A new academy backed by TV adventurer Bear Grylls offers training in vital survival skills. Oliver Smith signed up for a 'taster' session.
'Clove hitch the rat's tail, just like we taught you..."
The student nodded sagely, securing the furry corpse to its makeshift skewer before returning it to the crackling campfire.
No, this wasn't the order of a demented chef in some post-apocalyptic wasteland, but a pearl of wisdom from one of the most respected men in his field, and the moment that these six scholars of survival had been waiting for.
It was what I had been dreading. When my itinerary had arrived the week before, it was the gastronomic offerings that unnerved me the most.
What better way to start the day than with "breakfast from your field rations, supplemented with oats and maggots". But I could look forward to a hearty evening meal: "... field preparation of a rat, which you will then cook and eat. Rats will be provided." Well, at least I wasn't expected to bring my own vermin.
I had signed up for the inaugural Bear Grylls Survival Academy, conceived by the mountaineer, adventurer and former SAS soldier who is perhaps best known for eating live frogs, raw goat's testicles and reindeer droppings, washed down with water squeezed from fresh elephant dung, for our viewing pleasure. I suppose I should have been grateful that the rat was to be cooked.
There's more to survival, of course, than holding down disgusting food. This was day four of the six-day course and those paying guests who had been on it from the start could already boast animal trapping (sorry, Roland), unarmed combat, shelter building and - of course - clove-hitch knot tying, among their new-found skills.
The course is not led by Bear, whose boyish enthusiasm made him instantly likeable, though he promises to make an appearance when his busy schedule allows - and he made a point of meeting the first recruits (and the journalists).
I joined them for a 36-hour "taster" session, so to speak, and thought myself lucky. Just one night under canvas, in the Scottish Highlands, in November, would be ample for me.
Most of the course takes place in Alladale, a bleakly beautiful 23,000-acre estate in Sutherland. It's owned by Paul Lister, the MFI heir, who has spent much of the past decade drumming up support for his intriguing yet controversial plans to reintroduce animals that once flourished here, including wolves and bears. I was grateful we would not have to contend with the howls and growls of either beast for the time being - the biting winds and perpetual drizzle adequately tested my mettle. The location was chosen, according to Bear, because it is "Britain's last remaining wilderness" - and with its craggy glens, covered with bog and heather, it lived up to the billing.
I arrived as the group's overnight shelter - built using a lattice of stripped branches covered with foliage - was taking shape, and after three nights together in this environment, it was no surprise that the six adventurers had already formed a tight-knit team.
What did surprise me were the demographics of those involved. The course is anything but cheap: £2999 ($A4533) per person for the six days, or £1399 ($A2114) for a three-day option - not including flights - so I turned up expecting middle-aged bankers and businessmen. The oldest was 33, and they were of modest means. Among them was Luke, a 20-year-old supermarket employee from London, fed up with friends who did "nothing except play computer games". Caleb, a pastor, had come from the United States to take part. His vocation takes him to some of the world's most war-torn countries, and he was hoping to learn skills that might prove useful on his next assignment. Both had spent all their savings to pay for the course.
They were joined by a carpenter from Colchester, an Irish student, a Canadian photographer and, the only woman, a tough little Australian on her gap year who sought (and received) no special treatment.
What they all had in common was a love for Bear Grylls. His best-known television show, Born Survivor (renamed Man v Wild for the international market), which extended over seven series, enjoyed remarkable success, reaching a global audience of more than 1.2 billion. Along with the likes of Ray Mears, another survival guru, Bear has transformed what was once a geeky pursuit into a thriving industry. The prospect of learning ancient skills and self-sufficiency, in a world where people appear increasingly devoid of initiative and reliant on technology and pre-packaged food, has struck a chord with many, and dozens of (more affordable) survival and bushcraft packages are already on offer.
Bear gives a scathing assessment of the offerings of his competitors - on which "you'll spend hours sitting around a camp fire, whittling a wooden spoon". His academy promises to teach "positivity, resourcefulness... and the skills that really keep people alive".
They include everything from improvised first aid, fire-lighting and foraging to river crossing and night navigation. I had time to take part in the latter two sessions. Using the stars to find my way across a soggy Scottish valley in the pitch dark raised my confidence slightly more than wading through a freezing river in my underpants, but the skills taught during both exercises have stuck with me. I can still find Polaris from the position of Cassiopeia or the Big Dipper, and I know that if I am ever forced to cross a river, I should face upstream to spot potential collisions with rocks or debris - a common cause of injury in such situations.
Three instructors, Scott, Stani and Dave, led the course. All are trained soldiers and have been key members of Bear's team during the filming of his television shows. Their lessons were reassuringly simple, and they had dozens of entertaining anecdotes to share about Bear and their adventures. But, while they clearly have a similar level of knowledge to offer, it is Bear who's the big draw. The team all wore Bear Grylls-branded clothing, a Bear Grylls-branded knife was issued to all participants and we were constantly reminded that we were learning techniques he taught on his programme.
The culmination of the course comes about as close to appearing in an episode of Born Survivor as you can get. Having learnt the skills, the team was taken by boat to an uninhabited island and tasked with putting it all into practice: building an overnight shelter, finding food, keeping safe and working out a way back to the mainland. Support was available, but participants were encouraged to use their initiative - and those failing to pass muster were told they would not graduate.
I was not around to witness the final challenge - and as I made the two-hour journey back to Inverness airport I felt a surprising pang of jealousy, for the bonds forged and the experiences shared. I caught up with Luke a couple of weeks later to find out how it had gone. It had been a "surreal" experience, he said, but everyone had passed the test and had stayed in touch. Being back in London was a struggle, he told me, and he was already planning another trip to the wilderness - back to Scotland, or to the Alps - and was hoping to swap his job at Marks & Spencer for a career as a mountain guide.
He said that the arrival of Bear himself - he turned up early on that fourth morning, took charge of a couple of exercises (including the incineration of our dear rodent), before departing in the afternoon - had been a highlight. But as there is no guarantee he will make an appearance at every academy, I wonder whether £2999 is a fair price to charge. Luke agreed that the cost would be prohibitive to some, but said he believed the same experience couldn't be found anywhere else.
One element that he - and I - were not keen to repeat was that post-apocalyptic meal. We've been asked since what rat tastes like. Dreadful - and nothing like chicken. The maggots were fine - earthy. Just make sure you kill them with the first bite, or they'll wriggle on the way down.
The Bear Grylls Survival Academy will be running three and six-day courses in Scotland from March 2013. The next course will run from May 15 to 18. Prices from £1399 ($A2114) to £2999 ($A4533), including food and accommodation. See beargryllssurvivalacademy.com or call +44 1483 424 438.