It’s a sufferfest for glory, a chance to face nature and win. (Photo: Quince Mountain)
It’s a sufferfest for glory, a chance to face nature and win.

Everything on 'Naked and Afraid' Is Real—and I Lived It

When the Discovery Channel invited me to audition for its popular survival-challenge reality show, I knew it was going to be rough. What followed was one of the most intense experiences of my life.

Here are the rules to Discovery’s long-running reality show, Naked and Afraid: Two people, a man and a woman, are naked. They’re deposited into wilderness with just a few tools, often a knife, a fire starter, and a pot. They face predators, parasites, sunburn, cold, hunger, and each other. Their goal is to survive for three weeks, but there’s no prize for completing the challenge, and anyone can tap out at any time. The finished episodes, with their blurred genitals and Edenic concept, are strangely wholesome, family-friendly. It’s a sufferfest for glory, a chance to face nature and win.

In April 2018, my husband and I were invited to apply for the show. Apparently, years ago, I had nominated us for a now defunct couples’ survival program—which I don’t remember, though it’s something I would do—and the application made its way to a casting agent. We thought the wilderness challenge seemed like fun. What was the harm in trying out?

We sent in some videos, traveled to Los Angeles for interviews, took extensive multiple-choice personality tests, and tried our best to seem charming and competent. After we flew home to Wisconsin, Discovery called to say we’d gotten the gig—but that we’d be separated and sent to different locations. We just had to wait for our placements. From then on, it was all we thought about for months.

I thought I’d do pretty well at the challenge. At 30, I had worked in the outdoors professionally for more than a decade. I’d guided and thru-hiked and crossed the Arctic by dogsled, and I’d read a lot of survival stories. In books, it seemed like survivors either shaped the wilderness—made it like home—or went feral, becoming part of it themselves, and I had a pretty good idea how my experience would play out. I’d set up a cozy lean-to on a tropical beach, tip rocks for hermit crabs (four calories each), and weave rugs and baskets by firelight after dusk. I’d recognize my partner as my greatest survival asset, even if he wasn’t someone I’d pick. I even had my sound bites ready. “I don’t see this as a test of toughness,” I’d say, squinting at the setting sun. “I see it as a test of creativity.” Boom. Cut to commercial.

That summer, as we got ready, it all felt like a game. Every morning for an hour, I practiced starting fires with a bow drill. I sprayed a stinky liquid called Tuf-Foot on the soles of my feet. I built deadfall traps from logs and made snares with yarn, catching my husband in doorways throughout the house. I quizzed him: Which birds can you eat? Which reptiles? When I walked in the woods, I saw each plant in a new light: the stalks that could structure a thatch roof, the fibrous stems that could twist into rope. I drank milkshakes to gain weight and studied how to tap rubber.

I got vaccinations for typhoid fever and Japanese encephalitis. “I’m going to be on Naked and Afraid,” I told my doctor.

“What is wrong with you?” he said. Then he called in his nurses to tell them the news.

“Could you do it in the forest here?” one of the nurses asked. “The bugs would kill you.”

“Or the meth dealers,” said the other nurse.

My mom said she wasn’t worried. My dad forwarded me articles about how it’s dangerous to eat slugs. 

I even made a plan for moments during the challenge that I didn’t want filmed: I would sing songs with expensive licensing fees so that Discovery couldn’t use the footage. The Beatles were famously pricey, right? If I got diarrhea, I’d sing “Hey Jude” at the top of my lungs.

Blair Braverman doing her day job: mushing
Blair Braverman doing her day job: mushing (Photo: Blair Braverman)
(Photo: Aladino Mandoli)

The news came in July: I’d be sent, promptly, to South Africa, and my husband to Honduras. I spent the red-eye flight studying flash cards of sub-Saharan plants, hoping my seat neighbors would ask what I was doing so I could say, “Oh, nothing.”

A young man with a goatee picked me up at the airport in Polokwane, about 200 miles north of Johannesburg. He dropped me at a stucco-walled guesthouse called Alldays and Onions, established in 1640, where I found a room with a twin bed and a cold shower. The place was empty, no staff or other guests, and I was forbidden to leave. I did yoga in the hallway and snooped in the kitchen, where I found a glass bottle of Coca-Cola and some cartons of juice. Outside the window, past a locked gate, I could see palm trees, flowers blooming on dirt. I watched teenagers flirt at a convenience store across the street. During the challenge, I realized, I’d be experiencing South Africa as a kind of movie set, an environment without its people or history. A pure, imaginary wilderness.

Someone brought me towels. A medic came to weigh me and take my vitals. I met my producer, Rachel Maguire, a stern and athletic blonde with diamond earrings, who explained that this particular challenge had a twist: there’d be two pairs of survivalists, placed miles apart from each other, and we’d join as a group halfway through. Rachel was a former journalist, and strict on rules, which I found both intimidating and reassuring.

“Don’t try to sneak in a hair tie,” she told me. “I’ll notice.” I tried to seem shocked, like sneaking in a hair tie had never occurred to me, not ever.

My second night at the hotel, the night before my entry into the wilderness—“insertion,” in Naked and Afraid lingo—a naturalist came to give me a private hourlong talk on the local environment, the only instruction I would receive. He was a slim, soft-spoken man named Mark, and we sat together at the hotel’s deserted bar. I took notes and recorded him. I’ve never concentrated so hard in my life. 

I’d be in a place called Mapungubwe, Mark explained, across the Limpopo River from Botswana, near the Tuli Wilderness area. The region was known as the Elephant Triangle; in the past few days, up to 70 elephants had been seen together at once. He told me to give elephants space and to be especially cautious around mothers and bulls looking to mate. “Sometimes people get circled by them,” he said mildly, “and that’s quite dangerous.” He knew of several females whose trunks had been severed by snares, and they were also likely to be aggressive. I should freeze around elephants, he told me, unless they charged. Then I should run.

There were several male lions roaming the territory, as well as a pride with young. There were leopards. There were hippos. There were Nile crocodiles. Never turn your back on a cat, he said. Never approach water if you can’t see the bottom. Never stand in front of a warthog den. Never get between a hippo and water. Never look a leopard in the face.

The black mamba, Mark said, grows up to 14 feet long and can stand a third of its body off the ground. It’s fast striking, territorial. There was a cobra with a striped face, and another cobra with golden scales. Puff adders, with their chevron markings and cytotoxic venom, lie in wait on game trails. The rock python and the brown house snake are constrictors. The boomslang hisses in warning. The unassuming twig snake, he said, was perhaps the most dangerous for us, because it curled silently in branches, blending in with the bark. You could grab it by accident while reaching for firewood. It wasn’t aggressive, but if you were bitten, you could die of uncontrollable hemorrhage.

“Twig snake: DO NOT TOUCH,” I wrote in my notes.

The parabuthus scorpion, Mark said, can grow to more than five inches. It’s nocturnal, with venom as toxic as a black mamba’s. Its sting feels like a hot poker filling your whole body. If you snapped off the second segment of a scorpion’s tail, you could roast its body over a fire and eat it.

The next morning, I put on an olive green dress that a stylish friend had picked for me, curled my eyelashes, and rubbed anti-chafe balm between my thighs. When a truck came to pick me up, I left my backpack and my wedding ring behind.

The driver brought me breakfast in a paper bag: egg sandwiches with tomato and bacon, homemade bread, a chocolate bar, and an orange. I’d planned to eat a lot, but I didn’t have an appetite. The bread turned to glue in my mouth. I pulled the bacon out and ate it, then ate the chocolate bar. It was all I could stomach. The driver handed me a crisp purple bandana. “You have to wear this,” he said. “Sorry.” I tied it around my eyes.

We drove for a long time, then parked. “Coast is clear,” a voice called, and I lifted the bandana, blinking. We were on a hillside overlooking a red valley, scattered trees stretching into the distance. Far away I made out a line of dense green. 

It sounds strange, but I hadn’t thought about nudity until that moment. Now I stepped out of the truck and found Rachel and several men with cameras on their shoulders, microphones, everything pointed at me. A half-dozen eyes, and millions more behind them. Strangers waiting to watch me take off my clothes.

It was almost funny to picture myself as a stranger would see me on TV. I’d be a topic, not a person anymore. The audience was fake to me, and I was fake to it.

Slowly, my heart racing, I bent down to unbuckle my sandals. I’d gotten my toenails painted pink during a layover in Chicago, a gel pedicure, and they shone in the sunlight. The dirt was hot under my bare feet.

I pulled my dress over my head and folded it carefully on the truck bed.

Bra or underwear first? I caught the driver’s eye in the rearview mirror. He looked away.

All the cameras staring.

I took off my bra. Deep breath. Stepped out of my underwear.

Here I was, naked.

“Great!” said Rachel. “Now put it all back on, and we’ll film from a different angle.”

I only took off my clothes twice. That was something Rachel had warned me, that the first day was “television.” I’d follow the script, if not by words then by action: two people remove their clothes, walk to a landmark, meet each other, and offer whatever joke or earnest greeting they’ve rehearsed. They find burlap bags, which disguise their microphone transmitters, and a map, which always looks like it was made with Kid Pix. They locate a water source, head toward it—and the rest of the challenge is up to them. No script, no guidelines, no plan.

Rachel showed me the map: patches of yellow, dotted with garish clip art of lions and crocodiles. I laughed. As long as I was naked, I might as well make friends with the crew. “OK,” I said. “We all know these maps are ridiculous, right?”

“I made the map,” said Rachel.

“It’s really good,” I said.

Fuck.

She pointed me to a dead tree, where I’d pick up my burlap sack.

As I walked over to it, a naked man came toward me. I recognized him immediately. Gary Golding had been on the show before—as well as its 40-day group spin-off, Naked and Afraid XL—and was one of the most contentious survivalists in its history. He was known for yelling and eating disgusting things. This is why they had blindfolded me, I realized: so I wouldn’t see him and have time to plan a facial expression in advance. He was heavier than the gaunt figure I’d seen on TV, with tan skin and bright teeth, gray hair, and tattoos across his back.

Gary grinned. He had a warm smile, and I thought, OK, this might work.

“What about a hug?” my new partner said.

Braverman sitting inside a <i>boma</i> at her first camp
Braverman sitting inside a boma at her first camp (Photo: Courtesy Discovery)

Our first task—there was no other option, really—was to build a boma, a ring of tangled branches six feet high, into which we would enclose ourselves at night to be, we hoped, a less convenient snack for predators. Hauling branches and firewood took all afternoon. It was slow going, because Gary and I stopped every few steps to pull long, needle-sharp thorns from the soles of our feet. Three camera guys followed at a distance; beyond them, two men in leather boots and short shorts stood with rifles over their shoulders, their eyes darting constantly. These were the rangers, and I liked their presence very much. I figured they knew stuff. 

“Is this a thornbush?” I said casually, walking past a ranger.

“There are many thorny bushes,” he said in monotone, eyes on the horizon.

It was worth a try.

As the dusty sky turned blue, I noticed the crew propping cameras in the trees and on tripods around the boma. Then Rachel and the crew left, and the rangers went with them. For the first time, we were alone.

Gary pulled the boma closed around us. We sat on opposite sides of a crackling fire. The firelight danced on the branches and made it look like the sticks were moving. 

“I’ll show you something,” Gary said. “We used to do this on XL.” He jammed a stick into the dirt, dislodging a few clods, then smoothed the hole out with his hand. “It’s way more comfortable if you make a hole for your hip. We called it a hip divot.” Then, miraculously, he lay down, fitted his hip into the divot, tucked one foot behind the other, and fell asleep.

I couldn’t imagine sleeping. I sat cross-legged, brushing ash and insects off my skin, nudging the firewood to keep the flames bright. Mark said predators weren’t afraid of coals, so the fire needed constant tending. The night was noisy with rustling grass.

I took stock of our worldly possessions: A pile of firewood, plus straw to throw on the fire if animals came close. Our burlap sacks. A knife, a pot, a fire starter, and a Pulaski, which is a combination ax-adze. Two handheld cameras, called diary cams, which we’d use to record our experiences and observations. There was a camouflage drybag tucked under the firewood, which held a two-way radio, a whistle, and glow sticks for emergencies, plus tampons, a singular luxury. 

Something pinched my butt cheek, and I pulled a little scorpion off myself, tossed it into the fire. This was oddly reassuring. It hadn’t occurred to me that not all scorpions made you want to die.

A twig cracked.

“Gary,” I said.

He was awake in an instant, one hand on the pot, one grasping a fistful of straw. We froze.

Nothing.

Then there were loud shrieks surrounding us, coming closer from every direction. They sounded like dog howls in reverse: oooooAAAA! oooooAAAA! I leaped over the fire and crouched beside Gary. He was already reaching for his diary cam. “There are hyenas all around us,” he whispered, while I put grass on the flames. “They’re circling us.” He aimed the camera at me. 

Later I learned that survivalists tend to compete for screen time, especially in dramatic moments that are likely to make the show, and Gary was offering to share the scene. But at the time, the camera seemed ridiculous. What was I supposed to do, perform? I just wanted the hyenas to go away.

We shouted and banged the pot and built up the fire until a column of sparks rose into the sky and the heat forced us back. Slowly, over several minutes, the shrieks faded, but the darkness whispered all night. I didn’t sleep and kept the fire big. In the morning, we found fresh elephant tracks all around us; we were blocking a path, and a herd had passed just a few feet away. We spent the second day building a new boma a quarter mile to the north.

This second boma was tucked under a fever-berry tree with lime green bark and overlooked a small pool of water in the sandy riverbed of the Limpopo. There was a soft patch of shade above the steep bank, almost like a balcony. We could sit there and watch animals drink, warthogs and antelope and elephants that threaded down natural ramps. The other side of the riverbed was Botswana, and we couldn’t go there, the crew warned us, couldn’t even set foot over the invisible line.

That night, as I prodded the fire and the hyenas’ wails came closer, I had a terrible thought. I was going on my second night with no sleep.

“Gary,” I said. “Does Discovery want someone to die? To prove how real this is?”

“No,” he said, yawning. “That’d be the end of the show. But shit gets heavy out here. People are crying, sobbing. People leave messed up. They’re in the hospital. They’re fucked up. A lot of it comes down to chance.”

I thought about the contract I’d signed, swearing I took the challenge by choice and at my own risk. We had a medic on call at all times, but that didn’t negate the fundamental danger of being out here. I had promised myself I would tap out if I felt that my long-term health was in question. That I’d leave whenever I wanted. That I could endure anything as long as I got my life back when it was done. I hadn’t thought about hyenas.

“So why are you here?” Gary asked after a while. He was on his back with his eyes closed.

I didn’t know what he meant.

“Do you want to be famous? Are you trying to get your own show?”

As a dogsledder, I’d been approached several times about doing a TV show. I always turned it down; I wanted to tell stories my own way. But I liked the idea of stepping into someone else’s experiment, a ready-made adventure. And I was curious, too. I wanted to know what it felt like to be in a situation like this—in survival mode, on television, part of the biggest pop-culture survival narrative of the decade.

“What about you?” I asked.

“To spread my message,” he said. “It’s the most powerful sentence in the world.”

Naturally, I had noticed the words tattooed across his back:

“Consume As Little As Possible
It’s About Cooperation, Not Competition
I’m Here for the Children and Animals of the World”

The first sentence, Gary said, had come to him with perfect clarity. He’d trademarked it. He’d printed it on shirts for his self-launched clothing line, Kill M.N.K.N.D. The thing about the sentence, he told me, was that it maintained its power regardless of who said it. Hitler could say it. Satan could say it. His personal hero, Malcolm X, could say it. The point of becoming a celebrity, he explained, was that the more famous he got, the more his message spread.

He was 49, an environmental educator from L.A. He’d been an alt-rock singer for 20 years, and when he wanted to, he could project his voice so loudly that it scraped your bones. I know, because he demonstrated it. “Fuck you, I want to suck your dick!” he bellowed into the darkness, seething, and the air froze. Then he turned to me, cheerful. “See? That’s how people know not to mess with me.” 

In the past, when other survivalists had a problem with Gary, he had a problem with them. When they said he was gross, he ate something grosser. When they said he was scary, he raised his voice. But I had no plans to make trouble with Gary, and as we sprawled on the flickering dirt, surrounded by a world of sounds, I felt grateful that he was loud. His voice built an invisible wall between us and the night.

On the third day, we turned our attention to food. 

Mark had mentioned that the taproots of the young shepherd’s tree were edible, so we trekked inland from the riverbed to find one, spent hours chipping into the hard-packed dirt with the Pulaski. Gary found an ants’ nest halfway down, tiny egg sacs that tasted like butter, the ants like lemonade, an appetizer for the promised meal. But when we finally dug up the root, it was, undeniably, solid wood, it gave me splinters in my gums, and we were back to square one with less energy than before.

On our way back, we found fruit on the ground, brown berries that looked like dates, and two interesting plants. One looked like wild spinach, with thick stalks and wide leaves, veined and pointy. The other had yellow buds that smelled like brassica when we rubbed them between our fingers. For this reason, we called the plants dates, spinach, and broccoli, respectively. Gary wanted to eat them.

That was the difference between me, a survival dilettante, and someone like Gary. I wanted to get through the three-week challenge. Gary felt a responsibility—to himself, to viewers—to act like he didn’t know there was an end date, to set himself up to live in the bush forever. So while I looked at the plants and figured they weren’t worth the risk, Gary chose to toxicity-test them. He touched the leaves to his lips, chewing and spitting them out. He’d taste a little more every few hours to see what happened.

Later I was gathering firewood on one of the less thorny game trails, feeling dizzy and overheated, when Gary came toward me and stopped.

“Hey Blair,” he said. “You ever done mushrooms?”

Was I going to be uncool if I hadn’t? “No,” I said. “I mean, I’m not against them. But I haven’t.”

“I feel like I’m on mushrooms,” he said. He turned, stumbled to the balcony, and collapsed.

The plants. My heart froze. What had he eaten?

I ran to his side and crouched beside him, yelling for Rachel, for a medic. Below us a herd of springbok lifted their heads from the water.

“Do you know CPR?” Gary said. His voice broke. “If my heart stops, give me CPR for as long as it takes. Don’t stop.”

I nodded. The cameras, riding on shoulders, came closer.

There was a thorn in the sand by Gary’s neck, and I moved it away. Could he die? I thought. My lungs were tight, and at the same time, to my shame, I realized that if he tapped out, I would be alone. If that happened, I’d ask to keep a gun in the boma at night. They’d say no, but it was worth a try.

A medic ran to help us. He unzipped his bag.

Gary could barely move his legs. “My voluntary muscles are giving out,” he said. “So my involuntary muscles might, too. If that happens, you have to keep my heart going for me.”

We were in the desert; we were dehydrated. It seemed like someone should bring him water. The crew must have water in their backpacks. They didn’t eat or drink in front of us, but they had CamelBak straws by their mouths.

“Give him water,” I said.

I waited for someone to pull out a bottle.

“Blair,” Gary said. “Can you get some?”

Trembling, I grabbed our empty pot and slid down the bank to the riverbed. Watch me get trampled by an elephant while my partner’s dying and nobody cares. Watch me run into the sunlight and faint. I learned later that the crew offered Gary water while I was gone, after checking with the medic, and Gary refused—he didn’t want to compromise his challenge. But at the time, their hesitation shocked me. I couldn’t decide if I was livid or terrified, and that’s when I saw the snake.

It was as fast as a shadow, gliding toward Botswana.

Food.

Without thinking, I grabbed a log and ran toward the movement, shoving one end into the sand. The snake reared. I had pinned it by the tail. I looked closer.

What was the rule again? Lateral stripes meant harmless, diamonds meant danger? The snake was thin, about three feet long. It had lateral lines on its back half, but—there was no denying it—they blurred into distinct diamonds around its head.

Venomous.

I shoved the log deeper into the sand. The snake swung its open mouth toward my bare feet. If I let go, it could reach me. I had left my knife in the boma. 

We were both trapped.

The snake coiled and swayed, trying to loosen itself. I leaned harder on the log, keeping it pinned, and tried to breathe. 

“Gary?” I said. 

I looked up the hill for movement. It seemed like I would know if he had died.

“Gary,” I said, “I caught a snake?”

His head appeared over the bank. It looked like he was supporting himself with his arms. Then his head vanished.

A minute later, he stumbled onto the ramp, staggering and falling forward into a front flip, laughing maniacally as the medic’s face went white. Gary’s legs were wobbly and would be for hours, but he was already recovering. He brought the knife, and I chopped off the snake’s head, and it flew somewhere and we never saw it again, and since snake heads can bite after they’re severed, we avoided that part of the riverbed forevermore. That night, cross-legged around the fire, we ate snake, peeling meat off comb-thin ribs with our teeth. It tasted like skin, more membrane than flesh. Gary ate the bones.

Braverman and Gary Golding, roughing it
Braverman and Gary Golding, roughing it (Photo: Courtesy Discovery)
(Photo: Courtesy Discovery)

As far as I was concerned, we weren’t sure which plant had poisoned Gary, but he felt confident it was the spinach and that he’d proven the broccoli safe.

“This is a game changer,” he told me. It was day four, and we had access to a plentiful vegetable. We could sit on the shady balcony and eat it by the fistful. Gary skipped along the riverbed, filling our pot with broccoli leaves, and boiled them over the fire until they were brown and limp and the water a startling jade green. “Delicioso!” he announced after each gulp. From now on, he said proudly, we could take in all our water as a nutritious broth.

I tasted the green water and nibbled the leaves. They were spicy, like horseradish. I didn’t trust the plant enough to drink much of the broth, but we only had one pot, and avoiding water made me dizzy. I braced myself; if I wanted to make it another day, I’d have to confront Gary. We’d gotten along well so far, because we agreed on things, but I wasn’t sure what would happen if we didn’t.

“Can we boil more water without broccoli in it?” I asked him.

“Why?” He frowned. “I tested it. You don’t believe me?”

Oh boy.

“I don’t think it will make us sick immediately, but we just don’t know,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “Maybe it has cumulative or long-term effects.”

“That’s a good point,” Gary said, nodding. “OK, let’s boil more water without it.”

And that was that.

Those were good days, and since each day lasted months, it felt like we lived like this for quite some time. Gary taught me how he counted down the days. The trick was to go backwards by ratio, and not to count extraction day. So after the first day, you were one-twentieth of the way done, but by the next day, you were one-tenth, and by day three, one-seventh. Each morning, as the sunlight hit Botswana, we counted together. We gathered endless piles of firewood and flopped in the shade. We made up songs and performed them sometimes for the crew, who hid behind their cameras and tried not to laugh. The crew left in the afternoons, and I liked that now, too—the chance to be unwatched.

We followed baboons to a murky pool and caught catfish with a net that I wove from the beard and tail hairs of a dead wildebeest. I suspect Gary could have caught the fish just fine with his hands, but it was thoughtful of him to make my net seem important. For days we ate from the same stinking fish carcasses. Gary hid them in a tree at night, away from hyenas, and boiled them once more during the day. Catfish skin dried like scabs to the side of the pot. Each time I drank water, I pulled scraps of tissue from my tongue.

Tiny bees crawled in and out of my nostrils. Blood trickled inexplicably from my belly button. I developed a hard lump on my left cheek, itchy and pulsing. I ignored it all.

One evening two men ran across the riverbed: border jumpers heading into Botswana. They looked over their shoulders and saw me watching, and for a moment we stared at each other. I wondered where they’d sleep tonight, if they had shelter, if their greatest danger was animal or human or both. This fucking survival game, I thought; look at what we’re pretending. I envied the men’s sandals. I wanted to give them everything I had.

I was getting weaker, so I looked forward to darkness, when my only tasks were to rest and wait. I used the diary cam, pretending to host a craft show called Survival Insomnia Crafting Hour. I wished for the sansevieria and baobab that grew on the plains, whose fibers I could pound into cloth and twist into cordage, but they were far away, and I wasn’t sure I could handle the trek. Instead I broke young branches from a fever-berry tree and wove them together, making a shallow basket. The branches cracked; the basket fell apart.

The nights were colder now. In the morning, the crew wore fleeces. When I slept, I was only inches from the fire, from the ants and spiders that scuttled from the coals, and I woke shivering, coughing black. Dawn was cacophonous. There were birds that sounded like cats and birds that sounded like violins, barks of anxious kudu, outbursts from baboons who strutted on long knuckles. Everything was dry and alive.

We started to recognize individual animals. One male elephant, with tusks that stretched to the ground, hung around a lot. I named him Edward. He was old and calm, and he kept the hyenas away. There was another elephant, a hormonal young male, who mock-charged us a few times. One of the rangers called him Sparky. It wasn’t my first choice for a name, but we wanted the rangers on our side, so Sparky it was. 

“Names make me feel like they’re our friends,” I told Gary.

Gary liked that. “We’re not here to make nature our bitch,” he said to the diary cam. “We’re here to make nature our friend. Blair, you should use that in your interviews. It would be a good theme for the episode.”

Each morning a warthog trotted across the riverbed, trailing flies. Sometimes it stopped and stared at us. It came from a den near our first boma, a squat tunnel into the dirt, and it grazed all day on a patch of grass in Botswana. It looked delicious.

Gary had a plan. We were going to be the first people in Naked and Afraid history to catch big game using primitive methods, which was a goal that, until now, I never knew I had. We’d build a big-ass spear, half-bury it outside the warthog’s den, and smoke out the pig so it would come running and impale itself. Apparently this works.

While Gary carried firewood and scavenged for dead things, I sat on the balcony and sharpened a fist-thick branch of fever-berry wood. Gary had little patience for fiddly work, and I loved it, so this arrangement suited us both. I was glad to have the spear beside me at night, too. Like if a lion leaped toward me, claws outstretched, I could angle the spear to stab its chest, and then we could eat it.

I’d eaten about 600 calories total in over a week, and all I thought about now was food. Everything seemed holy. Radishes. Swirling tendrils of heavy cream. I eat mostly vegetarian at home, but now the idea of raw meat made my mouth water. I could fantasize for hours, with pornographic clarity, about chopping an onion. The crew members were skilled and friendly, but they could have slipped us a sandwich at any time, and yet they didn’t, and for that I came to hate them. 

I started to evaluate everything by two criteria: Can I eat it? If so, can I catch it? 

Elephants circled us and threw dirt on the camera guy. I froze, thinking about thin-crust cheese pizza, until they left. They were edible but I couldn’t catch them. Next.

Hyenas chased a young leopard into our boma while we carried water. Couldn’t eat them, couldn’t catch them. Next.

At dusk, thousands of tiny birds swept through the air above the riverbed, darkening the sky in waves. The flock was enormous, flowing like water. They sounded like wind, so we called them the wind birds. “Wind birds,” we’d say, looking up. 

We could eat them, and maybe we could catch them. After their nightly dance, the birds flew into holes in the riverbank. Maybe we could plug the holes with dirt or catch them with our bags when they came out. Therefore, the wind birds were interesting.

I felt, for the first time, that I understood what it was like to be a dog. Or any animal, really, because I was part of it all, because surely the hyenas, the leopards, the lions that roared in the evenings, assessed me in the same way. It was as if the world was gray, and everything edible glowed in color.

Braverman and Golding digging up roots
Braverman and Golding digging up roots (Photo: Courtesy Discovery)

As we approached day 11, when we’d be hiking across the desert to join the two other survivalists, my weakness and dizziness grew worse. It felt like all my senses were scrambled; when I tried to push through, to pretend the problems away, the ground tilted beneath me. The hard lump on my cheek had grown wide as a plum, aching, and whenever I turned my head, my vision flickered. I carried firewood in slow motion and rested far longer than I worked. I built a bird trap and set it in the riverbed, baited with dates, but the wind blew it over, and I was too dizzy to reset it.

Soon Gary did most of our chores. I sat alone, whittling the spear and hardening it over the fire. In days measured by firewood, by boiled water and gathered plants, weakness made me feel worthless. I worried that people who watched the show would think I was lazy. I worried that if enough people believed it, maybe that made it true.

Gary’s voice carried, and sometimes I heard him talking to the cameras. “I just hope she doesn’t think I’m disappointed in her,” he said. “She’s doing a good job knowing her limits.”

Rachel was, characteristically, more blunt. “What you’re feeling is normal,” she said. “You’ve seen how many people fall into the fire.”

I didn’t want to fall into the fire. I couldn’t imagine hiking to a new camp.

Somehow along the way, I had started wanting very badly to make it to the end of the challenge.

There was only one solution: We had to get the warthog. If we got the warthog, it would change everything. Surely, after a meal, I would be strong enough for the trek. Maybe our new partners would have food, too, and we could share. We’d eat and sleep and boil water and wait in one place until extraction day, until the challenge was over, and how hard was that? It would all come together, it would all work out, once we caught the warthog.

I’d gotten the spear sharp enough and hard enough to do serious damage. It weighed about five pounds and tapered to a smoke-stained point that could prick my finger. It would have to pierce inch-thick hide, and it could.

The morning before the merge, Gary and I crept toward the warthog’s den. I leaned on the spear like a cane, concentrating on its solidity as the ground tipped. Gary carried the Pulaski for digging, and a glowing coal on a plate of bark. My heart fluttered, whether from weakness or anticipation I couldn’t tell. But when we got to the den, there were no hoofprints in the sand, no flies buzzing. The warthog had abandoned its home, and we never saw it again.

The medic checked my vitals twice that afternoon. My neck and cheek had swollen so much that it was hard to turn my head, and fine red lines had started to spread over my arms and chest. I was too weak to stand for my daily interview. I sat on a log, and the camera guy crouched to make it look like I was standing.

“You’re still articulate,” Rachel said.

“It’s all I have left,” I said.

The next morning, I sat in the boma as long as I could. We forced down the rest of our fishy water, then I stoked the fire while Gary walked to the water hole and refilled the pot. We gathered our fire starter, our knife, and our spear. He rubbed ashes into my back to protect it from the sun.

Finally, the cameras arrived. It was time to cross the desert.

The dirt bounced beneath me, game trails dipping and rising, like I was walking in a grassland-themed fun house. Everything bulbous and spinning. I took a step, another step, talking to myself in my head: watch for snakes, watch for snakes. I stepped on a thorn and bent to pull it out and the air went dark and my ears popped. I concentrated on breathing until the yellow grass and the fallen logs and the distant red cliffs appeared again.

“Just try to get to the shade,” said Gary.

Everything was liquid, and I swam to the shade before us and crumpled.

This was the date tree, brown fruit scattered on the ground, ants hauling the pieces. The dates were bitter, I remembered. We sat under the tree for a long time, and once again I couldn’t see.

Gary handed me the pot and I lifted it to my mouth, willing myself not to spill with shaking hands. I took a sip, offered it to him, he declined, I took another sip. It was not much water, and it needed to last all day. 

It was time to go to the next shade.

Somehow, like this, we crossed the desert, chased by a drone and a vulture.

Two naked people walked toward us. Greeting them, making my face greet them, took more energy than I had. They were strong, both of them, which scared me, because it meant something was wrong with me, that what I felt wasn’t normal, but I also loved them instantly because everything was different, bizarre, and now there were four of us on the inside.

The man was Matt Wright, a survivalist legend in his fourth stint on Naked and Afraid, tough and jolly, and he had a handmade bow and a quiver of arrows, which meant hope. He and Gary had history from XL—they’d been rivals, so to speak, the hunter and the scavenger at odds—but they hugged and slapped each other’s backs and laughed a little too loudly and it was clear, in that instant, that their reunion was meant to be the plot of the episode, the idea that perhaps they would fight, and a million viewers could have an opinion about it, and it was also clear, in that instant, that they would both force a bromance if it killed them and would not be fighting at all.

The woman, Molly Jansen, was fierce and petite, hair swept in a braid that she tied with baobab fibers, and I felt suddenly that I had more in common with her than anyone else in the world. She touched her hand to my shoulder as we walked to the next shade, the next shade, the next, until we reached once more the crackle of trees that marked a riverbed and I lay on the hot shady sand with my skin pulsing and my heart pulsing and my swollen cheek pulsing while my partners built a new boma, a beautiful boma, without my help. Matt and Molly, I realized, might never know me as anything but helpless.

The group boma was nice because there was always someone else awake, and that someone was usually Molly. She was a single mom, a forty-something criminal-defense attorney, mountaineer, and radio host from Colorado with a candid streak. Later I’d learn that a casting director had classified the two of us as a spitfire and an introvert, and it was clear she was the former.

“Let me tell you about our first camp,” she said, eyes wide in the firelight. “There was a spitting cobra, and Tarzan over here killed it, and it spit in his mouth.” The floor of this new boma was soft sand, which made for a comfortable hip divot. The night sounds, the shrieks and footsteps, didn’t bother me anymore, although I missed Edward’s presence, since the hyenas never came too close when he was around. A cold wind blew from the east, and Matt and Molly cuddled for warmth, which seemed wise. I wondered if Gary would cuddle with me, but I felt shy to ask, so I shivered alone by the coals instead. “I’ve figured out how to stay warm,” Molly announced before dawn. “You just have to lie in the fire.”

Matt left to hunt at first light, when the animals were more active. He came back midmorning with his back and ass painted red with blood, a massive warthog draped over his shoulders. It had fleshy tubers on its face, wiry hairs, fleas hopping around like mist. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

We built a new fire away from the boma and grilled chunks of meat on the sooty pot lid. Everything smelled like blood. I held the cooked muscle in my hands, in my mouth, smoky and charred and rich. Juice ran between my fingers and down my chin and splashed onto my legs. Fat and gristle on my tongue. Gorging on relief.

Now everything was about meat.

Matt scraped lumps of fat off the pig and we rubbed it into our cracked lips and skin. He roasted the organs, kidneys and testicles and heart and liver, and I tasted each. So far I’d tried everything Gary ate, and I wasn’t about to stop now. Molly mostly stuck with the tenderloin.

“What do you think it means about your survival skills that you’ll eat organs and Molly won’t?” a crew member asked me. I watched my words. This wasn’t a contest, especially between women. And even if it were, I was obviously losing. Molly had taken on the crucial but thankless work of carrying and boiling water as fast as we could drink it, while I lay spinning in the shade.

“Molly’s got great skills,” I said. “You’ll have to ask her.”

We processed the pig and stoked the fire and ate. Matt and Gary dug a hole for pit roasting while I stood by the carcass, which hung from a tree branch by its tusks, and sliced it into strips for jerky. Flies crawled over it, on the gelatinous crust where blood meets air, and I pinched them off with one hand and sliced with the other, cutting long strips that I stacked on a piece of bark. The pig weighed more than any of us. If we preserved the meat, we’d have enough to eat well for the rest of the challenge.

Sometimes my vision went black and I stopped cutting and leaned against the pig, willing my fingers to stay clenched so I didn’t drop the knife on my foot. There were sounds like wind in my ears, a feeling like my skull was too tight. Then things would shimmer into place long enough for me to cut another slice and drop it on the growing pile. How long until the meat made me feel better? In the first minutes after eating, I’d felt a surge of energy, but now it had drained away and left me, if possible, feeling sicker than before.

Molly walked by with an armful of branches. “Dig deep,” she said encouragingly.

In later interviews, I’d say this was a turning point for me. That I heard the words dig deep and realized: there is nowhere deeper for me to dig. And I accepted that, unless something changed, something big, I would not be able to finish the challenge.

In fact, that’s not exactly true. I’m well acquainted with my limits; I’d been digging deep since day four. But it is true that hearing those words marked a turning point. It helped me realize that my experience of my body, and everyone else’s perceptions of me, were at odds. When I said I couldn’t stand, people thought I meant that standing was difficult. When I said I couldn’t carry water, they thought I meant that I’d rather not. I could demand that the medic take my vitals—the comforting squeeze of the blood-pressure cuff, the cool stethoscope on my skin—but only because I was conscious, and it seemed a matter of time before I lost that, too. Something was really wrong with me, and I was the only one who knew.

I made a decision. It was day 13. I would eat and drink and rest until the next morning. If I felt better, I would stay; after all, we had food and water and shelter. Gary and Matt had offered to carry me out on the last day if I needed it, and I believed they could. The rest of the challenge seemed like a waiting game.

But if I felt worse, if this thing grew, I would leave. I would let myself fail.

I didn’t tell anyone. But it was good to have a plan.

The four of us, who were animals, who were the only people in the world, lay around the fire and swallowed lumps of pork until our stomachs ached. We boiled chunks of meat in scummy water and passed the saltless broth between us, forcing ourselves to take one more swig, one more bite. I took a piece, chewed, passed the pot. When it came around, I did it again.

This is ancient, I thought, this experience of starving until a kill, then gorging. This is how everything lives, everyone, unless we’re drenched in luck.

Matt and Molly took a walk and came back with their burlap sacks full of sansevieria, a fibrous succulent. I pounded the blades with a bone, separated the fibers, dried them in the sun. I wanted to make gifts for my partners, to thank them for taking care of me. For Gary I’d weave a sun hat. For Molly, who valued discretion, a loincloth. Matt had joked about a tiny blanket someone made on a previous challenge, so I thought I’d make him an even tinier one. But as the day wore on, the pounding exhausted me. I spread the fibers on the sand and fell asleep.

That night felt like a party.

Naked and Afraid,” said Matt in an announcer’s voice. “Where you can starve—or stuff yourself! Where you can have heatstroke—or hypothermia! You can have it all!”

We had full bellies, and everything was hilarious.

Matt had an idea he’d like to try sometime, he said: hydration enemas. The idea was that you could pour water up your ass and therefore hydrate without purifying it first. You just needed some kind of funnel.

“The warthog tusks,” I said.

“We could carve them,” said Gary.

This sounded fantastic. You wouldn’t have to boil the water. It wouldn’t be hot or reeking of rotten catfish, and if there were algae in it, who cared? Gary said he was down to try. I laughed so hard that I barely heard the hyenas sing their song.

One by one, my partners fell asleep. I didn’t want the night to end.

Just like my first night, I sat awake by the fire. The spokes of the Milky Way rotated above. I spun plant fibers in my hands, twisting them for hours. I twined thick rope, thin rope, loops of cordage of every size. I didn’t have the strength to make the gifts I’d imagined. But rope was always useful. It couldn’t repay my partners for everything they’d done for me, but it would show them I was grateful.

The violin birds started screaming first, then the baboons, as the night turned gold. Each animal starting its own day. I carried my diary cam to a fallen log, a few trees away from the boma, to say goodbye. My face and neck were so swollen that I barely recognized myself on the tiny screen. 

Then I walked back to camp, each step an achievement, and made my first real survival decision since starting the challenge.

“I’m tapping out,” I told Rachel.

“Are you sure?” she said. “It seems like you’ve been feeling better.”

“I’m not,” I said.

It took a while for the crew to get ready, so I sat in the shade and watched a herd of elephants drink. They lifted their trunks and showered themselves with mud. The babies ran to keep up with their mothers. They were the quietest animals around.

Leaving was simple. The crew led me slowly away, in a direction I’d never been, the direction they came from each morning. We reached a big tent where strangers sat in the shade, listening to a radio. They gave me a white bathrobe and a cold can of lemon soda, which hissed when I opened it. It tasted chemical, like soap or detergent, so I drank cold water instead. My neck and chest hurt when I swallowed. Everyone was nice.

“We were rooting for you,” they told me.

“Your toenails look great,” said a young woman. “Is that gel polish?”

An assistant drove me to the lodge where the crew slept, about 40 minutes away. It was grand and clean, surrounded by barbed wire. You could lounge by a pool and watch wildebeest drink from a watering hole on the other side of a ten-foot fence. 

I remember taking my first shower, sitting cross-legged on the tile floor in a swirl of mud. A black scab the size of a pencil eraser washing out of my face, leaving a crater in raw flesh. Bright-red veins on my arms and chest. Dinner of twice-baked potatoes, the work of chewing. Then waking up with my neck on fire, pain like I’ve never felt, and a Jeep ride to a hospital hours away. Sliding myself along the lobby wall, getting wheeled down a corridor on a cot. X-rays. Tests for drugs and malaria and poison. An IV pumping antibiotics and antihistamines and steroids and painkillers and electrolytes into my left hand.

It turned out that the wound on my cheek, which began as an itchy lump the week before, had become necrotic. It may have been caused by the bite of a violin spider, a relative of the brown recluse, which lives in dry tree bark near the Limpopo, the same bark we gathered and burned for fuel. It may have been a common staph infection. My mottled skin could mean that the infection went septic—“I’ve not seen that on people that made it,” one doctor told me—or it could have been a harmless condition called toasted-skin syndrome, caused by sleeping beside the fire. I’ll never know.

While my partners faced a hailstorm, I lay in a drugged sleep. While they hiked to their extraction, I flew over the Atlantic. I felt stronger in a week. I covered the hole in my cheek for months, until it healed into a pale crater. But it wasn’t for almost a year, until the lacy rash faded completely from my arms and chest, that I finally believed I was home.

The current season of ‘Naked and Afraid’ airs through April on Sundays.

Lead Photo: Quince Mountain
More Culture