Mention Belize to anyone and the first thing they warn you of is the size of the spiders. Trust me. They are huge. Day one started with an early alarm call before checking in at London Heathrow airport.
It was a chance to meet some of the team who we would be sharing camp with, battling the thick foliage alongside and watching our soldiers train in some of the most difficult conditions.
Conversation on the flight was mostly about the size of the creepy crawlies, but also how young some of 2nd Battalion Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment are.
Many of them left school and signed up straight away, while others moved into the regular army after passing out from Harrogate’s training college. These are 18-year-old men who quickly find themselves in a very grown up world.
After the ten-hour flight into Chicago our body clocks had gone haywire, and priority (after sampling the local steak!) was to get our heads down before the second flight, which would take us into Belize at first light.
- Watch below for a video blog after touchdown in Chicago
We woke up to temperatures of minus 14 in Chicago but the weather was soon to change, as we prepared to board our second flight into Belize.
For a moment you could be forgiven for thinking you were on holiday. When the doors to the aeroplane were flung open, hot air literally smacked you in the face. It was a reminder of how difficult Exercise Mayan Warrior was going to be for the military and for us.
As soon as we touched down we were taken to Price Barracks. This is the home of the British Army Training Support Unit Belize (BATSUB.) Our soldiers are invited here to train in tough terrain.
After a quick feed and water we were shown to our rooms for the night; basic but better than expected. We knew a good nights sleep was a must as at first light we’d be travelling deep into the jungle and it’s there the hard work would begin.
2 PWRR fulfils the role of the United Kingdom’s Regional Standby Battalion and is expected to be able to deploy from its Cyprus base on active service at short notice to operate in whatever climates and environment they face – hence the need to train in the jungle.
We arrived at ‘A1’ the base just outside the jungle and were each shown to our ‘Mozzie Domes.’ Imagine a tent (avery small one) with a mesh net over the top. This was our accommodation for the first night.
One of the Colour Sergeants on site also showed us the facilities, the makeshift hospital they have out there and the seating area used for ‘Scoff.’ It’s imperative to eat your rations before light falls because when it does you can’t see a thing. For that reason most of the solders at A1 are in bed by 7pm.
- Watch below to see how much equipment out military carry
This was the first time we travelled deep into the jungle of Belize - and the transportation was far from glamorous. Each of us were kitted out with helmets and body amour before boarding the back of the army truck. Stiff suspension combined with a dusty beaten track made an uncomfortable one-hour journey before we joined the soldiers.
Navigating through the jungle is slow, exhausting and fraught with difficulties. The dense canopy precludes the use of sat-nav systems and can also interfere with radio transmission, you can hardly see more than a few metres ahead through the thick undergrowth and, of course, there are no topographical features to help.
We joined the solders in their makeshift classroom as they learned how to start fires, search for food and source water. It is all in preparation for a 48-hour survival mission. After their lessons they will be left to fend for themselves. And that means no luxuries – including ration packs. This is a true test of survival.
After ‘settling in’ we were now prepared to experience life as a solider for real. Not only were we joining them out in the jungle sleeping in a hammock, but also on tactical training.
Exercise Mayan Warrior is divided up into sections with each platoon, rotating through. The first is a ‘close quarter battle’ live firing package.
Each soldier stalks through the jungle undergrowth with his rifle or machine gun loaded with live ammunition, as opposed to blanks, and on coming into contact with a static target leaps for cover before obliterating it by return of rapid fire.
The purpose of this is to replicate being on a jungle patrol and coming into enemy contact at close range. It is physically very demanding and after only a short time the soldiers are saturated with sweat and gasping to get their breath.
As well as firing weapons, navigating through a river known to be home to crocodiles and other creepy crawlies was fascinating to watch. Each soldier played a crucial role in the exercise, moving so slowly not to disrupt the wildlife and all while carrying over 50 kilograms of kit – water, hammocks, cooking equipment and weaponry.
- Watch below to see inside a military ambulance
Later that evening we were given avery brief lesson in how to prepare our bedding for the night - a hammock slung between two trees in the harbour area.
Learning the principle of a ‘jungle knot’ was the most important part –get that wrong and expect a bump in the middle of the night as your bedding comes crashing down.
After lighting a fire and cooking through some rations (chick-pea curry out of a foil bag) and a quick cup of coffee it was time to climb into the hammocks.
Sleeping in the jungle overnight was surreal.
Howler monkeys, rattle snakes and no end of other wildlife making noises and doing their very best to stop you from having a good night sleep. If you look into the thick foliage you can even see the reflective eyes of spiders staring back.
I felt sorry for the medic in our camp. Any scratch, bite or bump – he was called upon to help. Another hindrance when it comes to getting some decent kip!
Many a military veteran will tell you, ‘if you can overcome living and fighting in the jungle, you’ll pretty much manage any where else’. It is renowned as the harshest environment to get to grips with. The difficulties of just looking after yourself, or as the military refer ‘your personal admin’ is magnified ten-fold.
It was a fascinating experience to join our soldiers training in this way and as Britain ends its combat mission Afghanistan it’s hoped more troops will get the chance to spend time in the jungle. Many of them told me how much they enjoy exercises such as this – and after taking part in one – I can see why.