To London Zoo for a sponsored Firewalk in aid of Sumatran Tigers.
Arriving at Regents Park Zoo in the early evening, I walk past the firewalk site and see foot high flames dancing out of the glowing wood. Yikes; these flames could burn your jeans clean off. After signing a typically uncompromising waiver (if I’m injured, it’s completely understandable and completely my fault), I wander over to the fire. Standing ten feet away, it smells like a bonfire. I can feel the genuine heat on my face.
This is real and I realise I’ve been cocky about this. Partly because I can remember as a smoker I could stub out fags with my heel (I was quite the charmer, even then). Partly because when I was very young, in my first attempt at mind over matter, I forced myself not to be ticklish. When I fought with my brother, it put me at a huge disadvantage to be ticklish, so I stopped (being ticklish, rather than fighting). Also the soles of my feet are a delightful crackled, antiqued leather anyway. This cockiness usually ends in disaster; in this case probably 3rd degree burns and an overnighter in hospital.
There are 73 people taking part, raising money and awareness for the Zoo’s ambitious plans to halt the extinction of the Sumatran tiger. There are only 300 left, which sounds like more than enough if you were to find yourself on foot in the Indonesian forest and heard the sound of twigs being broken by a giant tiger paw behind you, but clearly not enough to halt their extinction within the next decade. The Zoo plans to build a tiger conservation HQ and enclosure at the Regents Park site, as well as three conservation projects in Indonesia.
Soon enough we are led to a raked conference room, and introduced to Steve, a former military man wearing black belted combats, who will be in charge. He starts talking about the opposing states of fear and confidence. He asks us to stand up and find a partner. Momentary panic (that school-age memory of teams being chosen and wondering if you will be the last one never leaves). I turn gratefully to the woman on my left, called Sue. Steve tells us to teach our partner our most embarrassing dance. I see other people cheerfully embarking on this, waving arms and bending legs. Coward as I am, I say to Sue, ‘I’m not going to do that’. ‘I hate enforced audience participation’ we say simultaneously and immediately bond. I really like her at once. This is Sue’s second firewalk, and she’s keen to get on with it. She reassures me that it’s not painful at all.
We sit down and Steve tells us that fear of embarrassment is the first rung on the fear ladder. Not sure about that. Our second task is to face each other, close enough to invade each other’s personal space, and alternate saying ping to their pong, to ‘get us out of our comfort zones’. I feel a disconnect with this. Again, we chat. Steve tells us we are born with two fears; fear of loud noises and fear of being dropped, so all our other fears can be overcome. Next audience volunteers break a piece of wood that he’s holding, using just their palms. Most manage it first time. Others break a wooden arrow on their necks, skipping beaming and triumphant back to their seats. An American voice calls out ‘Can I just ask? How many firewalks you’ve done?’ Steve bristles, ‘Over 500’, he says, adding, ‘Not a record…not interested in records’ and moves on.
Finally we return to the fire, still being raked, prodded and watched by a man in flouro jacket and trousers. Fire temperatures are checked, we are corralled. We take off our shoes, roll up our trousers, and stand on the chilly paving. Steve goes first, I feel suddenly nervous, but in compensation, I can hardly feel my feet at all which are numbing nicely on the cold. I go in at about number ten. I stand on the grass surrounding the fire, and I’m off. It’s like walking on soft gravel. I feel an ember stuck to my undersole, and walk briskly to the end, putting my feet into cold water at the end.
It’s all over in one and half seconds. The firewalk is 12ft long, and 500 celsius. The oak wood has been burning for two hours, so parts of it are embers though the orange glow is clearly visible. Everyone claps for everyone.
After I wander back to the cafe, and meet Sue, who is with her daughter (who has sweetly brought her mother some presents to congratulate her Mum), and two of her friends. We chat for twenty minutes, which is easily the most enjoyable part of the evening. Random brief but close encounters (an entirely non-sexual version of an excellent one night stand) make me glad to be alive. We go our separate ways, and I start the rather more dangerous task of cycling home.