You should push yourself to do things you've never done before—like going without food for a few days.
The reason? It’s good for your brain and hones your survival skills, according to one New Zealand survival expert.
Hunger makes you a lot sharper, says Clay Tall Stories, who never attended any school but was raised in Abel Tasman National Park, where his father was a ranger. “I taught myself to catch fish, how to build rafts, how to build a hut, just by using what was around me back then,” Clay, 59, told The Epoch Times, speaking of the skills he honed.
Hunger, according to Clay, causes a certain biological response in humans. “One of the things that happens to us humans when we go hungry is we go into a state of autophagy,” he said. “The brain grows new neural pathways when you're hungry.”
Fasting clears the brain and causes us to think differently to solve problems, so when Clay faced the problem of surviving alone on a tiny island for five days last August—which is winter Down Under—food was of low priority. He brought only the clothes on his back, a few video-recording devices, a toothbrush, and a pair of glasses.
Clay is a passionate teacher and YouTube content creator. His excursions are not just personal challenges but lessons on his system of survival. You never know when you’ll need that wisdom, he holds.
“Everybody travels,” Clay said. “People do survive plane crashes, and you find yourself in the middle of the forest somewhere. You're going to need to survive.”
So food is a low priority. What is the highest? Water is number one, he said. Second comes shelter. The third priority is fire. Food comes fourth.
“You can only live three days without water," Clay said, adding that he could go three to four weeks without a meal if he had to. You will also die soon without adequate sleep or warmth.
Meeting these bare necessities on the island would take a toll. He would lose 5.5 kilograms (approx. 12 pounds) by the end. His success boiled down to the most important tool of all. “Your biggest survival tool is your brain,” he said.
That small spot of sand and brush, which he calls “Crazy Horse Island,” lies in a channel along the coast of Tasman Bay, in the north of New Zealand's South Island, just a few miles west of Abel Tasman National Park.
During winter, temperatures here fall below freezing at night, while daytime presents a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius (68 F).
On his arrival ashore, Day 1 of the 5-Day survival begins with the search for fresh water. He uses smashed-up rocks as sharp tools to carve a bowl from a piece of wood. This will hold liquid for drinking. He locates sphagnum moss that absorbs moisture like a sponge, and, thanks to the rainy season, it will provide plenty of fresh water. Seawater is undrinkable.
“I squeezed the moss to get the water," he said. “It's always dangerous to do this, much more dangerous in summer.”
Why is it dangerous? Floating microbes in the moss can cause sickness, Clay said, though in winter there are far fewer. In the summer he boils his water.
He spends the next six hours building a shelter out of fallen trees to keep the weather off. Bark covers the roof while gaps between the logs are filled with moss, which absorbs water so it doesn't drip.
With two main priorities checked off—water and shelter—Clay focuses on the third: fire. Sparking a fire presents manifold challenges. First, he needs dry wood—if you break it and it snaps, you know it's bone dry. You need graded sizes of fuel, from the finest kindling, to weeds, to larger sticks, logs, and pinecones.
Fire-starting without modern tools takes skill; fortunately, pushing 60, Clay wears glasses. He uses the lenses to focus sunlight on the most combustible kindling: dried-out flax weed—individual flax fibers as thin as thread, peeled one by one and formed into little fluff balls. He made a few balls as a failsafe. “If you want to be successful, you've got to do things in large numbers,” he said.
Soon the flax ball starts to singe and is nested inside a bed of dried weeds and twigs, which starts smoking. Remember, he said, using primitive means is always harder than it looks.
A large, sappy pine cone is laid on the blaze to extend it, for pine resin, or sap, is a slow burner. He carries the smoldering cone to camp in an abalone shell he was fortunate to find—which will serve as a multi-purpose container for boiling water, drinking, and cooking.
The fire would have scorched his hand if not for his thick Swedish wool jacket, which is fireproof. Like a wearable sleeping bag, it will wrap his body to keep him warm at night as he rests on a mattress of brush.
Clay found precious little food on Day 1. Just a few slippery jack wild mushrooms that he cooked. “You've got to choose very carefully what mushrooms you pick because some can kill you,” he said, adding that what you skewer it with could be equally deadly: “Some wood can kill you, too.”
Day 2 begins after a below-average sleep with cold feet. The search for food continues; the cooked mushrooms tasted lovely, but Clay knows there’s more satiating seafood to be had. Quickly, he finds bunches of broken mussel shells stuck to rocks in the shallows and a few whole ones, which he cracks open and gobbles down on the spot.
The flat fish known as flounder swim here. He saw three last night. Hunting that primarily nocturnal fish with a spear is his strategy tonight as hunger sets in. His rock tools will sharpen a sturdily-sized double spear of hardwood. Spearfishing is the ticket.
How might one spot the nocturnal flounder in the dark of night? Why, with a torch! Clay collects and grinds down hardened sap from the bark of the large pine trees on the island. Using his shell as a vessel, he cooks up a compound of melted sap and charcoal—a binding agent—to make a sticky, slow-burning paste fuel.
This is smeared on eight or nine large pine cones to make torch heads. Using four sticks bound by flax strips, Clay fashions a holder. Each torch “will give me fire for 8 to 12 minutes of light,” he said.
Cold and hungry, Clay hits the sack at the end of Day 2.
By Day 3, Clay has a new friend at camp, and, despite waking hungry, he decides against eating him. “I made friends with a wild bird—a weka—which is a sort of wild chicken,” he said. “It's around my campsite.” Wekas are protected, and Clay respects that.
Clay named the weka Wilson—from the movie “Castaway”—and he became the main star of Clay's video, he said.
Today, again hunting is the ticket. Having already expended much bodily energy making things—like the hut and torches—hunger is starting to make him think really clearly.
Braving the freezing water, by torchlight he manages to spot and successfully spear a good-size flounder. He immediately uses his teeth to bite into its head, mercifully putting the punctured animal out of its misery.
Returning to camp victorious, he would wait till morning to cook the fish, going to bed hungry—yet extremely satisfied with today's yield.
Little does he know, Day 4 will be even more bountiful.
“The next morning, I cooked the flounder, and I had my first good meal,” Clay said. This big meal he smokes, laying the slabs of fish over burning coals, and placing two rocks atop to trap the smoke. The bird Wilson is seen nibbling bits of scrap nearby.
Clay now turns his industry toward hunting again, having spotted an enormous eagle ray along the shore, guessing its weight to be around 35 to 40 kilograms (77 to 88 pounds).
He saw one on the first day, too, he said, and made sure to carve his spear big enough for that game. Such foresight comes only with experience.
Clay’s spear would do the job, though eagle rays have dangerous barbs of their own that can cause serious injury or death. Such a barb once fatally pierced the heart of the legendary crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, Clay noted, adding that caring for a wound in the bush expends much effort.
By daylight, Clay spots the ray swimming, grabs his spear and GoPro, and makes for the water. Upon successfully piercing the fish and dragging it ashore, the 5-day survival challenge seems all but won.
“I could have lived off food for another two weeks there without having to do any work,” Clay said, adding that smoked eagle ray tastes “like crab meat—really nice.”
So abundant is the feast that he has to call the boat lying in wait to have the meat delivered to his village, located just 10 miles away.
“If we're going to kill an animal to survive, then don't waste it,” he told us. “Honor it by sharing it with people.” Never waste food—that's Clay's philosophy. It's very precious.
He skins the ray to make use of every part. With the skin stretched over a round frame he made with sticks, it looks something like a drum. He lays a rock on top, causing a depression which, once dried, will form a bowl that can collect rainwater.
By Day 5, Clay has the bare necessities for survival at his fingertips. With leisure, he now diverts energy to another need. “You have to entertain yourself," he said.
Besides teaching himself to make fishing line, hooks, or baskets, he once learned to make a kite out of a bush as a child.
And he carries a harmonica to keep his spirits high, which he used to play a tune for us that he wrote called "Ole Dog, Ole Dog." Clay was also a musician in Europe for many years.
Music, he said, “is good for the soul” and “good for the heart.”
Clay’s message is simple. Push yourself to face uncomfortable situations and you will reap rewards. “Pleasure always comes after pain,” he said. “You should challenge yourself to do things you've never done before.”
You will find you're a lot stronger, braver, tougher, and more resourceful than you think you are, Clay said.