By Hannah Sampson
Many people travel to get away from it all. A few travel to get away - and then walk their way back.
That's the idea of Get Lost, an "ultimate adventure challenge" that spirits travellers away to a mystery destination and then leaves them alone in the middle of a remote landscape. Depending on the location and duration of the (distantly supervised) trek, the cost can start around $10,000 (R158 000) and veer into six-figure territory.
Luxury travel company Black Tomato introduced the concept - a kind of a blind date for vacations with "Survivor" elements - in 2017. But with its focus on isolation, Get Lost seems tailor-made for Covid-era travel.
"During the various lockdowns, unable to travel, I had longed for adventure," New Yorker writer Ed Caesar wrote in a first-person piece about the experience. "Here it was."
Black Tomato co-founder Tom Marchant said that while the company produced a few such trips last year, it was mostly a time when people in lockdown got in touch to plan their post-pandemic adventures.
"It just happened to have struck a chord over the last 18 months," he said.
Marchant, who came up with the idea of getting clients "lost," thought of it as he considered ways to help people truly relax in an age of digital distractions.
"Could we create an experience that requires total mental and physical focus?" he said. "By being totally distracted, it's almost impossible for them to think about the day-to-day, everything at home."
There are plenty of expedition - and even survivalist - options for travellers who want to push themselves. And more companies have started offering "blind" trips in recent years, such as Magical Mystery Tours and the "surprise travel" agency Pack Up + Go.
"This combination of not knowing where you're going but it being a challenge and an earned experience, I think that still is unique to us," Marchant said.
With Black Tomato's experience, travellers can choose how lost they want to feel and how surprised they want to be by their destination. The company's website offers an array of environments (polar, jungle, coastal, desert or mountain). Extremely laid-back clients can let someone else choose for them.
Destinations have included Iceland, Namibia, Morocco, and even the United States. In most cases, travellers don't know where they're going until they receive flight information; if they fly private, Marchant said, they might step off a plane with no clue where they are.
For Esther Spengler, 33, a stay-at-home-mom in a military family, the only requirements she had were going somewhere warm and far away from the United States.
Spengler, who calls Austin, Texas, home but is temporarily stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, discovered the service while she searched for an outside-the-box anniversary activity. When her husband offered to stay with their two children so she could go on her own, she realised it was a chance to rekindle a long-dormant adventurous streak.
Over about 18 months, Spengler saved up for the 10-day trip to Morocco, which she said cost roughly $13,000, and made the outdoor outfitter REI her best friend.
She flew to Marrakesh in October and continued by car into the mountains. In the New Yorker article, Caesar described a similar journey as "like a very pleasant kidnapping, with coffee breaks." After a couple of days of training - learning navigation, fire-starting and how to put up her own shelter - Spengler was on her own for three days; at least, she was as "on her own" as someone being tracked by an ex-military guide could be.
"There was a point where he actually did lose me, and I was pretty proud of that," she said, after following the wrong trail and actually getting lost. "He said I almost gave him a bloody heart attack."
Despite bloodied toenails and a tricky time setting up her tarp shelter, Spengler was thrilled with the experience.
"It turned out really, really incredible and so much more than I could imagine," she said.
Back in Mississippi, Spengler has put her newfound fire-starting skills to work in the backyard, showing her daughters the steps. She is hoping to turn her affinity for navigating into a career: She is joining the Army National Guard, with plans to focus on imagery intelligence.
Ultimately, she said, she would love to do the kind of work her own guide did during the trip.
"You're going to have the curious rich people who are like, 'Oh I'll do this for fun. I want to see what this is like. I want to have bragging rights,' " she said. "I want to be the real deal."
Marchant said many of the travellers who book these trips are looking for that sense of accomplishment.
"What we're looking for is that people feel challenged," he said. "There's always an angle that we want people to feel like they've achieved something, have that feeling of reward at the end of it."