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When Ellensburg resident Don Nguyen found out he was going to be on the popular docu-drama television show “Naked and Afraid,” he immediately began to do his research.

The self-proclaimed nerd spent hours going over the native plants, animals and people of Namibia, Africa. He bookmarked pages, highlighted sections, drew pictures and scribbled notes about edible plants in his notebooks.

He studied the way local tribes had traditionally survived and took note of hippo and Cape buffalo behavior. He also researched the environment during the different seasons of the year.

“I ordered around $500 worth of books from Amazon,” Nguyen said. “I focused on the hunters and gatherers that still live out there in the bush, edible plants, medicinal plants, the plants used by the natives during extreme famine.”

He wrote on his blog (, that he crammed all day and night to learn as much as he could for “the ultimate test.”

To physically prepare, he ran outside barefoot in the wet snow to try to “gain a few more callouses and quick footing.”

Nguyen, 29, is a rock climbing guide in Ellensburg. He spent 24 days filming in Namibia.

The TV show sends a man and a woman into an extreme location and challenges them to survive for 21 days naked in the wilderness. The selection process is competitive. Participants get $5,000 cash plus airfare to the filming location.

Nguyen originally was scheduled to be on the show for 21 days but his first partner dropped out on the second day after drinking contaminated water and getting sick. He started the challenge again with another partner who was sent home after about nine days due to an issue with one of her breast implants.

Special knife

The contestants are given the opportunity to bring an item and choose two or three items to use to help them survive. In Nguyen’s case, he brought a specially crafted knife and chose a kettle, and a fire starter.

The knife had to work as both a machete and as a fine edge knife, according to Nguyen’s blog. A local knife maker, José Diaz, adapted Nguyen’s Woodman’s Pal.

“I needed to find a knife maker so I walked over to his house,”Nguyen said. “That worked out and we became friends.”

Nguyen said Diaz wanted him to use a knife Diaz had already created but he didn’t feel comfortable using an unfamiliar tool on such short notice and in an unknown environment. Diaz said Nguyen found his website and asked him to adapt his knife to a grind style Diaz is familiar with called Scandi.

“It’s something you always want as some kind of visual representation for the work that you do,” Diaz said. “It was neat to see that someone put my work to practical use.”

Food for thought

During the show, Nguyen mostly lived off bugs and tart fruit that was high in vitamin C.

“You know that scene in ‘Lion King’ when they’re singing Hakuna Matata?” he said. “When they’re ripping up logs and eating every single weird bug in the logs? I ate every big fat grub and worm and multi-legged creature I could find.”

He said it was the first time he had ever eaten bugs but after about a week he started to recognize the good bugs and would “throw them into the fire and turn them crispy brown and eat them.”

He said they didn’t really show him eating bugs during the episode but the crew would often ask if he was sick of eating bugs or scared.

“I said, no, that was really good,” he said with a laugh.

Nguyen said the first real meal he had after he was done with the show was chicken and waffles.

“I said to myself what is the opposite of a vegetarian food,” he said. “Oh yeah, Southern cooking.”

The challenges

Nguyen said he suffered from hypothermia for a few days during the challenge because it rained so heavily at night and, as is clearly noted in the show’s title, he was mostly naked. Since he had no partner, there was no other person with whom to share body heat, and the fire he started was so low it didn’t keep him warm.

But there were good days, such as when he was hunting for fish one day at a nearby swamp.

“I looked up and it had rained seven days at that point and I think I had hypothermia,” he said. “There was a huge tunnel of clouds and at the top of the clouds was a patch of blue sky.

“And I looked down at the water and I could see the blue and how clear the water was. And the beautiful fish. And I could feel the mud between my toes. And I thought there’s never going to be a moment like this again.”

He said the moment was special and one of the most amazing things he had ever experienced.

He also said that being alone was a huge challenge for him. He wasn’t happy, particularly at the time, to have both of his partners leave the program.

More time in Africa

Despite the hardships, Africa made an impression on him. Nguyen said he spent an extra month with the people of Namibia to learn how they live and learn how to survive in different places around the world.

“Each skill just shows something about humans themselves and how different the skills we can collect and adapt depending on the environment we live in,” he said. “I feel my skills have increased, the one skill I brought back is being more positive and taking away that negativity in life and I feel that can still apply in this environment I’m in now.”

And now he gets to wear clothing.


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