As my plane neared Arusha, Tanzania, we passed by Mount Kilimanjaro, which had captured my imagination since my childhood obsession with National Geographic. I looked frantically around the plane for who my partner may be. I later learned that they flew him in the night before so we would not meet. I was about to start my adventure on Naked and Afraid.
As we rolled into a remote bush camp to spend the night and set up pre-show interviews, I felt butterflies like never before. I was greeted by native Tanzanian staff who led me to my remote African bush tent.
The next day was a day of pre-production flurry, with myself as the focal point. There were cameras, lights, interviews and new people running around everywhere. I felt like I was watching a movie except, strangely, I was starring in it. There was still no introduction to my partner. The suspense was building to a crescendo. The searing African sun at over 4,000 feet of altitude was more than my body knew how to handle. My pale Alaskan skin began to burn. I was so busy doing interview after interview that I quickly became chronically dehydrated. I felt dizzy and nauseous, and my heat exhaustion was quickly turning into the first stages of heat stroke.
Just as the sun set on the eve of my epic survival challenge, I experienced one of the worst headaches of my life and a fever, and as I was helped into my tent I began to vomit. My body was too hot; it was shutting down. I quickly sat on the back deck and I recorded a “hope to see you again video” to my family, not knowing if it would be the last communication they would ever hear from me.
I quickly ate a Tanzanian gourmet meal, drank lots of water and was helped into bed. I told the producer that I would be asleep within a half hour, and I felt that if I could get cooled down quickly I would be ready to begin the 21-day survival challenge the next morning. Secretly, I hoped I was right, and that I wouldn’t die in the night from heat stroke. I also wondered if my fair skin would be able to handle the bright African sun.
Soon, African nurses buzzed around me like bees working on the queen. I remember the nurse pricking my finger to check my glucose, and ice bags being put behind my neck, around my head and around my feet. I remember them talking to me in Swahili and handing me some giant Aspirin-like pills; I gobbled them like candy. I was asleep with in five minutes of lying down. I woke several times in the night, visited the water closet and drank large amounts of water.
In the morning, I was up with the wild things for one last amazing Tanzanian gourmet four-course breakfast, and then was whisked away with Thomas, who soon became my Tanzanian brother. Thomas was my driver, who led me into a world unknown to me.
Into The Unknown
I was blindfolded. I heard the quiet clamor of my African chariot start as we sped off. I tasted the dust as we made good time winding down African bush roads. We made turn after turn after turn onto bumpy trails, eventually off-roading through the rugged bush country. I could hear vegetation scraping on metal as we passed over it. I smelled a beautiful sweet smell I cannot describe. It permeated the air around me; it reminded me of freshness. I heard the calls of strange new birds, but I mostly heard the drone of the Land Rover and the penetrating silence of my driver. I wondered if this is how a prisoner being transferred to a place unknown must feel. I became nauseous from the blindfolded off-road driving. My skin burned from the strength of the sun. I felt dehydrated and began to get a headache. The suspense entranced me.
I knew I was blindfolded so I could never find my way back to the luxurious bush camp where I had just been treated to gourmet African meals, wait staff and a fancy bush tent with running water and pure harmonious luxury. I also knew I would soon be embarking on the most daunting survival challenge ever documented on television.
Alas, the cameraman riding behind me removed my blindfold. I saw wild beauty in every direction just as vivid as in my childhood dreams of this place.
I was here of my own free will to be part of a human experiment never before filmed in a survival docu-series for television. We were all here to see if one man and one woman, complete strangers, could meet and survive for 21 days in the wild. We were all making history.
My goal was to complete my mission with honor, to show women that they can do anything they set their minds to. I was also hoping to liberate women everywhere who are hyper-conscious about their bodies and society’s unrealistic view of what makes a woman beautiful. I was also there because I am tough as nails and I never give up, and I wanted to show people that they must never give up no matter what challenges they may be facing in their lives. I also hoped to show the people watching Naked and Afraid that the human body is beautiful in all of its variety.
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Bush Country Survival
The moment my first foot hit the African soil I was a changed woman. I was transformed into more than I had ever known. I walked behind the Rover and to the left side. I took off my black sandals and placed them in the back of the vehicle. Then off came my clothes and bra. One at a time, I watched them hit the box of the Rover, knowing this was the beginning of a new me. Naked and afraid, I soaked in the landscape and, in disbelief, I watched Thomas drive away, not to be seen for 21 days. Reality hit me like a freight train as a movie camera captured every movement of every part of my body. And so the journey began.
I walked toward the noise of another departing Land Rover on the horizon, and soon the figure of a man came into view. He was naked. How strange to see a naked white man in the heart of Africa walking toward me. As he approached, I noticed he looked strong as he walked, exuding dominance. I hoped he was not going to be an over-the-top, Type A kind of guy. I hoped he would treat me as an equal partner and we could work as a team to accomplish our mission.
As we neared, he presented his hand for a handshake. I countered with a hug and said, “We are naked in Africa. I think it deserves a hug.”
He said, “I am EJ Snyder.”
We met underneath a grandfather of an acacia tree. We gathered our burlap satchels, which contained our microphone batteries and one mini video camera for us each. His also contained his KA-BAR knife; mine had a simple stainless steel pot and a cartoonish map. We decided to head for the closest high ground to make our first night’s shelter, and we would head to the circles on the map that we believed to be water in the morning.
We encountered two to 10 thorns with every single step. Rarely did we ever make a step in 21 days without thorns entering the bottoms of our tender feet, unless we walked on the river rocks where, earlier, flood water had washed most thorns away. Within the first few steps after our initial meeting, EJ told me how to walk on thorns without getting them in my feet. I tried his suggestion and I immediately had a pin-cushion for a foot.
I spoke to the camera angrily: “He has been here five minutes and he is telling me how to walk on thorns as if he is an expert. He doesn’t know how to walk on thorns any better than I do.” Within the next few minutes, he said he believed in traditional male and female roles, essentially telling me women belong in the kitchen. I knew immediately one of our most difficult challenges was going to be getting along and working as a team for 21 days.
That first evening we made a shelter as well as we could before nightfall. It was not lion, leopard or hyena proof. It was the best we could do with no shoes, limited resources and only a few hours of daylight to work with. We looked up at the stars through our shelter that night. In Tanzania at that time of year, there is no way to make roofing material in that short of time. There are no trees with broad leaves and the small leaves dry up and crumble away in the wind in the arid heat. We discussed our fears, our hopes and made lists of tasks to complete.
On day two, we hiked across the dry Savannah in 106-degree heat for over 12 hours, and then we got hit with short torrential downpour. The pounding rain made our sunburned bodies feel immediately hypothermic—but at last we had water. I immediately went to the dried-up river bottom and looked for rocks with depressions now filled with rainwater. I drank like a primeval cave woman, dropping to my stomach and slurping the water directly from the rock to my mouth. Water had never tasted so good to me or proved such a vital lifeblood.
There, in this dried-up river valley, we lived, we survived, we laughed and we cried. We ate ants, ant larvae, tadpole soup, mongoose, tons of catfish, pigeon peas, African sweet potatoes, wild fruits not known to be consumed by modern humans and chewed the roots of a tree for liquid. We made primitive fire and primitive shelters, and I lived in a small, fetal-position-sized cave for most nights. We made primitive fire after days of failed attempts with materials we did not know from a continent we had never been to before. We lived amongst the most poisonous tree in Africa, the Euphorbia. We burned its wood not knowing if it would poison us. We survived, but we never thrived. We sometimes worked together as a team.
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My partner, EJ, took on a dominant role. I am also dominant, but I am good at taking orders from my 20 years of experience with law enforcement. I knew that to complete our 21-day survival mission as a duo, I would have to swallow my pride and take on a subservient female role since EJ voiced his belief in traditional male vs. female roles, and he reaffirmed this belief daily with his actions.
So, I prepared our firewood for burning, most of which EJ gathered. I tended the fire while EJ went on hunter/gatherer missions almost daily. I gathered water in my little stainless steel pot so we could hydrate. I boiled the water and lifted the pot with wooden tongs from the fire while EJ sharpened his knife on river rocks or threw rocks at scurrying lizards. I made yards of braided natural cordage while EJ used his knife to make numerous pairs of sandals. The sandals would only last for a few hours before breaking, so it was a continuous process. Everything had thorns, from the smallest sand burr to the largest tree.
We got infections and burns that nearly killed us. I was temporarily blinded for a night and part of the next morning by poisonous plant sap. Both of our kidneys were shutting down before we made primitive fire to purify our putrid animal-dung-laden, manky water. I had two menstrual periods back to back, with only three days in between, due to my body preparing for famine. We both went hungry, and were so thirsty one cannot find words to describe.
We both went cold at night. It was so cold at night that I barely slept. I prayed for the night to be over as I lay in a fetal position and whimpered to myself. The hyenas circled our fire every night, coming closer night by night. We threw rocks at them and prayed they wouldn’t eat us during one of our few hours of precious sleep. I watched one in the firelight as it skulked by, inquisitively looking at me through the darkness. Hyenas statistically kill more people in Africa than lions.
During the heat of the day, it was often over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We were always under-hydrated, and because there was nothing to make clothes from, we were under-protected from the sun’s rays on our skin also. EJ is part Native American, so his beautiful, lightly bronzed skin was much better at adapting to being out in the heat of the day than my fair Austrian-Welsh skin. During the day even lions rest, and so did we. We couldn’t sleep, however, due to hundreds of flies constantly attacking our skin and biting our wounds.
I caught most of the catfish we ate, and I showed EJ how to be successful himself. That humbled him. He said the whole experience changed him. He said it made him more compassionate, and he realized women can do much more than he ever thought. Through it all, we remained true to ourselves and we managed to finish as a team with honor.
As we climbed the mountain in 40-mph winds to our extraction point, the wind swept through my hair as the Serengeti had swept through me for 21 days. We made it. We made it together. We learned, we grew and we bonded. We changed. We showed the world.
This article was originally published in SURVIVOR’S EDGE ™ Winter 2015 magazine. Print and Digital Subscriptions available here.