There are footsteps outside my room and they’re getting louder. They could be made by anything or anyone. A curious local tribesman? A snuffling warthog? A big cat hungry for an easy meal? Suddenly alert, I roll out of bed and crouch on the floor, which feels strangely soft. Adrenalin pumps. My breathing increases. Where am I again? And why isn’t my machete on the nightstand?
It takes a couple of very deep breaths – just the thing for remaining calm in moments of high stress – to remind myself that I am actually in a very nice hotel room. The floor is soft because it’s carpeted and the only danger I’m in is the risk of missing the breakfast service. The feet outside my door become the excited voices of children headed for an early morning jump into the pool – which, except for inflatables, is crocodile-free.
Then I remember something else: the bed that I’ve woken up in is perhaps the comfiest I’ve slept in all year – a masterpiece of downy luxury with plump pillows and silken sheets. There’s time to jump back into it and enjoy that rarest of things (virtually extinct in my case): a lie-in.
Let me explain: a couple of days ago I was deep in the Kenyan bush, working on an anti-poaching ranger-training programme. My job was to prepare a group of incredible women and men, who put their lives on the line every day, to be able to protect endangered wildlife. Sleeping underneath canvas, and atop rocky scrub, we were surrounded by herds of elephants, lions and – most dangerous of all – buffalo, nicknamed ‘black death’ because they’re so grumpy.
I am a wilderness guide, survivalist and TV producer. Since the age of 17, I’ve been instructing people in climbing, mountaineering and bushcraft, and leading expeditions into the world’s most extreme environments. Traversing deserts? It’s a walk in the park. Climbing mountains? No big deal. Eating creepy crawlies just to stay alive? Pass me a spoon. On average, I spend just one month a year sleeping in my own bed. The rest I’m overseas, training and making some of the most recognised adventure shows on TV.
I’ve had every type of travel experience you can imagine, from driving through storms to scaling cliffs of ice. Except one. The adventure that has eluded me all my life. The challenge I’m yet to face up to. Going on a beach holiday – it’s my Everest.
That doesn’t mean using the hotel as a base for fitness training, or cycling or learning to windsurf (though you can do all these at the five-star Iberostar Selection Anthelia Tenerife, where I’m staying). It means sitting by the pool with a stack of trashy paperbacks and a chilled glass of wine, and simply relaxing.
But, when survival is usually your number-one concern, it’s strange having everything provided for you, all-inclusive. In the dining room, the animal within me once again rears its head. There’s a chocolate fondue fountain that I’m resisting the urge to stick my head into and sup from as if it’s some kind of sweet oasis in the Serengeti.
There have been times I’ve been dropped into environments with nothing but a machete and a medical pack, and had to live off what I could hunt or scavenge for myself and those in my care. In those scenarios, you cannot afford to be picky and the ‘grossness’ of eating bugs, lizards and snakes vanishes very quickly. With my mind trained to make the most of available food, it is hard not to go mad at the buffet. But, then again, shouldn’t a good holiday breakfast be wildly indulgent? I order extra eggs.
The thing I’m most nervous about is having nothing to do. I’m so used to having every moment of my day meticulously planned. So, to stop myself from climbing up the walls (literally – I brought my abseiling kit) and fiddling with my phone, I chat to everyone from the reception staff to the servers to the children’s entertainment monitors, who spend their days in tutus and face paint. They are all wonderful and I am in awe of them. I can understand why the people on the table next to me have been returning here every year for the past five years.
From the breakfast table I wander to the pool, where I intend to make myself at home for the next few days, while testing out this exciting new idea: relaxation. I sit on my lounger feeling distinctly uncomfortable. What do I do with my legs and my arms? Should I place my hands behind my head in the classic ‘aaah’ pose, or cross them in front of me on my lap to stop them fidgeting? It’s quite a relief when a smiling waiter brings me a coffee. Hiding behind my sunglasses, my hands now taken up with sipping, I admire those who look so at home on their loungers. In the pool, someone splashes atop an inflatable crocodile. It seems pretty small to me – the ones I’m used to dealing with are 5.5m long.
The sun is high and hot, but in the dappled shade of a palm, it’s perfect for reading and reflection. I think about the year I’ve had, the places I’ve been and the near misses in which I’ve only marginally kept myself out of trouble (pro tip: don’t accept a dinner invite from a remote tribe of Amazonian cannibals). I’ve not felt safer all year than I do right now, I realise, with a crisp glass of water beside me and a grand dinner on the horizon – where I’m not on the menu.
Five o’clock comes around surprisingly quickly and I head for my one appointment of the day – a massage. As the masseuse gets to work, I begin to question myself: is a five-star hotel the only place on Earth I feel out of place?
“Stop thinking,” the masseuse chides. She’s nailed it, I fleetingly decide, before she leaps on my back and her hands find the knots in my shoulders (carrying 20kg rucksacks full of rigging on a daily basis will tend to cause them). All thoughts vanish as she works along my spine, releasing with an audible ‘pop’ months of pent-up focus and determination.
Shelter, food, water, sleep and fire: the human priorities of survival. We think that in our modern world we have all these things on demand. The reality is that we may have access to meeting our basic needs, but our overwhelming lives and the constant stream of temptations thrown our way, in the form of fast food and connectivity, sets us up for failure. How often do we miss a meal to get the kids to school or, craving energy, turn to sugary snacks? How often do we find ourselves sitting in the evening too tired to go to bed, staring at the screen of a TV or our phone, mindlessly scrolling through social media or watching a show when we know we have an early start in the morning? I am guilty of all these things: my classic combo of a bag of Haribo and a coffee in an airport does not a proper breakfast make.
Here, in this hotel, all my needs are being met. The only stress I feel is self-induced. It’s the feeling of needing to be moving, the difficulty of switching off my awareness. The thing is, the part of our brain which acts and reacts on instinct – that triggers the fight, flight or freeze reaction (that feeling you get when someone jumps out at you) – is very old. It was one of the first parts of our brain to develop.
I don’t believe it has evolved to live in the modern world. It is an incredible survival mechanism – it has certainly kept me alive on numerous occasions, as it did our ancestors – but it was designed as a quick hit, not as something to always have switched on. Now, we struggle to differentiate between the stress of a speeding car hurtling towards us or coming face to face with a crocodile or seeing someone else’s ‘perfect’ life on social media.
Even a few days out of my hectic schedule was enough time for me to realise just how much I am not meeting my basic needs. Sleep in particular. My New Year’s resolution is to focus on fixing this: to realise it isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. We need time out from our busy lives to put things into perspective and to give the brain, which works so hard to protect us all the time, a much-needed and deserved break.
I can quite honestly say this is one of the most eye-opening trips I’ve ever gone on. The days slip by in the same way and all I have to do is concentrate on myself. My tightly knotted neck and shoulders eventually begin to unwind, as does my mind. What’s more, as I head to the pool for sundowners and lie back in my lounger, I finally feel that I belong. This feeling of being horizontal – I could get used to it. Now, where’s my crocodile pool float?