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The Father of Adventure Travel: Richard Bangs

For more than 40 years, no one has done more to shine a light on the globe’s most intriguing corners for workaday adventurers than Richard Bangs. Now 64, the father of American adventure travel is proof that old-school adventure is as alive as ever.

Sep 25, 2014
Outside Magazine

Every once in a while, in every industry, there comes along a game changer. One whose ideas, innovation, and, most important, courage take ordinary people into extraordinary new worlds, sending them home with epic tales of wonder and triumph. These true adventurers brave harsh and often hostile environments to pave the way for new frontiers. Their stories, told around campfires in the wilderness, inspire millions of others to pioneer their own paths. This legend, commonly referred to as the father of adventure travel, carries with him a certain admiration that rubs off on the many who follow him into the most remote regions of the world …

The Big Bangs Effect
The adventurer wore cutoff jeans, a T-shirt, and an old leather belt as he piloted the raft down one of Africa’s more treacherous rivers. Out there, the three best tools a man could carry dangled from around his waist. Pliers could tighten the boat’s stubborn valves and hoist a hot Dutch oven out of the coals. The Buck knife made quick work of rope, meat, and wood. A metal cup with a hook-shaped handle marked him as a genuine river man. It was as functional as it was iconic, a vessel for breakfast gruel and evening drinks. Get thirsty during the day and straight into the river it’d go.

This river, the Awash, was no place for soft men. It was 1973, Ethiopia, a country on the verge of civil war. You couldn’t just browse a catalog and buy a trip like this. You needed friends in embassies to hold your gear and muscles to load it onto the tops of rickety buses. No Western adventurer had ever been down the Awash, a 750-mile lick of big water muscling through the Horn of Africa. There were hippos and crocodiles and venomous snakes. The land was unforgiving and harsh. 

This adventurer, Richard Bangs, felt at home in such a place, he was a curious man who would later become a lion in the adventure world. His passion for seeking out unknown rivers and magnificent cultures was outdone only by his desire to let others share in those authentic discoveries, too. If adventure travel has an American legend alive today, Bangs is it.

“Richard’s legacy, in my mind, is serving as an influential front man for adventure,” says Chris Doyle, the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s executive director for Europe. “For decades, Richard has carried the torch for millions of armchair traveler-dreamers interested in getting as close to the action as possible.”

Bangs returned from that trip with all of his appendages intact, thanks to a harmonica he’d whip out and play anytime he and his men crossed paths with the territorial locals known as the Afar who had a penchant for wearing severed fleshy bits of unfortunate intruders. He’d play it, sing, and entertain his way out of a gruesome scenario. It worked. More remarkable, he returned from the trip with a plan to bring paying clients back to this fascinating country. They could learn from his skills, feel like children in a big, wondrous backyard, and discover the world in an exciting new way.

So he printed out a crude black-and-white brochure and took out a $150 ad in the Wall Street Journal enticing people to forget the beach and come to Ethiopia on a trip full of risk for fun. He called his company Sobek, after the Egyptian crocodile deity. “It was such a bizarre concept that people actually signed up,” he says. “It was really just an excuse to explore, but we ended up tapping into a vein that we didn’t know existed.” Adventure travel as we know it was born.

That vein has since exploded, and Bangs continues to make the world smaller by dusting off its untouched corners to see what mysteries they hold. In the decades that followed, Bangs logged hundreds of first descents around the globe, from Tanzania to New Guinea. He was the first American to guide clients into Libya, Yemen, and North Korea. Adventure travel itself has exploded from a business that barely broke even to a $263 billion industry today.

Most icons have humble beginnings, and for Bangs it all started in a suburb of Washington, D.C. He was a skinny six foot one and barely 170 pounds, but inside that frame burned a hunger for action. At Walt Whitman High School, he joined clubs whose members explored caves, climbed mountains, and paddled rivers. One day he saw a presentation from some friends who’d done the first descent of the Colorado River in a canoe, and he’d found his calling. He soon moved out west to start running his own rivers. “It was one of those life-changing experiences that spun my head around and put me on a different axis,” he says.

Most guides don’t wear cutoff jeans anymore, and the best tools for adventure are those that connect the present to the past—a journal, a camera, a leather-bound curiosity that drives you around the bend. Even with sat phones and GPS, getting out there is risky work, and things don’t always pan out. But it is in those moments of uncertainty that our own legends are forged.

“Everyone has a story, and those narratives are what give us a perspective,” Bangs says. “Better to attempt to round those hidden corners than just stay still. Ultimately it makes existence more exciting.”


Richard Bangs pioneered an industry and inspired millions of adventurers to experience the world. TUDOR Watches is proudly celebrating the legacy and heritage of adventure travel that started decades ago. The spirit of adventure travel lives on through the TUDOR Heritage Ranger, which honors these adventurers’ amazing passion for defying hostile environments and exploring new frontiers. 

Check out the Heritage Ranger here.

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