The sign at the gym read: “DO YOU WANT TO BE SHIPWRECKED WITH THE CHANCE TO WIN £25'000? CHANNEL 4 ARE LOOKING FOR PEOPLE AGED 18-25 TO SPEND THREE MONTHS ON A TROPICAL ISLAND...”
Only a few weeks earlier, at the same gym (Fitness First in Sheffield), I'd rented out Danny Boyle's film adaptation of Alex Garland's Generation X backpacker thriller The Beach from the free DVD library, and knew I had found the answer to all my problems. I'd just decided to quit my studies and, at 18, felt completely lost.
The same year 'The Beach' was released, the great travel writer Pico Iyer wrote, in answer to the title of his own beautiful essay 'Why We Travel' that 'We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves'. I felt lost already, at home on a council estate in the north of England, so I wondered if I'd find myself out there somewhere, in the distant tropics.
So here's where the adventure begins- I called the number on the poster at the gym and, to cut a long story short, a few months later found myself blindfolded on a tiny propeller plane with a group of strangers, being filmed heading towards a dense rainforest on the other side of the world. Those strangers became a family of six, who, throughout three intense months would grow into a colony of 14 for one of the early reality TV shows in Britain.
At the time I was at a complete loss as to why I had been selected for the show...what had they seen in me? Looking back I now know that I represented all things Urban, which, at the time, was a byword for 'black' ('A cheeky charmer/ Craig David lookalike' it said below my profile picture on the website). It wasn't entirely a cynical choice on Channel 4's behalf though- I was very much pigeon holing myself as being a part of black UK street culture. This is why I think it is so important for black inner city youth (and indeed, inner city youth of all ethnicities) to try to travel more- How can we ever identify ourselves with anything other than 'the hood' or 'the ends' if we don't extend our physical and spiritual boundaries beyond them? I like to think the biggest thing I got from Eden was that I entered it a bad boy, and left a good man, shedding all of the stupid posturing I used to associate with blackness.
Though I had applied for the survival show called Shipwrecked, Channel 4 changed the name that year to Eden, and also changed some of the rules. Each week a new 'Edenite', voted on the show by the public, would join our community in a rainforest (instead of a desert island).
Once dropped off by the plane we were driven to a secret location where we could finally take off our blindfolds to begin an overnight trek through the jungle to our little paradise. We got lead into Eden by a portly, bearded man called Billy Bushdog who, armed with a batch of homemade Australian Damper bread and a block of cheese, gave us what would be our last 'normal' meal for three months.
Finally, exhausted, the six of us arrived in 'Eden'
We had an area for flatbeds and hammocks:
A dining room:
And a vegetable patch:
We even had our own pet dog called Spot:
We also had a few chickens and rabbits, a creek to fish in, cascades to wash in and, if we were bored, a beautiful waterfall to trek to where we once all carved our name into a tree and promised to revisit the same spot ten years later. Our nights would be spent by camp fire, sharing stories, making up songs to sing and obsessing over all the food we were being deprived of. We lived by nature's cycles- arose at sunrise, judged bedtime by moonlight, and, apart from small rations of rice and pasta, lived off whatever the land gave us.
Even though we'd get E-mails once a week from viewers in our 'web hut', for a while it was as though the outside world didn't exist. I remember finding a five pound note in a pocket a few weeks into Eden and laughing at how useless it seemed, there in the heart of a tropical rainforest, where hunting, gardening and rationing were our currency. I felt astounded, stranded for months without power as we were, by the inventions of civilisation- the stuff we take for granted when we have daily access to them, like the tap and the gas stove.
Our whole day was based around our evening meal- the only meal of the day apart from a small bowl of rice with sugar for breakfast. If it had been raining we'd have to collect wood in the morning, dry it out by the afternoon, prepare a fire and start cooking a rabbit or a chicken at what must have been around 3pm, so that by sunset, at around 7 O'clock, we'd have something to eat.
I've never felt hunger like it. All the regular day to day thoughts most people have... about bills, career, relationships, sex, future ambitions etc, were all replaced by food, and we were trapped in the agonising limbo-land between needing to talk about our obsession and knowing that talking about it would often make us hungrier. I dreamed of food. Of drowning in the most sickly chocolate possible...Mars Bars and Chocolate cakes and an Australian dessert called Lamington.
I remember thinking it was incredible that back home people could just go to the store and buy whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. I told myself I would do it every day when I got back. Sometimes, if we had a little bit of sugar left over, we'd burn it so it caramelised- a rare treat! Such was my need for sweetness, I once ate 20 orange flavoured vitamin C tablets (a supplement provided by the production company) in a day, a provision that quickly got taken away from us when they found out we were abusing them.
Because of our lack of nutrition, I noticed nothing grew. I shaved my hair off in the first week and it stayed short for the duration. I didn't need to cut my nails once in three months. I lost so much weight so quickly, I still have a couple of faint, silvery stretch marks on my backside.
They say that when you go away for a long time, you never make it all the way back- that a part of who you were stays on tour forever. This has never been more true in my life than when I left Eden. In three months I lost two stones in weight (I was only 11 stones when I started!), learned to swim (A fellow Edenite was a swimming instructor- thank you Clionna O'Conner!), learned my first few basic guitar chords (thanks to our resident guitarist Christopher Dean...though I'm still not ready to hear Travis' 'Sing' again, which was on heavy rotation on 'Eden FM'). I built fires, fought chickens, caught Eels, killed leeches and almost got killed by mosquitos.... okay perhaps that's a bit dramatic, but I did catch a mosquito-born disease similar to malaria which laid me out for two weeks (Ross River Fever). I had a hangover so bad that to this day I still can't drink red wine and, for the first time, I learned to exist without my Mom doing everything for me.
I didn't end up winning the £25 grand (which mysteriously got reduced to £10'000 when we did the show) and was voted third (out of 14). In the end though, the show wasn't really about 'winning' - the goal was the journey, which essentially became a rite of passage.
Much like my fellow Edenite Rav Wilding, what I ultimately got out of the experience was a kickstart into a career that has defined my twenties and provided some incredible moments I'll never forget. That I would go on to work for every major broadcaster in Britain (Channel 4, Sky One, BBC, ITV and MTV) over the next ten years is something that the lost 18 year old I was at the gym couldn't have even begun to comprehend...So onto part two of the story...
This year (2013) I found myself back in Australia shooting for the BBC (...but actually getting paid this time!) and took a week's road trip in a little camper van after filming, all along the East Coast from Brisbane to Sydney, and realised I would pass through the tiny Taree airport where the little plane dropped us off, and where my life on the small screen first started over a decade ago.
I had just spent a couple of days dossing out with a bunch of surfers in Byron Bay, and decided it was time to go back to Eden. I bought some provisions to take into the jungle, even managing to persuade the local bakery to bake me a batch of the damper bread Billy Bushdog gave us (despite it not being on their menu). I was all set to go when it suddenly occured to me I had absolutely no idea how to get there. Luckily I remember being given a leaflet by one of the crew when Eden finished, for some accommodation near to the filming location.
I called my Mom who dug it out, typed the address into my satnav and hoped for the best. I'd called the numbers on the leaflet and nobody answered, sent various E-mails which all bounced back, and I was concerned about the accuracy of the location. As I came off the highway there was a small rocky road and the sat nav told me I had reached my destination, but it wasn't Eden.
I followed the road past old derelict farms that looked like something out of the horror film 'Wolf Creek', and for about 5 miles it was lined with rusting tractors and the rotting carcasses of broken down trucks. I was losing light, too, and started to think about heading back. But slowly something started to feel familiar...the trees became taller and slimmer, and there was a musky scent of damp wood and evergreen leaves in the air.
People take photographs of a place to remember it, but nothing stirs the memory banks like the smell of a place, and though I've been to a few rainforests since, the smell of this particular jungle transformed me into that teenager I once was, embarking on his first true adventure. So, encouraged by the sensory overload I carried on as the rocky road began to disappear into a dirt trail leading into a shadowy forest. I splashed through a couple of deep fords, disturbed a herd of cattle and nearly knocked over a Joey until I came into a clearing with an old house.
It was so quiet and isolated that when I pulled up to the drive the cackling gravel under the wheels of my car seemed clumsily conspicuous. Suddenly an old woman with white hair appeared and asked how she could help. Her name was Dr Mary E White, a famous paleo-botanist, conservationist, author... and also the owner of the land I had just trespassed on!
After apologising for arriving unannounced, I explained to Mary who I was and that I was searching for 'Eden'. She was very warm and friendly and said that she had bought the place ten years ago, and vaguely remembered somebody mentioning some sort of 'movie' once being filmed there. "If you follow the creek just behind those trees it will lead you to the place I think you're looking for" she said "there are a couple of wooden structures that were here when I came, but it's getting too dark now, stay the night and go in the morning". She lead me to a larger building a little further down the path and said I could stay in one of the apartments. She brought me some sausages, eggs and tea for me to make breakfast with in the morning.
I slept and had strange dreams about leeches and Huntsman spiders then, at about 6am, was woken up by the same ridiculous sound I remembered hearing each morning all those years ago in Eden- the monkey-like shrill of laughing Kookaburras.
And suddenly it all came back...the whole rainforest was alive- Kangaroos hopping about all over the place and the Kookaburras joined in their dawn chorus by another mysterious bird song that sounded like zapping lasers.
I followed my nose through the trees, still darkened, but highlighted slightly by the chalky colours of twilight, and hopped on stepping stones over a creek I immediately recognised as being the very creek I used to fish for Yabbies (crayfish) in over ten years ago.
On the other side of the creek there was a faint hint, or rather, an idea of a trail, which I followed until the trees opened up into a clearing of tall grass that, low and behold, was the place I once knew as 'Eden' and, for a brief moment, I was a teenager again. Every experience, every disappointment, every achievement of the last ten years evaporated and I was back to being a lost young man who was about to find himself again. I'd forgotten about that guy...but the smells, the sights, the colours conjured him up for a split second and when he disappeared moments later I don't know if I felt relieved or sad. I suspect a bit of both.
The first thing that extinguished my former self was the landscape of Eden. When I was there it was a neat clearing that had been organised into a settlement, but all that was gone. To my left was a collapsing collection of wooden slats losing its battle to the jungle- covered in vines and weeds... Shit! HUT CAM! This wreck was once a little shed where we could go to have some time away from the group and vent our frustrations privately.
To my right, a larger structure falling to one side and rotting from its foundations. I waded gingerly through the hip-high grass (I knew, having seen them all first-hand first time around, that this section of rainforest was home to the deadliest snake in the world, the Australian Brown, as well as one of the most poisonous spiders on Earth, the funnel-web). Eventually I got to the entrance of this wreck where I saw the only evidence of what it once was... Some dirty old white ethernet cables laying on the floor. Yep, this used to be our nerve centre...our once a week connection to the outside world that we called WEB HUT!
Further on and there was absolutely no trace of our dining area or the roofing that kept our food dry during torrential storms, or of the two sleeping quarters that housed flat-beds and hammocks. The only thing left to suggest accommodation was some upright trunks acting as stilts and holding up some slats of wood...This was once the most luxurious structure in Eden, which we called the Leaders Hut.
Seeing that all the small traces remaining of our existence in Eden were not long for this world unsettled me, but when I made my way out of the clearing and into the other side of the rainforest, a further ten minutes along the creek, I felt completely haunted. The Cascades, where I learned to swim, and where I washed every morning hadn't changed a bit, and it was then that I realised the cascades were a lot less flimsy than anything our humanity had created. It had been there before Eden, before I was born even, and was there after Eden, and would be there after I die no doubt.
I made an hour long trek through the rainforest to the waterfalls, surprising myself at knowing how to get there and once again, nature was the winner- the falls were exactly how I remember them. I stayed a while, soaking it all in one last time, because I had to be in Sydney to drop off my camper van by the afternoon.
I looked up at the tumbling water and as I turned around noticed a tree with some vague markings in it. Could it be? I got closer and made out the letters C...L..I... Clionna! One of the Edenites! Above that I saw Timo, the Finnish breakdancer who joined us three weeks into the show, then Kez, my first love and girlfriend on Eden and then, beside hers, my own name... 'John'. That's who I was then, just 'John', but because two Johns had applied for the show they called me Johny P. I looked closely at the letters, scrawled raggedly in the bark and realised that it was a signature of my youth- I saw the engraving as 'John', the directionless teenager signing off. And you know what? It felt comforting to think that I'd left that guy in such a beautiful place! Eden had at least preserved a trace of who I once was.
Here is a song that my fellow Edenite Timo Laurila and I would sing jokingly to pass the time in Eden, tapping our throats to make the warbling sound...A song which represents what Eden, and my return to it, was all about...