The desert island hangs heavy in our global pop culture. It's the place of shipwrecks, of marooned mariners, and, possibly, secret pirate coves. It's the kind of thing you can find yourself fantasizing about after completing yet another 40 hour work week at some dull, air-conditioned office job. That's why we have desert island playlists, pricey island resorts, and an even pricier private tour where this one guy actually takes rich people out to a desert island and leaves them there for weeks at a time—charging them five-star rates to stay in zero-star accommodations.
Now that expensive tourism service—it's called DoCastaway if you're wealthy and interested—isn't the only way to get the desert island experience. It's completely possible to recreate your own private Castaway get-away for far less money, as long as you know where to look. And by where to look, I mean almost anywhere. There are more than 100 deserted islands in Jakarta alone (I'm talking about Pulau Seribu people), and literally thousands of others in Indonesia and the Philippines. Any one of these islands would be perfect for a secluded island getaway, and that's exactly what I decided to do.
But first, I needed to learn some survival skills. I grew up in the tropics, in Indonesia, a country that is literally thousands of islands, but I honestly have no idea how to survive on one. My life in the tropics consisted of sitting at home watching Netflix and riding in air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned malls. Honestly, for me, living in the United States is much more physically taxing—Bear Grylls should seriously do a Boston episode, the winters are that brutal.
Still, I was pretty committed to pushing myself and seeing if I could do the whole Tom Hanks and Wilson thing if I really set my mind to it. After all, boat accidents happen, right? I should know how to survive on a desert island, using only my own wits and a handful of tools, just in case the worst happens.
But before then, I had a lot of questions. Like what do you do when the weather gets bad? Or what about vicious monkeys, stinging jellyfish, and dangerous sharks? What do you eat on a desert island? What do you drink? And, most importantly, what do you definitely need to bring with you in order to survive?
"You don't need to bring anything to survive," explained Tom McElroy, a survivalist who has done some work for the Discovery Channel about how to survive in harsh conditions. "You can find everything you need in nature, that is the philosophy of a survivalist."
No, no, that won't do, I insisted. I need more.
"Well, a knife for sure," he relented. "I suppose some ropes always come in handy. And some kind of waterproof material to make a good shelter. Maybe a fire starter too…"
OK, that was starting to sound a bit more like an actual plan. But just to be sure that I had really prepared myself for life on a desert island, I queued-up the best instructional material I could find— Castaway and The Blue Lagoon. I watched both movies with the level of intensity I typically reserve for watching Olympics male swimmers, taking notes as I went. Note one: make a companion out of a volleyball. If a volleyball isn't around, a coconut shell should do. Note two: if you're naked all day, your flowing, sun-streaked hair will almost always cover your breasts and preserve your modesty.
I started to feel pretty confident about the whole thing. Coconuts seemed to be the key to surviving on an island, so I set out to learn how the hell you climb a tree with no branches so I could pull one down. Thankfully a friend in Singapore promised to show me how to scale a palm tree and pluck its tasty, life-sustaining fruit. It took me a few tries, but eventually I figured out how to climb the tree by leaning all of my weight into the trunk and sort of sliding my body upwards. By the end, I was exhausted, my thighs were a bloody mess of scrapes and bruises, but at least I had a coconut in my hand.
Now, only if I knew how to get one open. Back in Jakarta, I wandered out of the VICE office and took a walk to a local roadside stall selling es kelapa muda—a coconut drink—and asked the man working there how the hell he chops them open. He showed me how to open one with a machete and that's when I immediately added "machete," to my list of must-haves. What else is good for both opening rock-hard coconuts and defending yourself from packs of thieving monkeys?
The next step was choosing an island. Pulau Seribu was too easy. It barely seems like an adventure to strand myself on an island in my own hometown. I wanted to make this a real adventure, so I chose an uninhabited island in Palawan, a small province in southern Philippines near the Sulu Sea. The province of Basilan is next door—the home base of the terrorist kidnapping-for-profit group Abu Sayyaf. It's far enough to make Palawan a tourist hotspot, but still close enough to make Abu Sayyaf hatch a plan to snatch tourists off its beaches. What could go wrong?
As I got ready to head to El Nido, a gorgeous tourist island in Palawan and my final stop in civilization before catching a boat to the great unknown, I was filled with anxiety, excitement, and fear. So much could go wrong, the least of which was getting kidnapped by terrorist pirates—a remote possibility that still left me filled with shaky, stomach churning adrenaline for days.
In the end, here's what I decided to bring with me: one knife/ fire starter, one hammock, 40 meters of rope, one blue tarp (for the rain), a new-age book about combating boredom called The Power of Now, and a jug of fresh water.
And with that, I was off. My first night, I stayed at the Outpost Beach Hostel, in El Nido, where the staff helped me find a fisherman to take me to the closest uninhabited island. The next morning, I rose at dawn, grabbed my six items, and put on a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of course pants, and a piece of cloth I wrapped around my head that I secured with a pair of swimming goggles. The head wrap was partly to keep the sun off my face, and partly to convince any marauding terrorists that I was a nice conservative woman, and therefore a poor kidnapping candidate. I left my underwear behind and chose a bikini instead and added a pair of flexible sneakers to complete the ensemble.
I looked like one of those hooded creatures that steal the droids in Star Wars, but whatever I thought, I'm heading to a totally vacant island, who the hell is going to see me? Well, I guess my friend Dennis Wu, who came along with his phone (for emergencies) and some cameras (to document my trip for this article) was going to see me. But whatever, he wasn't going to judge.
The tide was low when we left and we had to drag the fishing boat out into the ocean before starting the engine. The sky was a foreboding gray and cool drops of rain water hit my head as we headed out to sea. I want to say I was brave here, but, honestly, I was scared stiff. I was leaving behind a comfortable bed, the company of some chill backpackers, and unlimited bottles of beer to rough it on an island with no food, no shelter, and no way to get back. Why the hell did I think this was a good idea?
The boat skimmed across the glassy green-blue waters before the captain finally pointed to a small island on the horizon. "There," he said. "Cadlao island."
The island was a solid chunk of jagged limestone cliff that was sprouting dark green vegetation. I stared at it for a while trying to make sense of what I was seeing. The island was more than deserted. It was downright terrifying, and looked nothing like the sandy island I had pictured in my mind.
"Where's the beach," I asked. "Where are the coconut trees?"
"There," the captain said, pointing at a small outcropping of white sand. "Pasandingan Beach."
A wave of relief washed over me the moment I saw the beach and a couple of coconut trees. I let out a sigh and looked back at the captain, asking, "are there animals here?"
"Oh, plenty of animals," the captain said as he threw an anchor into the sea. "Monkeys, monitor lizards, big snakes…"
"Yeah, snakes as big as a tree trunk," he said with a grin, showing off a set of cigarette-stained teeth. "A lot of locals sometimes camp here to harvest coconuts and sell them to tourists. But recently, they said there was a big snake that could eat a dog in one go. My brother's cousin's friend got attacked while he was sleeping. So that's why it's empty now."
I started at him as my head filled with questions, the biggest one escaping my mouth, "so then why did you bring me here?"
"You said, 'empty island,'" he shrugged. "This is empty."
"But not because of snakes!" I said, my voice climbing two octaves higher.
"Relax," he said. "Just keep the fire going until morning, You'll be fine." And with those words of wisdom, he dropped my belongings on the beach and got back in his boat, leaving me behind on an island that was, apparently, full of massive snakes.
OK, I thought. Calm down. You can't freak out already, it's only been a few minutes. I paced the entire length of the beach, realizing that it took about 15 minutes to get from one end to the other. I also noticed that high tide would likely submerge the entire thing under water, so I would need to camp deeper into the island if I wanted to stay dry.
I found a good sized tree right where the beach met the forest and hung my hammock between its two trunks. I then strung the rope over the hammock and made an A-frame tent out of my tarp. Then I collapsed and took a long nap, completely drained from what was probably the hardest work I had done in months.
That afternoon, I woke up and set off to find food, bursting with residual confidence from my skilled attempt at making shelter. I couldn't wait to use my newly acquired coconut tree climbing skills. I walked happily up to the cluster of coconut trees I saw deeper in the island's interior. In no time at all I was standing at their base, looking up at these tall, graceful palm trees that were… completely devoid of coconuts.
I stared at the tree in horror. There were at least 20 coconut trees on the island, and every single one of them was bare. How could this be? What the hell am I going to do now? Incredulous, I climbed one of them to get a better look. Nope. Completely barren. I stared out at the other trees and all around me I could see the palm fronds moving. Probably monkeys, I thought. Monkeys that stole all of my coconuts.
The rest were probably taken by the boat captain's cousin and his friends, and sold to the thirsty tourists back in El Nido. I thought of them, those spoiled backpackers with their comfortable pants and roofs over their heads, and grimaced. Less than 24 hours ago, I was one of them. And now I hated them all.
The next hurdle was starting a fire. I pulled out my brand-new fire-staring knife and got to work. I quickly learned that it's insanely hard to start a fire with a little piece of metal. I tried to get a spark until my arms ached and my fingers felt stiff and swollen. Eventually one of the sparks lit, but it burned so quickly that it was a struggle to keep it alive. I threw some tree bark in the smoldering flames, but it was too damp to do anything.
By this time, I felt weak with hunger. It had only been one day, but one day in the sun starting fires and climbing trees can take a lot of someone. I found an old coconut sitting on the ground and hacked at it with my tiny knife. I didn't buy a machete in the end, mainly because I doubted that I could bring a massive knife on an international flight.
The knife didn't do shit. I grabbed the coconut and started to smash it into the rocks on the beach, cracking its husk, and peeling the tough dry bits back with my already tired fingers. By the end, I was exhausted again—tired enough to wonder if whatever was in that coconut would be enough to replace the energy I just spent getting it open.
After what felt like forever, I got into the shell where I used my knife to punch two small holes. I put my mouth around the holes and tilted my head back, taking a big swig of the coconut's water. Immediately, I noticed that something was wrong. The coconut was rotten! It tasted like rotten fish and was all gooey and gross. I dropped it on the ground and started to gag. Then I saw two maggots crawl out of the hole, leaned over, and threw up.
Traumatized and trembling, I washed my mouth out with water and climbed into my hammock. My first day was a complete disaster and I had no intention of giving myself more time to fuck something up. It's better to go to sleep and reset, hoping that things would be better in the morning.
The sun started to set, my fire was hissing and low, and the smoke crept into my tarp tent, making me choke in my hammock. I never saw Brooke Shields deal with any of this shit in The Blue Lagoon. Take my word for it, life on a desert island isn't all skinny dipping and human sacrifice. There's hard work, maggot filled coconuts, and impossible fires too. So far, it fucking sucks, and I couldn't wait to get to sleep and try to forget all about it.
Sleep. Yeah, right. The island was terrifying at night. I kept hearing strange sounds in the pitch black all around me, sounds that kept me tensely waiting for a monitor lizard or a giant snake to slither its way into my camp. At one point something fell out the tree and landed on my tarp. Was it a monkey? A snake? I wasn't going to find out. I stayed safe in my hammock and pretended to be dead, lying there as still as possible.
Pangs of hunger came in waves, twisting my stomach and forcing me to breath in-and-out slowly until it passed. Somehow, probably out of pure exhaustion, I was able to fall asleep before dawn.
I woke up the next morning exhausted, hungry, and light-headed. But I still felt energetic enough to search once again for food. In Castaway, Tom Hanks was able to spear a fish without wandering too far from the beach. Inspired, I proceeded to sharpen a stick into my own handmade spear and wandered out to sea. The shoreline was mostly outcroppings of colorful coral and a million fast-moving, incredibly tiny fish. I started to swim farther from the shore only to find waves that got more menacing the farther I swam.
I cut my leg open on some razor-sharp coral and decided to head back to the safety of the shore. I crawled back into my hammock still hungry and light-headed, and now bleeding, thanks to Tom Hanks for making me believe that I could live off the sea.
I finally gave up. There wasn't any food on this island. I kicked myself for bringing a Goddamn book instead of a few emergency protein bars. But I was going to get through this. I summoned my inner strength and decided to rely on a much more common skill set—ignoring the fact that you're hungry. Women do it all the time to lose weight, so why can't I do it on this island?
There was really nothing else to do but wait. I told the boat captain to return later that day in what was, perhaps, the only good decision I made on this trip. I opened The Power of Now and started to read. "The esoteric meaning of 'waiting,' is the key to enlightenment." Waiting, the book argued, allows us to direct our attention to the Now, and thus offers impenetrable insight into our present reality. Or something like that. Honestly, my Now was a bunch of poor choices that left me stuck on a food-less island.
I closed my eyes and let myself get lost in the stillness of the island. My hammock swayed gently in the breeze. The lapping ocean waves lulled me into a relaxed state. I was hovering in the softness between conscious and unconscious—the perfect place to be when you're stranded in paradise.
Eventually, around sunset, the fishing boat finally returned. I got on board and watched as my tiny island shrank behind us. I felt a sense of enlightenment—but maybe it was just the hunger?—and a sense of relief.
So, did I survive on a desert island? Well, sorta. But I couldn't have done it for very long.
Would I do it again in the future? No way. Unless, of course, I wanted to lose a few kilos, fast.