It was going to take a lot more than flesh-eating bacteria to keep Matt Wright from returning to the wild. In fact, Wright, a Lakewood resident who was almost eaten alive by necrotizing fasciitis during his stint in the Amazon during last season's Naked and Afraid XL, hardly hesitated before agreeing to be dropped off in Africa, where he must survive forty days on Naked and Afraid XL: All-Stars...all alone.
“How I survived in the Amazon, I feel like I upped the game a little bit,” explains Wright. “All of a sudden, they were like, ‘Well, hell, how are we going to challenge him?’”
During his debut stint on Naked and Afraid XL, Wright made TV history as the first contestant to hunt wild game on the series, taking down a nearly 100-pound wild boar with his custom-made knife and bow and arrow. A seasoned hunter and primitive-skills practitioner, Wright runs a survival school, Extreme Instinct, in Lakewood, and makes custom knives and tools. He was in his element in the Amazon, and it wasn't surprising that he quickly became the pack leader.
"They even told me then that they didn’t think it was enough of a challenge for me because I killed a pig,” recalls Wright.
But the Amazon did end up getting the better of him. Halfway through the forty-day challenge, he contracted necrotizing fasciitis as flesh-eating bacteria gnawed away at his toes, with no plans to stop. Wright was forced to tap out or risk his life, and he was devastated.
For the current season of Naked and Afraid XL: All-Stars, twelve contestants from previous years were sent in pairs to different spots around the desolate, drought-stricken Selati River Basin in the northwest horn of South Africa. Under the show's rules, they were allowed to take a satchel, a pot and two items of their choice; they were also equipped with a necklace with an embedded microphone. Wright, the thirteenth contestant, was dropped off miles away, all on his lonesome, with the option to search for the others.
One camera person would come up for about a half-day, but other than that, Wright says he mostly filmed himself, starring in his own sub series, Naked and Afraid XL: Savage, on the web. “Not only will they have to survive the unforgiving desert temperature swing,” the narrator of that web series says of the dozen other contestants, "they're going to be tested by some of the most dangerous predators in the world. But this time there is one predator they didn’t even know to prepare for: Matt Wright.”
Even before Wright received his invitation to go to Africa, three All-Star contestants had asked him to make custom tools that they could take on the show. “I know all of this is going on, and I’m frustrated that I’m not going,” recalls Wright. “I was just sitting there in the house, and I’ve just been kind of bummed for a month or so making these items, not being able to go myself. I was just bummed about it. All of a sudden, I got a phone call.”
It was an executive producer of the show, asking Wright if he wanted to be the first contestant to go solo. But there was a kicker: He had to leave for Africa just six days later.
With the producer still on the phone, Wright looked at his wife, Brooke Benham, who was sitting on the couch, and said, loudly: “You want me to go, by myself in Africa, and I leave next Tuesday?”
Benham quickly agreed that he should go. “It was no question,” she remembers. “It was an immediate, 'Yes, you have to do this, this is going to haunt you if you don’t.' This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take advantage of.”
After Wright got off the phone with the producer, he realized how little time there was to get ready, when most contestants had already had a month or two. In preparation for the Amazon, Wright had gone on barefoot runs to toughen up his feet, visited tanning booths so he wouldn’t suffer sunburn, and researched the landscape. This time he had just six days to get everything in order before going off the grid for forty days and forty nights.
A week later, a camera crew dropped him off on a barren plateau, and Wright quickly got to work. He found his source of water: a murky, thirty-foot-wide puddle. It was clearly a drinking hole for local wildlife, because it was surrounded by feces. Wright set up camp, building a protective barrier, or boma, constructed out of thorny branches, and started boiling water.
“I’m watching this water, and it’s just green broth coming off the top of it,” recalls Wright. “It smelled exactly like the National Western Stock Show. It tasted exactly like you would imagine. It tasted like if you would run water through a cattle stall and then drink it.” Still, Wright had to drink about a gallon of that a day in order to get by.
He soon set up a small blind by the watering hole so that he could watch animals coming in. On the fourth day, he killed an impala, a medium-sized antelope common in Africa, with the homemade bow and arrow that counted as one of the items he could bring with him. The other item he'd brought from home was a homemade knife that he'd dubbed the "naked not afraid" knife.
After a kill, to celebrate the warrior spirit, Wright always starts by taking a bite of the uncooked heart. Then he eats the other organs and tenderloin. Nothing is wasted: The hide is cured, the bones are boiled in water and cracked open for the nutrient-rich marrow, and Wright spins the tendons into cord, later attaching a thorn or carved bone to the line in order to fish. Wright hangs the rest of the meat in a tree to sun-dry into biltong, the African word for jerky.
On the sixth day, Wright killed another impala. He had so much meat that he built what he calls a “meat boma,” hanging his biltong in a tree wrapped in thorny bushes. He urinated a circle around the tree to let his furry neighbors know that the cache was his. Still, at night he’d hear panthers and hyenas come up and pull on the branches. One night he finally jumped up and yelled, scaring them off.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘Ah, they wouldn’t let you get hurt on the show,’” says Wright, but he notes that “there is no way they could protect us." Contestants have a radio they can use to call for help, but Wright points out that he probably wouldn't have time to do that if he were being attacked by a leopard.
Wright eventually brought the meat into his personal boma; while he knew it might pose a greater risk to have it close to him, he thought he could better protect his food. Soon he didn't have to, though: The animals had started recognizing the territory as his and wouldn't come close. To test this, Wright left some raw meat near his camp one night. The next day, it was still there. There were paw prints coming as close as 100 feet to his structure, but then they turned in another direction.
Other than the incredible temperature swings from day to night, Wright says he was living a life of luxury, well-fed and always working on something. At one point, he was eating so much protein that he started lifting logs in his campsite to build muscle.
An adventurer, he didn’t want to just stay holed up in the boma, so he’d venture off to observe other wild animals, including elephants, hippos, hyenas and crocodiles. One day he saw baboons rooting around for something in a tree; he followed their lead and found quail eggs that he paired with his impala meat. (Back in Lakewood, where he's limited about what he can say about the on-going series, Wright misses the taste of his kill; he says he’d gladly pay $50 for an impala steak.)
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By day thirteen — as seen in the last episode, which aired on May 19 — Wright has clothes, a small roof for his blind, two pairs of impala sandals, a thirty-inch catfish (he caught more but threw them back), and a warthog kill he dedicated to Benham. He's also taken to prowling the countryside, looking for signs of other contestants and critiquing their bomas.
He's gone "savage," as he puts it, but the human condition still remains: He wants company.
“Right now I’m eating so much that every night I feel like a lion with my stomach extended, just laying on its back— I am eating a lot,” says Wright. “So I thought I really need to share this with somebody, and that’s when I decided I’m going to start searching out the rest of the group.”
Naked and Afraid XL: All-Stars airs at 8 p.m. Sunday nights on the Discovery Channel. You can watch Wright in Naked and Afraid XL: Savage here on the web.