For somebody with an estimated 200 million viewers worldwide, Ray Mears isn’t your average international superstar. There’s a touch of the ‘favourite school teacher’ about the man, a clue to why Mears is so popular perhaps?
That, and a certain vulnerability that leaves you feeling he’s someone who might need reminding to dressup warm. Odd really, given that he must know more about braving the elements than almost anyone else alive (or dead, for that matter).
The skills you need to eat, sleep and survive in the wild come naturally to Mears, but he’s also spent a lifetime perfecting his art. Having read all there was to read about survival in books from his local library, Mears began honing his skills, some of which hadn’t been used for thousands of years and went on to set up his own bushcraft school – Woodlore, on the Kent/Sussex border – in 1983. Mears was not yet 20. It’s easy to imagine the young man as something of a loner, a suggestion he does nothing to dispel. At school, while classmates were happy hiding under the covers with a torch and a copy of Boy’s Own Adventures, Mears was in the woods, enjoying the real thing. “I’m not sure exactly how old I was when I first started tracking foxes in the forest, but it was no more than nine or ten,” he casually recalls. “Then I wanted to sleep outdoors but didn’t have the means to buy camping equipment, so I took a more Robinson Crusoe approach and improvised a great deal.” Mears’ judo teacher at school, Kingsley, really fired his imagination, encouraging him to look at the world in a different way. His voice lowers perceptibly as he recalls this much-loved mentor, “He fought behind enemy lines in Burma during World War II and taught me to challenge conventional wisdom and practices.
He would say ‘you don’t need equipment, you need knowledge to survive in the wild. Maximum efficiency from minimum effort’. These are the same principles I instill in all my pupils today.” Mears’ passion has seen him cross the globe several times over, earning him the trust and respect of many nations. “Having the opportunity to accompany people while they hunt and track and search for wild plants, for food or medicine, is a humbling experience,” he says. “Unless we look after this planet, there isn’t going to be much left for future generations. When I was a kid, we heard about rain forest depletion and imagined people chopping down the odd tree or so. The reality is so much more serious, especially in Brazil” he continues, “The forest is being opened-up from inside and out. The rate of loss is astonishing and it is to help produce cheap beef, soya and timber. It’s appalling and someday soon, the last trees will be gone forever, the rain forest will be gone and all that will remain is huge, open copse. We have to find a way of providing statesmanship to the world if these countries are to pay attention and listen. I’m not sure our leaders have done a very good job of that of late.”
“…YOU WONDER WHAT MEARS MIGHT MAKE OF THE ONGOING DEBATE ABOUT 4X4 VEHICLES. IT’S NO SURPRISE TO FIND HIM EQUALLY FORTHRIGHT.”
Which can’t help but make you wonder what Mears might make of the ongoing debate about 4×4 vehicles. It’s no surprise to find him equally forthright. “This is a complicated issue made even more complicated by interfering and shabby politicians who are looking for a cheap shot, and 4×4’s have become firmly fixed in their sights”. He carries on, “What few realise is the more modern 4×4 is more efficient than many other type of cars currently on the market. I think it is outrageous that everyone who drives an SUV or 4×4 is tarred with the same ‘Chelsea Tractor’ brush. SUVs represent just one per cent of the cars on our roads today and when you think of the role off-road vehicles play in terms of maintaining our gas and electricity supplies and keeping our farms running, this contribution is massive. You can’t judge by what you see in town, because it’s not the full use of these vehicles. I drive a 4×4 because I need access off road. I love the new MINI and think it’s a great piece of design, but it would be completely useless for my type of work. When I’m teaching, and if someone were to have an accident, I could get to them in my Land Rover where an ambulance would be left floundering in the mud.
Sometimes I need to take my Land Rover into town and it’s automatically assumed that I’m one of these urbanite 4×4 drivers, when clearly I’m not. Having said all that, whenever possible I do use public transport”. So Ray Mears travels by bus then? “You’re more likely to see me on the train than the bus” he retorts “I’m also trying to cut back on the amount of flights I take during the year, but this isn’t always viable.” He tells us that many of his expeditions would have had to been abandoned if it were not for the Defender. “I drive in places where you think ‘how the hell are we going to deal with that?’ and then the Land Rover simply lifts its skirt and tip toes over! The most challenging was definitely in what was Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was really difficult. We were confronted with bridges that didn’t have any means of crossing. Fortunately for us, the locals had saved just four of the wooden planks from being burned, so we kept moving these flimsy pieces of wood ahead of the Defender and gingerly edging across. Then there were mud holes so large they had quite literally swallowed entire cars, and corrugated metal had been laid over the roofs so we could drive over them.”
As the topic of conversation becomes more car related, he opens up and explains that wherever possible he will use a Land Rover, but location and logistics sometimes don’t allow this to happen. “I’ve used Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols in the past, but they’re not as durable as a Land Rover. I need to have one hundred per cent faith in all my equipment, especially cars. If I break down in the wilderness, I can’t really phone up the AA to rescue me. I understand how these cars [Land Rovers] work and, more importantly, they can be fixed fairly easily”.
Presently, Mears has a Defender and Discovery 3 at his disposal, and apart from a front and rear winch, expedition roof rack, and side protection tubes, they are both near bog-standard, diesel models. He’s suitably impressed by the new Disco, “I’m 43 years old and getting to the stage in my life where comfort does figure into the equation, and the Discovery 3 is infinitely more comfortable on a longer journey”. A recent long journey for Mears meant a 4,000-mile drive, criss-crossing Australia where he first used the Disco. “At first I wasn’t entirely sure that the air-suspension and computerised off-road system would be up to the job – we were travelling through some of the world’s most inhospitable places, but cope it did, and very well with little incident.” What advice would Ray offer anyone planning such an expedition? It’s a question he must have been asked a thousand times, but the answer is immediate. “Preparation – it’s the key to everything. Don’t be afraid to stop the car, turn the engine off, listen to the sound of nature and speak to the locals.
Most people are incredibly friendly, and there are far more good people in this world than bad.” It makes perfect sense, of course, but almost everything Ray Mears says makes perfect sense, most memorably his parting words. As a philosophy we might all do well to remember. Can ‘take only memories, leave only footprints’ really be beaten?