Adventures with survival experts

A select cohort of former military and special-forces reservists is reinventing the landscape of adventure travel, ratcheting up the thrill factor and exclusivity with meticulously planned “who dares” itineraries. Alice B-B reports

A campsite in the Hang Son Doong cave, part of a Henry Cookson Adventures trip to Vietnam
A campsite in the Hang Son Doong cave, part of a Henry Cookson Adventures trip to Vietnam | Image: Ryan Deboodt

Norway – the Arctic Circle. I am surrounded by a pack of wolves. They’re howling, leaping up at me, sniffing me up and down; a couple actually lick my mouth. I’m petrified, but the rule is firm: I can’t push them away, because to do so suggests confrontation. The only reason I’m at all confident that I won’t perish is because a sometime polar explorer called Henry Cookson is right beside me.

It’s unlikely you’ve heard of Henry Cookson, but he’s part of a seismic change happening in the way some people travel – a way that increasingly includes exploration, thrown recently into the spotlight when Barack Obama tapped the adventurist, television presenter and former SAS Regiment reservist Bear Grylls to teach him survival skills while in Alaska (and sealed it with a selfie). For the multitudes who grew up transfixed by David Attenborough documentaries, the once theoretical desire to see the majestic phenomena of the natural world first-hand has converted to real demand. Into this market space are stepping real-life adventurers whose derring-do populates our bookshelves and TV screens – and whose enterprise is helping them switch up their formidable experience and skills into unique and highly lucrative star roles as travel fixers.

Bear Grylls hangs onto a helicopter
Bear Grylls hangs onto a helicopter | Image: Bear Grylls Ventures

Henry Cookson got in early, having clocked this thirst for adventure travel just over 10 years ago. A former “overweight banker” (his own words), he has not one but two polar world records under his belt: the first, the 2005 Scott Dunn race to the Magnetic North Pole, which he entered on a whim, part of a team he described as “a bunch of buffoons” who, thanks to a combination of naïvety, tent-erecting proficiency and downright British bluster, completed the race in just under nine-and-a-half days – beating the previous record by two whole days, and whipping the other 17 teams. The second, in 2007, was an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for reaching the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility without mechanical means, by kite-skiing 1,770km over 48 days in search of a mythical bust of Lenin left by the Soviets in 1958.

Post-polar trips, Cookson was deluged with offers to buckle his swashes live on television. Instead, after a respite, he chose guiding, and created Henry Cookson Adventures, a travel company building and delivering truly bespoke, imaginative, unique itineraries in extraordinary places that start at six figures for a small group.

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Alongside Cookson are a number of British adventurers who’ve also begun to service this rarefied slice of the travel market. Monty Halls, a former Royal Marine, runs trips to see whales, sharks, dolphins, seals and penguins gather for the mass feeding frenzy around the sardine baitball phenomenon off the coast of South Africa, from £10,000 for two weeks. Another former Royal Marine, Sean Nelson, recently formed Nelson Expeditions, which offers off-the-mapexcursions with a philanthropic bent, starting from $500 per person per night. “Wherever possible, these logistically complex trips, from Mongolia to central Africa and Brazil, expose clients to issues from elephant poaching to the plight of endangered jaguars in the Pantanal,” says Nelson.

There’s even a starry element, with opportunities for expeditions with celebrity adventurers, including Ben Fogle. And for the cool starting price of £110,000, you can re-enact Grylls’ Running Wild on a 24-hour survival course in the UK – getting to meet the man himself and receive a film of your endeavours shot and edited by the show’s production company – via Mantis Extreme.

Crossing a remote Afghan river with Secret Compass
Crossing a remote Afghan river with Secret Compass | Image: Secret Compass/Ginny Dobson

Interestingly, the common (khaki-coloured) thread uniting this spool of modern explorers is, in almost every case, a military background. “No one does it better,” says Justin Packshaw, formerly in the Royal Dragoon Guards, by way of explanation. Packshaw has been to both North and South Poles, summited Everest (along its tougher northeast ridge), sailed round the world, and continues to work closely with the army raising awareness and money for wounded soldiers (while also co-owning a fashion brand with his wife, Tamsin de Roemer, and speaking to businesses all over the world on leadership and “the science of achievement”). “Decisions made on the spur of the moment need to be balanced, contemplated, level-headed.” He adds, “Under firefight you can’t crumble.”

Also living for years with daily adrenaline peaks, Thomas Bodkin was an officer in the Parachute Regiment – specifically 1 Para, the support regiment for the Special Forces. Bodkin was never going to acclimate post-army to a desk job; instead, he founded Secret Compass with Levison Wood, a fellow Para best known for his Channel 4 documentary Walking the Himalayas (though Wood is no longer involved). Secret Compass runs 12 group expeditions a year to almost wholly off‑grid places: past itineraries include trekking to the source of a remote river in northern Afghanistan, mountain biking through Kyrgyzstan and packrafting through Sierra Leone. “Clients give us a brief and we’ll come up with something that fits,” explains Bodkin (bespoke trips start at £15,000 per person). Recently, a couple wanted “Epic in East Africa”, so a scheme to trek and whitewater-raft down a river in Ethiopia was planned. “No one had actually rafted the river before,” says Bodkin. “The water level might have been too high, or too low. We were hedging our bets that it was going to work – it did.” But that grey space of uncertainty is also the attraction: “When you’re doing something exploratory, a sense of adventure and fluidity is part of the experience.” And should things deviate suddenly from the predicted, that’s when the army training is deployed. “As the old military adage goes: no plan survives contact with the enemy,” he says. “We do take risks, especially doing new stuff. You have to think on your feet, change and adapt. That’s the reality of working in remote places.”

A close encounter with a shark during the annual sardine run off the coast of South Africa, on a Monty Halls trip
A close encounter with a shark during the annual sardine run off the coast of South Africa, on a Monty Halls trip | Image: Rainer Schimpf

And this appeals to his clients? “Absolutely,” Bodkin says. For many, adventure travel that provides a definitive departure from the acute stresses of high-pressure careers is the goal – more “relaxing” than any beach scenario. “We took five financiers to Madagascar, climbed a mountain, cut our own route through the jungle and made the first raft descent of a pretty hairy river,” he says. “We were sleeping in hammocks, carrying kit ourselves, eating dehydrated rations or stuff bought from locals. It was… quite tough,” he allows with a grin, “but they wanted hard work, with just the basics: food, shelter, warmth. At the end they were thrilled – one said to me, ‘Christ – we didn’t think about work for 10 days!’”

Calum Morrison, who runs The Extraordinary Adventure Club, will often throw in unexpected luxury on his trips. “My clients will do days on a motorbike in the Gobi Desert, sleeping wherever they can find shelter from the wind. Then suddenly they will come across yurts with fantastic beds, hot showers and a Japanese-trained massage therapist,” he says. “It’s about recalibrating from the excess that might characterise their lives. When you take away water, it becomes a luxury; when you’ve only had cold water, hot water becomes a treat.”

An Oman beach camp with Nelson Expeditions
An Oman beach camp with Nelson Expeditions | Image: Andrew Shaylor

For Morrison, it’s the immediacy of new and unexpected situations that enables his clients to effect meaningful change in their lives. An officer in the Royal Marines for eight years, he’s worked in some of the most non-permissive areas in the world in very hostile times – Bosnia in 1994, Afghanistan in 2002, Somalia in 2010, Libya in 2011. Between war zones, Morrison launched his club for people seeking to “develop themselves”. For £150,000 upwards, you can sign up for a six-month engagement period that includes two two-week expeditions, four four-day retreats and weekly follow-up mentoring sessions. The initial retreat, in the Scottish Highlands, includes a fitness assessment, psychological profiling and a night alfresco with Morrison in the wilds. “It’s about talking through what they’ve come to me for, and how they want their life to look,” he explains. At some point, an envelope is delivered to the client, with a kit list and meeting coordinates, and documents to be opened in the airport. “It might be Guyana, or the Arctic, or Mongolia,” says Morrison. “The point is for them to let go of control and be totally engaged in what they’re doing. It’s about dislocating expectation.”

Cookson, unlike some of his peers, has a slim military CV; but within his eponymous company, that’s more than made up for by COO Geordie Mackay-Lewis, who completed two tours of Afghanistan in the Household Cavalry. (Cookson had a scholarship for Sandhurst, but decided on a different career post-university.) His extensive polar experience and sheer determination, which he considers the keys to the company’s success, more than compensate. (After 52 days’ kite-skiing during the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility expedition, his three teammates chose to get some well-deserved rest in their tents; Cookson spent the following two days unearthing a sub-snow-level hut said to have been left by the Soviets. When he finally reached the hut’s door, it was padlocked, and despite all attempts at breaking it, it held firm. “So of course I’m going back,” he says, smiling through his beard.)

Justin Packshaw off the Antarctic Peninsula
Justin Packshaw off the Antarctic Peninsula | Image: Bertrand Delapierre

I witness this Duracell-level energy first-hand in Norway. The schedule is flab-free. “Often our clients are time poor, so I try to pack it all in,” says Cookson. “Transport is mostly private jet, helicopter and private yachts, and we make the travel part of the experience.” We’ve been up since dawn, and the day has included spotting sea eagles, dry-suit diving in the freezing sea and visiting a private art gallery in a former caviar factory. As night falls, we speed through the Lofoten archipelago on a quest to see the Northern Lights. We meet Cookson’s Aurora Borealis expert, who texts updates on the best spots. Just as we arrive at our home for the night – a series of upcycled fishing huts at the mouth of a fjord – pow: they appear. I stand for hours watching the otherworldly green flames lick the night sky above the haunting mountains. Then, like theatre curtains, the clouds appear and the show is over. It’s well past midnight; I’m utterly exhausted and ready to hit the sack. Not so Cookson; he proclaims his intent to “go hard on the lights”, and hunkers down. When I awake at dawn, he’s been up all night.

Cookson’s quick thinking is as evident, and impressive, as his doggedness. On the last morning of the trip, the scheduled paragliding is cancelled due to a too-strong wind. He disappears and returns 10 minutes later with two flotation suits and the keys to a speedboat. “I’ve got a secret beach just the other side of this mountain,” he says, pointing to a map on his laptop. We zip across the fjord, hike up the hill, and there unfurling before us lies a wide sandy beach surrounded by lofty peaks. While I’m calmly taking in the view, Cookson’s thinking along adrenaline lines. “That would make great abseiling,” he says, indicating a sheer rock face opposite us.

Zip lining in Nevada with Bear Grylls Survival Academy
Zip lining in Nevada with Bear Grylls Survival Academy | Image: Bear Grylls Survival Academy

This kind of scenario is manna for Cookson – and his clients. “Blank areas on a map or curious corners of the earth – those are places I want to go and discover.” And when, in May, Cookson leads a financier on a kite‑skiing trek from the southernmost to the northeasternmost point of the Greenland ice cap – 2,800km over 45 days – there will be the possibility of unearthing a long-lost secret. “There’s an undiscovered cairn that was left by Peary,” he says of American explorer Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909. “We’ve been working with a researcher, as Peary originally left the wrong coordinates. But it could be exciting because when you leave a cairn… you leave a note,” Cookson says, eyes twinkling. “And that adds an extra dynamic.”

While discretion is paramount and future itineraries are held close to his chest (because “there’s less and less stuff that is totally unique and new”), some of Cookson’s recent trips have included caving in Vietnam, an off-the-grid birthday celebration in Namibia and a family trip to the Antarctic on a superyacht furnished with two helicopters, two submarines, zorbs for rolling on the sea and two photographers – one of them a National Geographic/BBC Natural History Unit photographer/cameraman. It cost a seven-figure sum and delivered a world first: “They were the first private submersible to go under the Antarctic ice,” says Mackay-Lewis.

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Alongside jungle warfare, knife-edge mountaineering and desert skills, Mackay-Lewis also brings meticulous planning abilities honed throughout his military career. “Attention to detail is second to none in every aspect of every trip,” he explains. “From which helicopter you need in the jungle to which of the charter yachts is actually equipped for the Antarctic and can fit two submarines on the back. I’ve spent the past 10 years seeing how things can go wrong, including losing soldiers in Afghanistan. So I wouldn’t let a client leave unless every single scenario has been imagined and every possible risk calculated and accounted for.”

It’s an assurance you want, when signing on to push boundaries into uncharted territory. “In the army, snap decisions just become second nature,” Mackay-Lewis says, before he heads into London’s urban jungle for a covert meet with one of the world’s greatest shark experts.

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