The best meal Matt Wright ever ate was in the Amazon jungle, and it lasted him about four days.
The main course was a ninety-pound jungle pig that Wright, a Lakewood resident, hunted with his handmade bow and arrow on the Discovery Channel's reality show Naked and Afraid XL, the spin-off of Naked and Afraid, which premiered in 2013. He was the first contestant to successfully hunt big game on either series.
In the original Naked and Afraid, male and female contestants were paired up in some remote landscape. Each contestant was given a satchel and a personal camera for intimate monologues, and was allowed to bring one helpful item, like a knife or hatchet. Together the teammates tried to survive off the land, finding food and water and making shelter, for 21 days. If they tapped out, they lost.
And they were naked. Teammates met naked and survived naked while a small camera crew followed them but didn't help unless a contestant's life depended on it. (Despite being dropped in the middle of nowhere, being naked seems to be one of the bigger challenges for contestants. This Naked video shows how awkward it is to meet naked and try to maintain eye contact.)
Wright was in the 2016 season of Naked and Afraid, which took place in Thailand, and chosen for the 2017 season of Naked and Afraid XL, which brought back six men and six women from previous challenges and organized them into teams of three. The show premiered on Sunday, April 23, and showed the contestants once again plopped in the middle of a treacherous climate — in this case, the Amazon basin of Ecuador — where they had to survive for forty days and forty nights.
A Colorado native, Wright grew up in the mountains, hunting and exploring. He harvested his first elk at age twelve and started guiding hunts at fifteen. After a baseball scholarship, a couple years of college and some interesting jobs, he landed back in Colorado to launch his own survival business in 2005. At 24, he took a break to join the Air Force. After two years in special operations, he was discharged for a back injury and returned to his business. Now 32, Wright is the owner and operator of Lakewood-based Extreme Instinct LLC, which offers survival classes and weaponry he makes himself. Between his skills and extensive hunting experience, Wright was a perfect fit for Naked and Afraid.
In this round, the participants were again naked except for a satchel, a necklace with a mic in it, a pot for water and two useful items they could bring from home; Wright took a handmade knife and a bow and arrow. Since the show is still running, Wright can't talk about everything that happened in the Amazon (though he clearly survived). But he still has some stories to share.
One involves his big score. Several days into living in the Amazon, Wright and his remaining teammate (the third tapped out early) were living off hearts of palm and the occasional tarantula, locust or handful of minnows. Wright was suffering from hundreds of bug bites, which had given him a 104-degree fever. Meanwhile, he was trying to find something decent to eat in the middle of nowhere. "For me, I'm a hunter. So I don't like to be hungry," Wright says.
Wright and his teammate heard pigs near their campsite. Wright took his bow and arrow, and his teammate grabbed a sharpened wooden stick, and they set off with the camera crew in tow. They found a herd of 50 to 100 pigs tromping around and quickly learned that when spooked, jungle pigs don't run away — they charge.
"What they love to do is charge you and then run away," says Wright. "So now what you have to do is climb a tree buck naked. I wouldn't suggest anybody have to climb trees with no branches buck naked...you just have to bear-hug a tree and hope it doesn't have thorns. That's the only way to hold on and get your feet off the ground so they don't bite you."
The first hunt was unsuccessful; Wright got off a few shots but his noisy entourage didn’t let him get close enough for a kill, especially with the density of a jungle landscape. So Wright asked the production crew for a GoPro camera and some extra batteries so that he could trek off into the jungle on his own. "That's when things got wild," he explains.
An hour into his first solo hunt, a howler monkey started throwing feces at him, but contestants aren't allowed to hunt monkeys or any other endangered animals, so Wright went on. Then he got stuck between a Ferdelance and a Bushmaster snake, two highly venomous and aggressive snakes with very distinct smells. He gave up the hunt and went back to camp, where he and his teammate caught small fish by shaking termites out of their mounds into the river, then casting a net over the fish that surfaced. (One time when Wright was pulling a net from the river, a piranha bit a chunk out of his side.)
But Wright wanted meat, and he soon headed back out on what ended up being a seven-hour hunting trip. He followed tracks and wallows, eventually stumbling on a herd that he startled with a snap when he secured fresh batteries in his GoPro. A boar charged him; close behind was the rest of the pack of more than fifty wild jungle pigs. Wright lunged at one, which scared it off to the right; the rest of the herd followed. Wright pulled out his bow and hit one of the passing hogs; he then hugged a tree in hopes the hogs would keep running past him. All but one did.
With his handmade knife in one hand and his bow — the string of which had just been snapped by razor grass — in the other, Wright confronted the beast. "It's this incredibly serious moment," he remembers. "But at the same time, I think I was probably laughing a little bit." The pig stood his ground about ten feet from Wright, clacking his canine-looking teeth when it stopped breathing, a sure sign it was about to charge. Backed up against the thorny tree, "I had nowhere to go, nowhere to run, and I was like, there it is, this is the moment," he recalls. "I had every adrenaline in my entire body built up, and now it was me or him. If I had to fight him, I knew I had to give it my all, and at that point I'm looking at him and I'm like, I can take him, I can take this bastard."
Then the pig charged. Wright lunged and let out a noise that apparently scared the pig away. It scared him, too. "I guess that's the noise I make when I'm about to fight a jungle pig," he says.
About twenty minutes had passed since he hit the first pig, and Wright now followed the blood trail. He found his arrow and pools of blood covered in fire ants. The closer he got to the pig, the more he realized that every biting insect in the Amazon had gotten a taste of hog blood and were now attacking him with every step he took.
When he finally found the pig he'd hit, it was covered with all the insects of the Amazon, from fire ants to wasps to beetles, trying to get their fair share. Wright swatted the tiny beasts off, turned on the GoPro camera and thanked his father and then his wife, whom he'd proposed to when he was in Thailand for the 2016 season of Naked and Afraid. He also voiced his frustration with the camera crew that had survival gear, snake boots and union-ordained breaks. Finally, Wright packed the pig's wounds with mud, threw the animals over his shoulders, and headed back to camp. He'd been gone so long that the camera crew had gone looking for him and found Wright with the pig hanging off his shoulders and dozens of ticks crawling on his hands. He didn’t care at that point; Wright remembers that he felt he was one with the Amazon.
He'd accomplished what he'd come to do.
Over the next four days (meat doesn't last long in the jungle), Wright and his teammate ate the whole ninety-pound pig after roasting it over the fire. "By the second day, we'd been eating all we can eat and we still hadn't even made a dent in it," remembers Wright. "So now it was eating out of not wanting it to go to waste."
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Wright ate the heart first and later the brains, tongue and eyeballs; those were part of the animal's spirit. He and his teammate sliced and smoked some of the pig like bacon; they each had racks of ribs to themselves, and they boiled the head and bones for stew. "That literally set us up," Wright says, adding that halfway through the challenge, "it's like we haven't even been surviving now, we have so much food, so much protein in our body, we can just reset the clock."
After that, Wright and his teammate moved so that they could explore the jungle a bit. Wright had become so engrossed in this primal living that he smelled what he was certain was a team of females. He led his teammate up a ridge, and sure enough, they found a two-woman team who hadn’t had much of anything to eat. Still energized from the pig, Wright and his teammate caught fish and small game for their newfound companions, and soon they were in a food coma, too.
"We set a new dynamic to that show," Wright recalls. "No more starving, no more suffering, just feasting like kings."
Catch Matt Wright on Naked and Afraid XL, which airs at 8 p.m. Sundays on the Discovery Channel.