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Here be dragons: sink, swim, or just wait till it all blows over?

How you react in the face of peril can boil down to three choices. Instinctively panic and run about like a headless chicken. Hunker down and try to pretend it will all go away. Or go into action mode a la Hardy Boys, using resourcefulness and innovation to craft a way out. The question is how do you skip from the frying pan to the fire and away from the kitchen when faced with snakes or people-eating lizards? Some semi-practical thoughts to muse upon on a trip to the land of dragons.

I champion an Adventure Neuropsychology approach to inspire and motivate others in the face of adversity and the challenges of life. This draws on escapades I have experienced as well as observing those who prevail in adventurous predicaments to provide insight into the mindset necessary to thrive under stress. As well as a basis in cutting-edge neuroscientific research into how the brain operates in extreme environments to optimise performance.

“If the boat completely sank I’d be forced to swim across the lagoon and make landfall, where several dragons would be prowling around by the jetty and undergrowth...adventure means deviating from a sense of certainty and accepting that stuff goes wrong...there are consequences we need to prepare to face but to do so with a philosophical attitude."

A sinking feeling

I had a moment of consternation as the plane taxied off down the runway, being chased by a barking stray dog. A deafening silence, punctuated by my own thoughts: I hope this is the right island.

It’s not as if it was a small plane (Easyjet sized passenger jet).

Yet I was the only person to disembark. And there had been an unsettling occurrence back on the runway in Jakarta when they called out my name and summoned me to the cockpit just before take-off. And then summarily dismissed me back to my seat without explaining why. I think they were just checking I was there, given that they’d be dropping me off on some remote island before continuing on their merry way with the rest of the plane-ful of more local passengers.

Now I was left to ponder my next move, wary of the exuberant hound who’d failed to catch the large metallic ‘stick’ he’d been pursuing, and now turned his attentions to the pasty-complexioned humanoid idling by the terminal shack.

Being adventurous, as I tell people to be more of, entails a degree of uncertainty and risk. Thus, I concluded that if this was the wrong island somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, so be it, I’d figure something out.

[I had a similar internal debate in Guatemala a few years later when departing Mexico on a small motor boat without telling any authorities and getting on a ramshackle bus for several hours...but that’s another story. This stuff happens a lot when you throw caution to the wind.]

Fortunately, it turned out to be the right island. I was eventually greeted by a local on a moped who transported me to my lodgings for the evening, prior to rendez-vousing with my intended target: a boat I had chartered for the week, planning to explore the reefs and islands around Komodo.

The famed realm of beasts from a different time.

Here, truly, there be dragons.

The reputation of the Komodo dragon precedes it’s arrival. Heralding from the monitor lizard family, these critters grow up to 3m long and 300lbs. They have a nice habit of biting their prey and introducing septic bacteria into the bloodstream of whomever is unfortunate enough to be today’s lunch.

This means that they can bring down prey much larger than themselves (as can be witnessed on many a BBC wildlife documentary in glorious HD). That includes water buffalo. By taking opportunistic bites and watching, waiting, following, they can devour the weakened animal when it is worn down and incapacitated by the toxins in its system.

Naturally, all this tends to percolate in your mind when you are moored off an island that you have already established is full of the blighters, and the boat you are using as safe haven starts to sink.

The boat I had chartered was not quite as I had anticipated from previous dive-boat excursions in other parts of the world. It was junk. A heap of junk (not a resplendent Chinese vessel). Basically, a floating shed. Although even that descriptor does not do it justice.

On several occasions in the past few days whenever we anchored for the evening off some exotic coral reef and the engine turned off, the water would start to seep in and we would list. The crew (three teenage lads) would frantically scamper about trying to prime the pumps to balance the equilibrium and keep water at bay.

This evening, final one of the expedition, the pump wouldn’t start.

I contemplated this, oiled with a couple of bottles of Newcastle Brown which I had sourced to much joy from a kiosk on Rinca island that day (dodging dragons that just wander freely amidst the populace, occasionally taking chunks of them back to their nests a souvenirs).

Sometimes you just need to chill out and observe how events unfold. This is of course also something I bang the drum about to help people realise they can either get stressed, or they can step back and take a moment to consider the options.

My options were as follows:

  1. Run about panicking, shouting “we are all going to die!!!”

  2. Sit on the top shelf of my ramshackle bedding frame and quaff Newkie Broon till it all goes away

  3. Try and remember what the Hardy Boys would have done based on their groundbreaking Survival book (I read this formative tome when I was an excitable kid. I suspect it had significant influence on my proclivity for later adventures.)

Whilst mostly opting for 2. it has to be said a few things crossed my mind concerning 1. I had ‘faced off’ with a Komodo dragon earlier that afternoon (waving a pointy forked stick in it’s general direction as can be seen in the photo accompanying this article). If the boat completely sank I’d be forced to swim across the lagoon and make landfall, where several dragons would be prowling around by the jetty and undergrowth. I could emulate Roger Moore in Live and Let Die I suppose and try to tap dance my way over their hissing heads (but lacked a magnetic watch to assist me in this). This is more in the province of 3.

But then I remembered the poisonous water snakes and who knows what else languished in the murky waters, so it would be a gamble even to get to the jetty for the secondary fate. Back to option 1.

I can’t remember exactly what the principal learnings were from 3. Suffice to say it involved getting into perilous situations, recognising opportunities for challenge within these and demonstrating fortitude and ingenuity to prevail against the odds.

I suppose they were too young to be exposed to the fortifying effects of drinking Newcastle Broon in order to push the adventure envelope even further.

In the end I have to say with a sense of anticlimax, the boat didn’t sink as the pump whirred into action and righted itself, saving my merry band of comrades from a watery grave.

There were other lessons imparted by the voyage that preceded this incident, and in the interest of maintaining brevity I won’t expand here. Though it did involve actual sharks, a real threat of mortal peril in fearsome underwater currents and a desperate crawl to freedom across razor sharp coral.

I am sure I will expand in future installments!

The main message to be gleaned from this anecdote is that adventure means deviating from a sense of certainty and accepting that stuff goes wrong. That there are consequences we need to prepare to face but to do so with a philosophical attitude.

Taking a moment or two to consider what is going down and what the options are.

Rather than running about like a headless water buffalo.

I’ve kept the neuroscience to a minimum here, but will return shortly with some insights that help unpack what goes on when we confront challenging and stressful situations. In which we can choose to panic, or to thrive...

And importantly see opportunities we can act upon.

Next time when confronting a murderous relic of the dinosaurian age I'll hold the pointy stick the right way round.

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