river.
A day later at the river the vegetation was too thick to proceed on foot, so I built a coracle out of reeds and camel hide. It somewhat resembled a Fred Flintstone-inspired tractor inner tube.
Being on the water felt great. My only uneasy niggle was that I had no idea whether I was in the lead or trailing Ken. I soothed my worries by reassuring myself that I was going as fast as I could, so it mattered little.
For a few minutes a black dot in the river behind me puzzled me. As it grew slightly larger it began to concern me and by the time I could make out Ken on a reed kayak I was in a state of near-panic. The speed at which he was gaining on me was so fast that I knew he would overtake me in a couple of minutes and then continue to stretch his lead for the next day or so of the race.
Faced with certain defeat or taking action, I ditched the painfully slow coracle and swam for the banks. I had no option but to take a risk and try my luck on foot. But after 10 minutes of trying to battle my way through rushes that were so thick and tall, they seemed more closely related to bamboo than grass, I had to acknowledge that this had been a mistake. Despondent, I ambled back to the river, saw my dumb doughnut boat had floated off, and had no option but to flop into the river and float in the current.
After floating for several hours I was shivering and I glanced to the northern banks of the river to notice that the rushes had stopped. The banks were clear and so I made the call that I would finish the race on foot through the now-open sandy bush.
I shuffled up the bank defeated and bedraggled. Ken had won by now for sure. But rather than walk, for some unknown reason I fell into a shuffle that turned into a jog. As I crested a ridge line I saw the biggest dune that I have ever seen – the magnificent end to this challenge. The only problem was that I estimated it was about six miles away.
Now six miles might not sound a lot to readers at home but add into the equation 105F (40C) heat, a week of virtually no food, and very limited water and it seemed a force field of impossibility.
But after facing certain defeat and now serious risk of heat exhaustion the strangest emotion came over me. I’d missed my little boy’s first steps and my wife, Laura, had sent a video to me of him walking. In my mind these heroic first few steps lit a fire in my very soul and made me realise that I never wanted my son to watch a programme on TV where his dad had given up. So I started to run.
Totally unprepared for a 10k run in scorching heat with no water at all, I just went for it. It was the strangest experience as I seemed to actually draw energy, fuel, from the feeling of love for my little boy taking his first steps in my head.
As I continued a new voice came in that I’d not heard for years. "You can do it, my boy!" My dad died nearly 20 years ago of lung cancer but for some reason the pride I felt for my son had triggered a memory of my father proudly coming to watch me play rugby week-in week-out.
Tears now streaming down my face and with the love for my son and my dead father now cursing through my veins I surged through the barren landscape towards the vast monolith. Ground squirrels scurried to get out of my way. Realistically I didn’t have a hope of winning but that was beside the point. I had tapped into an energy that is probably reserved for the very worst emergencies in life. An energy that helps lift a burning car to rescue a family member. A primal energy that kicks in when your very existence depends on it.
I’ve always believed that we modern humans place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the brain. We are all about logic and analysis and proof, and we often neglect the deeper feelings that used to connect our ancestors to the land. To me the race out of the brain-like mountains of Kazakhstan represented a decision to step back from my tangled confusion of "mind stuff" and trust my instincts and emotions to guide me in life.
Much to the bemusement of the crew I was still crying when I made it to the finish line. To find out whether I won or lost you’ll have to watch First Man Out, on Discovery Channel and catch-up services.