The Extraordinary Adventure Club has taken its clients through the world’s jungles, deserts and ice-caps, but, explains founder Calum Morrison, the real challenges remain internal
“What are we going to do today? Absolutely nothing.” Calum Morrison, founder of the Extraordinary Adventure Club, describes a day with a client. Having driven for weeks through the African wilderness they had come to a point of reflection: “If you’ve spent your whole life being busy, then actually doing nothing is a challenge; I told the client ‘today we’re going to sit quietly by the river, there’s a notepad, you know those things we discussed in Scotland that we’ve touched on throughout this journey? Now is the time to address them.”
Given the name of his company, Morrison is surprisingly reluctant to discuss the adventure aspect of his work. He makes clear that what he offers clients is not a test of manhood, a badge for triumphing over manufactured adversity for the sake of it, but a “non-trophy process” to address a “existential awakening” rather than an existential crisis. Each process is unique and tailored precisely to a client’s needs. They might be a CEO in the midst of a complicated decision making process, a recovering addict, a heir about to hold the reins of a great family fortune or a young entrepreneur trying to cope with the reality of a death in their private life.
Everyone is subjected to a four day training camp in the Scottish highlands before their experience is planned out in secret and then thrust upon them. That might involve being told to meet at a Mayfair hotel, receiving instructions to be at Heathrow at 12.30pm where they will open an envelope with further instructions and a plane ticket to the Amazon, or it might involve a frank and objective conversation with a soldier who has killed, but is also a trained paramedic. Most often it is a combination of two such scenarios.
“We create the conditions where you have to address particular issues you’ve put off,” says Morrison. “People come to us having outsourced so many areas of their lives, throwing resources at things to get them done, without realising they’re outsourcing themselves. We work with a number of individuals who might not have developed that self-confidence or self-sufficiency, so we might take them into the jungles of Borneo. Some clients have no self-sufficiency at all. They have staff at home, staff in the office, they don’t pack their own bags, they’ve got butlers to do X,Y & Z. What am I going to do? I’m going to take that person to the jungle, where you have to look after yourself and your own kit. If you want food you catch and cook it. If you don’t put up your hammock and it collapses, you’re the only one who is responsible for that. I’m going to be too busy looking after my own stuff to look after you. I’m going to teach you how to do it but then you’ve got to get on with it.”
From such humility comes empowerment he says: “It’s a sense of understanding that you can shape the outcome via your engagement with a neutral environment, and, yes, it can be difficult if you don’t do that effectively.” The challenge of that self understanding is often about human interaction as much as it is about physical challenge: “We were in Mongolia a few years ago and we arrived at some camel herders, it was miserable weather and our client wasn’t particularly engaging with them — he was closing himself off in his ivory tower. So I said: ‘Right. I’m going to leave you here for 24 hours with these guys making cheese and drinking fermented mare’s milk. They don’t speak any English, here’s a radio, we’ll be the other side of the hill. You decide whether you engage with these guys or not.’ He could sit there and do nothing or he could engage and learn something about them and about himself. Afterwards he said that was one of the best things he’d ever done.”
“It’s usually the part of the process they resist the most that they enjoy the most,” says Morrison’s colleague Chloe Williams-Wynne. She references a similar scenario presented to a client in Ecuador where they had to engage and participate with the daily life of an Amazonian village for ten days. Although, that engagement wasn’t constant and involved a more paced process: “They have no concept of the future, it’s all for the now,” says Morrison. That’s important, he says, because “if you’re in the jungle it doesn’t matter whether you arrive at three in the afternoon or half three, or if you’ve got two hills to go over — it makes no difference to you. It has an impact by demonstration: people feel they have to move. You don’t. Stop thinking about what’s coming next and just enjoy the moment.”
The moment isn’t necessarily an epiphany says Williams-Wynne, but simply discovering ability through an action. She describes how one client wanted to go dog-sledding but didn’t like the cold: “You’ve got to be motivated to be getting up when it’s -35 C. You’re taking them to the heart of something they want to do but have always shied away from.” That specific ‘moment’ involves extreme concentration she says, “the mist might have come down; the dogs can smell where they’re going but you’re alone. I’ve flipped one of those things and the most important thing is don’t let go or the dogs will disappear.”
“Simple living, solitude… it’s really powerful,” adds Morrison. “You can talk to them in the morning and say ‘I want you to think about these areas of your life’. Five hours on the back of a dog sled, when you can’t get off and you can’t stop, helps that.”
Soldier of the crossroads
Self examination beyond comfort zones is something Morrison himself grew up with in Scotland, where he joined the Mountain Rescue Service at 15. He then signed on for the Royal Marines which saw him posted in Bosnia and Northern Ireland and train with the SBS before leaving in 2000. Following that he worked with the FCO and consultancies in war-torn environs such as the South Caucasus and Libya, spaces in which “you’re very much depending on your wit and initiative. If you get it wrong you know about it.”
It was the physical training he remembers most though: “Every move you make is observed and critiqued. You need to deal with that level of scrutiny and then be confident of your abilities to deliver and be unattached to other people’s view of you, not giving a shit in the best possible way. You need to do the physical work: you think ‘I can’t do any more, I’m going to give out,’ but you do. But the most important piece was mental resilience, developing awareness of yourself, what you’re capable of, what you can endure and recognising fear and realising that inaction kills.”
Having done the hard yards himself he’s earned the ability to take client’s respect (and fees) and give them little comfort or sympathy in return: one came to him saying he didn’t want to do anything with motorbikes or anything in Africa. “So, we’ll go to Africa and do stuff with motorbikes because the reason for you saying that in the first place goes to the heart of the issues that you have in coming to me; so we are going to do that but I’m not going to tell you that until you get there.”
Results are realised differently but his clients will at least have experience. Often their families and businesses are also impacted. One got in touch to say the Extraordinary Adventure Club had had the single biggest impact on his life, “and he fundamentally did change his life,” says Morrison. “People say ‘that anxiety doesn’t bother me anymore,’ or ‘I’ve got a better relationship with my father that I never thought I would be able to achieve.’ We don’t always get it right but more often than not we do.” The process ends when the client is where they want to be, grateful, no doubt, for Morrison’s ability to guide them in the wilderness of their own internal hinterlands.