Meet the stone age man for the modern age
JOHN Plant stands in a shaft of sunlight. He's emerged from the forest, dappled with shadow, at a point where a creek line intersects a bitumen road, in the mountainous folds of what used to be Gondwanaland.
He's silent, shirtless and intense. Stockily-built, muscular, clad only in a pair of cargo pants, his pale skin appears to gleam in the glare of the sunbeam.
It's like I've just spotted a unicorn. This enigmatic man, with his dark-eyed gaze and film star James Franco-looks, has become a mythical figure to millions worldwide through his YouTube channel Primitive Technology.
The unlikely internet cult superstar has 9.83 million followers. He makes videos that show how to make things in the wild completely from scratch, using no modern tools or materials.
Plant never speaks in the videos. His silence is, perhaps, his most alluring quality in a shouty world of white noise and online traffic.
It's just him in the forest. Like a glimpse of Neolithic Man, he can be seen skilfully and stoically going about his task. He is relatable and he shows how things were done in a pre-language past. Man lights fire, chips a stone axe, builds shelter, makes a kiln, shapes pottery, collects water, burns charcoal, grows yams.
Not a word. Just the sounds of the forest, the clear piping of birds, the rush of a breeze through the trees, and the snap, crackle and pop of burning wood.
There's a rhythmical, meditative, three-tap melody as a stone-axe cuts into a favourite building material, a northern olive tree.
"Thwack, thwack, thwack" rings the chopping noise, man vs the elements, echoing into the ether.
His piece de resistance, the tiled-roof hut, built high on a ridge line of the jungle-clad mountain above us, took 102 days to make because of unseasonal torrential rain.
That video has had 66 million views.
Plant has a canny routine where he doesn't look at the video camera, as if not to acknowledge our presence. Like a gruff old man in a workshop, we're allowed in, but not to be seen or heard.
But we're there, en masse.
In the past four years, he's had more than 700 million views, with his viral channel, averaging five million views a video. In YouTube terms that roughly equates to about $700,000 cash - paid out at a rate of about $1000 for every million views. The 37-year-old creator and craftsman has just banked his first million.
He's also sponsored on Patreon, a US crowd-funding platform, where fans and patrons pay to help him create his monthly video content, which earns him about $7000 a month.
There's almost as much genius in the simplicity of his business model as there is in his bushcraft.
So, who is the man behind the mystery?
All of this success has built a fan base clamouring for some details about the private life and real world of the undisputed megastar of the primitive technology universe.
From Robinson Crusoe 300 years ago to Bear Grylls: Man vs. Wild, the idea of surviving alone in the wilderness still captures the imagination.
That's why I'm here. Standing at the edge of the rainforest in a suburb in the backblocks of Cairns in far north Queensland, gazing at the human equivalent of a hairless yowie.
He turns, points back up the mountain stream, and I follow him into the jungle towards his bush camp.
For the first two years of his videos, Plant was anonymous. Tens of thousands of comments fill his home page. Some are hilarious one-liners.
"When are you going to build pyramids?" asks one.
"Legend has it he invented Minecraft," posts another.
"It's weird to think about this guy living his normal life … wearing a shirt, driving a car, going to his job … speaking."
Plant first came out of the forest into the light when I wrote about his complaint to Facebook in 2017 about how he was losing revenue because his videos were being shared without proper attribution. He said at the time one "stolen" video had cost him $39,000 alone because of lost traffic to his YouTube channel. Facebook didn't bother to respond.
I've been fascinated with him ever since but he's a reclusive character and I was keen to meet him in the flesh.
Now John Plant has written a book to diversify his skills. The book is called Primitive Technology: A Survivalist's Guide to Building Tools, Shelters & More in the Wild. It features 50 projects and step-by-step instructions on how to make tools, charcoal, shelter, a bow and arrow, a fish trap. Time has come for Plant to talk.
"You know when you're a kid, and you make up cubby houses, forts and huts and stuff in the bush?" Plant explains. "That's what I did, and just took it further."
I tell him if Armageddon comes, or a zombie apocalypse, with the end of human civilisation as we know it, he's on my team.
"Yeah," he chuckles. "Lots of people say that."
He makes no secret that he lives in a suburban house, eats a regular diet, and is completely self-taught from the internet with no military training or instruction by local Aborigines.
He still lives at home with his parents, retired high school teachers Lex and Lesley Plant. He has one sister, who lives in Brisbane with her two sons. Plant and his family are originally from Townsville but they moved to Cairns before he went to high school.
After completing a Bachelor of science at the James Cook University campus in Cairns, Plant worked a number of jobs including at a pottery shop, a powder coating factory, as an apprentice soil tester, and as a lawn mowing contractor. But in his spare moments he'd escape into the mountains behind where he still lives, working on projects that would become Primitive Technology.
He isn't married and doesn't have kids. But there is a girlfriend.
"She's from China. Out here working," Plant says, in his typically staccato way of talking.
He has the same economy of words as he does efficiency of effort on screen. "I met her through a mutual friend."
Was she a YouTube fan?
"Sort of, she kept saying she wanted to meet 'primitive man'. Kept bugging my friend, 'introduce me to primitive man'."
Did he play the strong, silent type when they met? "No. Not really."
His mother is one of his biggest fans.
"He certainly doesn't have any tickets on himself, he's very grounded about it all," Lesley Plant says. "It's all his own creativity, we've supported him and encouraged him all the way along."
Did she ever dream her hermit-like son's childhood fantasies would, one day, make him a cult icon for survivalists everywhere and be a million-dollar business?
"It's gobsmacking and unexpected," she says, from the kitchen of her immaculately clean, modern, white rendered brick home with manicured lawn and gardens outside.
"When he was young he'd often wander off into the bush. He and his mates did their own thing, making huts and forts. Most of the time he'd come home before sundown. You don't see kids doing that these days. They have too much screen time, too many organised activities, it's all music lessons and sporting clubs. Not as much on their own outdoors."
She tried to encourage Plant to take piano and tennis lessons, but he was happy doing what he was doing. She has a photo of Plant beside a stone-and-wood, thatched hut he built entirely by himself when he was about 14.
"We never imagined he'd make money out of his hobby. His first video was not monetised, it was just to share ideas; now it's a global phenomenon."
And yes, she says he chips in money for food and board. "There's no free ride here."
Plant used to climb high up the mountain, directly behind the family home, to build his projects. "It'd take a full day to hike up and work. I couldn't come back for food or anything. I lost a lot of weight, it was a hike to get up there, a lot of effort to get a hut built. It was a good workout," he says.
Where'd he get the skills?
"In the bush, just practising it. I read books, like the SAS Survival Handbook," he says.
"In that book they were using modern tools and materials, so I restricted myself to not using modern tools and materials. I'm just interested in bushcraft, making stuff from scratch."
Initially he bought a property at East Russell, south of Cairns, where he lived alone working on Primitive Technology. But the mosquitoes, midges, march flies, and the threat of crocodiles, proved too difficult even for a rugged bushman such as Plant.
He now works a short walk away, on a neighbour's old sugar plantation, at a hidden site where his huts, kilns, forge blower and pottery appear like a lost ancient village in the jungle.
He works solo, uses a Nikon D3200 handicam and tripod to film his segments, and edits alone at home.
He takes the photographer and me up there and when we arrive he hops around with glee.
"I feel a bit like Gollum in his lost goblin's cave at the roots of the Misty Mountains," Plant jokes. "This is my precious."
Mosquitoes swarm as we step into the dark of his latest project, a hut with a thatched palm- frond roof, after one mud-brick hut burnt down and another was washed away by flash flooding.
Within 30 seconds, Plant has rubbed two sticks together to make fire to try to smoke them out. It doesn't work overly well. Recent rain, and a burst of hot weather in the tropical north has brought the wretched insects out in force.
I ask how he copes with the discomforts of working in the north Queensland rainforest.
Plant shrugs: "It's not too bad. You've got to watch out for snakes, bush pigs, maybe a cassowary, there are spiders, bugs and mosquitoes. But you get used to it."
University of California lecturer Jennifer Kahn wrote an insightful piece about Plant's work in The New York Times in 2016, which captured the essence of his universal appeal.
"Primitive Technology acts as a quiet corrective, an escape from a surfeit of vanity and strife," Kahn wrote.
"Unlike most of the stuff thrown at us online (the narcissistic makeup tutorials, the angry news clips, the high-gloss cooking porn, the didactic home-repair instructionals), Primitive Technology doesn't chatter at you or otherwise demand your attention.
"Watching them, especially amid the clamour of YouTube, can feel like leaving a crowded party and stepping out into the cool night air."
Silence. No narration. Just vicarious action. Who'd have thought? Plant, in his raw, authentic manner, says it's about psychology and the brain.
"If you watch someone doing an action that is literally going straight into your head," he says.
He holds up a stone axe he made out of basalt using quartz crystal for hammer stones.
"You cross all barriers of language, culture and custom, it is universal and accessible to all. People use a different part of their brain when they don't hear language, because the language centre is turned off.
"So instead the mirror neurons switch on. They light up when you see someone else doing an action. They stop at the silence."
He also thinks it's a bit crazy to sit in the bush and talk to yourself - or a camera.
"It didn't feel right to talk. It just sounds weird. If you've ever spent a lot of time alone in the bush, just sat there and started talking to yourself, it just sounds crazy."
No sound, the minimal clothes, the simplicity, he fits the popular image of what a primitive survivalist might look like.
"I did that for continuity. I didn't want a different T-shirt every time. All my pants were the same. That's the reason I did it that way."
It also helps if you're a fit, strong Adonis of a bloke. Some of his female followers swoon over his bulging biceps and liken him to a jacked-up Jake Gyllenhaal.
"Damn. Can I get a shake with that meal?? Yes sir!" posted one fangirl.
Plant is coy about his popularity and claims he has been recognised in public just once, at a local swimming hole, but does work out to tone his jungle-bod. "I think I'd lose a bit of credibility if I was like really overweight. You've got to look like a savage caveman; there's not too many chocolate bars in the Stone Age."
Bushcraft Survival Australia instructor Gordon Dedman is another admirer of Plant's talents.
The 48-year-old ex-commando and survival instructor in the Australian Army has trained and taught with some of the world's top experts.
"Bushcraft is huge overseas, but in Australia it's a little-known word, even though it came from here," Dedman says. "John Plant is amazing. YouTube is the way forward, he's popularising bushcraft. It's massive in the UK and US.
"I know all the top guys, none of them come close to John. They've got maybe 900,000 followers online, but he's the best, the most popular, in the world by far."
He mentions Dave Canterbury's The Pathfinder School (US), Paul Kirtley's Frontier Bushcraft School (UK), Ray Mears' Woodlore Bushcraft School (UK), Lofty Wiseman's Trueways Survival School (UK), Bush Lore Australia Wilderness School (QLD) and Bob Cooper's Outback Survival School (WA).
"John Plant, he does not do any talking, it's all skill, he makes all that stuff himself," says Dedman. "He doesn't teach, the standard of what he does is excellent, he just shows stuff. It's like you are there with him, it blows me away.
"He's like the James Morrison of the (bushcraft) world; there are lots of trumpet players on the planet, but he's the exception to the rule."
Dedman says bushcrafters, primitive technologists and survivalists are not to be confused with doomsday preppers. "That (prepping) is a bit extreme, whether it's paranoia or what.
"There are also plenty of copycats and cannibals out there pretending to do what John does. They rip his stuff off, there's dozens of channels, a lot of rubbish, a lot of junk. Bear Grylls, too, is more about entertainment."
WHAT NEXT FOR PRIMITIVE TECHNOLOGY?
Plant holds up his tiny specks of iron, the size of a fingernail, the product of a three-hour process to smelt them out of slag.
"I literally did this yesterday, in the back yard, with a forge blower I invented," Plant says.
"Back in 1600BC, iron was worth 40 times its weight in silver, because that's how hard it was to make. Before that, people picked it up off the ground as meteorites. If I was in ancient Anatolia, I'd be pretty rich."
Not that he cares much for something as prosaic as money. He knocked back $500,000 from the Discovery Channel for a trip to the US to do a documentary and rights to his videos.
Elon Musk's Tesla PR division also offered to fly him to the US to film him building a hut from scratch in the Tesla factory, while they made space-age motor vehicles on the production line.
"I put that offer on hold. I've got a few projects I'm working on here at home. I'm working on my skill set. I've done a book. I'm looking at the possibility of a TV documentary show on the History Channel. It's smart to diversify.
"But I've just ticked over a million bucks in savings in the bank. How much money do you need to be happy?"