The ultimate test of Defence survival skills

Department of Defence

With the second season of Alone Australia just around the corner, the nation’s favourite survivalist-reality series is back in the zeitgeist.

Those who watched the first season would probably remember runner-up and former Army and Air Force pilot Mike Atkinson.

For those who didn’t tune in, he was one of 10 contestants dropped into the Tasmanian wilderness with nothing but a few items to survive.

Contestants also had a camera to record a video diary and a radio to ‘tap out’ of the show.

While all contestants were screened to make sure they were proficient in survival skills, some called for help after a few days, while others lasted months – the person who stayed the longest won $250,000.

Mr Atkinson, who flew the Kiowa at 1st Aviation Regiment before transferring to Air Force to start Hornet fast-jet qualifications, survived 64 days before producers removed him because of malnutrition.

Viewers groaned in frustration each time a small marsupial escaped his falling snare and delighted when he pulled in a catch.

Of all the contestants, it was clear Mr Atkinson – a solo-adventurist who has trekked across Saudi Arabia and sailed a dugout canoe from Townsville to the Torres Strait – was the most capable survivalist.

Although his love affair with the outdoors started in childhood, he attributed his skills to the unique experiences his 20-year Defence career offered.

“You can be an entrepreneur in the military, but the currency is not money, it’s experience and training,” Mr Atkinson said.

If experience is currency, he’s rich.

While posted to Darwin, he got a spot on a NORFORCE survival instructor course.

Mainly comprising Indigenous soldiers, the course gave him access to insider knowledge perfected over thousands of years.

“All bush-tucker knowledge comes from Indigenous Australians,” he said.

“The way I make spears and fish, I’m copying from Indigenous people.

“It’s important to give credit to where that information comes from.”

All pilots receive survival, evasion, resistance and escape training so they can be recovered if shot down.

Environmental survival training is a different side of the same coin and teaches how to live off the land.

NORFORCE personnel are the custodians of survival knowledge and run two-week courses where students learn the priorities for sustaining life: how to find food, build shelter, navigate and start a fire from scratch.

Senior instructor and NORFORCE’s longest serving soldier, Warrant Officer Class Two (WO2) David Sudholz, said it was the only course like it in the Army.

“It’s a life-skills course,” WO2 Sudholz said.

“We learn from the experts; Indigenous people are experts living and surviving in our area of operations.

“It’s all about keeping yourself alive in an environment that’s foreign to you: food gathering, hunting and preservation techniques.”

With a remote area of operations stretching more than 1.8 million square km, survival knowledge is essential for Regional Force Surveillance Group soldiers.

They put their skills into action setting up an observation post on an island during a recent operation.

A storm cut the patrol off from resupply and the two survival-qualified diggers were able to sustain the others until help arrived.

“NORFORCE sees survival as an essential,” WO2 Sudholz said.

“Sometimes we get to put it into practice; it enhances our ability to do our job.”

The Tasmanian wilderness is a far cry from Far North Queensland, but the skills remain the same.

“The standards were one of the good things about the course,” Mr Atkinson said.

“We had to desalinate water by evaporating it down a pipe and collecting it in a bag.

“If you couldn’t feed yourself, navigate or make a fire, you didn’t pass.”

But despite all his survivalist expertise, a military mindset best equipped him to deal with the rigours of Alone Australia.

“It’s bloody hard work to get through basic training. You’ve got to have resilience and discipline,” Mr Atkinson said.

“Life can suck, so when you get put on a show like Alone, it’s probably not the hardest thing you’ve done.

“If you can manage to get survival skills from the military, that’s great. I pushed hard to get the courses and was a bit lucky.”

NORFORCE will conduct environmental survival training again in July. Anyone interested in more information should contact WO2 Sudholz directly.

Season two of Alone Australia will air this year on SBS.


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