"If it wants to kill you, I'm there."
This is how George Kourounis described his job to us. Through his work, George contracts deadly diseases, strolls into natural disasters, and rafts into lakes of acid. We'd say his job title is something like "professional adventurer," but that's only because "Indiana Jones" is already taken by some chump. Why does he put himself in such dangerous scenarios? He films documentaries, of course. But to hear George tell it, that's more a means to fund the insanity, rather than the reason for the insanity. We sat down with him from the relative safety of our armchairs (there's a pokey bit in one of the arms; that's our on-the-job hazard) and asked him all about life as a professional badass.
#6. Serious Danger Comes From Where You Least Expect It
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I have been to some of the scariest places in the world: volcanoes, lakes of acid (see: We weren't exaggerating earlier), Chernobyl, over a dozen hurricanes, tornadoes. Name a natural occurrence that has the slightest chance to kill you, and chances are I have been there in the middle of it. But despite living through disasters beyond Roland Emmerich's wettest of dreams, the scariest stuff isn't the gigantic whirling, flaming harbingers of death. The little things are what'll haunt you.
One time in 2008 I was traveling in Kenya, where I went into Kitum Cave, which goes 700 feet into the side of a mountain and is coated in salt. It's one of the few places on Earth where Marburg fever is found -- a rare disease that liquefies your organs like a biological Vitamix. It turns out the bats there carry it. Of course, one of them had to go and bite me through a surgical glove as I was going through the cave.
Damian B, via Tripadvisor
From here on out, whenever you see the word "Cave," just go ahead and mentally add "... of Horrors."
It takes two weeks to know if you contracted Marburg or not, which is to say, you spend two weeks wondering if they're your last.
That little wound: harmless paper cut, or total human liquefaction?
When I'm in a tornado, it's just scary for a few minutes. When I was in Hurricane Katrina, it was scary for a day. There is nothing scarier than walking around for weeks on end without knowing if you're staring violent, organ-juicing death in the face. At least you know if people are shooting at you or a volcano is erupting. With a possible diagnosis like Marburg hanging over your head, every weird pain, tummy gurgle, or itch becomes an omen. I could have been the walking dead. And not one of the main cast, either -- like one of Hershel's red-shirt kids.
Via The Treasure
"Half of us will turn your spleen into chunky soup, the rest will just crap on your head. Happy guessing."
Later, I was climbing over a boiling lake, which was fairly breezy. The seemingly deadly stunt was easy compared to the bug bite I got while doing it. A slight screw-up and I would have been human Cup Noodles, but it's never the obvious hazards that get you. It was the little thing I wasn't paying attention to -- a mosquito -- that almost killed me during that adventure. The mosquito that bit me had dengue fever. It sent me to the emergency room for a while, hallucinating with a fever of 104, then eventually I ended up at the special Tropical Diseases Unit. Boiling lakes? Sure, whatever. Cute little flying rodents and miniscule insects? That's the hardcore stuff.
#5. Getting to the Dangerous Place Is Sometimes More Dangerous Than the Actual Dangerous Place
Everyone expects certain fabled and remote corners of the world to be dangerous, but you sort of skip over the journeys there like they aren't an issue. Take Nyiragongo crater, for instance:
Carsten Peter, via National Geographic
Except don't actually take it, because that bastard will melt you like a chocolate bar in a pizza oven.
It's on the border of Congo and Rwanda. Congo has had two generations of civil war and deals with refugees from the Rwandan genocides. To get to the crater, you need armed guards with machine guns with you at all times. I've been to a lot of places, many of them literally and constantly on fire, and probably the scariest place I've ever been was eastern Congo. And we're not even talking about the flaming death pools yet. Oh, right, about those ...
In fact, "flaming death pool" might still be underselling it a bit.
The lava lake in Nyiragongo is so big, it creates its own weather. And twice now, a crack has formed in the side of the volcano, draining it into the nearby town of Goma. Twice.
If you're camping up by the lava lake and you have violent diarrhea (and you are going to have violent diarrhea -- this is rural Africa, remember), you'll get up in the middle of the night, shut your head lamp off because it's too foggy to use it, then crawl along the ground (so you don't lose your footing and pull an Anakin Skywalker into the lake of fire) until you get to the toilet, which is two slats of wood over a volcanic steam vent. Yep, just take a left at the lava lake, turn right at the guy with the AK-47, keep going until you see steam coming out of a crack, and park your crack over that crack. That's the adventure we call "pooping." The steam itself is pretty nice, though. Like one of them fancy Japanese heated robot toilets.
Chris 73 via Wikipedia
Albeit a lot less KITT from Knight Rider and a lot more severe scalding risk.
Nyiragongo is one of only five permanent lava lakes on the face of the Earth, and if you thought to yourself, "I'll just skip out on the armed bandits and check out the others," keep in mind that each one will try to kill you in its own unique way before you even get there. For example, there's the lava lake at the peak of Mount Erebus -- the place that holds a coveted spot at the top of my bucket list. The catch to getting there? It's in Antarctica. Not only do you have to deal with the perils of a trek through Antarctica, but the lake is incredibly turbulent because of the extreme cold. Every now and then it lets out a volcanic fart and coats the inside of the crater -- that's where you want to be -- in molten rock.
Let's not harp on volcanoes, though. Everything else wants you just as dead, too. I've been to the crystal cave in Naica, Mexico. Inside are the largest crystals anyone has ever seen, but they lie over a magma chamber that can heat the crystal cave to over 120 degrees. It's so hot, you risk getting heat stroke if you're in there for more than 20 minutes, and that's if you're wearing the special refrigerator-suit. Picture Superman's Fortress of Solitude, but designed by Jigsaw and perched over the mouth of hell. Also, every surface in the cave is crystalline, which means "incredibly slick." Falling and impaling yourself on one of the world's largest and most beautiful crystals is a very real danger. It's like getting stabbed by a unicorn.
The idea of "crystal healing" is even more full of crap when they're spiked through your torso.
The cave lies below the water table and was discovered by a mining company. So if you thought it was hard to get to now, once the silver dries up, they'll shut the pumps off, and the whole thing will flood with water. We'll never see it again. There are places in the back of the cave that have known fewer people than the surface of the moon. It might be that way forever.
Sometimes you're trying to do something relatively simple, like get closer to a tornado. Tornadoes are antisocial things, and are angered by your presumptive familiarity. They show their displeasure by hurling farming irrigation systems at your car. I found that one out the hard way.
#4. You Have to Pack for Anything. No, Seriously: ANYTHING
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When you go on vacation, you usually know what to pack for. As an adventurer, you need to travel to anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. And that means way more than just a light suitcase and a carry-on filled with loud shirts and Dean Koontz novels.
On a recent trip, I went from Canada to Patagonia (South America), then to the Caribbean. That meant winter clothes, climbing equipment, hiking gear, scuba gear -- all on one trip. "Packing light" is an absurd fantasy. I've paid $1,200 in airline "overweight baggage fees." That's one reason I need all that funding from TV channels: It's not practical otherwise. Indiana Jones may have gotten away with just a satchel and a small Asian child, but we have child labor laws now.
Plus the movies really overplay their helpfulness in an actual mine cart chase, and that's a big part of the job.
I've developed a system now: I have all my gear sorted in giant bins in my basement. Volcano gear over here, camping gear over there, anti-mummy cannons in the far corner, etc. I may need to go literally anywhere on a moment's notice, so within an hour of a call, I can get all my Adventure Bins (patent pending) out and be on my way.
Peter Rowe, via George Kourounis
"Raining fire swamp" was an especially difficult bin to put together.