When 73-year-old Andorran millionaire Ian Argus Stuart goes on holiday, he packs two bottles of water and a 4m-by-3m tarpaulin into a dustbin. He jumps in a fisherman’s boat, and when they spot an island where the fishing is good, he wades ashore, the dustbin keeping his other meagre possessions (rope, a sheet, a toothbrush) dry, too. The fisherman will collect him in a week or perhaps a month. He uses the tarp and dustbin to harvest rainwater and eats whatever he can catch from the sea or find on the island, growing or washed up.
In 2015, he spent 11 days on an island in Tonga that had been newly formed by an underwater volcanic eruption. He was the first person to spend a night in Hunga Tonga, which was only two months old at the time and had no vegetation. He survived by eating squid and bird eggs.
After an eruption in December 2021, which caused tsunamis around the world, the island disappeared. Even when Stuart was there, it was unstable. At one point, the ground gave way under his feet and he was washed into the sea — he is unable to swim. He also got stuck up to his waist in compressed lava dust. Why put himself through these life-threatening challenges?
Sit down, think, and don’t panic
“What if something goes wrong? You mean like living in London or Singapore?” he says with a laugh. “I would rather be actually alone than be alone and surrounded by people in a city. Most people worry too much about whether they can do something. Survival is about common sense. Anyone can do it, you just need to sit down and think. Don’t panic,” he adds.
Stuart arranged his Hunga Tonga visit through Hong Kong-based Docastaway, which specialises in desert island holidays. He has already asked Alvaro Cerezo, its founder, to find another uninhabited island for his next trip this year.
Stuart is not the only castaway with a new trip on the horizon. In October, French businessman Gauthier Toulemonde will celebrate the 10th anniversary of his first island survival with another adventure. In 2013, Toulemonde spent 40 days alone on an uninhabited 700m-by-500m Indonesian island, battling fierce tropical storms, snakes, rats, and tarantulas. He supplemented the rice and pasta he had with fish he caught, coconuts he collected, and vegetables he dug up. By the time he left the island, he had lost 14kg.
Despite the hardships, he is ready to repeat his real-life Robinson Crusoe adventure in celebration of what he says was a life-changing experience.
“I learned that if I have a problem, and there’s no one there to help me, I can find a solution myself. I feel stronger after knowing that,” he says. “When you’re alone, you have time to think about your life and priorities. I thought about my wife and my children, and I realised that, actually, I’m never alone.”
Back then, Toulemonde may have had more time to think than in the daily hubbub of his usual life 16,000km away in France, but his days were far from empty as he continued to run his publishing business from the island. He brought along two satellite phones, four solar panels, a windmill, a laptop, and a tablet computer. He also brought two small tents to protect the equipment and himself from the elements, and limited his use of the Internet to 15 minutes a day because it was expensive.
I learned that if I have a problem, and there’s no one there to help me, I can find a solution myself. I feel stronger after knowing that. Gauthier Toulemonde, French Businessman
Bespoke Get Lost programmes
Post-Covid, the world is accustomed to remote working, but back in 2013, Toulemonde’s tele-working was ground- breaking. In his upcoming trip, he will work, just like before, waking up at 5am and sticking to a routine as “structuring the mind” is crucial, he says.
Managing the psychological aspects of survival experiences, as well as the physical ones, can be challenging, and most people who join survival-style holidays are less courageous than Toulemonde and Stuart. Globally, tour companies offer a wide range of extreme excursions. While Docastaway is known for its survival experiences, it also offers remote villas with meals included.
With London- and New York-based Black Tomato’s tailor-made Get Lost programmes, no two trips are the same. Participants select their preferred environment — polar, desert, jungle, coastal or mountain — but the destination country remains unknown until they arrive. It also does training sessions on arrival and provides specialised kit. Participants will have to navigate their way to a designated point, using their wits and determination.
A paradox of fulfillment
Tom Williams, who founded London-based Desert Island Survival, says it has had around 400 to 500 castaways sign up for its experiences, which include group, family, and private expeditions. Most of the group trip participants are solo travellers in their 30s and 40s, with 60 to 70 per cent being men.
Williams runs about four private expeditions a year and says participants have included groups of friends who work in the London finance world, a New York hedge fund manager and his son, a Russian billionaire and his family, and a professional footballer and his friends. Among the top private expeditions is one to Panama, where participants get dropped into the sea by helicopter and have to swim to shore.
“I think it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at play. When someone is very successful, has a superyacht, and always stays in 5-star hotels, after a while these experiences don’t move the needle anymore; they don’t leave a person fulfilled,” says Williams.
A beautiful escape
“There are many attributes to going to a desert island, and one of them is that it allows people to go back to level one of the Maslow theory: to reconnect with that foundational, primitive aspect of what it means to be a human, to appreciate the convenience of running water, air-conditioning and food security once more. It allows people to return to their superyachts or normal life with a heightened appreciation for what they have. It’s grounding and edifying, and puts things into perspective.”
Williams is now arranging a trip for later this year in which eight of the 10 participants are unaware that they will be taken to a desert island. A boat will drop them off and leave, and they will later find out they are marooned. They will then split into two teams and will have to compete for resources, including food, rum, and clothes.
Disconnecting from the modern world and living at a slower pace are two other big appeals of survival holidays, according to Williams, who says the total escapism is “one of the most beautiful aspects” of this kind of holiday as he sees “people’s worries melt away” after three or four days.
“Until 12,000 years ago, when agriculture dawned, we lived like this always, eating mangoes in our pants, braiding hair, carving things — this was our natural state. It’s amazing how when you slow down and live this way, it feels so right. People sit around the campfire sharing stories and vulnerabilities. It’s cathartic and beneficial,” says Williams.
While he set up Desert Island Survival to let people enjoy beautiful desert islands and learn core bushcraft skills, such as making fire by friction, setting up shelters and making traps, he says many participants found the experiences life-changing.
“For many, it’s the first time they get off the hamster wheel of life. We’ve had people leave their jobs, leave their partners, or lose 40 per cent of their body weight and become marathon runners after our trips,” he says. “It turns out it’s often a transformational experience.”