Just as no gorilla can ever be sure that he won’t one day see David Attenborough’s face popping up through the ferns in his forest hideaway, so no fugitive from modern life, quietly tending his cassava patch in a remote piece of jungle, is entirely safe from the attentions of a television crew, rocking up to document his survival skills.
“Holy cow,” murmurs Kevin McCloud, surveying a majestic glass and timber house rising from the rockface of a tiny desert island in the Tongan archipelago, lapped by the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean. Kevin’s host, Boris von Engelbrechten, who used to work as a hotel manager in the UK, looks pleased – as well he might: he built the house by hand with materials sourced from the island.
McCloud is moved to such expressions quite a bit in his new series, Escape to the Wild, stunned by the daily challenges that face his pioneering hosts. Gone is the urbane presenter of Grand Designs, judiciously assessing the follies and fantasies of the British self-builder.
Here instead is McCloud recoiling in horror at the sight of a large scorpion sharing his bedroom on his first night in the Belize jungle. Or learning on a visit to the Swedish Arctic that if he wants a glass of water he must fetch it
from the river, first breaking the ice. As one host tells him: “Here you either fit in or eff-off.”
The series nearly didn’t get made, McCloud says: “We’d been talking to Channel 4 about it, then heard that Ben Fogle had already done something similar. But my producer said, ‘You’re not Ben Fogle and you’re not Bear Grylls – we’ll make it in a different way.’”
Thus while McCloud gamely plucks a chicken for dinner, having first wrung its neck, or swims into a coastal cave with a spade to harvest bat excrement, he is, as he frankly admits, way outside his comfort zone.
In each of the four episodes McCloud meets British couples who have left conventional lives and city jobs in favour of a low-impact life, self-sufficiency and a connection with the environment – sometimes rather too close a connection.
One family lives next to a volcano; on their idyllic Tongan island the von Engelbrechten family regularly experiences earthquakes and hurricanes. The Atkinson family in Belize have lost two dogs to a jaguar and several hens to snakes, and Richard Atkinson patrols his property with a loaded gun.
“This is powerful wilderness and there is an oddity in people being drawn to extreme beauty and extreme danger,” observes McCloud. In the Swedish Arctic, Richard and Clare live completely off-grid, with only 54 huskies for company. “It’s very cold so you’re up every hour and a half feeding a fire to keep warm,” says McCloud.
“There is no light, no electricity, no solar panels, no tap. The physical and psychological demands exhausted me in a week but they thrive on it. They prefer to go and collect water from the river and break the ice because it puts them in touch with that resource more primally. They enjoy the purity of that.
Three of the families have young children. “There are hundreds of individuals out there living in these remote places,” says McCloud, “but with families it’s quite different. The parents say they’re doing this as a team – without the children it doesn’t work. And they are treated as partners in the venture.”
In Belize the Atkinson family drive to a rubbish dump to glean materials for their “earth ship”, a fantastical Gaudíesque building built largely of tyres and bottles. As the girls, aged nine and 11, pick their way through rats and broken glass, no one warns them to be careful.
On his island home in Tonga, one of the von Engelbrechten boys scales an 80-foot coconut palm while his parents chat on the shore below, apparently unconcerned.
“There is a moral question,” admits McCloud. “Would the children have chosen this life? But I think it is every parent’s duty to make decisions for their offspring and I think any parent of a child who is stuck to a screen in their bedroom would be attracted to the life these kids have.
I’d say all of them will go into whatever world they choose as adults with tremendous maturity and ease. When you’ve had to kill a snake with a machete aged eight, you’ll be OK.”