My Perfect Adventure: Richard Bangs

The father of modern adventure travel tells us about imitating Huck Finn as a teenager and getting arrested by a park ranger; falling into despair and giving up his paddle after his best friend died in a rafting accident; and eventually realizing that in order to truly live, he needed to return to the rivers again

Richard Bangs.     Photo: Courtesy of American Public Television

"There is no greater way to submit to the genius of a place than to humble about by foot."

It might seem a bit over the top to call someone “the father of modern adventure travel,” but if anyone has earned such a weighty title, it’s probably Richard Bangs. A globetrotter of more than 40 years, Bangs has made his career as a river pioneer with serious spunk, paddling rafts down some of the world’s most dangerous waterways despite obstacles such as poisonous snakes, hyenas, man-eating insects, and crocodiles, not to mention a couple thousand hippos once on the Omo River in Ethiopia. “There is no country or place unworthy of visitation,” he told Outside recently in an email. “The more granular you go, the bigger the universe.”

When it comes to travel, Bangs is truly a jack of all trades. In addition to making first descents down 35 rivers, including the Yangtze in China and the Zambezi in Africa, he has racked up extensive experience as a guide, travel writer, TV host, producer, and entrepreneur. In the 1970s he cofounded Sobek Expeditions, an exploration rafting company that later merged with another operator to become Mountain Travel Sobek, a leader in adventure travel today. He has written 19 books—including the multi-award-winning The Lost River, about his expeditions in Ethiopia—and hundreds of travel articles for The Huffington Post, Slate, The New York Times, MSNBC, and other publications.

If that’s not prolific enough, Bangs has also given lectures at the Smithsonian, the National Geographic Society, and the Explorers Club; served on the founding executive team of and as president of Outward Bound; and worked as the host and co-executive producer for the Emmy award-winning American Public Television series Adventures With Purpose, which has evolved to Richard Bangs’ Quest.

He says these days he’s based in Venice Beach, California, “halfway between the concepts of Tsunami and Sun Tzu.” But even after all these years on the road, he’s not keen to stay in one place for long. “When not traveling, I suffer from wanderlust,” he told Outside. “The natural state of being is nomadic; inertia is the death of hope.” In this interview, the tireless globetrotter tells us about imitating Huck Finn as a teenager and getting arrested by a park ranger; falling into despair and giving up his paddle after his best friend died in a rafting accident; and eventually realizing that in order to truly live, he needed to return to the rivers again.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
Someplace unplugged, earth’s first morning, pre-DARPA. Once, some years ago, I made the first descent of the Omo River in Ethiopia, and one day climbed up the escarpment to the top of a several-hundred-foot-high waterfall. The view at the lip was transcendent, an endless horizon of primary forest with not a trace of man or his doings at any seam. I sat there for hours drinking in the music of the waters, the perfumes of the plants, and the visions uninterrupted. I thought that perhaps I was the first person to gaze from this aerie, though I could never know. As the tropical sun crumpled into the canyons, I made my way back down to the river. And I thought this a perfect day. I think I have been searching for that kind of day ever since.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go?
It would be to dial back to an earlier time, the golden age of exploration, when the scrambles began to explore the interior of Africa. To stride alongside Sam and Florence Baker, David Livingstone, the brilliant but bastardly Richard Burton, and John Speke, as they unfolded the landscapes of a continent, would be, I imagine, to enquire a simpler, more dangerous, more demanding state of grace.

Where is the best place you've ever visited?
The eyes of my sons when I have bared the beauty of unfamiliar lands to them.

If you could have lunch with any athlete or adventurer, who would it be?
Paul Maritz, at his camp on the Kafue River in Zambia. There is no greater adventurer of the mind.

What's something you can't travel without?
A pen and a Moleskine notebook. Despite all the digital tools, or because of them, I am pathologically addicted to scribbling the croc on paper.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
To walk about. There is no greater way to submit to the genius of a place than to humble about by foot.

What motivates you to keep traveling?
The eternal quest for the Sublime. In 1735, the poet Sir Hildebrand Jacob penned an essay, “How the Mind Is Raised to the Sublime,” in which he evoked: “A Mind truly disposed for the Perceptions of that, which is great and marvelous, whether in nature or in art, is a product of nature and cannot be attained through study. All the vast and wonderful Scenes ... which the Universe affords, have this Effect upon the Imagination.”

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
I admired the mythopoetics of the day, Thor Heyerdahl, Edmund Hillary, Jacques Cousteau. The year of college graduation I started Sobek, in part as tribute to the explorers who inspired a young spirit. I have yet to give up chasing rainbows. Regrets? There was that one that got away, but beyond that, not so many.

When and how did you first start exploring rivers?
In high school, while reading Huck Finn, I lit out to the Potomac River with friends, lashed together some logs, and hurled downstream, until arrested by a park ranger. That sparked the coal. A couple years later I became a river guide on the Colorado River, working for Hatch River Expeditions. I screwed up most everything I tried, destroying a few boats along the way, but heard tales of Don Hatch and his aborted expedition down the Indus River in Pakistan with Lowell Thomas (they were filming a Cinerama production, and capsized at the start, and the lead actor drowned). Then I read the book, The Blue Nile Reveled, by Richard Snailham, about a British Army attempt to run “The Grand Canyon of Africa,” the Blue Nile, but it was riddled with mishaps, unpleasantness, and death. My eyes widened with these stories, and decided to pick up where others had failed. With unmerited chutzpah, I thought I could negotiate miscarried passages. In fact, with a few miscarriages of my own, I did finally sail the Blue Nile, the Indus, and many others.

What advice would you give to an aspiring travel writer?
Go into it for the money. You will become rich beyond imaginings. At least in experiences. Pursue the places and activities that have your mind trembling on the edge of extinction.

Who has been your most influential mentor? What did he or she teach you?
My sons. They teach faithfulness to our childlike imaginations of wilderness, our youthful notions of life authentic and unadulterated, how to dog the true, original adventures. Far from the strictures of adult routines, they remind what makes life rip-roaring and breathtaking.

Do you have a life philosophy?
“To ever seek that which dilates and elevates the soul; everything that is great, sublime, extraordinary, and astounding, everything that is terrible and dreadful, all that is defiant, dark, and melancholic, everything that is romantic, gentle, charming, cheerful, tranquil, refreshing, and idyllic in the whole wide world of nature.”

Have you ever made a mistake that made you think twice about going out again?
My best friend and original partner in Sobek, Lew Greenwald, drowned on the Blue Nile. The news of Lew’s death sent me into a tailspin. Up to that point, I saw river rafting as the finest expression of freedom and self-validation that existed. I believed that the American idea of freedom was Huck rafting the Mississippi, or Thoreau going up the Merrimac. I had seen firsthand the transformational power of river journeys, and Lew was living testimony: He had trimmed down, found a confidence and a lightness that had been hidden, and let it be known that his life was full of joy.

But with his drowning, I saw the dark side of adventure. How could anything be celebrated that snatched away lives so full of promise, charity, and happiness? The shock that my close friend was dead numbed my world. Shame ran through me like a sword. The lifejacket in my closet hung like an accusation beside my winter coat. Suddenly the thought of rafting down a river seemed evil, a frivolous exercise that had such an insidious downside that I couldn’t imagine why people would risk it. I saw it all as a photographic negative of the way I had seen it before; everything white was black. The thought of laughing while paddling through the raised fist of a wave, a slap of whitewater that could knock a person unconscious and suck the life from a precious body, was abhorrent, pornographic, insane. I wanted to call all my past passengers and tell them the truth about river running and urge them to stay away from rafts and rivers.

My attitude about rivers bent like a gooseneck. Rivers didn’t assert life; they took it away. They weren’t innocent; they were dissolute. Rivers were acid baths. I didn’t ever want to go near one again, didn’t want one to come within my compass. I hung up my paddle.

I carved out my own little meat department of metaphysical angst. My life became bland and vapid, a world behind glass.  But, as the months wore, I began to soften. Friends would stop by my apartment on their way to run a river, and when I tried to explain my hostility for what they were doing, their eyes looked over my shoulder. And, at social functions, I couldn’t ignore the palpable excitement across the room when talk finally steered to rivers run and yet to be. When finally, a year later, I found myself back on the river I realized that while Lew had made a sacrifice, the supreme sacrifice, it was in search of life, not sitting in stagnant, polluted waters behind a dam or a desk. If only for a moment, he lived life to its fullest, rode along the keen edge between water and sky. And I knew then he would want me to do the same.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be?
It would only be to find the eddy that would return me again and again to this life.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
To find the coordinates of contentment.

To map the meridians of delightful horror and terrible joy.

And to sip the perfect beer.

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