To study wild baboons I lived deep within the forest of Gashaka-Gumti National Park in Nigeria. My troop of baboons had a home range that stretched a few kilometres around our camp. I knew this area well, so on my days off, I explored other parts of the forest.
Early one Sunday morning, I hiked out of camp alone in the direction of the river Gam-Gam. It was a three-hour trek to the river but it was certainly worth the effort. It was an opportunity to release my tired muscles from the strain of walking many kilometres every day. I was also looking forward to sunbathing on the sandy banks, adding a little colour to my pale skin – the result of four months under the forest canopy.
The trail to the river was overgrown with young shoots and leaves. I could just about spot the yellow trail markers stapled to trees and found the river without too much trouble.
The rainy season had just started and the river had swollen a little making it deep but not too deep to submerge the hippos and make them hard to spot. They were ideal conditions for a swim.
I dipped in and out of the river, paddling and swimming in my underwear. I lay on the sandbank to dry under the sun, shuffling along to avoid the shadows cast by the great fig and ironwood trees overhanging the river.
It was around one or two o’clock when I knew it was time to return to camp. The sun would set at 7 pm so I had plenty of time to get back to camp.
I scrambled up the slope from the river back to the trail. I walked for about half an hour, following the trail as best I could. It was tough because I couldn’t easily see the yellow trail markers while returning.
Whoever had set the trail had placed the markers on trees that could only be seen when travelling towards the river, not away from the river. And the markers were yellow which made them very difficult to distinguish from the green forest.
I retraced my steps, looking for the twigs I break and stones I place as a habit while walking through a forest. But I couldn’t find any.
I was now lost in the forest. I had no water and no food. I’d finished both while enjoying the sunshine on the river bank.
“If I keep moving,” I thought, “I’ll find the trail or some people or something I recognise”.
I walked in some direction. And then realising it felt wrong, turned and headed in another direction. I walked everywhere and nowhere.
I love forests. The busyness of the trees, birds and insects; their cracking, squawks and shrills all adding to the vast biodiversity of these environments.
In the afternoon heat, frazzled, starving and dehydrated, my head was now throbbing and I could barely move. I no longer cared for all this biodiversity. I felt the forest oppressive, wrapping it’s roots and vines around my limbs, dragging me under. The shrill of the cicadas and the clicks of crickets pulsated between the throbbing in my head. I was sure that the great hornbill, cawing high above me in the fig tree, was laughing at me.
I fell among a grove of shrubby plants with leaves like the short swords gladiators fought with. They towered over me, attacking from everywhere. I could no longer continue and gave up. Why didn’t I bring a walkie talkie so I could radio camp and ask for help? You idiot. But I didn’t have the energy to be angry at myself.
I remembered that I had a boiled lemon sweet that Felix, our camp cook gave me the evening before. It was the only thing edible I had.
I savoured the lemony freshness. I sucked and sucked the sweet, gulping my saliva like it were fresh cool water. I think I must have taken five or ten minutes to nurse that sweet right down to a sharp sugary blade and then finally to fine crystals that dissolved on my tongue.
Very soon though my mouth was dry again.
But I was slightly rejuvenated and certainly less stressed. I searched for any sign of a trail. I spotted some of my snapped branches and finally found the trail. The humidity that had been rising all day broke into a downpour. I cupped my hands and lapped up what rainwater I could hold. It was enough to renew my energy and determination to continue.
Eventually, I found my way back to the camp, taking twice as long as it should have to return. I was massively dehydrated but happy to have made it back alive.
I believe the only way that I made it out of the forest is because I rested to suck that lemon sweet. It didn’t offer much sustenance but while I enjoyed it I rested, I stopped moving.
The impulse to drive forward, to keeping pushing onward during a stressful event is a natural response. Anxiety and stress are related to fear. Fear is natural. It served our ancestors well. It helped them escape predators and avoid death from rivals and accidents to reach an age that they could reproduce and raise their offspring. But this drive to keeping moving isn’t always the best solution.
I’m often reminded of this time when I was lost in the jungle when I’m feeling lost in my business. There are times when there’s so much to do. I don’t know what to focus on. And I feel suffocated by stress and overwhelm.
My response is sometimes to rush off in one direction, then in another direction. Then jump to something else and plough on through, “just keep moving David and you’ll find your way”.
After a while, I’ve got a lot of loose ends and even more stress. What I should do in these moments of stress and overwhelm is suck a boiled lemon sweet.
When we’re stressed it’s very difficult to make good decisions. Whether you’re lost in a jungle or lost in your business, try taking a moment to interrupt the drive to keep moving which is the fear kicking in – a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days, depending on how deeply you’re lost. Then you’ll be in a better mindset to figure out a solution to your problem or identify the best path to follow.