panama-boat

This article appears in Volume 25: The Pioneer Issue.

A new wave of adventures into the extreme unknown are seeing travellers journey into their deepest selves.

From your seat in the helicopter, the Pearl Islands of Panama appear as if painted on a postcard. Rich jungle interiors framed by flaxen sand give way to cerulean water. This is Eden, you think… until the engine falters. Forced to make an emergency jump into the sea, you scramble ashore, visions of utopia floating away with the surf. You’re stranded, Robinson Crusoe-style. Rescue is days away. Until then any hope of food, water or shelter rests on your sun-beaten shoulders.

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Sound like your ideal getaway? Didn’t think so. Yet this experience, offered by extreme adventure agency Bushmasters, is symptomatic of a shift in the way we think about travel. Gone are cut trails, luxury lodges and high-speed internet. In this Desert Island course you’re taught the basics needed to survive before going it alone. You must make seawater drinkable, source food, start a fire, improvise shelter and make use of wreckage from the feigned helicopter crash. You’ll deal with the psychological effects of isolation too – and bugs. Lots of them.

Former British Army officer Ian Craddock founded Bushmasters to fill a void for those yearning for an exciting, extreme and remote experience. “Be warned: it is not intended for people who want to waltz into the jungle or desert,” he says. “Our trips are designed for those willing to push themselves.” Of course, travel that tests our physical and mental limits is no new phenomenon. Explorers have long braved inhospitable landscapes to chart new territory. Ultra-marathons are getting ever more extreme – on one seven-day, non-stop, 400km race across the Gobi Desert runners face wild dogs, a 3,000m mountain and temperatures spanning -20°C to 30°C. Astronauts signed up to the 2024 Mars One mission have no return ticket.

The difference is that it’s now more than just the lionhearted few willing to venture beyond their comfort zone. Our love of survival stories – from Homer’s Odyssey to The Hunger Games and Bear Grylls’ The Island – is being translated into reality by travel companies with real-life adventurers at the helm. Those with enough mettle – and money – can brand cattle with vaqueros in the Guyanese savannahs, join West Bank locals for knafeh, trek with nomads across the Sudanese desert or snow kite across the Antarctic ice plains.

“Survivacations” are in vogue. But why? Are we not under enough pressure in our daily lives? How can we fight the flames of burnout by increasing our vulnerability? The answer is twofold. Firstly, the motivations behind adventure travel are shifting. A 2005 survey by the Adventure Trade Travel Association found that notions of “risk” and “danger” appealed to adventure travellers.

Yet when their pulse was taken again in 2017, it was the concepts of transformation, learning and expanded horizons that got hearts beating. Personal fulfilment is the new aspiration. As travel becomes a conduit for self-actualisation, so the goal of extreme adventure is shifting towards enriching the internal lives of travellers as they explore outwardly.

“Life is to be experienced,” says Alvaro Cerezo, the founder of Docastaway, which strands clients on some of the world’s last uncharted islands. His escapades are less about survival than unadulterated seclusion, hence why they vary in levels of intensity. In Comfort Mode guests stay in luxury lodgings and eco-resorts across the Philippines and Indonesia, and even in Survival Mode, more akin to a true castaway experience, additional provisions are on offer, be they modern camping equipment or cooked meals. The Docastaway team constantly monitors guests’ safety, albeit from afar. “The goal is to allow castaways to not see people for one, two, three weeks. In isolation, you get to know yourself better. Once you know yourself better, you live better.”

Another string to the bow of extreme travel, according to psychologist Sabine Sonnentag, is that it makes for a truly restorative vacation. She defines four pillars necessary for an effective holiday: relaxation, control, mastery experiences and mental detachment from work. While it may seem counterintuitive, survivor-esque experiences tick these boxes in a way that lying on a beach with an Aperol spritz never could.

In our age of 24/7 connectivity, the temptation to check in is ingrained. A study by Accountemps found that 62 per cent of workers aged 18 to 34 check in with the office while on annual leave. “Disconnecting while travelling has never been harder,” explains Tom Marchant, the co-founder of Black Tomato, an award-winning creator of bespoke, immersive itineraries that span from Antarctica to the pathless wilds of Borneo. “The most meaningful changes happen when normality is taken out of the equation.” That’s why the company’s pioneering Get Lost service places travellers in a remote, unknown territory, with a few survival supplies and a map dotted with check-in points. The rest is up to them.

Replacing the stresses of high-pressure life with trials of endurance and intellect may seem like fighting fire with fire, but there’s nothing quite like having to find food and shelter to make your inbox pale into insignificance. There’s less care for who has climbed the highest mountain than what one returns having learned. Stepping outside our technological bubble, physical challenges engage our minds and motor skills in a way no screen can match. “In a world that rarely tests or pushes us in this way, just knowing you can is a major boost to self-esteem and confidence,” says Craddock, whose clients undergo intensive survival training before braving the wild.

For record-breaking traveller Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent, extreme travel is an opportunity to explore untold stories. Her company Silk Road Adventures offers expeditions across remote areas of Tajikistan, Palestine, Pakistan and more, each designed to expand people’s cultural awareness. “It’s a really hard sell,” she says. “The ‘-stan’ suffix has a connotation of danger – it’s always seen through the negative prism of the news.” She recalls one American guest who quit her job and married another traveller after a life-changing motorbike trip across Afghanistan. Meanwhile, many visitors to the West Bank have become passionate about the Palestinian cause. “People’s eyes are opened,” Bolingbroke-Kent enthuses. “Our guests return home as ambassadors, spreading positivity about places with a high-risk image. It’s an antidote to all the negative media.”

Effects that linger post-travel give survivications their transformational edge over a purely experiential journey. Michael Bennett, co-founder of the Transformational Travel Council, has written a thesis examining the elements of adventure travel that lead to deep personal revolution. He identifies a “hero’s journey” in which travellers venture into the unknown, face extraordinary challenges, learn from meaningful actions and reconnect with themselves, ultimately changing their lives upon their return home.

Knowledge. Broadened perspectives. Personal growth. Travel has become more extreme not because we crave danger, but because of the life-affirming opportunities it offers. Only by radically departing from the everyday can we cast of its excesses and recalibrate. Survivications are the travel industry’s answer to a psychologist’s couch. We may overcome challenges posed by the earth’s unknown corners, but the greatest journey is the one towards ourselves.

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