Notes from the Guru

Take it from adventure travel trailblazer Richard Bangs: Understanding the world requires immersing yourself in it

Richard Bangs and friend in Marina del Rey, California     Photo: Joe Toreno

If you could trace the roots of adventure travel to one person, Richard Bangs, 56, might well be the man. In 1973, back when big chunks of the world, like Russia and Eastern Europe, were virtually closed to Americans, he and high school pal John Yost headed to Ethiopia to explore the Omo River (a trip featured on the first cover of this magazine). What began as a last hurrah of youth morphed into the founding of a travel company, which eventually became Mountain Travel Sobek, one of the largest, most respected outfitters in the industry. Although Bangs is still a co-owner, he left MTS in 1991 to bring travel to the Internet, launching Microsoft's now-defunct online adventure 'zine Mungo Park in 1996 and going on to produce travel features for Expedia, Yahoo, MSNBC, and Slate.com. His latest film project, a documentary on the vanishing crocodiles of the Nile, airs on PBS this summer. Senior editor STEPHANIE PEARSON recently caught up with him in San Diego for this as-told-to about the past, present, and future of wild journeying.

I was 22 in 1973 and had this notion to head to Africa to see if I could explore some rivers that hadn't been navigated. It turned out to be such a magnificent experience that I decided to organize a little company to take people on extraordinary adventures. It was patched together in my mother's basement in Bethesda, Maryland. We began to offer trekking, climbing, ballooning, diving—at that time there was no adventure travel landscape. The concept of travel with a purpose, travel with meaning, travel that would bring you back fitter, with a clearer mind, with a better connection to the world, did not exist.

Adventure travel is in a much better place than it was 30 years ago. We owe a lot of our global interconnectedness to adventure travelers. People who started to wander the earth and appreciate its beauty were people who became activists. Now everybody talks about ecotourism and green travel. It's all the rage. There are downsides and abuses, but it's a good attitude, and it comes from people who are willing to step off the beaten track.

Is the world a smaller place? Absolutely. Within 24 hours you can get to almost anywhere on the planet. But all of this is good. Dark political things would happen when doors were closed. It's very easy to be judgmental and raise the fear index when you don't really know who the other person is. Mark Twain said it best: "Travel is fatal toprejudice and bigotry."

What will adventure travel be like 30 years from now? I was in Bosnia a few months ago, and they have all these outfitters in places where the Croats and Bosnians were once lobbing mortars at each other. This is much harder to do when people are roaring with laughter as they roll down a river... Adventure travel is the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry. It's increasingly impossible to find a country that does not have it. Places are opening up and landscapes are shifting all the time. I just received an invitation to Lebanon. We do a trip to the Galápagos almost every week of the year now. Lots of people are doing things that were unimaginable a few years ago.

I'm an advocate of traveling with technology. I have an Iridium sat phone I take with me everywhere. If you need a moment of Zen, it's easy to take off all your clothes and be as natural as you want, but when it comes to survival, sat phones have saved a lot of lives. In Namibia, a doctor broke both ankles on a trek and was in danger of dying. I was able to call an evac and get him out. The less you have to worry about your own survival, the more you can assimilate the actual experience. Technology in the field can give you an assurance of survival so that you can be more in the moment, more in the experience—so you can contribute and extract more.

Adventure is a very elastic concept, but it has to deal with stretching your consciousness and going beyond your comfort zone. The world, or you, will not change if you are static. If you are willing to stick your neck out, try untried things, have that moment of unknown discomfort and sharpness, then you're fully alive. When I did the first descent of the Zambezi, nobody considered it. Now when I go back to the Zambezi, there are thousands of people tumbling down. Everybody who rafts it has an amazing experience, and it makes a difference. It becomes transformative when you go beyond the concrete and the familiar.

Travel rejuvenates. It's new, it's very childlike, it keeps things fresh. Anything is possible. There could be dinosaurs around the corner. If you don't travel, you deaden yourself. I continue to look at maps and get very excited by the places I haven't been. The more you see, the more you recognize what you have yet to see.I have a long list. It's an endless quest.

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