Adventure Academy Turns Desk Jockeys into Savvy Explorers

The one-week boot camp puts paying customers in the middle of the Indonesian jungle, then helps them survive the journey home

Sep 20, 2016
Outside Magazine

Trekking to the top of an Indonesian volcano is just one part of the course    Photo: Courtesy of Matt Prior

Everyone’s up for an adventure in theory, but it’s hard to actually take the leap. Maybe you’re not sure how to bushwhack through the jungle, or communicate in a place where English isn’t spoken. There are safety concerns to think about, and even if you make it all the way to France, or Kyrgyzstan, or Antarctica, you worry that you’ll just sit in your hotel room wishing you’d landed somewhere a little closer to your comfort zone after all.

But would-be adventurers don’t have to stay would-be forever. That’s the pitch made by Brit Matt Prior, who is ramping up a program he calls Adventure Academy. Prior leads small groups of paying travelers (who cough up $4,000 each, plus flight expenses) on challenging treks through remote parts of Indonesia. These are classes, stresses Prior. Not tours. They come with many of the conveniences of a tourist package–lodging, transportation, a guide–but they’re also intended to prepare participants for future wilderness trips on their own. Accordingly, you can’t just sign up. You apply for admission.

“There are people out there who have an idea and they’ll just go and do it and they don’t need anyone for a bit of guidance. That’s fine. That’s not who this is aimed at,” Prior says. “But then there are people out there who love the idea” of a challenging, international adventure. “They love talking about it, they like reading articles, they like looking at pictures, but they’ll never, regardless of what you do, take that plunge. There’ll always be a convenient excuse that they’ll put in front of themselves…This concept falls right in the middle of those two kinds of people.”

Matt Prior.   Photo: Courtesy of Matt Prior

Those who make the cut couldn’t ask for a more qualified teacher. Prior, a former pilot for the Royal Air Force, has traveled to more than 100 countries and summitted peaks on five continents. He’s best known for a series of long journeys raising money for charity: circling Russia’s Lake Baikal in winter on a World War II-era motorcycle; driving a London taxi to Everest Base Camp; and driving from London to Mongolia in a $200 car. Between these adventures, he flies commercial jets in and out of Hong Kong. He launched Adventure Academy last year.

What exactly happens during an Adventure Academy class? Prior requested that we not reveal too many details of his previous four trips, since unpredictability and spontaneity are essential to the service he’s offering, but here’s a broad picture. Over the course of a week, he leads three people across several Indonesian islands, staying overnight in a small village and climbing a volcano. (No, there's no Internet or phone access.)

The details change, and sometimes improvisation is needed, as when Prior’s motorcycle unexpectedly required repairs on the August trip; he gave his students a satellite phone and a basic map and set them off on their own for the day while he dealt with his bike. A translator (for emergencies) is usually available, but for the most part the students must learn to communicate with locals using universal gestures and patience, just like the many generations of globetrotters before them. Along the way, Prior passes on tidbits of travel wisdom, for example how to haggle with vendors and drivers, figuring security, being diplomatic, planning and preparation, the pros and cons of various gear, and how to manage money on a long trip.

  Photo: Courtesy of Matt Prior

Holding a motorcycle permit is also a prerequisite for the course, since Prior and his students get around mostly on two wheels after meeting in Bali. This is a risky move for a new tour operator, since it significantly limits the number of eligible participants. But Prior told me it helps Adventure Academy live up to its name: “I want people to feel like they’re on their own expedition. Whereas if they’re just sitting in the backseat of a car, they can just fall asleep and get nothing out of it.”

The motorcycling aspect of the trip was a particular challenge for 42-year-old Tessa Chan, a Hong Kong-based journalist who took part in Prior’s first course, in August 2015. “I was really shit [at] it. I can’t even properly ride a bicycle,” Chan confessed by phone. But even she ended up appreciating the challenge. “Matt sort of shouted me through it. He was really patient with me…And when you get a bit of nice, flat road, it’s amazing. There’s a real sense of freedom.”

  Photo: Courtesy of Matt Prior

The August course in which Chan participated was Adventure Academy’s first trip open to the general public, after Prior conducted several practice runs with military acquaintances over the previous months. As it happens, all three students in the inaugural course were women–Chan, from Hong Kong, was joined by two women from Australia. 

The profile of the type drawn to the academy is hard to pin down, Prior says: mostly Westerners; a roughly even split of men and women; teenagers, middle-aged people, and retirees alike. He’s guided a junior officer from the New Zealand Defense Force, a search and rescue crew woman, and a banker, among others. “It's a varied bunch," Prior says.

Adventure Academy is one of the first companies to offer these types of excursions with a safety net on such an ambitious scale–motorcycles, volcanoes, international borders–but it’s part of a growing movement to help adults reconnect with rural and wilderness environments. "The way that people find fulfillment in life in general is presenting themselves with a series of challenges and overcoming them," Sasha Cox, founder of Trail Mavens in Northern California, told CNN. "I think that going into the wilderness provides such a delightfully ripe opportunity for this because there are challenges that are inherent to it, you have to do things in a different way than in the comfort of your own home."

  Photo: Courtesy of Matt Prior

What makes Adventure Academy stand out in this movement is its focus on experiencing another culture, rather than nature, per se. The first class, for instance, didn’t spend one night in a tent. Instead, they stayed in locals’ homes in order to get to know Indonesia’s people as well as its terrain. That kind of trust is part of the ethos of the academy, Prior says. “There’s nothing like this that exists in the world,” Prior says. “You’re working with total strangers, and the first time you meet them is on the other side of the world. At the end of the day, it comes down to trust and a willingness to go with the flow.”

Prior said he’s still sorting out where Adventure Academy fits in the broader ecosystem of educational travel, after launching his business last winter at London’s Adventure Travel Show, having conducted zero market research. But business is good, Prior says. He’s about to embark on his fifth trip, and has another lined up for October and possibly one in November as well. He just brought on a new instructor—a 35-year-old British ski-tour guide named Squash Falconer who has paraglided off of Mont Blanc and summited Everest. 

  Photo: Courtesy of Matt Prior

For Tessa Chan’s part, Adventure Academy not only helped her check an adventure off her bucket list, it also gave her more cred with her kids back home in Hong Kong. “It’s good that they see me doing this,” she explained. “Not just baking cookies, you know what I mean?”

A guided trip like Adventure Academy’s may be all that some participants are looking for. But Chan, an apt pupil, told me she hopes to apply the Academy’s lessons in another far-flung location someday soon. “That’s what I want to do next,” she said. “See if I can apply some of these learnings off on my own.”

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