Survival in Hong Kong: how to live rough, make fires and filter water the special forces way

From first aid to fires and the ‘rule of three’, ex-servicemen teach basic survival techniques on a day trip to Tap Mun island, the first by a company set up to teach Hongkongers how to cope with adversity and have fun with their kids

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 6:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 11:58am

Matthew Smith spent the weekend sleeping in a hammock among the trees on Tap Mun island. It’s an unlikely place to kip on your first trip to Hong Kong, but the thirtysomething Smith and his colleague Paul McCusker weren’t on holiday. The two Scotsmen were in the city to lead a couple of survival skills training days.

The blurb for the one-day course, the first of its kind run by MP Performance and offered to members of the Royal Geographical Society, promised to introduce outdoor survival concepts and techniques used by UK special forces, including the Special Air Service (SAS).

So who puts their hand up for elite military training? It turns out a lot of people do. Initially planned to run just on the Saturday, an additional session was added on the Sunday following an enthusiastic response from the society’s members.

The 20 members gathered at 8am at City Hall are a mixed group – male and female, and varying in age from nine to 50. It’s too early on a Sunday for much chatter on the hour-long bus ride to Wong Shek Pier in Sai Kung, but by the time we board the ferry to Tap Mun, people are speculating about what the training will involve. Just how Survivor is this going to get?

It’s a 20-minute walk across Tap Mun, also known as Grass Island, to the base camp and there’s a toilet stop on the way. It’s a very well used public toilet – enough said – and this turns out to be perhaps the most challenging part of the day, at least for the women in the group, who quickly realise that bushes are a better option.

I love the outdoors and have made lots of campfires, but I’ve never tried some of these methods
Suzi Moore

Somewhere near the top of a hill, tucked away behind some bushes, is base camp. An army green canopy offers plenty of shade and a big kettle is sitting over a log fire. It’s looks more like glamping than a hardcore survival situation.

“We could be eating maggots, but it’s much better to have a brew and a bickie,” says Smith, handing out chocolate biscuits.

Indeed it is. Smith introduces himself as Smudge: “Why do all the Smiths in the army get called Smudge?” He left the army in August last year. So the skills we are about to learn are the real deal.

The group is split into two and we are paired off to collect wood. When we’ve got a good stash of fallen branches, Smith gathers us around to talk through his impressive knife collection.

“Have a knife, save a life,” he quips, parodying the British police’s “Save a Life – Surrender Your Knife” programme.

He seems to have a knife for every occasion: super strong ones with a full tang, where the blade is one solid piece and handle pieces are pinned on either side; one that can turn into a spear; one that doubles as an axe; and Swedish Morakniv knives.

It’s these “Mora” knives that we will use to process the wood, basically cutting it into small pieces to light a fire. While we’re getting a hang of the knives – and trying not to cut off any fingers – Smith shares some tips.

“Survival is all about conserving energy,” he says, likely having spotted me wrestling with my piece of wood.

Seven of the best backpacks for hiking in Hong Kong this winter

He has a good gauge of the mood because, just when I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ll ever actually need to employ these skills, he says: “Survival isn’t just about your plane crashing and having to decide which of your friends you’ll eat. In the UK, when there’s a big storm and the power is cut off for several days, when you run out of beans and candles, then you can be in a survival situation.”

Smith’s younger colleague McCusker is seriously outdoorsy. He didn’t sleep in a hammock like Smith; he brought a tent and sleeping bag, and is used to bunking down in unusual spots. Although he has a flat in Edinburgh, in winter, he says, he prefers to dig out a snow hole and sleep under the stars.

Little wonder the Scot is struggling with the heat. “This is nothing, come in August,” someone says.

McCusker takes us through the basics of MPLAN, which stands for medical; protection; location; acquisition (of resources); and navigation (how to get out).

Survival is great for gadget geeks. We are introduced to an array of methods to treat water to make it safe to drink. A favourite is the LifeStraw, which can filter up to 1,000 litres of contaminated water as the user sucks it directly from a stream, although the LifeSaver bottle, which also filters water, is impressive, too.

We learn about the rule of three: you can survive for three minutes without oxygen or in icy water; three hours without shelter in a harsh environment; three days without water (“probably less than that in Hong Kong,” McCusker says); and three weeks without food, assuming you have shelter and water.

Thredbo: an Australian ski resort that doubles in summer as an adventure playground

Once we’ve had a go at bandaging each other up and carrying one of our crew members in a makeshift stretcher, it’s time for lunch – courtesy of Pret a Manger – and then down to some serious fire making. Of course, if you were stranded in the middle of nowhere you’d hope there was a smoker in the group, but assuming no one has matches, there are half a dozen ways of getting a spark good enough to start a fire.

“I love the outdoors and have made lots of campfires, but I’ve never tried some of these methods,” says physiotherapist Suzi Moore as she works up a sweat with a two-man friction drill.

The child in the group turns out to be a dab hand with the solar fire starter, using a mirror to focus the sun’s rays. A cheer goes up as the tinder catches light and he transfers the flame to a fire pit.

“Having the will to survive is key. Knowledge dispels fear and increases your chances of surviving,” Smith says.

The day ends with a high-speed whizz around the island in the type of boat used by UK Special Forces. It’s not entirely clear where the survival skill aspect of this is, but it is good fun speeding past fish farms as the sun sets.

“I hope I’m never in a situation where I have to use these skills, but it was great fun. I’d be happy to do more,” says dentist Dr Jacqueline Brown, who confides she took an SAS Survival Handbook with her on honeymoon years ago, but fortunately the newlyweds had no call for it.

The good news for Brown and others who enjoyed the day is that MP Performance plans to introduce more such courses. The firm was set up earlier this year by two pilots who fly for a well-known Hong Kong airline. They believe there is a big demand in Hong Kong for outdoor and leadership training courses.

“The education system focuses on the academic and not on creating a well-rounded person. This creates problems later, people struggle with real adversity,” says co-founder Matt Prior, who served in the British Air Force for six years.

Seven of the best waterborne holiday adventures in Asia

He and co-founder Alexander McKemey, who served in the Royal Navy for five years before coming to Hong Kong, plan to introduce courses to suit children, families and companies.

“The feedback we’ve had from this weekend is parents saying, ‘What can we do with our kids at weekends? We want quality time with them’. Getting people outdoors, off social media and off the phone is great,” Prior says.

I hope I’m never in a situation where I have to use these skills, but it was great fun
Jacqueline Brown

After the weekend on Tap Mun, he went with McKemey and Smith to scout out locations in Taiwan for future events.

“We want to get people outside their home country, stripped down to the bare essentials, that’s where you get the most out of people,” he says.

All the trainers for the courses will be former military personnel, predominantly from Britain. This is because Prior believes that military training sets people up to cope well in stressful situations.

“I was a pilot. It’s nothing to do with the army; it’s not training you to be a soldier – it’s about how effective these scenarios are. It’s very dynamic, lots of pressure. Ultimately, if things go wrong people die, and [training under that pressure] delivers the highest form of results,” Prior says.

For more details visit