When was the last time you were well and truly out of your comfort zone? I can recall mine clearly: northern Mozambique, several years ago; a two-night diversion from a planned travel itinerary to a remote eco-lodge, miles away from anything, run by a sweet but feckless couple who seemed far too young for the job. The first night I was the camp’s sole guest – the only person on a pitch-dark, kilometre-and-a-half-long stretch of beach (this was not long after a tragic murder-kidnapping at a similar lodge in northern Kenya), in a banda with screen walls, a loose latch on the door and a host of diabolical-looking creatures called whip-tail spiders scurrying in the eaves. The second night, a group of South African oil speculators arrived from Pemba. All men in their 40s and 50s, they drank prodigiously at dinner, their covert glances my way devolving into frank, too-long stares as the evening progressed; even the staff seemed afraid of them.
To this day I’m not sure which of the two situations was more unnerving. What I am sure of, however, is that I grew to be glad of the experience. Moments of real discomfort (get me out of here) came up hard against circumstance (you’re stuck in this place), and I had to deal with it. Now I see its value: it was unexpected and scary, but also edifying.
That travel has always had this power is axiomatic. Now a handful of adventure-travel operators is leveraging that axiom to their and their clients’ benefit. With contact networks that cross scientific and spiritual communities, governments, militaries and even remote tribal societies, combined with unparalleled geographical expertise and access, these specialists are crafting experiences that are profoundly physically or psychologically challenging, combining people and places to put them into confrontation with their fears, their angst, their big life questions. The goals can vary: to surmount professional or personal obstacles, to address an addiction or disorder, or reclaim a sense of direction or meaning in life. Call it Experiential Self-Realisation; call it Extreme Life Coaching. But whatever the moniker, it’s now big business.
A fair bit of that business, not surprisingly, comes from men and women who have achieved great success professionally, with the resulting net worth – and the entitlement, and possibly control issues – to show for it. “Our clients either come to us knowing exactly what they want, because that’s how they became as successful as they are – or they feel they’ve done everything, in which case they’re often dealing with a real lack of purpose or direction,” says Geordie Mackay-Lewis, a director of Pelorus, a high-end adventure and yacht-expedition company he co-founded with partner Jimmy Carroll in late 2017. Mackay-Lewis is eminently qualified to speak to this trend: his CV includes two tours of Afghanistan as a captain in the British Army, a senior role at a European company and several years co-managing another high-end adventure travel operator. “What we aim to do is give them that purpose back, which often means taking them far away from everything they know,” Mackay-Lewis continues. “It can be harrowing, but our appreciation rates are high. We get, ‘That was quite a rough night in that jungle in the middle of nowhere, on my own with no reception’ or whatever it was – ‘but it was amazing!’”
One of Mackay-Lewis’s more successful templates in these cases (though each is tailored to the client) is one he calls Unknown. Friends, family, PAs are interviewed about the client – interests and proclivities, but also issues and phobias. Due diligence on health and fitness is done, and a surprise itinerary crafted. One group were dropped in the Middle East thinking they were going somewhere else entirely. They were told at short notice what each day entailed: navigating on their own from Jerusalem across the desert to the Jordanian border; abseiling in Wadi Rum (because a couple of the clients suffered from a fear of heights). “Through all these experiences they were coming up against obstacles, fears, frustration.” But the payoff, he says, is real: “They regain a sense of achievement. Some of them had never camped in the desert; most had never navigated with a map and compass,” he notes. Mackay-Lewis shadowed the expedition for its duration, though he can arrange for clients to go solo (tracked remotely, with helicopters on standby to facilitate aid, if necessary). And if one of them, in exhaustion – or just a fit of pique – had thrown a strop and demanded out? The brief is clear: “For a lot of clients, being told ‘no’ is not something they’re used to; it’s way outside their comfort zone,” he says. They know the deal: barring a genuine medical issue, “we only get to the end of this by you doing what you have to do – I’m not doing it for you.”
“I think you need to understand what someone needs to be stripped of as much as what needs building up,” says Tom Barber, director of Original Travel. He’s a believer in engaging his clients with elemental human experiences, something he calls “rewind” travel: places, environments and societies where survival skills of the less extreme, but no less instructive, variety can be accessed – animal husbandry, navigating by stars, foraging for food and medicine. He will send clients to the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, for instance, to shadow Zu’hoasi bushmen for a week, during which rites of initiation are held; or into Transylvania to spend days with a cowherd – in the mountains, well out of signal range, with a genuine threat of wolves and bears. “At the end of each day, they wander down from the hills and the cows peel off to their respective barns, where they are milked by hand. This is the way it’s happened every evening for hundreds of years and it gives real perspective on contemporary problems.”
Multidisciplinary teams are a feature of this phenomenon: the top operators enlist spiritual practitioners, psychologists and therapists, life or motivational coaches – even actors, artists and performers. Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell, director at Cazenove+Loyd, created a several-weeks-long itinerary across India for a longtime client who, feeling existentially at sea after a serious health crisis, wanted to examine his spirituality – virgin territory for him. Wilmot-Sitwell arranged for him to spend several weeks touring northern India on foot in the company of a retired Buddhist monk. “The idea was basically life detox and spiritual reengagement,” says Wilmot-Sitwell. “He overnighted in some lovely places – private homestays – but I also did quite a bit of fixing in monasteries.” The client was taught meditation; he practised with a yogi, who was sent in occasionally; but the monk’s focus was to school him above all in how to switch off. “It was a completely different physical, mental and intellectual environment for him – but it was all about him. The contract was: let’s pare it all down, so he can see what he is and commence building it up again.”
Harry Hastings, managing director of Plan South America, has a sought-after life coach with whom he regularly collaborates on experiences. Together they consider the challenges and benefits of various climates, environments and indigenous communities across the continent, calibrating for the specific needs of each case. A recent experience for a client confronting addiction issues involved several days living with the Sápara tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon, accompanied by the life coach. They trekked in the jungle daily and swam in the Río Conambo. “She had her dreams interpreted by a shaman and participated in tribal rituals,” Hastings says. The experience concluded with a stay at a working hacienda in the highlands – “a completely different climate, culture, landscape. It’s cosy and comfortable; she was riding, observing conservation initiatives. But it was an ideal environment to process, with a different perspective, the jungle experience with her coach.”
Like most of the other experts I spoke to, Henry Cookson – the former banker, Guinness World Record holder (for reaching the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility without mechanical aid), and founder of Cookson Adventures – works regularly with family offices. He has planned elaborate bonding adventures for parents with children from whom they feel estranged, and self‑discovery experiences for young people set to inherit daunting responsibilities. “I work regularly with a guy who mentors the children of wealthy families. When there are perceived succession problems, say, he’s very skilled at guiding them to insights about their issues or feelings. He’s got the keys in place in terms of psychological and emotional care, which helps me take it to the next level with the adventure.” He sees the mentoring potential in the conservationists and philanthropists on the ground, too, occasionally fostering relationships between them and his clients. “I already consider that a conservation or community element will usually enhance awareness of the world beyond their own,” he says.
The person who has articulated this phenomenon in both the widest and deepest terms – and arguably its progenitor – is Calum Morrison, founder of the Extraordinary Adventure Club. Morrison works by personal recommendation only and proposes ongoing engagement as opposed to one-off experiences; one family has worked with him for five years. “It’s about getting your compass bearings again, identifying your values,” he says. “For many people, there’s a divergence between the life they’re living and those authentic bearings, and the greater the divergence, the more pain or lack of fulfilment they experience.” Every EAC client comes to the company’s base in Scotland for a four-day initial “retreat”: a sleeper train from London to Aberdeen, a drive across two rivers and through a forest to a place deep in the Highlands with no signal and a full support team. Physical and psychological assessments are taken, benchmarks provisionally indicated, and programmes created. Morrison uses what he calls the “Hollywood” team-constructing method – bespoke groupings that might include life coaches or scientists, entrepreneurs or dance instructors, actors or psychotherapists. There are no phones, no laptops, no connectivity, here or on the eventual adventure. “Transformation requires endeavour,” Morrison notes. “You have to find the edge of your capabilities and push them out. That’s where we come in: to create programmes that stretch you. We can do it all over the globe, with a specific focus on your developmental imperative.”
Serious-sounding stuff. But the point is not to forbear enjoyment entirely. “We like the idea of a journey, or engaging with indigenous culture,” he says. “If there’s a personal-interest thread that can help pull someone through, great.” Thus, if desert and antiquities came up as passions in one client’s assessment, Morrison might dispatch them to Sudan to get the deep work done; if another always fantasised about a motorcycle journey, the Mongolian steppes might figure. “But ultimately, the travel is a lever to create change,” Morrison says. “It doesn’t really matter where you take them. It’s about what happens when you’re there.”