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Spirit of Adventure


In the quest for adventure, there are some people who are prepared to put their bodies in danger to explore both inner and outer frontiers. Outdoor takes a look at three intrepid adventurers and their motivations for flirting with peril.

Having the adventure bug should probably be classified as a medical condition. It’s a paradox. Sometimes devastating the lives of explorers’ families if the hero doesn’t return. Often times restoring psychological well-being, instilling vitality and reaffirming the magic of life.


Drifting on the Nam Tha River

In 1957, American doctor Tom Dooley embarked on a humanitarian mission down the monsoonal rapids of the Nam Tha River in northern Laos.

According to Dooley, his 12 man party was the first to journey down the entirety of the waterway.

The doctor had spent a year in a village at the head of the river prior to the trip, establishing a hospital where he taught Western medicine to locals.

Dooley’s determination to spread Western medicine overrode his sense of personal safety. Sword-wielding Chinese mercenaries lurked in the jungle around his hospital, leaping from the creepers to rob and maim anybody who crossed their path. So as Dooley set out under bruised monsoonal skies, four gun-toting guards accompanied his party.

To the villagers along the banks, many of whom had never seen a Caucasian man before, Dooley’s party probably looked more like an invading force than a benevolent medical mission.

“On that first afternoon’s float, as we blithely refer to rapid shooting,” wrote Dooley in his book, The Edge of Tomorrow, “we were forced to steer the pirogues (12 foot dugout canoes) to the bank, and then wade into the jungle to hack down bamboo logs.”

The bamboo was fixed to the sides to steady the pirogues through frothing rapids. Despite running repairs, Dooley encountered the same problem at the next thundering rapid. This time he had to remove the most valuable equipment from the pirogues and haul it through dense jungle.

The boatmen meanwhile negotiated the rapid, bouncing off rocks, logs and over the wild white foam. Once in calmer waters, Dooley was able to wade back and reload the pirogues. It was a process he was forced to repeat many times.

Inspired by Dooley’s paddling heroics, I set off on an adventure down the Nam Tha as well, intrigued to see how Dooley’s influence had changed villagers’ lives.

I stayed in the same villages as Dooley. I drank whiskey with village chiefs, and was greeted by children, smiling and curious. Early morning mist hovered above the river as though I were a protagonist in an ethereal fairytale. Carved dragon silhouettes loomed large on Buddhist temples. The spidery limbs of dead trees pointed the way forward, fig tree branches splaying like the arms of a Buddhist deity.

My adventure was much more self-indulgent than Dooley’s noble will to cure sick people. Yet my trip was self-medication: there’s nothing like a shot of adventure to boost well-being, to vicariously follow in the paddle prints of somebody who improved so many lives.


A lone road through a snowy landscape

Illness was also an inspiration for plucky 19th century Englishman James Holman, although his reasons for circumnavigating the globe were quite different.

Holman was robbed of his sight by a mystery illness at the age of 25, yet refused to dwell in the dark.

Blind people were viewed as sinners against God in 1820s England. Blindness, most people believed, was a sign of venereal disease. The sightless were housed in asylums.

Holman’s blindness stemmed from a rheumatic condition he acquired while with the British Navy, during which he endured many a blustery night on deck. He was often cold and soaking wet while watching for passing ships and approaching storms. His joints were so badly affected that the vibrations of people’s footsteps on deck were enough to trigger bouts of unbearable pain.

He was discharged from the navy, given a measly allowance, and housed for free as a Naval Knight in Windsor Castle for life. His exchange was daily devotion in the castle chapel. It was in the confines of the castle that Holman’s rheumatism worsened.

“The physician’s records stated that Holman was wasting away by staying in the same place,” says Jason Roberts, author of A Sense of the World, a biography chronicling Holman’s extraordinary travels.

“He had a physical condition that only responded to a change of scenery. That’s when I looked on the map and realised Holman never travelled backwards. This was a person in so much pain that waking up in a new place each day and immersing himself in a new 3D survival puzzle was the only distraction from his crippling muscular condition.”

Standing on the rim of Mount Vesuvius while it was in full spew was the kind of place where Holman felt most alive. As he climbed the volcano in 1821, the ground was smouldering, the atmosphere was saturated with sulphur and he could hear lava crumbling the rock beneath his feet. All the while Vesuvius belched boulders high into the air.

Holman found liberation in danger. In 1822 he traversed the Siberian tundra, journeying in a rickety horse-drawn carriage across the boggy desolation of the Baraba Steppe. Armies of mosquitoes buzzed in bloodthirsty battalions. A single bite often grew first into a humongous cyst, and eventually a became tumour that burst and frequently killed its victims.

In torrential rain and sub-zero winds, Holman and his guide rattled across the Steppe with their heads wrapped in gauze. Holman covered almost 5000 miles of inhospitable Russian and Siberian terrain, eating nothing but bread for days at a time. His Siberian slog culminated in abrupt imprisonment. The Russians thought he was a spy.

During an 11 year period, Holman travelled all over Western Europe. He visited the small island of Fernando Po (20 miles off the West African coast) and fought the slave trade. He even charted part of the Australian Outback near Jervis Bay, NSW, sleeping rough in caves.

Whether his constant movement actually allayed the pain for any credible amount of time, only Holman will know. But his adventures are an example of how pain can be channelled into a positive expression of activism, into achievements that inspire others to fully explore the amazing capacities of the human body.


Karl Gurnick hangs out with locals en route to the Kokoda Track

There doesn’t always need to be a grand reason for adventure. In 2010 Queensland plumber Karl Gurnick hung up his wrench, saddled a cross-country mountain bike and rode out of Gladstone, north Queensland, to embark on a 102 day, self-propelled journey that saw him cycle 2,400km from Gladstone to Cape York, before paddling 650km along the southern coast of Papua New Guinea.

His aim was to reach the Kokoda Track from Queensland without using motors. His inspiration? Boredom. Blocked toilets equalled a septic Karl. So he paddled 100km a week for five months.

With 30 days’ worth of food (rolled oats, tuna, rice, and so on) he island hopped for eight days across the Torres Strait before he was absorbed into the Papuan Gulf, a 400 kilometre wide delta into which some of PNG’s largest rivers flow.

“Once I reached PNG I was paddling 15 to 20 kilometres a day, going from village to village,” said Gurnick.

“This is when it became a different trip altogether; it went from being a self-propelled adventure to a journey of discovery. I was totally isolated and everything was real primitive. Some of the villagers had never seen a white person before. Nearly all of them had never seen a plastic sea kayak because everything is made out of bush materials.”

As Gurnick reached the border of PNG’s Gulf and Western provinces, he found himself perching above mangroves in a tree, feet wedged in a fork between branches and trying to sleep. He’d heard rumours of a nearby tribe still rumoured to practice cannibalism, and he was keen to keep out of sight.

Gurnick’s trip nearly came to an abrupt end just a day after arriving in PNG...

You can find out about the last leg of Gurnick’s story (which does indeed involve something trying to eat him) in the September/October issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today to keep up to date with all the latest outdoor adventures, travel news and inspiration.