12 June, 2019

We’re all very safe and organised in the way that we live our lives nowadays. But in his monthly Flash Pack column, adventurer Ed Stafford makes the case for risk-taking as a vital element of growth

Toddlers, kittens and young animals across the world use play to learn. Play is a mock version of real life and helps prepare us for what lies ahead. It hones skills and it teaches tactics – it has a clear positive role in juvenile development. But there comes a day in every kid’s life when the toys get boring and too childish and they are ready for a new phase of learning. For that new phase to manifest you have to add one vital, somewhat contentious ingredient. Welcome to the rather edgy world of risk.

Channelling the power of risk

Walking the Amazon with Ed Stafford

Play + Risk = Adventure. Now you have a framework for learning that is unbounded. The stakes are higher for a start – climb a tree and there is now a consequence to getting it wrong. Pain, injury or worse become important motivators that ensure we are focused. These motivators seem negative at first but if you think about it, they add an interest that will never get childish and will allow a person to continue to develop throughout their whole life. Who can resist the seductive lure of danger?

Read more: Ed Stafford on the lessons learnt from solo travel

Danger is exciting in a similar way that gambling provides a rush. Except I would argue that this thrill is healthy for you as it pushes you towards excellence. You are certainly not playing any more if the risk assessment includes potentially fatal activities that you calmly acknowledge, knowing that you still plan to conduct them.

There is something about the thrill of being in a situation where you are forced to use every ounce of wit to get out of it. Danger drags us kicking and screaming into an advanced classroom of life where one can develop skills that will set you apart as an adult.

Perseverance, determination, and hard work are the qualities fleshed out by a long tough endurance feat, but route that same feat through an area of drugs traffickers and hostile tribes and you begin to develop more subtle skills: persuasion, ingenuity, containment, and even charm become weapons that could keep you alive.

Danger as a tool for growth

Reading in the Amazon © Pete McBride

Whilst walking the Peruvian section of the Amazon, I think it would be fair to say there were many dangers. On entering Pichari, the gateway to the infamous “Red Zone”, I had no permits to walk through this lawless area. The Red Zone is the drugs trafficking area that I’d been warned by the Peruvian consulate to avoid entering. They could not guarantee my safety, but the headwaters of the Amazon flow straight through it so it was always going to be part of my route.

But how do you play such a scenario when the national police force can’t even enter without a gun fight kicking off? I’d been told several times that if I stumbled across a drugs processing plant that I’d simply disappear – never to be seen again. So where should I start?

Read more: Why taking risks is the key to success

My gut feeling was that trying to sneak through would make me look suspicious, and so I decided to go to the camouflaged bunker that housed the Rhonderos (the drugs traffickers’ own self-appointed policing force) and told them what I was doing. I looked them in the eye, stood with open palms, and tried to pitch my demeanour somewhere between respectful and confident (despite being not feeling either emotion).

If I was too bold, too arrogant, I would be swiped away by these all powerful men as an irritant that could cause them problems. They were the big piranhas in this little pond that I needed to cross. If I was too meek and showed fear I could have been laughed out of the building and sent back the way I’d come. Nuances were everything and I was constantly reading faces and body language in order to adapt my own accordingly.

Learning to rely on your instincts

Ed Stafford in the Amazon

I wasn’t 100% honest either I have to admit. I knew there had been at least three expeditions before me in kayaks over the last decade. This set a precedent of sorts, and so I told the Rhonderos that I was kayaking (I did have a small inflatable Alpacka raft with me for crossing the river). The sweaty, overweight and self-important man just grunted and wrote me a permit to conduct an expedition through the entire Red Zone. He forgot to mention kayaks in the document luckily, and so my permit had no such restrictions.

Read more: Ed Stafford’s strategies on how to face fear

I would be able to be the first person ever to walk through the area where two-third’s of the world’s cocaine is grown, and I had the official permission of the drug lords themselves. Time to allow my pulse to slow down a little then.

What course or class could have taught me the skills required to deal with situations like this? I would argue that, despite being trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for a year (leadership and military studies) even that didn’t scratch the surface compared to being thrown in the deep end and knowing that my very life was at risk if I made the slightest error of judgement.

No more playing safe 

Ed Stafford

At a less extreme level the reason expeditions are so much fun is that plans go wrong and logistics fail. You are constantly forced to adapt and overcome problems. This teaches resourcefulness, flexibility, and how to think outside the box. It also encourages a robust sense of humour as otherwise you’d be pulling you hair out and head-butting trees every time a local guide didn’t show up or a boat you hired was double booked.

Read more: Feel the fear with these 6 daredevil challenges

The truth is that we live in such manicured and organised lives that real problems that need practical solutions don’t present themselves as often as they might. Even if problems in everyday life do occur they can usually be fixed by Googling a man who can fix it and paying him some money. That’s not living – that’s outsourcing your very validity as a human being.

We don’t learn much if we repeat the same things day in day out. We don’t learn much if we know we are safe and the consequences are trivial. So drag your grey life into glorious technicolour and go on an adventure. One that you know will be tough, that scares you a little, and potentially you may fail at. It will be an unparalleled fast-track in your personal development and set you on course to become the very best version of you.


Take more risks with these game-changing escapes

Push your boundaries and become your best self

Smash your comfort zone in South Africa

Abseiling in South Africa

Abseil down Table Mountain in Cape Town, learn how to surf, paddle-board the Cape Peninsula and swim with seals. Adventure beckons from every angle on this soul-stirring escape to South Africa’s Garden Route and the Eastern Cape.

All aboard

Salute a brave new world in Colombia

Tubing down Palomino River in Colombia

Raise a glass to Colombia’s recent and vibrant rebirth in this intoxicating corner of the world. Tube down Palomino River in the heart of the jungle wilderness, kayak across the Guatapé reservoir and take part in a riotous local game involving gunpowder and beer in the capital Bogotá.

Let’s get going

Stretch your limits in Jordan

Jeeping in Jordan

Canyon through the valley riverbed of the mighty Wadi Mujib, with towering ravines either side. Then hike a back-door route to the Rose Red City of Petra, jeep across the desert and glamp out in the Wadi Rum with a sunrise camel ride.

Adventure awaits

Images: Flash Pack, Shutterstock, Ed Stafford, Pete McBride, Keith Ducatel, James Hall

Read more

A little lagom: four ways to find more balance in your life

Read more

Ed Stafford: Travelling without your family is tough – but so important

Read more

Behold the world's finest airline food

Read more