6 Survival Tips from a Professional Adventurer
"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.
Serious Danger Comes From Where You Least Expect It
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.
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.
"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.
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:
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.
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.
You Have to Pack for Anything. No, Seriously: ANYTHING
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.
"Raining fire swamp" was an especially difficult bin to put together.
Sometimes the Movies Get It Right
I often hire local guides to help me get up mountains or through rough terrain. Sometimes there will come a point where things get too rough and the guide will seriously turn to me and say, "This is where I leave you. Continue at your own peril." That's happened to me so many times, I got a "Your Own Peril" punch card. Two more and I get a free cursed fetish!
Movies also get the "cinematic wasteland" bit right, although they usually set it in the post-apocalypse. That's a mistake: Plenty of that stuff is right here on modern-day Earth. Everywhere is somebody's post-apocalypse. For example: There is what used to be a large lake between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan called the Aral Sea (I was on the Uzbek side). It's mostly dried up now, but in the middle of the former sea is a place invitingly nicknamed Anthrax Island.
Around you? Nothing. No signs of any life whatsoever, besides the rusting behemoths of beached ships in the middle of a desert.
This may go without saying, but diving is strongly discouraged.
Anthrax Island is not an ironic name for a nice place that was intended to keep folks away, like Iceland or Jersey Shore. Anthrax Island got its name because Americans went there after the Cold War and found thousands of tons of weaponized anthrax and ... buried it all? Stole it? Ran away screaming? Who knows? Official records are sketchy, but right now, all of it is just sitting out there in the open, including the creepy abandoned laboratories. When I tried to go to Anthrax Island, my Russian guide told me, in movie-caliber ominous broken English, "It is not possible."
Mostly because it's technically the Anthrax Peninsula now.
On Volcanoes, And the Many Ways They Will Kill You
Ask anyone what they know about volcanoes, and they'll tell you they erupt, explode, ooze lava, and generally don't make for great vacation spots. But what they don't know is that some volcanoes erupt up to once every five minutes, and they throw balls of molten rock hundreds of yards every time. Some volcanoes produce lightning strikes, absent of any thunderstorm. I experienced this at Krakatoa: During large eruptions, the billions of ash particles rub together, producing lightning within the ash cloud itself. This is known as "nature's metal album cover."
It's too far to be sure, but we're assuming that lightning is striking a sword-wielding Lemmy.
Volcanoes, by their very nature, tend to have a lot of sulfur around them. You probably figured that, but you might not have considered the greater ramifications of it. See, sometimes water collects and forms a lake in the crater. I got to see this phenomenon firsthand at the Kawah Ijen Volcano. At the bottom of the crater, the sulfur leaches out into the water, creating a giant lake of sulfuric acid. This is not one of those times where it's "technically acidic," and if you swim around in it too long you might get a rash.
I guess you might get a rash as well, but you'll be too focused on your skin melting to notice.
We measured the pH, and it was at 0.5. To put that in context, I scraped the paint off a Coke can and put it in the water, and the metal started sizzling like fried bacon. I wanted to see if the pH was the same all throughout the lake, so I took a rubber raft out to the middle, but acid started dripping in the boat and burning my legs. We had to cut my pant legs off before it soaked through and started melting my flesh.
That's a natural lake, dissolving metal.
The fumes coming off the lake and out of the volcano turn the fluid in your eyes and lungs into sulfuric acid. I was there for a short period of time, and my eyes were already burning and stinging. And there's a sulfur mine right on the edge of the crater! People work there. They breathe in those fumes every day. I felt so bad that I left them my gas mask and protective gear. If your office is on a volcano, just beside the scenic lake of acid, you probably need it more than I do.
Sometimes Your Instincts Give You the Worst Advice
Every now and then, you find yourself faced with a dire situation where your instincts kick in and take control. The only problem is that sometimes those instincts are telling you to do the worst possible thing. For example: I was in the crater of Yasur Volcano taking readings when it started hurling "lava bombs" upwards of 300 yards, as it is wont to do.
So everything's exploding, and pieces of lava are flying overhead, and your typical gut reaction is "RUN, STUPID." But you can't: You have to stop in your tracks and watch the trajectory of the lava bombs. The last thing you should do in that scenario is turn and run blindly, because that's what gets you smacked in the back of the head with a subsonic lava cannonball. No, you have to stand your ground and watch as they fly at what you are keenly aware is your acutely meltable face. That's your best chance.
It's pretty neat once it's all over, though. Some of them were so hot that I could grab them with my gloves and twist them like taffy.
Speaking of your instincts being totally wrong, I was in Venezuela one time and I grabbed the head of a 16-foot anaconda. Anacondas have powerful jaws, but they also have extremely sharp teeth that curve backward. And of course, if an anaconda ever bites you, your instinct is going to be to jerk your arm away. Our silly human bodies often don't like the idea of being devoured by a mega-snake. But jerking back will only cause their rear-facing teeth to tear the flesh off of your arm. If an anaconda ever bites you, it's actually better to shove your arm further down and punch the bastard in the throat. It might surprise them and cause them to loosen their grip.
So there you go, there's your life tip for the day: If you find yourself being eaten alive by an anaconda, force-feed it your fist.
George, pictured here just before punching an anaconda in the throat from the inside.
Kier and Evan also write for Geeknifty, available now on your local Internets.
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