Read Part Three HERE.
This was it—the Trees Phase of selection. We were just above the canopy and traveling at speed, contouring the tops of the trees. The vastness of the jungle was immense; before we were airborne for 10 minutes, all you could see was trees. Clearings came and went, bends in rivers were just visible sometimes, and the extremely odd stream of smoke provided the only sign of any life. The airframes strained to keep the same distance from the canopy and stay on course. You could smell the unmistakable scent of aviation fuel fumes coming from the twin engines as we raced farther and farther from civilization. Then, in the distance, I could just see an orange smoke grenade throwing out its signal for the pilots to hone in on. We circled the area once and then descended below the tops of the trees and onto a tiny helipad obviously cut out by the staff.
As I jumped down from the skid, pulled tight my gear, and moved away from the chopper, the normal heat from the engines seemed to stay with us. Indeed, it wasn’t the engines at all—it was the normal temperature for the time of day. It was outrageously hot and there was nowhere to hide as the two airframes roared to life again and began their climb out of the trees to collect the next troops. We were already soaking with sweat. The quartermaster called us over and motioned for us to move toward a pile of gear—where all our patrol kit for the trip rested. We gathered together all our belongings and were told to follow a small track in the trees to the harbour area, where we would be met by our drill sergeant.
As we headed under the canopy of the trees and onto the track, I suddenly noticed that it was immediately taking us up a hill that would match anything we had seen in Wales. It was grim: We were completely loaded down with all of our gear, staring up a hill that made Jacob’s Ladder look like a mole hill. Only this time, the temperature was in the thousands and we were surrounded by trees. I had never realized the terrain in the trees was going to be so undulating, and it hit me straightaway that this was going to be unbelievably hard just moving around the harbour area, let alone getting down to business proper. No time to dwell on how hard it was going to be; it was a case of putting one foot in front of the other and cracking on until we got to where we were going.
We followed the track uphill for around 40 minutes. We were reluctant to stop and rest as this had not been part of the brief, and operating outside of anything you had been told could be grounds for instant dismissal. Not knowing how far you are going when you are in a strange environment, sweating like a pig, and walking up a continuous hill with all your kit is a kind welcome by regiment standards. I instantly began thinking about all the horror stories I’d been told, usually by people who had heard how hard the Trees Phase was from people who had failed.
I could instantly relate to the tales of misery talked about in naffis throughout the British Army. Stories of relentless suffering caused by the terrain, the weather, the fauna and flora, and of course, the drill sergeants who would be watching you even when you thought you were on your own. Rightly so, too, because if you let your guard down on a course when you were playing at it, you could only assume that you would not have enough discipline should you ever have to perform with a real enemy hot on your tail.
We reached the perimeter of the harbour area and were met by our drill sergeant, who already wore a full beard and looked as if he had been there for a whole campaign. He looked completely at home, like he had been there a thousand times before. We, by comparison, looked completely wet behind the ears. The drill sergeant led us to our position on the eight o’clock of the area. We were told to leave everything there—less belt kit and weapons—and follow another track to the schoolhouse. We left the confines of the area on the six o’clock and began another epic climb toward the schoolhouse. I had been in the trees for less than two hours and had already experienced two of the steepest hills I’d traversed in my entire life.
During the next two months or so, these two hills were going to become home, and I would get to know them extremely well. Every trip to the water hole, the schoolhouse, the helipad, the burn pit, the training area, and the ablutions involved a mammoth-size climb uphill, either on the way out or the way back. It was just one factor of living and working in the jungle. There was a permanent hum of insects coupled with the screeching of God only knows what. The whole place seemed to be alive the entire time. Every six hours or so there would also be an almighty rain. I’d never seen anything like it; the air would go still and there would be a change in the behavior of the wildlife. Then, without warning, the heavens would open and pour their contents directly onto our area, it seemed.
As we approached the schoolhouse, I could see my drill sergeant was already there. How the hell had he managed to get there that quickly? I thought to myself. We were ushered as a patrol to a bench made from a single log, alongside others placed in a semicircle surrounding a lectern made from bamboo and rattan. There was a roof made from large, dark green tarpaulins, which covered the entire area. We were seated, ready for our first lecture, which would be a do’s and don’ts lecture followed by a visit to the harbour area and a routine lesson laying out the rules for our time spent in the makeshift base camp.
It was nearly midday before we were complete and ready to go down to our basha area and prepare the area for our next few weeks. The entire time we were there, we would be tactical. There would be sentries on post at all times and we would stand to and stand down to mark the beginning and end of each day. This was not unrealistic, as first and last light are always a time to be extra vigilant. It also served as a great marker between day and nighttime routines. Full of enough info to fill a small book, we returned down the track to our grots to build our A-frames and prepare the track plan proper. It was going to take the rest of the day to get things even half ready. As I walked back down to the track, I felt excited; we were actually doing stuff, and it was as real as it could be.
Featured image courtesy of quillorcapture.com