5 Lessons I’ve Learnt About Adventure Travel

1) Be prepared

On the morning of my deep dive training it was wonderfully sunny. Cruising out to the dive site I sat on the top deck of our little vessel completely distracted by the scene around me. On the lower deck, other divers scrambled around assembling their equipment. We were advised that we’d be diving against a strong current. An interesting new challenge, but I wasn’t worried. As the final pre-dive call sounded, most others on board were already raring to go. I hastily checked my equipment before grabbing a mask and fins from the box. Quickly slipping into my BCD, I felt the weight of the tank on my back. I noticed that the strap on one of my fins was flimsy and that they were probably a few sizes to big, but by now everyone was dropping into the water. I pulled the elastic strap tightly and hoped for the best. Rolling over the side I experienced that familiar rush of bubbles as I re-emerged from the wash. With my first gentle kick I felt the strap on my fin come loose and my heart wrenched at the realisation. The dive leader signaled to descend and I immediately regretted my complacent decisions.

Preparation is part of the adventure. It’s sifting through guides, scribbling endless to-do lists and re-jigging your budget. Without preparation, a successful adventure becomes unlikely. People will argue that spontaneous travel is the epitome of adventure. But the act of spontaneity is only a wonderful concept when executed correctly. The notion that travelers take off into the wilderness guided by nothing but currents and the wind is wildly inaccurate. You need a plan, al be it a loose one. One which sets the right conditions for spontaneity and allows the time and money for unexpected turns of events. Nobody wants to stick to a rigid plan – this would steal the very soul from a traveler. Furthermore, the ability to use local knowledge to find an undiscovered market or stay an extra night in a place you stumbled across, are the very foundations on which adventure travel was built on. Taking the time and effort to be organised will ensure you miss no opportunities, soak in as much of the culture as you can, and experience the most rewarding adventures.   

2) Ask Questions.

As we descended into a darkening blue abyss, I realised the time for asking questions was over. I’d been too embarrassed to flag my issue on entering the water. It would have caused a halt to the dive and nobody wants to be that guy. I could already feel the increasing current tugging at my loose fine. I kicked subtly, straining my ankle to create an angle from which my foot could hold onto the fin. I was so disappointed with myself. Firstly, I hadn’t been more organised in selecting the right pair of fins, and secondly, I hadn’t flagged the potential problem earlier. A simple question could have found a simple solution, but now I’d never know.

Conversation is really the bread and butter of a traveler. But simple interactions such as ‘asking for directions’, ‘asking for the time’ or ‘where to get a good coffee’, are ceasing to exist. With the emergence of smartphones, which admittedly are more convenient, we are losing the ability to converse with other humans. It’s a crying shame because the ability to interact with complete strangers is the catalyst for breaking down barriers between cultures. Nothing will immerse you within another society like social interaction, it was once the bread and butter of a travelers mindset. Many times whilst trying to navigate a maze of Asian streets, I’ve asked a local for directions. In broken English they try their best to communicate, they wave their arms and point in every direction. More than likely you will walk away none the wiser, but you will have shared a moment with another person that you won’t forget in a hurry. And you can always check google maps afterwards! 

3) Don’t Panic.

As we descended, the current became stronger and my struggle increased. I divided my time by equalizing the pressure in my ears and attempting to reach the strap on my fins in the most ungraceful fashion. At around 30m we leveled out. We were still a fair way from the sea floor and skirted a sloping canyon engulfed in colourful coral. I class myself as a very strong swimmer but even I was struggling to contend with the current’s force as we swam against it. I kicked forcefully, the only way to keep moving in the right direction. But then, in one horrifying moment, I felt the strap snap. Before I could even react the fin was whisked away by the current and I watched it descend into darkness below. Kicking with one fin when diving against a strong current is very difficult. I immediately felt the strain, first on my legs and then, more worryingly, on my breathing. As my heart rate increased due to the effort I was exerting, I found myself literally sucking the air from my respirator, each breath a conscious effort. The harder I fought against the current, the more my heart rate increased and the more oxygen I needed. Unfortunately, my respirator simply couldn’t supply the oxygen I desperately needed fast enough. It was a terrifying cycle. If ever there was a sport or a hobby in which you need to relax to enjoy, scuba diving is it. Your kit is not built to deal with such situations. I knew this. Around me I could see the other divers in my group enjoying their dive. I tried in vein to attract their attention, but rather annoyingly I didn’t know the dive signal for,

“I’ve lost my fin and I can’t breath very well!”

I fell behind alarmingly fast and came to the realisation that this could end very badly! But panicking was not the answer, in fact panicking was making this situation considerably worse.

Things often go wrong, such is the way of the world. If we knew travel would be easy, would there be much point in doing it? We gain much more from difficult situations, in which we find reward at the end, than events which we cruise through with ease. But when challenges arise, the key is to keep your head. Think! What should I do next? How do I come out of this well? Part of the learning curve of a traveler is figuring out how to solve problems on your own. There often is no safety net to run home to, just your own instincts and inhibitions to rely upon. 

4) Find Enjoyment In Every Moment.

Still battling the vicious current I watched my oxygen levels deplete at an alarming rate. I was fighting desperately to slow down my breathing without falling further behind my dive group. Still no one had noticed that I was struggling. But it’s funny how the mind works. Whilst half of my brain was battling for survival, the other half became distracted by my surroundings. At the most opportune moment a small turtle gracefully glided past, evidently immune to the fierce current. I realised that my Go-pro was still filming in my hand and scrambled quickly to capture a few frames of the turtle as it sauntered by. The coral on the canyon walls was breathtaking, huge mushroom like structures dazzled with fluorescent colours. I was lost in an appreciation for where I was and what I was doing. By the time I realigned my focus to the problem at hand, I was much calmer and had slowed my breathing. This allowed me to think clearly, unaffected by the stress at hand. Kicking slower, I released air from my BCD and descended to swim closer to the sloping canyon. Here the current dissipated slightly and required less effort to swim against. Our dive leader noticed my slow descent, ironic considering he’d managed to miss my earlier frantic thrashing. He dropped back to join me and even through his mask I could see his horrified expression when I pointed to my fin-less foot. He checked my air and soon gathered the group together to begin our ascent to the surface.

Travel asserts the need for self-reliance, especially if you are traveling alone. You will undoubtedly face difficult situations but throwing in the towel and opting for blind panic will get you nowhere and leave you bitter. Even in the darkest and most difficult moments there will always be a bright light, something in your vicinity that will make you smile and provide a moment of welcome relief. It can often be as simple as a friendly face, a funny sign or an iconic sight. You have to find the piece of magic in every moment because once your lessons have been learnt those are the moments you’ll remember. 

A Welcome Distraction
A Welcome Distraction

Reflect and Learn 

Emerging from beneath the surface was an almighty relief. My oxygen was all but exhausted. But climbing back onto the boat I felt both embarrassed and guilty. My mistakes had cost the other divers precious dive time. As the boat made its way back to the pier, I sat and thought about what had happened. I’d come pretty close to disaster but had managed to scrape my way through it. I replayed the events in my head and reflected on what I should have done to avoid them. I realised that I should have been more proactive in my dive preparation by organising my kit as soon as I was on board to allow myself time to address any problems which might have arisen. But the most important lesson I took from this experience was that keeping a relatively cool head had got me through. I was pleased to discover that I was able to think and focus under pressure.

The beauty of travel is that for the most part you determine your own schedule. Finding the time to relive and reflect on your experiences is key to creating a rewarding adventure. Keeping a travel diary or writing a blog is a great way to organise your thoughts. When you’ve come out of a scrape, had a great experience or just done something you enjoyed, taking the time to relive that moment is a great way to reflect on what you’ve done. If it was a bad experience, you’ll now know how do avoid it. If it was a good experience, you’ll be able to focus on what made it good. Be it the kind local who helped you, the short conversation you had with a stranger or even the spectacular view you were treated to after a hard climb. Whatever the experience, good or bad, it is the lessons we take away from the experience which makes them priceless.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Liz says:

    My adventure level may not be at par just yet, but it was great reading about your adventures and your lessons from it. Definitely keeping an eye on this blog. Thanks for inspiring!

  2. Great advice learnt from dealing with a difficult dive. Trying to relax helps in so many travel situations and just that change in breathing and perspective can help you through a crisis. Thanks for sharing those lessons

  3. eostories says:

    I first saw the turtle photo and thought it was so beautiful! Now I can’t imagine it was taken under such circumstances wow. Very nice advice and lessons learned.

  4. lucy says:

    omg..I got anxious only by reading …and terrified by the fact that nobody actually saw your struggle..
    I’ve never tried scuba dive before but I already learned a lesson, interesting post!! thanks!
    Anyway I think it must be difficult to keep calm or a cool head when you’re underwater…

  5. Mia says:

    Yes, I couldn’t agree more with your lessons! I’ve had to use each one of these during my travels. I had a sobbing melt down in front of the train station in Florence, Italy and my husband made me giggle to lighten the mood. It was all I needed to realize that even though I was crying, I was crying in ITALY!!!

  6. Sarah says:

    Great post! I’ve never tried Scuba diving but I think it’s really interesting that you simply cannot get too nervous. I’ll learn how to dive this fall and will try to think of the lessons you learned 🙂

  7. NextStopAbroad.com says:

    Nice summary! I absolutely agree with the smart planning of your tips 🙂 I do not like a rigid schedule either, however being informed in advance is a must for me. If you you want to check out my adventures, please follow me at http://www.nextstopabroad.com
    Happy traveling!

    1. Matt Hilton says:

      Thanks! I’ll be sure to check out your site! Happy travels!

  8. Penny says:

    A good piece of advice for all of us. Thanks once again Matt for a great article

  9. daveply says:

    All good points. Diving in particular doesn’t leave much room for poor planning and rewards a cool head. I like the way you’ve transferred those lessons to travel in general.

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