Lying on a beach or mooching through a museum not your idea of a fun holiday? Maybe it’s because you crave the transforming challenge of adventure. Ditch your comfort zone, push through barriers or do something that scares you, to feel infinitely more alive Writer Catharine Nicol
“Seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is a fundamental behavioural tendency in humans and animals,” says Bianca Wittmann of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London. “It makes sense to try new options as they may prove advantageous in the long run.”
Over and above the new and unfamiliar, risk-taking is important too, within reason. “Risky behavior has its moments where it’s valuable,” says Karl Deisseroth, professor of psychiatry, bioengineering and behavioural sciences at Stanford University. “As a species, we wouldn’t have come as far as we have without it.”
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We are hardwired for adventure and have dopamine to thank for that. The ‘motivation molecule’ neurotranmitter fuels both the motivation to do a task and the satisfaction of achieving it. Exercise, enough sleep and meditation can increase our levels of dopamine and a craving for the next adventure.
Adrenaline is released when we face something stressful, exciting or dangerous, and it causes the fight or flight reaction, as well as increased heart rate, brain speed, strength and focus, and decreased pain, designed for a speedy escape. Risk-takers can become addicted to this rush.
The ‘high’ we feel is created by the release of endorphins, produced by the nervous system especially post-adventure or risk, as well as after exercise, volunteering, meditation, yoga and laughing. And with a return to safety comes relief, serenity and self-affirmation. The journey can feel intense physically, give us a boost mentally and even veer into the realm of the spiritual.
Even if we’re not innnate risk-takers, our brains are elastic, so as we become more experienced and skilled our comfort zone expands, and we become increasingly comfortable taking risks.
Epic treks mix culture and nature, fitness and adventure, testing your physical and mental strength. Peaks and achievements bring intense feelings of accomplishment, sunrises and sunsets a bit of visual magic. In Asia, start easy with Indonesia’s Mount Bromo (2,329m), Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China or Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu (4,095m). Move on to India’s Ladakh Range for multi-day hikes, or go European and follow the charming and ancient Camino Way. The ultimate, for laymen, is of course making it to Everest base camp.
Weekend warriors are increasingly adding a marathon to their bucket list of challenges, even choosing their next holiday according to the global marathon calendar. Rather than joining a ballot for big races like London or New York, combine running and a wishlist destination: there’s the Pyongyang Marathon in North Korea (April), Great Wall Marathon in China (May), Midnight Sun Marathon in Norway (June), Patagonian International Marathon (September) or the Loch Ness Marathon in Scotland (October).
Mountain biking around Asia steps up the distances you can cover, maintains the physical challenge of strenuous uphills and downhills, and keeps you up close and personal with the life and culture going on around you.
SpiceRoads offers road bike trips that explore Chiang Mai in Thailand, the Ho Chi Minh Highway or Saigon to Angkor in Vietnam, plus tours in Hokkaido and Sri Lanka. Or go epic with their expeditions along the Karakoram Highway, to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Bikeaways offers 10-day bike trips through Bhutan, passing through tiny villages, visiting locals and taking in cultural gems like Tiger’s Nest.
Become one with the ocean by learning to surf. Komune Resort & Beach Club Bali is set with front-row views of the famous Keramas surf break and their Eat Play Surf five-night programme combines surf lessons, yoga and massage. Also in Bali, Anantara Uluwatu Bali Resort coaches guests on the local Impossible Beach breaks. In the Maldives, Niyama Private Island is a luxury surf resort with an in-house pro Surf Dude. Beginners to advanced can test their skills on nearby Kasabu, Hocus Pocus and Vodi breaks.
Imagine 10 days of kayaking over stunning reefs to secluded beaches, around stilted villages and past wildlife (including the dragons), on the Komodo Sea Kayaking Adventure by Pioneer Expeditions. Head south to Tasmania with Roaring 40s Kayaking for three- or seven-day expeditions from Bathurst Harbour for sheltered camping, coastal paddles in the freshest air far from manmade roads or settlements. Or decamp far north for a 24/7 daylight Arctic summer of kayaking between icebergs and walrus, while learning about the Innuit culture, organised by Wildfoot.
Were you spellbound by the freediving adventures of Enzo and Jacques during epic movie The Big Blue? Freediving allows you to spend time under water, no equipment, no noise –– total liberation. It’s the ultimate way to explore the ocean but takes some doing, following courses in relaxation, breathing and theory. Freedive Gili on Gili Trawangan holds courses with different levels taking you from beginner to instructor levels. On Koh Tao in Thailand, Crystal Freediving offer the various levels of Padi Freediver from basic to master and instructor.
Stringing up all over the world, ziplines allow you to soar through the air, soak up the views and adrenaline boost. At Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia, the route to the tented camp includes two zipwire trips over treetops and rivers to the Landing Zone Bar, before check-in, where a cocktail awaits. In Laos, the Gibbon Experience is a treehouse resort with zipwires instead of paths, and plenty of options for spotting gibbons.
At Six Senses Zighy Bay, guests can decide whether to arrive by 4x4, speedboat or tandem paraglider soaring high over the rugged mountainous land, coastline and sandy beach of the northern Musandam Peninsula in Oman. Previously in Nepal, but now in Spain, Scott Mason of Skywings Falconry developed parahawking, which is paragliding with rescued and trained birds of prey. It’s a spectacular experience to fly with hawks or vultures circling before they land on your arm, peck a piece of meat from your hand and swoop back into the air.
Join a winter expedition with Wim Hof, aka The Iceman, incorporating breathing and visualisation to withstand the cold. Hiking in shorts and T-shirts in the snow and comfortably dipping into icy water, brings an avalanche of healthy consequences—like minimising stress and maximising sporting performance —and takes you far outside your comfort zone.
It’s mainstream, and available in every resort worth its wellness salt these days, but amp it up with a silent retreat for a serious inner journey. Seven days is good, try Tushita Nepal with calming views of the World Peace Pagoda. Ten is better, and challengingly austere, at Wat Suan Mokkh Intentational Dharma Hermitage in Thailand. Or head to the Osho Mystery School in India, where you can join the 40 Days in Search of Yourself programme.
Pioneer Expeditions’ North Pole Helicopter Trip zips you to a place that few have visited. Once there ski, dive or skydive over the North Pole. Alternatively, go Genghis Khan for an expedition in Mongolia. Their Warrior Training includes riding, shooting with a bow and arrow, learning the great warrior’s battle techniques while staying in a ger. And there’s also fishing, bear viewing, dog-sled racing and photography holidays in Alaska with Real Adventures.