Interview with Chris Bray – Pro adventurer

Now that I’ve finished my fine furniture course in the UK, I thought I’d look back at an early inspiration for this career change – here’s my interview with adventurer and pro photographer (and good friend) Chris Bray.

Chris Bray Photography
Chris Bray Photography

When we look back at our past and try to make sense of it, we’re all prone to the common physiological bias of ‘post rationalisation’, or in other words, creating a coherent story we think explains the decisions we made and that fits best with our character. The truth is that the decisions we make arise from our bubbling sub-conscious, a broiling pool of thoughts and feelings mixed by the twin spoons of nature and nurture.

However, with that caveat in mind, it’s valid to look at macro influences that accelerate and support these decisions. One of the stronger such influences before making the decision to leave Australia to study fine furniture making in the UK was, among many, my good friend Chris Bray.

He and his friend Clarke were the first to traverse Victoria Island, solo and unsupported. He writes about that experience in fantastic story telling detail in his book The 1000 Hour Day (and award-winning doco, The Crossing). It’s an inspiring read, in the truest sense of the word. However, it’s in the early chapters of his book, where Chris talks about his life before making the decision to attempt this feat, where I found the parts that most strongly resonated with me. Having studied Engineering at UNSW, not unlike me and almost at the same time (2002-2006) he undertook several ‘industrial training’ placements – a compulsory part of the degree, for which Chris attended the firms that sponsored his scholarship. This was a turning point in his direction as he writes that these “sneak previews into the office-bound life of an engineer were nothing short of terrifying”.

Talking about this later with fellow adventurer Don Mycintrye, Chris heard of a similar experience he had at one of his first office jobs;

“He asked an aging man of similar appearance to Sir Francis Chitchester [famous sailor and aviator] if he had done any sailing. In reply, the man lead him back to his workstation – in front of a photocopier – and proudly showed him two ruts that his feet had worn into the concrete after eons of standing in front of the machine.”

Chris and his wife Jess now own and run their own successful photography safari company that takes clients to locations many of us would feel lucky to visit even once, such as photographing brown bears snapping up salmon in Alaska or jaguars in Kenya. I personally don’t know any one better placed to provide commentary of the type of sustenance your work can provide to you. As such, I was excited when he agreed to answer a few questions for me:

Photo from The Crossing
Photo from The Crossing

Chris, when I tell people what I’ve done, in changing my career, most are to my surprise genuinely enthusiastic – some to the point of being somewhat disappointed that something similar hasn’t happened to them. To those who have that heavy pang of emotion rise up that comes out in words like “I would do the same, but…” what would you say to perhaps break them out of their usual mode of thought, even just for an instant?

I think there are perhaps two main fears that discourage most of us from seriously attempting to break out of the wheel-ruts we’ve create for ourselves: The first is a fear of change, and the uncertainty that goes with it. The second – which is really just a subset of the first, but escalated in most people’s minds into being it’s own excuse – is money.

I’d combat the fear of change by encouraging people to stare the alternative in the face – doing basically the same thing, for the rest of your life, your one and only experience of life on this vibrant earth. That’s way more terrifying. While some people assess my drive for adventure as having a death wish, it is in fact the opposite – it’s a solid fear of my inevitable death that encourages me to make the most of life in the meantime. Generally, the worst that could happen when attempting a new career, moving to a new country, going on an adventure or whatever experience it is that an individual might be longing for, is that it just might not work out. In that case, returning to the comfy fold of your original career or country isn’t very difficult – even after a bit of a break. So really, what have they got to lose? Money.

It seems we can never have enough money. The more we earn, the more we spend, the more we want. Respectfully excluding people who really are living hand-to-mouth, many of us in the western world could easily afford to spend a little less while trying to make a go of it in some alternative direction, without going broke. Do the numbers. Perhaps you could drop down to four days a week or part time, to give yourself the time to experiment without completely leaping out of one tree before you’ve got even a tenuous hold on the next. Provided we ideally keep aside the funds required to slot back in where we came from (i.e. airfares home) then at worst we spend some of our savings trying to reach our dreams. Better to have tried and failed (especially with a safety net) than never to have tried at all. Friends, co-workers and employers generally respect that. You’d still have lived a little, experienced new things, and partly alleviated that gnawing pang of discontent. Hopefully though, things work out, and you’ll never look back.

Believe in yourself (and ignore what the critics on the couch may say), because once you’re doing something you’re truly passionate about, you’re much more likely to succeed – partly because you won’t mind putting in the extra effort and partly because people around you will see your passion and come out of the woodwork to help.

In the workplace (and increasingly in life), people base too many decisions on ‘risk’ assessments – how likely is it to go bad, and how terrible would it be if it did? That’s all very negative and kinda misses the whole point – unless you’re an idiot, people only take risks because of a potential reward! Once you do a proper ‘risk/reward’ assessment for something like chasing your dreams, I find the decision becomes a whole lot easier. If you’re still unsure, then it’s probably because you forgot to correctly weigh-in the only alternative – it’s very likely, that you’ll spend the rest of your life continuing to do exactly what you’ve been doing, and unless that’s something you really enjoy, then I can’t think of a more devastating outcome.

Can you describe one of your lowest lows, slogging it out across the Victoria Island and if you had any moments of doubt or regret?

Doubt, absolutely – nothing’s ever guaranteed on an adventure – that’s what makes it an adventure in the first place! A little doubt is a good thing, it means you’re pushing your boundaries, and that’s the only way you’ll ever grow. Too much doubt is also a useful feeling too – it’s our brain’s way of pointing out that perhaps it’s time for a bit of a re-assessment for how best to proceed. There’s clearly no point carrying on if something actually has become pointless. An objective weigh-up the current options should sort that out, keeping in mind that small or temporary negatives are sometimes a worthwhile stepping-stone to achieving a larger positive.

As for moments of regret – sure. I have regretted many decisions on all my trips. I don’t for a moment pretend I always make the right decisions. Taking certain routes that have for example resulted in finding myself straining near-horizontal in my hauling harness in knee-deep in mud with our cart completely bogged behind, and having to unload the cart one bag at a time back the way we came – I regretted that. I raged at the heavens with frustration and anger several times, but in the end, I’ve never regretted deciding to attempt the journey in the first place. You might say that’s because we ultimately succeeded, but on our first attempt in 2005, we didn’t – we failed. But even then, sure I regretted not getting to the far side, but I didn’t regret the attempt. It served as a lesson, and made us stronger. More recently, I regretted (at the time) leaving when we did and getting caught in a force 12 storm out at sea with Jess on our little sailboat half way between Canada and Greenland – I was worried we might die. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, but I still believe we made the best decision at the time based on the weather predictions we had.

I realise though that the only reason I don’t have any lasting regrets is simply because I enjoy the luxury of never having made a decision that resulted in anything going irreversibly, tragically wrong. If my actions ever killed or permanently injured someone or myself, then I am sure I’d feel rather different.

Can you give me two people that you look up to and explain what makes them important figures in your life?

As clichéd as it is, I’d have to say my parents. Haha. Sure, I am inspired by the likes of Dick Smith (super successful Australian businessman, adventurer and philanthropist with endless energy and passion) and do try to learn from him, and I have a deep admiration for David Attenborough (for his life experiences, his attitudes, and the impact he’s had on the world), but when it comes down to choosing the two most important figures that shape my life – my mum and dad for sure!

My parents grew my sister and me up sailing around the world on their homemade sailboat for five years, subconsciously teaching me to think outside the square and follow whatever path in life I chose. They have always encouraged me to succeed, without being controlling. Looking back on all the various interests I went through as a kid (which could have led to some useless careers), amazingly, they always supported me in each 100%, despite presumably having other ambitions for me. Two very different people, my dad (an engineer, like me) taught me to be practical, safe and make good decisions – and, because he is a harsh critic, also taught me to be a perfectionist (good and bad). My mum on the other hand, is hands-down the sweetest, most generous and caring soul ever, and I constantly hope that I manage to emulate even a fraction of her compassion & strength in my life.

What’s the next big adventure you have planned?

Jess and I are just wrapping up the previous one – sailing our little boat through the Northwest passage in the arctic. The boat’s for sale and we’re looking at our options. Life’s pretty busy with our own company at the moment (running photo safaris around the world – www.ChrisBray.net) and I’m attempting to launch a wildlife conservation crowd-funding charity, expand our business and maybe even start up a little eco-loge somewhere. Or, we might just have kids and buy a bigger, metal sailboat and go back to the arctic…?

What’s one of the important lessons you’ve learnt in your adventures?

Besides the feeling that with a little enthusiasm and dedication almost anything is possible, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from my adventures is how important it is to go on adventures! Going on adventures, trying new challenges and working out how to achieve seemingly difficult things has completely changed my life – it’s most importantly given me self-confidence (I used to be a shy nerdy kid) and has totally expanded my horizons, taught me how to make decisions and led me to so many wonderful experiences, friends (such as yourself Paul!) and ultimately, my wife!

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