‘Primal Survivor’ host brings home insights on indigenous ways around the globe

SPOKANE, Wash. — Most people will need a few Google searches to peg where Hazen Audel has survived the elements in 2017.

But while Namibia and Siberut are off the beaten path, the host of “Primal Survivor” is home in Spokane now, recuperating after filming his third season of the series that puts him into uncomfortable situations around the globe to learn what makes indigenous people tick.

Eating bugs, jungle hunting with spears, drinking cow’s blood, escaping quicksand, digging snow caves, pursuing and eluding strange critters and traveling in the harshest environments on earth — it’s all in a day’s work for the former Ferris High School science teacher.

Audel dives into every TV episode. In Northern Mexico this year, he ran about 80 miles in four days to reveal the lifestyle of the Tarahumara. “They call themselves Raramuri, and they’re big-time runners,” he said. “They live and farm squash, corn and beans in these big spectacular cliffsides in north Copper Canyon.”

Running is their mode of travel on the extensive steep trail systems in a maze of canyons.

“They pride themselves in running, starting as children and continuing into old age,” Audel said. “They rarely walk. Even the old men are running. You see them carrying their vegetables and water they fetched.

“When the Spanish came through trying to conquer Mexico, these people were untouchable.”

He marveled at the techniques of a culture that lives on the run.

“Running is a high-impact sport and if you do it the wrong way your whole life you can really screw yourself up,” Audel said. “The Tarahumara have a light-footed way of running, like prancing, that enables them to run long distances and keep knees, feet and body in shape for life.”

Their footwear has evolved over the years, he said. “The sandals they prefer now are modified sections of recycled tires with rawhide straps.”

When Audel is “on the road” for his work, he’s mostly off-road in harsh conditions. He refers to it as wonderfully stressful work.

“It’s nice to be home after filming the third season and having a home life,” he said.

Before the debut of the “Primal Survivor” series, he filmed a series called “Survive the Tribe.”

“I can get a little traveled out and have to assess that in where I want my life to go,” he said. “But having said that, it’s wonderful to have these incredible experiences.”

“Survive the Tribe” was his first program with National Geographic. He was a moderator between the audience and the native culture he was exploring.

In “Primal Survivor,” Audel — a former consultant to survival celebrity Bear Grylls — pulls from his background as a jungle guide, Outward Bound leader, teacher and survival instructor.

Credit: Stewart Trowell

Credit: Stewart Trowell

In each episode, Audel lives with locals to understand their way of life and ancient techniques before setting out alone through territories that push him to his limits.

Audel’s latest contract stipulates some down time between trips so he can recover — he’s eaten nearly everything remotely edible on the planet and occasionally has paid a price.

But for periods that total about three months a year, the buff survivalist and educator puts himself in different versions of hell that other cultures call normal. He might be baking in the sun and fending of bees for honey in one episode and building an igloo and fending off frostbite in the next.

“I can’t complain because in some ways the film crew has it even tougher, carrying 60-pound cameras and enduring many of the same conditions,” he said.

“On Siberut (Island) in West Sumatra, Indonesia, the crew got trenchfoot really bad. Some couldn’t walk. Some were in agony. I fared a little better because I was barefoot as I followed the rain forest hunter-gatherer people. My feet could air out and dry occasionally.”

Audel shies away from talking about himself, preferring to detail the tribes in which he embeds. “On Siberut, the people are totally impressive to encounter,” he said. “They’re covered cheek to toe with tattoos that represent different things in their culture. That custom is changing as more of the children are going off to school.”

The Siberut episode features Audel trying to meet up with a hunting party out after wild pigs using dogs and bows with poison arrows.

“We ate durian fruit, which has an odor like natural gas and tastes like onion ice cream custard,” he said.

Filming took longer than expected as Audel came down with a strange fever.

“It was a cold fever,” he said. “They were pouring hot water over me as I felt like I was going to die from chills. It was a mystery fever thing.”

Audel said he’s a little uncomfortable with the show’s focus being as much on him and his survival struggles as it is on the cultures he explores.

“My take home from it all is the opportunity to live with these amazing families,” he said. “They give me insight on how to be a fellow human in this world, and how to raise children, and maintain relationships. I would like someday to apply these insights to my life.”

Even the Cree of northern Canada — a culture more influenced by modern conveniences than most of his subjects — have deep cultural roots to explore. Audel joined them this season as they hunted caribou that roam in herds of thousands yet somehow disappear into the tundra for months.

“They all have trucks and ATVs, but they still really have to live off the land,” he said. “Even the guy working in the village pizza shop is paying attention to where the moose and caribou are. When they get one, the entire family partakes in skinning, cleaning and preparing the meat. Everything stops and they all chip in until its done. Everything is used.”

He said he’s inspired to be around so-called primitive cultures that are households of teachers, mothers, fathers, hunters, providers.

“They do it all in the most human ways with no dumb social media getting in the way.

“In many cases, their children go to work with their parents every day. They forge incredibly strong bonds.”

Communicating with remote indigenous people can be remarkably easy for initially seeming nearly impossible, he said.

“Sometimes a translator helps us out, but I’ve learned ways to communicate by learning the real important words and using the crap out of them. I think they pick up on my interest and respect pretty well.”

In a different twist in Namibia, he had to communicate with cows.

“The Himba Tribe are cattle herders,” he said. “To experience their work, I learned how to take care of cattle and had to move a small herd over a bunch of ranges and expanses. … I had five cows and the ordeal became like a death march. It was so incredibly hot and dry. I was managing to survive, but it was nerve wracking to be responsible for the cows for almost two weeks of traveling in such harsh conditions. They were on the verge of death when I reached the village, hard for me to watch, but they made it, and so did I.”