I want to get straight into this and tell you my thoughts afterward, so here are three stories of me doing reckless, dangerous, or otherwise unusual things. If you stick around, you’ll hear me wax poetic about the point of it all. If not, you get three entertaining stories.
The odds of a good time average out, I’d say.
The Time I Rappelled from the Mouth of the Merlion
The Merlion is the national mascot of Singapore, and has the head of a lion and the body of a fish.
Years ago, there was a much larger Merlion statue on the island of Sentosa (which you may recall as being the site of the Trump-Kim summit in 2018, when they described it as a former ‘pirate haven’). This statue was about 37m (121ft) tall, with a hollow interior that contained a bunch of tourist shit.
The statue was demolished in 2019, but there were rumblings about it getting torn down as early as 2012. In 2013, Outward Bound was organising a charity event to raise money for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, and other at-risk youths from low-income families or who have incarcerated parents. It involved abseiling from the statue’s mouth.
I did it because it was a good cause, sure, but mostly I just wanted to do something ludicrous and wild that basically no one else had ever done before. To my knowledge, it hasn’t been done since either.
It was a wonderfully sunny day, with strong winds and spotted cloud cover. Midway down I actually got slammed into the side of the statue by the wind, and it put me into a little spin that left me staring out at the ocean for a few moments.
Let me tell you, as great as the view is from the mouth of a lion over a hundred feet tall, it’s better when you’re suspended in mid-air under its gaping maw. It’s been nearly 10 years and I remember that scene like it’s been seared into my brain. If I had the choice, that’s where it’d stay.
Anyway, I’m putting this story into the world because I was there. I did that.
And now, you’re a part of it too.
That Time I Jumped from a Cliff in Full Combat Gear
When I was in [country redacted] for jungle warfare school, I was the pointman for my section (also called my ‘tango’) while navigating through the jungle. Everything had spikes. I saw ants the size of my thumb marching along fallen trees in neat trails. We were issued blank ammunition for a navigation exercise because we were told we might need it to scare off tigers or other predators out there.
It’s a dangerous place is my point.
It rained at least twice a day when we were out in the field. I’m talking tropical torrents, with thunder loud enough to drown out the calls of the jungle. If you don’t know, the jungle is a loud place. Everything’s making noises: birds, insects, animals. Sometimes we’d hear the errant crack of trees falling too.
One day, just after a storm, I’d navigated us (poorly) down a ravine, thinking that we’d be able to cross at the bottom to get to our next NavPoint. Instead what I found was a fast-flowing stream a few metres across and of unknown depth, as well as a steep cliff that the riverbend had cut into my side of the ravine.
I was at least 5m (16ft) above the surface of the water. I could see the ripples of the current, and a narrow strip of barely-submerged rocks. I had on at least 30kg (66lbs) of gear in my ruck and plate carrier plus my rifle, now even heavier that they were soaked through with rainwater, and we were in the middle of nowhere. If anyone got injured jumping, we wouldn’t be able to exfil them without climbing to the top of a ridge and clearing a landing zone for a helo to medevac them.
We were in deep.
I looked back up to the rest of my tango and shouted up at them that there was a cliff. I asked the last man if he could climb back up the way we came. All 20 of us were hanging off the side of a muddy slope angled at a 70-80º incline. Not kidding, it was practically vertical. We were barely clinging on to the trees and roots that were growing along the slope.
The last man shouted back down that there was no way back up. The slope was too muddy for our boots to find purchase. The vegetation could support us down but it was too difficult of a climb to go back. We had to jump.
I was thinking about all those movies where some poor bastard gets stranded in the wilderness with broken ankles or whatever. And I was remembering that the medical officer who’d cleared me to go overseas in the first place had asked me if I was sure that I wanted to do it, in light of my previous lung collapse.
“You know, if you get into a bad spot there, there’s really no way to rescue you besides helo. You seriously might die,” he’d said.
“Gee, thanks Sir. But I still gotta go,” I’d answered.
And funnily enough, I thought about how unlikely it was that this was where I’d die. Of course the actual enormity of the circumstances dawned on me later after I actually got home, but at the time, all I could think about was how this wasn’t how it was going to end.
So I took off my ruck and threw it down to test how shallow the rocks were, and to see how fast the current was flowing. The water seemed to move at roughly a quarter-meter a second, and the rocks were well below the surface.
I lowered myself as much as possible, aimed for a spot that looked deep enough, and jumped.
As you can tell, I didn’t die there in that ravine. I hit the water and crumpled onto my hands and knees to cushion the impact. It wasn’t that deep, maybe about waist-height. I came up sputtering and shouted back that I was okay. The water was ice cold and slightly sweet, fresh from the rain.
The rest of the Tango followed my lead and jumped. We took a little break by the river bank to rest and fill our canteens, and within the hour we’d moved off again. The way that the jungle is, I’m sure that spot doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t think I’d recognise it even if I saw it. But I remember how it was that day, as crystal clear in my mind as the water flowing over those mossy rocks. And now, you do too.
Oh, and nobody tell the Army Safety Directorate. This will be our little secret.
That Time I Got Chased by a Komodo Dragon
In my youth, I scuba dived often and with great enthusiasm. At one point I was shooting to become a Master Diver (and also a Divemaster, which is a separate thing).
It was a unique way to grow up. My dad and I went on these kinds of trips every year, sometimes twice. It was important that I got to see firsthand that there was still wonder to be had on Earth. Our modern world had not yet stripped life of all of its enchantment. There were still adventures to be had.
A large part of who I am today was shaped by those days spent sleeping out on deck, sleeping beneath the stars.
In June 2011, I was diving in Komodo for the first time. This was back before the area, officially the Komodo National Park, became commercialised and popular with tourists. It was still a backwater that was only accessible by domestic flight, an hour by jeep, and then a day’s sailing. The main port of call was a sleepy seaside town named Labuan Bajo.
Anyway I was sailing for a week, and every day we would dive thrice (sometimes four times, depending on our nitrogen build up). In-between dives we might go ashore for assorted activities. Once my dad and I thought we could swim to an island from our ship, but we grossly underestimated the distance - it turned out to be like a kilometre in open sea, and a final two hundred metres across less-than-knee-deep water strewn with jagged, broken corals. It was like walking on glass and nails. And we were barefoot.
It took us over an hour to actually get to shore, and when we did we just collapsed on the sand, just in time for the shore party to come over and tell us that we were heading back to the ship.
On one of the shoreward excursions, we made a stop at the actual island from which komodo dragons originated. If you’re unfamiliar, komodo dragons are basically overgrown monitor lizards which have experienced island gigantism. To anyone who questions the veracity of evolutionary theory, I invite them to go and take a look at these things themselves.
On the island, the dragons naturally hunt water buffalo. I won’t get into detail on how exactly they do it, but suffice to say that they have sharp teeth covered in nasty bacteria, and can move pretty fast. Also they’re pretty big. Adult males weigh 70-90kg (150-200lbs) and grow to a length of nearly 3m (10ft) long.
As soon as we get there, a small group of us follow a park ranger into the brush for a ‘tour’ of sorts. There aren’t really any tours because the dragons roam free. They’re more like expeditions into the brushland. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see a dragon, but the rangers have a pretty good idea of where the lizards generally hang out.
He directs us down a dirt track and within 5 minutes, we spot our first dragon, just kind of lazing in the sun. There’s maybe 4 or 5 other people taking photos of it, and the ranger stands by watching them.
Now, being a teenager, I obviously had a short attention span and an instinct for stupidity, so I got bored and wandered off into the brush. Further along the path, there was a small thicket of tall grass that I started moving toward. I’d gotten about 100 or so metres from the rest of the group when I heard a thundering rumble from in front.
The grass was tall enough that it obscured what was coming toward me until it was right on top of me. It was a juvenile water buffalo, small enough that it was camouflaged coming through the scrub. I jumped out of the way and it went thundering past.
From my rocky ditch by the side of the thicket, I got up and dusted my palms, and peeked my head through the space that the buffalo had left. Ambling toward me as fast as its stubby legs could manage was an adult komodo dragon (obviously, I have no idea whether it was male or female - I didn’t have a casual working knowledge of big lizards). I’d been mildly surprised by the buffalo. Seeing the dragon running at me kicked it up a notch into justified alarm.
So I ran too. Boy, let me tell you, don’t let its stupid-looking run fool you - komodo dragons are faster than they look. I made it a few strides before I got the idea to just duck out of the way, so I jumped into another ditch. I turned back in time to see the dragon scamper past, wholly unconcerned with me. Clearly my skinny backside was less attractive prey than the buffalo.
And really, who can blame it? Certainly not me. I stumbled my way back through the bushes to find the rest of the group still fawning over that one sleeping lizard, wholly unconcerned with my little escapade. The ranger gave me a once-over and didn’t bother saying anything. I think he was just glad the stupid tourist hadn’t gotten himself trampled or bitten.
I was inclined to agree with him.
If you’re still here, here is my point. Every morning, I make my bed.
Which sounds like the start of a bad joke about military indoctrination, but bear with me. It’s a habit I developed in the Army and I’ve maintained the routine in the years since, because we as humans crave routines. Routines give us a sense of control, of normalcy in extraordinary times. They’re comforting.
Now, this is nothing new to you. This is the same droll that every productivity hack has been vomiting at you for the past decade. “Form routines, form habits, get into a rhythm, establish patterns.” We do love our patterns. But what is the point? You might say that our ultimate objective is self-preservation. Routines enable us to continue our lives. But self-preservation is not just literal.
Yes, we achieve this most easily with embodiment, the act of physically being and taking up space with our bodies. The matter of our beings allows us to effect change in our environment and leave our marks: fight, flight, fix, or fuck.
But we do not exist for the sake of existence. And one day, we will all die. Our bodies fail and our bones eventually return to dust. What value do I have when my skin has been turned to ash and carried away on southerly winds?
I say that the ultimate goal of self-preservation is continuance, the endurance of the self in a sea of noise. We can delay the inevitable, but there is no self-preservation stronger than the creation of a legacy.
We are a race of storytellers. We sing songs of warriors and poets. Societies throughout human history have used oral traditions to keep memories alive. We hand down tales from generation to generation of mighty forebears and their uncommon valours, their conspicuous gallantry.
Think about that. We remember stories. It goes against our base nature to try and consume information that isn’t packaged as a story. Every founder realises sooner or later the value of good copywriting. Every VC hates being sold a bill of goods, but loves being told a story.
Legacies are built on stories, and we make good stories by doing things outside of the ordinary. Life is defined by long periods of normalcy, punctuated by brief, shining moments to step out into the light of something greater before we get shoved back into the crowd. If we aren’t careful, we might develop the wrong impression that life is just that - ordinary.
So here is my record of the times I’ve stepped out and made use of my limited time. Here is my Res Gestae, my record of things done. Because we remember stories better than we remember names, and because I am driven by a need to collect tall tales while I still can so that I can stand a chance of not being forgotten when my ability to tell them ceases.
I hope that by recording these down, I am leaving a digital kilroy that you can use to trace my journey back. There are other stories too, but for now, suffice to say that I was there, and that I did them.