WORKING WITH THE DARIEN MACHETE BY EXPAT KNIVES
Anyone who knows the name ESEE Knives knows it is a hard-use, no-nonsense outfit that prides itself as an American-made knife and gear company. Expat Knives is a division of ESEE Knives.
Simply put, a die-hard, made-in-the-USA knife company like ESEE can offer quality knives from other regions of the world with the Expat series.
This means there will be different tools, designs, and collaborations made by top-notch manufacturers, some overseas, some in Latin America, and some in the USA.
The Darien Gap
It’s important to understand from where the name of this machete spawned to be able to get into the spirit of the Darien Machete. Unknown to most, the Darien Gap is a remote, roadless swath of jungle on the border between Panama and Colombia.
Because it is known as a drug smuggling corridor between the two countries, outsiders rarely see it. It is a mysterious land full of exotic plants, rare wildlife, indigenous people, and dangerous paramilitary groups. One of the least visited places on the planet, the Darien has an almost mythical quality and is largely untouched by the modern world.
The Expat Darien Machete features a Micarta handle for extended-use comfort and a 12.38-inch blade. The overall length is 18.18 inches and is a full-tang constructed piece of steel with a maximum thickness of 3/32-inch. The blade features 1075 steel construction made in El Salvador.
Unlike most commercially bought machetes, the Darien comes standard with a convex edge. It weighs just 15.5 ounces and comes standard with a rugged, tan-colored canvas sheath.
Another feature that comes to light when seeing the Darien is that it isn’t a typical unsharpened, Latin American-style pattern with a slight upswept tip. It is not a straight-bladed design, either. I am partial to big knives and choppers found in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
The Darien looks like a Bolo knife from the Philippines, as it has a wider front end and narrows towards the handle. In addition, the handle has a drop towards the butt for an extra bit of reach with an angle. Blades from these regions are usually in the 1-pound range, and the Darien sits comfortably at 15.5 ounces.
A big knife like the Darien was made for chopping and slicing, especially with the 3/32-inch blade. I stayed in Georgia with my good friend, Patrick Rollins, lead instructor of Randall’s Adventure & Training. He had a long-standing lean-to shelter that would need a face-lift every year. We gathered long, straight poles ranging from broomstick to wrist thickness as support bars for the ailing shelter.
The comfort of the Darien was apparent within a few swings. Thin offshoots from the poles were easily sliced off with a short, controlled wrist flick.
One to three chops were all that was needed for the wrist-thick green poles. The convex edge didn’t stick as much as a hollow or V-grind, which is why every authentic Parang, Bolo, Kukri, and Golok comes standard with a convex grind.
Stakes needed to be made for my tarp and hammock combo. I usually make stakes on the long side to give me the most options and help keep the lines visible, so nobody trips on the cord. I like making stakes with a long blade over a smaller fixed-blade knife or hatchet-style chopper—it seems more natural and effortless. I favor a chisel end for harder ground, which works equally well on soft ground.
I select the straightest part of the stick with little to no knots for the end that will go into the ground. I give the stick an extremely steep chop to make the chisel end and the top as close to a 90-degree as possible. About an inch down from the 90-degree (top), I give the stick a light chop that will serve as my stop cut for the notch.
I use the machete like I would a smaller knife and turn it sideways for carving (chest-lever grip) the seven-notch, using the blade part closest to the handle. This is where the maximum control is, and where the blade is narrower, like a smaller bushcraft blade.
Using the exact grip, I flip the stick over and chamfer the ends at the 90-degree, which will be hammered into the ground, or I could lightly chop them using a chopping surface. This technique is quickly done by rotating the wood after every angled chop until good enough. The broad, flat blade of the Darien can be used to hammer the stake in or at least get it started before a baton or rock can drive it into the ground.
A lean-to made of debris involves a lot of clean-up, hence the name “debris shelter.” We had a rake that was on its way out and needed a new handle.
We chopped a long, straight piece of cedar and trimmed it with the Darien, then used the sharp spine to help scrape the bark off for a cleaner look and feel. Rake repairmen we were not, but it turned out great and was a fun project.
As the spring and summer rains were looming, a bamboo roof was needed for the work table. This job required measuring and cutting exact lengths of bamboo and then splitting them. The Darien did the splitting and trimmed all the extra offshoots that could be sharp and dangerous. We used a baton for a great deal of the splitting to easily break through the rigid nodes.
For the last several years, I’ve been fortunate to travel and learn from jungle programs abroad. I encountered bamboo during a jungle survival class I attended at the J.E.S.T. (Jungle Environment Survival Training) Camp in the Philippines.
The camp has a rich history that dates back to the early days of the Vietnam War and is where the United States military trained before being deployed. The instructors were absolute masters working with bamboo and their big-bladed tools.
I had to rely on my memory and old photos when reproducing many of the bamboo implements I had learned several years back. Patrick told me about a thicket of bamboo he gained access to not far from his house.
I was eager to take advantage of the nice patch of bamboo I had the privilege of working with in Georgia rather than hopping a flight of several hours to Southeast Asia to use some.
We were building up his camp in the woods, and having bamboo would add a whole new dimension to the construction. Bamboo also has impressive cooking capabilities of which we wanted to take advantage.
The first bamboo cooking project needed a green section about the size of my hand to elbow tip. I made an angled chop (perpendicular) a few inches from the node and a second chop a few inches above it to get started. I lightly pried the blade by turning my wrist counterclockwise with the blade still lodged in the second cut until the top (lid) popped out, revealing a chamber for cooking.
Turning the work over and inserting the blade at the start of the second cut, I sliced it down a few inches to the node. This is where the top (lid) will be slid in to hold in place and act as a closure point for the cover when cooking rice.
To cook rice, fill half the chamber with rice and the entire chamber with water, making sure to shake from side to side to even out the rice before placing it over the fire. Done correctly, 20 to 25 minutes later, you have cooked rice. Getting it out is another ordeal. At one end of the cooking chamber, make three angled chops.
Insert the long blade close to the top chamber surface at the opposite end. Slowly pry as if slicing with a drawknife. When the blade meets up with the three chops, it will come free; you may need a few cuts to disconnect any possible bamboo stragglers.
I made a bamboo steamer propped up with a Y-stick holding it in place. We cut the pieces we needed with a saw, then joined a thinner piece (with holes poked in the node) placing it over a larger under-piece, end to end.
The bottom boiled water, and the steam entered the upper chamber, cooking the fish and vegetables we had inside. The top was capped with a larger piece of bamboo over the top as a lid. It worked out pretty good.
To open the steamer up to retrieve the food, I used the Darien in the same way as with the rice cooker, chopping one end, then slicing the top off to present the food.
Making a bamboo omelet was an easy task for the Darien. I took a length of thin, green bamboo and chopped a V-cut at a steep angle, close to each node, then simply stuck the tip of the Darien into one side and pried the top out.
This is a widely used way to make a cooking container from bamboo. Using the Darien as a large kitchen knife, which felt natural using the large belly, I prepared the vegetables.
IT CAN HACK
The fourth offering of the ESEE Knives Expat Series can definitely hack it. From brush trimming, shelter pole chopping, bamboo splitting, and carving to kitchen duties, the Darien is versatile. Easily transitioning to kitchen knife duties, hammering and flattening garlic, nuts, and meat, the Darien can do it all without weighing you down on your next adventure.
KNOW YOUR MACHETES
A very generic term for a long-bladed knife meant for chopping is a machete. Various cultures worldwide have their version and unique name, style, pattern, and origins behind them. Generally, a machete is an agricultural tool that wears many hats.
It chops wood, ice, coconuts, brush, vines, bamboo, and is also used as a butcher knife. They are known to be thin and made of carbon steel, often associated with the tropics and jungle environments. The Latin pattern, Panga, and cane knife
are a few types.
On the other end of the spectrum, long blades that do almost all the same tasks in Southeast Asia are generally shorter and thicker than the conventional machete. Such blades are known as Parangs (Malaysia), E-Nep (Thailand), Bolo (Philippines), and Golok (Indonesia).
They have a convex edge and are meant for denser, harder wood and bamboo. Thin machetes bind and lack the splitting/wedging effect of a Southeast Asian blade.
ESEE Expat Darien Machete
Overall Length: 18.18 inches
Blade Length: 12.38 inches
Maximum Thickness: 0.094 inch
Blade Steel: 1075 carbon, 54-56 RC
Weight: 15.5 ounces (knife only); 20 ounces (knife and sheath)
Handle: Canvas Micarta
Origin: El Salvador
A version of this article first appeared in the December 2022 print issue of Knives Illustrated.