In the deserts of Al Ain, an SAS veteran has found a new way to beat the strains of living in the big city. Piers Grimley Evans discovers "good stress".

Up close, mouse-tailed bats are even less cuddly than their name suggests.

Hanging from the ceiling with spidery claws, they stare beadily down.

Still, invading their snug dormitory beneath the Al Ain desert, I was grateful for their generally calm response.

Only a few elected to flap about in high-pitched alarm, throwing looming shadows in the light of our helmet torches.

Caving is an odd form of fun.

While much of your mind is relishing the novelty of it all, another part is silently repeating, "I want my mummy."

It is just as well to be accompanied by a self-professed mother hen - especially one with a grizzled beard and military bearing whose gruff tones can reverberate around the rock and keep panic from fluttering to the surface.

But our occasional frisson of ill-ease was strictly intentional.

Like any responsible mother hen, Brian Goggin was leading us six slightly edgy cityfolk through narrow tunnels to bat-haunted caverns for our own good.

Caving was just one part of a weekend engineered to repel the stresses of city life.

"Dubai can be a very stressful environment," says Goggin.

So to keep these bad vibes at bay, Goggin - ex-soldier and veteran management trainer - has created a stress retreat.

The weekend progresses from subterranean caverns to chilly wadis before concluding with a leap from the jagged face of Jebel Hafeet mountain.

"The idea is to take people entirely out of the environment they are used to," he says.

"Lots of people are not comfortable away from their bed and their bathroom. But when they realise the environment will not bite them, they begin to relax. Out in the desert away from phones, work and family, their way of thinking and behaving changes."

Thought patterns are also nudged into new shapes by sessions of yoga, meditation and group hypnosis that bookend the weekend's more vigorous activities.

With helmet torches extinguished, the absolute darkness of our subterranean chamber becomes the improbable venue for a meditation session (goodness knows what the bats think of it all).

Such new-ageyness might seem to fit oddly with Brian Goggin's no-nonsense manner and craggy looks.

But his approach distils the wisdom of six highly eventful decades.

Goggin was brought up in the tough London borough of Stepney when horses still walked the streets and the family next door had no cash for shoes.

He left school at 15 and, two years later, joined the British army.

For three decades he then shuttled around the globe between the conflicts that accompanied the British Empire's prolonged death rattle.

In 1970, he arrived in the Gulf as part of the elite SAS regiment.

For the next six years the stress in his life came courtesy of the rebels of Oman's Dorfar region - not that they bothered him overmuch.

"When someone is shooting at you," he says, "you are so busy you don't have time to think about it. Then, when it's over, you recover quickly. Trouble starts and finishes in the space of a few minutes. Getting stuck in traffic on Shaikh Zayed Road is far more stressful because it can last so much longer."

His own ascent into the stress stratosphere came when 25 years of marriage ended in divorce.

In 1986, for the first time in his life, he met a problem that compromised his ability to do his job.

Back in the UK, he began to study neuro-linguistic programming [NLP], psychology and hypnosis in the search for peace of mind through self-knowledge.

It set him on a new path when - his marriage over - Goggin returned to the Gulf as a trainer in the Oman Army.

On retirement, by now proficient in Arabic and with few remaining ties with the UK, he decided to stick around.

He moved to Al Ain and set up a company teaching leadership skills to businesspeople.

"But I soon got bored," he says, "of telling the same jokes and laughing at the same responses."

At the same time he was exploring further into hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming through work with children with learning difficulties.

Re-armed with these add-ons to a conventional military mindset, he went back to the desert.


The stress retreat's participants gather at the carpark of the Al Ain InterContinental on a Wednesday afternoon.

Together they then set off into the desert to set up camp - although they are discouraged from using their tents.

"When shelter is not necessary, man has slept in the open ever since he has been running around," says Goggin. "It's a very relaxing way of being."

After the drive to the campsite it is already dark.

The 4X4s are drawn up in a circle and branches are fossicked in the gloom for a campfire.

After supper comes the induction into Goggin's philosophy of overcoming stress.

This, to simplify somewhat, is a question of altered states - achieving a frame of mind where we can rewrite our childhood programming.

The practical demonstration comes next with a group hypnosis session under the stars.

Its secondary aim is to combine with fresh air and a glare-free sky in ensuring a good night's sleep.

The tinkling of coffee being prepared by the rebuilt fire initiates the second day's activities - the yoga exercises, known as the five Tibetans, followed by caving and canyoning.

By Friday lunchtime, as they set off back to the city, the attendees should have learnt to take responsibility for their own stress.

Through the "good stress" of caving, canyoning and abseiling they should learn to control the "bad stress" of work, traffic and cultural dislocation.

The other "good stress" is an entire weekend in an unfamiliar environment with total strangers.

"Just being with other people of a like mind is often all that is needed to start overcoming stress," says Goggin.

"It doesn't matter whether it's peer pressure or whatever," he says.

"The idea is to be in a situation where you question whether you really want to do something or not. When you have done it, at an unconscious level you change your attitude. You realise, 'I've done this, so why am I so worried about the things that are causing me stress in my everyday life'?"

Personally, fear of appearing a wuss certainly assists when squeezing like toothpaste between underground caverns.

An upbeat group also helps when tramping through a chilly stream at the bottom of a wadi - the activity that follows the bat encounter session (conveniently, given the way cave dust finds its way into a boilersuit).

But, in essence, canyoning is about not getting too cold.

"When I jumped in the water I literally couldn't breathe," said one participant.

"I had read somewhere that if you breathe out, then you will automatically breathe in again - so I forced myself to breathe out."

Where we joined the wadi it was broad and shingly.