"There is no greater way to submit to the genius of a place than to humble about by foot."
My Perfect Adventure
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 Expedia.com 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.