What a hallucinogenic honey hunter can teach you about risk and reward

I’ve been badgering the doctors for the precise risk-profile of my upcoming procedures.

Demanding hard stats – like the fact that 80% of aplastic anaemia patients are still alive 5 years after initial diagnosis.

Percentages that allow me to build a framework around my condition – to neatly place each possible outcome into a box and arrange them in a line of likelihood.

But balancing the big risks and rewards of life isn’t akin to sorting boxes.

When risk management fails – and blind faith prevails

Last weekend, we unearthed The Last Honey Hunter from the Banff Mountain Film Festival back catalogue.

It tells the story of Mauli Dhan, who collects hallucinogenic honey from high on a cliff face near his Himalayan village.

Mauli has been scaling the route for over 4 decades. With no safety rope or protective clothing. Just a 300-foot makeshift bamboo rope ladder, a mantra (to placate the bees) and an unswerving faith in the guardian spirit, Rangkemi.

The Yankee film crew took a foolproof approach to the cliff and the bees. They were clad head-to-toe in protective suits and anchored with sturdy ropes and metal rappel devices.

But the overhang jutted out so far that they dangled in mid-air like spinning tops and couldn’t get a clean shot. And the clever bees stung them right through the material of their outfits.

Meanwhile, Mauli ascended his ladder and free-soloed across a narrow ledge, harvesting giant amber discs of beehive, hitching chunks to the ground in a bucket and pulley.

There was a time I lived like Mauli

On backpacking travels, I’ve gone home with countless strangers who’ve offered me a place to sleep. I’ve trekked alone for miles in near darkness, an invisible pack of dogs barking ferociously every step of the way. I’ve pitched a tent on the cold rock floor of a mountaintop, teetering on the edge of a cloud-filled valley.

The reward was always to visit the unvisited places. The nooks of the earth that guest accommodation hadn’t yet reached.

Although I never consciously thought about it, risk was everywhere. It fuelled the fire of the adventure. Fear – extinguished – paled into the ether.

Risk is still everywhere today. It lurks inside my illness and in my daily activities. Why have I been trying so hard to quantify and manage it?

My husband greets risk each time he climbs. He once told a tale of a friend from his climbing group, who crashed 5 metres to the ground when his attachments failed.

My husband climbed a few days later. His friend climbed as soon as his body had recovered. Risk was still there – but fear couldn’t find a crevice to creep into.

Today, humanity stands knee-deep in a bog of unquantifiable risk

Our media peddles stories of doom, crafted to sell more issues and stoke widespread panic.

The ever-widening crevasse between scientific advice and government action steeps us in uncertainty.

The result?

My parents have shoved my household out of their bubble – despite the reassurance of my weekly Covid swab.

A hospital concierge refused me entry until the positioning of my face mask was millimetre perfect.

My kid can only invite 4 friends to his birthday party – despite intermingling with 29 friends each day at school.

Common sense has been hijacked by primal fear.

Yes, Covid presents a risk to human health – and precautions are necessary. But our global reaction to it isn’t serving us.

To reap the juiciest fruit, you must redefine the risk of picking it

Is the deliciousness of squeezing your grandson worth the infinitesimal risk of catching Covid?

Is the exhilaration of climbing worth the risk of falling?

Is the sweet nectar of recovery worth the chance that the transplant will kill me?

Mauli Dhan has his own mantra: “The key to confronting agitated bees is to show no fear.”

He looks spent and ready to retire. But for years he quelled his fear – exchanging it for the reward of maintaining a magical local tradition. He reshaped risk into an honest livelihood – because his hard to reach honey sells for 6 times the price of regular Nepali honey.

The risks we take in life are generally entangled with their rewards.

Like Mauli, I can choose to fuse the two until they become indistinguishable. I can choose to ease up on my hyper-analysis and rest in risk as a part of my journey.

Because the risks I take today will build the person I am tomorrow. The fear of falling is inextricably linked with the exhilaration of climbing.

Risk is what keeps our hearts pulsing and reminds us that we’re truly alive. And that may be the greatest reward of all.

One thought on “What a hallucinogenic honey hunter can teach you about risk and reward

  1. Living is a risky business. If you base it on stats, probably the riskiest thing people do every day is get in their car. But very few people question it.


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