We plodded on, grasping for breath. Our rucksacks cut into our shoulders, the sun beat down on our heads, sharp stones required our constant attention. There is no need to trek along the paths of far-away mountains to find strain and fatigue : on this occasion we were only a stone's throw away from civilization, in the mountains of north-eastern Italy, together with my pupils from the School for Survival and Adventure. I had plenty to do. Encourage those who were already tired, advise those who were pressing too hard and who before long would be out of breath, goad the lazier ones along with an acerbic comment or two.
This last technique is the Japanese method. It can seem pointlessly cruel, but it does reinforce a person's stubborness, recharge his determination and oblige him to look deep into himself to find his last scrap of will-power to go on. I was with my students, because I am not the kind of teacher, and never will be, who is content to write theory on the blackboard. 1- I looked at them with pride and some envy : the ones who were not already competent adventurers were quickly becoming so. They were all enthusiastic, generous, ready to give their all. But they were also lucky, because things have been made easy for them : to learn the arts of survival, they need only send off a coupon.
I, by contrast, had to learn by myself, at my own expense, by a continual process of trial and error, solving problems when they cropped up. Nobody ever told me :"Pay attention, if this happens to you, do this". It took years to learn what to do. It was my desire to pass on my experience and expertise to others which prompted me to open my school. I began by teaching a friend of mine how to use a compass, and I swear it all but reduced me to tears to see something I found so simple be the source of some much puzzlement. Then dumbfounded another friend by showing him how to light a fire with the sparks produced by scraping a strip of magnesium against the blade of a knife.
I felt like I was a child again, playing at being an explorer by going a whole day without drinking to ready me for the desert. I used to read all sorts of stories of adventure on land and sea. Explorers, pirates, prospectors, sailors peopled my dreams night and day. So I thought I would find a place, with mountains all round, wooded, with a river, where I could recount what I had done and learnt to the many people who had always dreamt of having an adventure without ever having dared. About the same time, the Rambo and Indiana Jones's films were showing everywhere and there were a lot of people who wanted to try to emulate their adventures: though, if Rambo had really attempted some of the stunts performed in the films he would be dead a thousand times over. Still, in the films the stunts are well acted and the character, too, makes people dream.
Obviously, there are real limits to everyone's capacity for endurance which only film-makers can afford to disregard. You have to find out what they are, and then strive to widen them a little, finding new reserves of energy that you have never put to the test. A weeks' training at the School opens new horizons for its students, who taste the pleasure of doing things they could never otherwise have done. Our reserves of ingenuity and endurance are almost inexhaustible at need, so long as they are sustained by our will.
Will-power is the quality which I retain essential whether you are in the jungle, the desert or in straightforward daily life. "Never give up, unless you want to be a loser", I drum into the heads of my students. Remembering this maxim you can begin to train yourself every day to acquire new habits rather than be sunk in laziness, and live with your eyes always open to the world about you. There is so much to see and to learn, but it also necessary never to let yourself be taken by surprise.
When the enrolled students arrive for a new course, in groups of twenty, it doesn't take long to establish a friendly atmosphere; somebody starts telling stories, others ask questions. One says he is a total bungler, but that he is curious to try; another describes how he spent 20 days in the desert with his motorbike; someone else describes trekking in Nepal. The students usually come from a wide variety of backgrounds. One group I remember contained a martial arts expert, an airline pilot as well as a clerk in a factory making nylon stocking, a company director, a quiet teacher, a doctor and a worker who had been made to come by his wife because he talked of nothing else. She had said: "Do me a favour, go on the course, that way, you'll get over these ideas". But he didn't, because he was still trying to get over it when he came with us to Borneo later on.
Radios, newspapers, watches, television, all have to be forgotten. After the first few days a stockbroker was amazed that he had gone so long without reading the paper. He told us that he had even had one brought to his bedroom when he was on his honeymoon. Every now and then the course's practical lessons, in which the students learn the arts of self-defence and absailing, are interrupted by theoretical lessons in which the potential hazards of any enviroment are discussed. One topic covered is how to prepare oneself psychologically against the dangers of urban violence.