We're sitting in a beachside restaurant in Legian, on the Indonesian island of Bali, loading up on calories ahead of an all-night hike, backpacks on the floor beside us. It's not until I'm asked what I hope to get out of the adventure we're about to embark on that it dawns on me: I'm not entirely sure why I'm here. I signed up for the inaugural week-long Matt Prior Adventure Academy Indonesia trip - which, among other things, includes climbing a 9,000-foot active volcano, finding a "hidden" mountain village and mastering long-distance motorbike rides - on an impulse after meeting through Twitter the eponymous founder, a Hong Kong-based adventurer, pilot and holder of the world record for the highest altitude reached by taxi (17,143 feet).
"Yup, this is just what I need," I said to myself, halfway through watching an introductory video on his website, confident I'd find out why as I went along. Maybe I needed a break from being a mother and a wife, and it was time I did something for myself. Maybe I just wanted to see what I was made of.
Whatever my reasons, I'm not alone. More and more travellers are eschewing conventional tours in search of something more challenging; tourists now queue to climb Everest while the Arctic Circle is being overrun by wealthy Chinese.
"There are certainly more people looking to find that little something they feel is missing in their lives; the chance to flirt with danger, the opportunity to challenge themselves physically and emotionally," says Adrian Bottomley, owner of local adventure tour company Whistling Arrow. "Most Hongkongers spend their time rushing around dealing with the stress of life's demands - they have very little time to slow down, create more space in their lives and be present."
"We live in a nanny state here in Hong Kong," says Fred Bowers, an investment manager who has climbed the Southern Alps of New Zealand, the summits of Denali, in the United States, and Mount Fuji, in Japan, and was recently turned back by the elements on two 8,000-metre peaks in Nepal. "Both the government and societal pressures discourage risk-taking. For example, the [Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department] recently stopped issuing permits for some adventure races which go through streams or over secondary trails at night. People should be able to self-determine appropriate levels of risk. If you remain in your comfort zone, whether professionally, socially or athletically, then you stagnate and lead an unmemorable life."
Another Hong Kong-based adventurer, mountaineer and entrepreneur Paul Niel, used to work 14-hour days at an investment bank. He says one of the defining moments for him came on an expedition to Antarctica.
"I was there to climb the highest mountain, Vinson, and we did. But then the plane didn't arrive to collect us so my team and I were stuck for several weeks with no internet, phone, barely any food," he recalls. "When I came back, I realised that to be disconnected, to be content with your small possessions and the great camaraderie of an awesome team was something I really enjoyed."
"I now value experiences over material goods," says Bowers. "The adventure I have when I arrive at a destination is more important than the class of travel I take on the airplane. I feel I am now living life. Before, I was just marking time."
I was curious to find out whether I'd experience a similar breakthrough moment.
The term "adventure" is thrown around a lot by tour companies these days, and often used to describe little more than a stay in a rustic resort. The Matt Prior Adventure Academy, however, aims to deliver a learning experience, equipping participants with the knowledge and confidence to embark on their own future adventures.
"The way I've set it up, you need local contacts, and to be able to push yourself logistically and run everything quite tightly," says Prior.
WE (I'VE BEEN JOINED on the course by two fearless Australian girls) finish our meal and get into a car - there is a long, bumpy journey ahead of us, followed by a night ferry and another car ride, but we're in no hurry; we've got all night to climb East Java's Kawah Ijen, as its blue fire - a rare phenomenon caused by the combustion of sulphuric gases - is best seen in the dark.
We get to the entrance gate of the volcano at around 1am to find other hikers stumbling their way up the steep gravelly path. With head torches on, all we can see is a little spot of light ahead of us; unnerving when you notice the precipitous drops to the right. Gasping for breath in the ash-filled air, I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself for being able to manage my heavy backpack, until I'm told that the miners who trek up and down the volcano each night to extract its sulphur balance loads of up to 90kg on one shoulder.
Stinking sulphur fumes billow around us in thick clouds and we pull on paper face masks to protect our throats from burns (the miners instead smoke clove cigarettes as they work). The electric blue flames flicker and, mesmerised, we descend past warning signs into the crater and its fumes, getting as close as we can without choking, tracking any changes in the wind direction to avoid getting hit in the face.
Beautiful as the spectacle is, the real reward comes as dawn breaks. We no longer feel tired, and pick up the pace to beat the sunrise to the best viewpoint.
Having walked up the mountain in complete darkness, only now do I realise - as my eyes gradually make out the silhouettes of the surrounding landscape under a brightening sky - that we're standing on the ridge of an enormous crater. Within it is an eerily beautiful, acidic jade lake, the largest of its kind in the world.
Hikers are sprinting now, clasping expensive cameras, in the hope of catching the perfect sunrise shot.
Suddenly the cold, lunar palette transforms as a fiery red spot emerges over the top of the clouds, igniting their edges into an electric orange. Chilled and damp, we feel the warmth hit our faces and before we know it, the whole sky has lit up and I'm stretching out on the grass, basking in the rays, high on sleep deprivation, covered head to toe in yellow ash, suddenly too hungry to think any more about capturing the moment on film. I devour a severely squashed jam sandwich, declaring to the world that I've never tasted anything so incredible.
Laughing, Prior points out that that's because I've earned it.
The way up was ridiculously steep and exhausting (all the more so due to the altitude and thick air), but the way down is more technically difficult. There's a lot of clambering and skidding, and more often than not people end up on their behinds. We finally get to the bottom and brace ourselves for the long journey back to our surf shack accommodation in northern Bali.
The upside to sleep deprivation is that you learn to nod off anywhere. Over the week, I will transform from being an "eight-hour girl" to being able to pass out like a dog on the greasy deck of a cargo ship with spotlights glaring and local rock ballads blaring - or in a bumpy jeep overtaking three trucks at a time. The next day, however, we're told to hold off napping until 5pm. I just about manage and then fall into a feverish sleep, only to be woken up at 2am and told, with Prior's ex-military briskness, that we're leaving "now".
Much of the itinerary is deliberately kept vague, partly to leave room for improvisation but also to introduce an element of the unknown. Activities are included for a variety of reasons: to test us physically and/or mentally; to teach us orientation skills; to show us the value of patience; or simply to help us appreciate the natural beauty of the landscape.
We drag ourselves into the car and make our way to the airport, this time for a crack-of-dawn flight to Flores, where we'll be picking up motorbikes before riding off to find the mysterious hidden village. My nerves override any desire to sleep: I've never ridden a motorbike on a road before - I'm a hazard even on a bicycle - and we have a six-hour ride ahead of us, over and around mountains.
In a café, Prior briefs us on "respecting" the road conditions. The others chat excitedly while I move a piece of lettuce around in my mouth, pretending to eat, as my stomach closes up like a fist. By the time I'm strapping on my helmet, I'm racking my brain for ways to flee the situation, but it's too late. The Australians, who happen to be seasoned bikers, are already revving up, keen to get on the road.
To call the ride that follows "challenging" is an understatement. Trucks rocket around blind corners towards me, tooting their horns in friendly warning, and some of the hairpin bends on what feel like 90 per cent gradients would make many a veteran biker pale under his beard. Adding to the fun are road-crossing chickens, potholes and throngs of kids everywhere we go, shouting hello and demanding high-fives as we pass.
For most of the trip, the girls drive ahead of me in a protective convoy and I have Prior in my wing mirror at all times, barking out orders and encouragement: "Go wider! Don't put your foot down! Look up! Slow down! Watch that white line! More throttle! Good, Tess! Enjoy it!"
I resign myself to doing as I'm told, and eventually learn to negotiate the slopes. Then comes the euphoria of encountering some relatively flat land and even a bit of straight road. I find myself relaxed enough to open the throttle a bit and take in the valleys and green rice paddies, soft and furry in the breeze, and the scent of rain in the air.
After about four hours, I feel the stirrings of confidence, but as the adrenaline wears off, exhaustion sets in and I struggle to focus. When we finally reach our destination - a roadside shack belonging to one of Prior's local friends, Justin Miun - I nearly sob; partly in relief to find I'm still in one piece, but mostly because of an overwhelming sense of achievement.
"My aim is not to break people, it is to slowly introduce them, but at the same time I want to test people a bit, and push them outside of their comfort zone," Prior had explained before the trip. "Otherwise there's no development, everything's easy, you never realise what you're capable of."
He encourages me to make a mental reference point every time I achieve something I didn't think I could. "Each time you set the boundaries of your own possibility further, and the more you do it, the more you push these boundaries. Until you get to the stage where, I personally, at least, don't look at anything with any limit at all any more. I just think, 'Why not?'"
This positive attitude, this unflinching optimism is one of the things that Niel told me he'd also gained from his adventures, as well as a more realistic attitude towards risk.
"I usually think very big, set myself large goals, but when it comes to execution, when you are on the mountain, etc, then I am quite cautious," Niel said. "I tend to listen to my gut feeling a lot and it has protected me several times in the past."
Miun's house, with its cardboard-lined walls and corrugated-iron roof, feels like a palace to me; the simple meal his wife serves us tastes like a feast. He allows us to use his home as our base in Flores and even invites us to a large family celebration. Miun is an entrepreneur and a rich man in the true sense of the word. He has everything he needs: a house overlooking his own land, animals, a vegetable garden and a particularly cheeky sense of humour. He is helping to teach his neighbours about organic farming and tells us with pride that his eldest son is in the top five of more than 1,600 children at school.
From Miun's house we finally embark on our search for the hidden village, which is another long ride and hike away. By this stage we've stopped asking when we're going to get there (time in Indonesia is largely open to interpretation, anyway) and have learned to start enjoying the journey itself.
Every day, the villagers make this three-hour hike, carrying coffee (their main produce) to exchange for rice and other goods. The mist becomes all-encompassing as we get further up into the mountains, but eventually the clouds part and we can make out the odd cone-shaped roof peeping out of the canopy. We cross a bamboo bridge and, following protocol, ring a bamboo bell to alert the villagers that we are arriving. All guests have to visit the village chief, who ritually grants permission to enter.
It is unlike anything we've ever seen, and the huts emanate a strange energy. About 700 people, all part of one clan, inhabit them, adhering to a way of life that has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Made of wooden frames and black thatching - durable, thermal and waterproof palm-tree fronds - the huts are a lot more spacious than they look from the outside, and each houses up to six families. Inevitably, more outsiders will find this village - they've just begun building a road to it - but we feel like privileged guests.
Although we've only been away from our normal lives for a week, we have experienced enough to fill three. In between the hiking, exploring and biking, Prior has used our downtime to share some of his expertise with us on subjects including planning and preparing trips, and negotiating your way out of hostile situations (a little football trivia goes a long way, apparently). He surprises me by pointing out that I'm a worrier (Me? The free spirit?) and tells me how to stop making things unnecessarily difficult for myself. I find myself dumping emotional baggage that I've been carrying around for years without realising. Prior even thinks he could train me to master a super bike - not something that was on my bucket list but a pleasant thought, nonetheless.
It's with heavy hearts that we hug Miun and his family goodbye the day we leave Flores. They've fed us, sung to us, taken us in as their own and taught us by example that material excess is not the key to happiness.
I'm definitely leaving for home with a bit of a "bring it on" attitude; I've discovered I have more courage than I initially thought.
All this boundary pushing will take some practice, though, so it looks as though my only option is to start planning my next adventure.
For more details on Matt Prior Adventure Academy, visit: mpadventureacademy.com