For biologist and survival guide Hazen Audel, the best way to learn about indigenous people is to live with them and live like them, adopting their customs, diet and way of life, no matter how dangerous, difficult or bizarre they seem. That totally immersive approach is the idea behind his National Geographic Channel series "Survive the Tribe," which kicks off July 24 with a episode set in Kenya in which he endures getting stung by bees and fire ants and drinks blood straight from the cow while learning the ways of the Samburu. Audel expounds on his experiences and explains why he wanted to take them on.
MNN: Have you always loved the outdoors and nature?
Hazen Audel: When I was a kid, the only thing I wanted to do was go outside and catch frogs, snakes, bugs…you name it. Basically, I never grew up. I have always been drawn to wildlife. Some of my first memories were of me drawing anacondas and tarantulas with crayons.
How did the series come about? Where did the idea come from?
When I graduated from high school, I traveled to the jungles of Ecuador to see firsthand the animals that had fascinated me my entire life. After traveling deep into the rain forest on my search for these animals, I had set up a small camp next to a river. After weeks of mud, tropical rains and mildew, my tent began to slowly rot away. I wasn't equipped for this kind of extreme weather. My little camp (or what was left of it) had eventually caught the attention of the locals who lived in the area. At first they were shy and did not approach me. They watched from a distance. After a while, curiosity finally got the best of the indigenous children, and they eventually became my fishing buddies after watching me fish near them for weeks. Their parents recognized that I was becoming an installation of the landscape, and our friendship began soon after that. As time went on, I was invited into their households and then to live with them in their homes. Even as a foreigner with huge language barriers, the tribe's adults understood that I was uniquely fascinated with the jungle. I think they saw that my fascination outweighed my concern for my personal safety, and they took me in. Over time, I became part of their family. And thus began my unexpected fascination with the lives and lifestyles of indigenous tribal people.
This was the beginning of a very rewarding path in my life — exploring, making friends and learning from traditional tribal people in wild places. I made my way back to my hometown of Spokane, Washington, but I decided to travel back to Ecuador the following summer. I started an expedition and rain forest guiding business in Ecuador. I have always wanted to share my excitement for wild plants, animals and traditional cultures with the rest of the world, so I decided that this was a great way to blend my two worlds. Back home, I returned to school to get a teaching degree to become a biology teacher. It was perfect for me because I could incorporate my curiosity and passion for biology and nature, while traveling back to Ecuador every summer to continue my guiding business.
I realized that videos of my travels were helpful in the classroom, which later led me to start a science education video company, now called Untamed Science, with some of my best friends, whom I had met as a graduate student, biologist and outdoor athlete. We called ourselves the Ecogeeks and nearly every weekend and every summer break, we were making these hammed-up science videos and podcasts for the Web. It wasn't long until we were recognized by international wildlife and science film festivals. The U.K.-based production company Icon Films saw that I might bring something different and innovative to a possible television show and funded an expedition for me to revisit Ecuador to film a pilot a little over a year ago, to visit my old indigenous friends. And that's where this whole adventure began. I was given the opportunity to do what I loved, and share these experiences with the rest of the world while doing it. Of course I jumped at the opportunity!
In the video below, Hazen attempts to use a golden eagles with the Kazakh hunters in Mongolia's Altai Mountains.
How many episodes are there, and where do you go in each?
There are six episodes, and I travel to a different tribe in each. All six tribes are located in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. I survived off a diet of cow's blood and milk with the people of the Samburu tribe in Kenya. I shot poison-tipped arrows with the San bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. I dodged dangerous and exotic animals with the Waorani tribe of the Ecuadorian Amazon. I hunted with golden eagles with the Kazakh hunters in Mongolia's Altai Mountains. I built igloos with the Inuits of Nunavik in the Arctic Circle. I went spear fishing with the elite fisherman of the Solomon Islands. Each different location had its share of dangers and difficulties (if I never drink cow's blood again, I won't be disappointed!), but all of the experiences had one thing in common: the simplicity of their lifestyles is a beautiful thing. I hope that the show makes all of us take a second look at what is important in our own lives.
What did you learn in each — about survival skills, and about yourself?
The most important thing I learned from all of this is to never give up. Whether I was learning a new skill, trying to keep up with the tribe or doing something that was outside of my comfort zone, giving up wasn't an option, and this realization is what helped me get through some of the most difficult trials. When I was in Ecuador with the Waorani tribe, I got lost from the group and was left to fend for myself until someone found me. I recognized that I was in a very dangerous situation. Luckily, this wasn't the first time this had happened to me so I knew what to expect. When I was 20 years old, I had gotten lost in the Ecuadorian jungle for almost five days. I only had a pair of torn-up shorts, a machete and a broken flashlight. It was a terrifying experience for me, and it is scary to think that I could have died. Lucky for me, I did find a river and eventually some Quechua hunters who brought me back to safety. If I had given up, I could have been lost forever.
I remembered this experience when I got lost during the filming of the show, and it pushed me to not give up. When filming in the Solomon Islands, I was at the point of utter exhaustion for days on end while trying to keep up with the islanders. While spear fishing, I was trying to swim 50 feet below the ocean's surface and holding my breath for long periods of time, while battling the relentless surf and trying to save a capsized dugout canoe that weighed thousands of pounds in the bashing waves, all while avoiding the razor-sharp coral. I didn't think I could continue, but from my experiences, I knew that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, and a gulp of air is there at the surface if I keep my focus. In addition to persistence, I learned other valuable skills from these tribes. For example, recognizing and utilizing your own personal skills and assets helps with becoming a valuable member of a community. For the Samburu people, the male warriors use their strength to keep their tribe fed and protected. For the Kazakh hunters in Mongolia, the youngsters care for their animals, which are their lifelines. And for the Inuit, they make the deadly sub-zero temperatures their asset, rather than their enemy.
Audel watches a tribesman inspect a spear on "Survive the Tribe."
What were the most shocking things you had to do?
When I was living with the Inuit, we were battling the frigid temperatures and had nothing to eat after days of unsuccessful hunting trips. To get food, I went with an elder to collect mussels from the sea ice. I found out the hard way that this was one of the most difficult and dangerous things I have ever done. To collect the mussels, we had to find a fissure in the thick sea ice and crawl down under the ice when the tide was moving out. Down there, under as much as 20 feet of moving ice, there are mazes of restricted hallways and crevices. This is the only way to access the rich ocean floor where mussels, clams, seaweed and starfish can be found to eat. When I was down there, I was terrified. I had a short amount of time before the tide came back in. The fear of being lost under this labyrinth of tunnels, trying to find my way out before an underground tidal wave made escaping impossible, is not an easy feeling to forget. People have died from the sea ice shifting. I wanted to get the hell out of there. It was a desperate situation. In Kenya, I lived off of a strict diet of milk and cow's blood for weeks while I was living with the Samburu people. There were no other options. This diet is what keeps the Samburu alive in one of the driest and hottest places on Earth.
Any other challenging or difficult aspects?
The skill I found most frustrating and difficult was spear fishing in the Solomon Islands. To keep up with the islanders, I had to dive 50 to 60 feet underwater and stay down there for minutes to wait out fish, and then with deadly accuracy shoot a crude metal rod at the quickly moving target. I would have to spend the entire day fighting the feelings of almost drowning, while having little success at actually catching a fish. The only fish I did catch, admittedly, were all lucky shots. With the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, they live in a place where people eat animals to survive. Every time they go out to get food and water, they put themselves in danger. Lions, leopards, hyenas and elephants are animals that the Bushman would never want to live without. As much as they appreciate these animals, some people in the village have been attacked and mangled from unfortunate encounters with them.
In this video, Hazen assists a Sumbara tribesman in gathering water for a small herd of cows.
Did you have any close calls with predators, or get sick?
There are close calls in every episode. Luckily, I did not get sick during filming. I am sure my stomach has calluses by now. I think it was because I was simply working so hard and with such focus on these shoots, that I simply didn't have time to get sick.
What were your favorite and least favorite parts of the experience?
My favorite part of all of this was learning from these amazing people. This was an absolute dream for me. I was given the opportunity to go to the most remote places in the world where the rarest and most dangerous wildlife exists, and I was able to embed with the people who live there. The worst and most difficult part of the entire experience was leaving. The bonds that I have made with these people are life changing. I lived with them, in their households, for weeks. I was living with them and sleeping in the same hut with them under the same stars. I had life-or-death experiences with these people. We shared laughs, meals and stories. These types of bonds and relationships are getting harder and harder to find in the Western world. I was their brother or their son. I helped them hunt and cook. I helped protect them. I was so involved in their cultures that it was heartbreaking each time I had to leave them. They have taught me life lessons of what integrity means and what is most important in life.
Audel (second from right) with members of the Samburu tribe.
What are you concentrating on now? Are you still teaching?
Yes. First and foremost, I am a lifelong student and I'm passionate about sharing what I have learned. I will always be a teacher in some capacity. I certainly do miss the classroom and my students a lot! Whenever I come back to the U.S., I work on my art business to pay the bills. I look for teaching opportunities when I can, and I’m currently building a house. I don't have trouble overwhelming myself with things to do. And at this point in my life, I also hope to find someone to share a family with some day. Life is short and I know that in my lifetime I cannot learn enough to document it all. But I will do as much as I can. Sir David Attenborough is one of my biggest heroes. My goal is to follow in his footsteps and share this amazing natural and wild world with everyone I know.
What do you hope viewers of the series will take away?
"Survive the Tribe" allows us all to see how human lives can be very different than our own. Through the adventure, adversity and challenges, it shows us that sometimes, the most important things in life are the most simple. It reminds us that true happiness lies in the things that you can't buy in a supermarket or shopping mall.
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