FEATURE: Survival expert from Great Cornard sheds light on life of wilderness adventures
Dan Hume first got his taste for the great outdoors in his mum and dad’s back garden in Suffolk.
These days his expeditions are a touch more adventurous – but the feeling is the same.
Whether the survival expert is in a tropical jungle or the vast white wilderness of the Arctic, he gets the same thrill he felt as a child.
“When you’re small, the nettle patch at the bottom of the garden seems a long way away,” says Dan, who worked with Ray Mears, TV’s master of bushcraft and survival, for 10 years.
“These days, when I go to the jungle in New Guinea, it feels like going to the nettle patch at six or seven.”
Now aged 30, he has his own business leading courses and expeditions, and has also travelled the world researching his book The Art of Fire.
He divides his time between Suffolk and the Philippines, where he and his partner Angelica Garcia, an author who he met on a diving trip, have a beach house near Manila.
“There’s no running water, and intermittent electricity, but my lifestyle before prepared me for that,” he says.
“In the morning at first light, we go down to the beach and help the fishermen pull their boats up and, in exchange, they give us some fish.”
Dan grew up in Great Cornard, where the family home with parents Deborah and John – who runs Angelo Smith jewellers in Sudbury – is still his UK base.
His love of the outdoors and adventurous spirit meant he was always a boy who went his own way, with school work coming second to his passion for learning about nature.
“When I was eight or nine, I kind of knew what I wanted to do and I found school work quite boring,” he recalls.
Reading books by Ray Mears and fellow survival expert Lofty Wiseman were an inspiration.
“They made sense of what I was thinking, and gave me a direction.”
Exploring Cornard Country Park with his brothers and cousin was his favourite pastime.
“I wanted to learn how to be a bush-man. We would also take a video camera to film all the things we saw.”
Even in his early teens, he showed the patience and determination to achieve goals like mastering the bow drill technique of making fire, which dates from prehistoric times.
“I’d collect wood and be out on the lawn every other day trying to make it work,” he says. “I was only 13, so didn’t really have much strength ... it took me a year-and-a-half, but, in the end, I did it.”
At 16, he started going on courses with Woodlore, the bushcraft school run by his childhood hero, Ray Mears.
The company then said yes to his request for work experience, and the following year offered him a job.
“I got to know Ray really well,” he says. “We flew all around the world running things together ... he was in charge, of course, but I did some of the lessons.
Dan worked his way up to head of operations at Woodlore, in charge of the outdoor instruction team, before leaving in 2017.
Fire, and its place in the human story, has held a lifelong fascination for him.
Research for his book included visiting tribes in Malaysia, the Philippines, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to study traditional fire-making techniques.
“I’d already acquired a lot of the knowledge, but I wanted to get photos and interview people,” he says.
One of the most amazing sights he saw was the fire dancers of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
“The ritual dates back thousands of years,” says Dan. “They dance and run through the fire. They wrap leaves around their arms and legs and wear masks, but sometimes they do get burned.”
While he loves going to remote places, Dan has little interest in endurance feats. “I have no desire to cross the Antarctic or climb Everest.
“I love nature. I think that’s ultimately why I do it. What it’s really about is being confident in the wild, and having the skills to make your journey easier.
“My interest has always been going to wild places untouched by man and looking at the wildlife. Bushcraft skills are a means to an end – they’re stepping stones.
“When you get dropped off from a float plane 100 miles from a road, you can feel confident.
“Creating fire by friction is an emergency skill. Ninety-nine per cent of the time you won’t need to use it.
“But it’s still a good thing to learn. It teaches you patience, tenacity and stoicism when you fail.”
The tropics – especially islands with coral reefs – is the region he loves most. But he is also fascinated by the Arctic, which he has visited ever year for 10 years.
Temperatures of -30C and below do not faze him. “First-time visitors get this ‘cold fear’ but, after a while, you learn to deal with it,” he says.
“You can’t make mistakes up there. With deep snow, just moving around is really tiring – you have to think ahead.”
That means cutting dead wood to light fires to cook and keep warm. “Where we go is not above the tree line but it’s still the Arctic,” explains Dan.
“The way to sleep is in a tent with a stove, but overnight the stove goes out. Usually, it’s -35 in the morning and your sleeping bag around your face is iced up.
“In the evening, you have to get kindling and tinder ready to get the fire going first thing in the morning.
“There are bears, lynx, and wolves – you can see and hear them.”
But the only time he felt afraid in the Arctic had nothing to do with the wildlife.
“My friend and I were in Finland, ski-ing to a cabin in the woods ... but we couldn’t find it and didn’t have any shelter or a stove to cook our food,” he recalls.
“But we had done Arctic survival training, so we dug down through the snow to the moss and laid spruce branches at one end to put our sleeping bags on. Then we lit a fire at the other end and put our dinner on.
“We draped our jackets over our ski poles to keep the snow off our faces and were so comfortable we actually slept in. Mind you, it wasn’t particularly cold, only -15.
“The other time I’ve been scared was in Africa with Ray. We went to a water hole to watch the game, and it started to get dark.
“In Africa, it’s like the light suddenly turns off. We were walking back to camp and could see the glow of the fire in the distance.
“Suddenly, we heard the grunting of a male lion, and it was really close. The sound really vibrated. My knees began to shake.
“Ray put up his camera with night vision on and it was 20 yards away. He said let’s get back but whatever you do, don’t run – and we made it safely back to camp.
“In the daytime, you can scare lions away quite easily, but, at night, they are different animals. Their vision is 20 times better than ours.”
Dan plans to lead expeditions to Papua New Guinea and Namibia later this year, and runs day courses near Sudbury.
He can be contacted via his website at danhume.com.
More by this authorBarbara Eeles