Wish You Were Here

What are you waiting for? All you need for an unforgettable adventure is a little inspiration—and some inspiring information. The world awaits, so go on then: Get lost!

When I think of risky journeys, the first that springs to mind is the time my little sister and I crawled into our grandparents' bedroom to see if Grandma and Granddad were wrinkled all over. We were so scared that when our progenitors finally woke up, we couldn't even look out from our hiding place, so the expedition ended in failure.

Since then, I've swum with piranhas in the Paraná River, gotten fogbound in trackless valleys and stuck halfway up rock faces, touched dead people's bones, slept in a hut in Peru's Cordillera Central where a terrorist was thought to be hiding, nearly drowned in a river in the Rockies, and generally faced far greater objective dangers than on that early six-yard crawl. If I've never again felt so willing to stake everything on a single purpose, perhaps it's because it's no longer as easy to delineate what I'm asking of life. But taking a trip remains a way to make profound inquiries.

What is freedom? (I hitchhiked from Wyoming to Texas.) Is there a formula for truth? (I went to Burma and was ordained as a nun for a while.) Have my friends been lying to me? (India.) Should I marry him, and if not, how can I ever leave him? (I hiked so far into a cloud forest that no one could find me, including myself.)

Obviously, The Answer didn't arrive on each journey, like some kind of transcendentally packaged surprise (except once or twice). Nor does every trip spring from a question. Sometimes I just have this wild desire again to feel that shift when all baggage becomes secondary, eclipsed by the rigors and wonders of this world. To see the cupping of a woman's hand as she dips water from the Ganges, or how cheetahs and gazelles hang around the Masai Mara in plain sight of one another, waiting to eat or be eaten—such things are ecstasy. I lust to touch what's real. Dirt paths trailing off to nowhere. The full moon over a black sea, the grief-stricken stillness of Sundays in the Andes, and the limb-tearing exuberance of the water games on Hindu Holi. I even confess a fondness for cringing street dogs, lurching buses, and ill-lit restaurants where it seems an evil dimension is trying to reach the surface. Anything that makes me say, "So this is how it is!"

With the arrival of the year 2000, I'm tempted to go someplace I've never considered, just to be as thoroughly amazed as possible. That seems a proper celebration. I believe that certain things cannot be learned, or seen, from the midst of one's ordinary routine. Travel was once the grandest form of education. It still can be so if we recognize that we aren't just passing through, that we can't pretend to be alone. We affect every place and person that we visit. We might even make a pact to stay away from certain destinations entirely: The crystal gardens atop Auyán-tepuí in Venezuela. Uncontacted tribes in Amazonia. Bhutan's unclimbed snow peak, Gangkar Puensum. Inviolate places are important for our imaginations.

Yet it's no crime to exult in standing above a glacial valley, feeling wind in one's hair and seeing condors. We need to know this world; our presence isn't inherently destructive, and our embrace of wildness can actually help. Rivers regenerate when we quit dumping junk in them. Visiting poor, remote villages, we tend to leave cash behind; maybe we can also encourage folks to maintain their traditions. Tigers are sneaking back from the brink of extinction, conservationists report with cautious enthusiasm, because a new kind of human intervention is gradually replacing the old kind. And so, if I love wilderness, if my soul needs nature, and wild beasts, and people unlike myself, what choices will I make, what actions take?

First things first. Get out, while I still can! Leave the house, the rut, the routine. Take the 144-year-old advice of Walt Whitman, and get moving: "Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen'd! Let the tools remain in the workshop! Let the money remain unearn'd!" If all I can do today is walk the dog, I'll run with the dog. There are ways of pushing limits in small ways, every day. Any trip is an adventure. I'm making this my millennial resolution, though: No later than today, I will make concrete plans to get to someplace wilder or dreamier than I've ever been before. No lie—I've already called my travel agent. I know where I'm going. Do you?

Kate Wheeler's novel When Mountains Walked will be published next month by Houghton Mifflin.



Star Treks
Everybody dreams of great adventures...

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Water Keeper Alliance, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, and avid falconer: "My dream trip is night hawk-hunting for spring hare with African hawk eagles in Zimbabwe."

Ruthie Matthes, 1991 world and three-time United States national mountain-biking champion: "New Zealand—I've heard great things about the rides and the people there. I've seen pictures, and the variety on the two islands is incredible—mountains, tropical forests, oceans. It's just an amazing place."

Tao Berman, extreme kayaker and holder of the unofficial world record for the highest waterfall kayaked: "I'd want to go to Colombia. About everything you do there is first descents. I've talked to locals who say Colombia has waterfalls that people would die doing, and whenever you hear something like that, you know it's time to go scout 'em."

Lars Ulrich, Metallica drummer: "I've done probably 1,000 dives in the last ten years. The one place I haven't been yet is called Scapa Flow in the inlets up in Scotland where the whole German World War I fleet went. In the space of five square miles, there are 12 German ships lying at the bottom in totally crystal-clear water with 200-foot-plus visibility. It's apparently the Mount Everest of wreck diving."

—INTERVIEWS BY JOE MCCANNON


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Out of This World

Trips that will blow your mind and your budget

There's no excuse like the year 2000 for upping the adventure stakes and draining the old twentieth-century bank account. At least that's the message outfitters are sending, judging by the outlandish itineraries—and price tags—being offered up of late. And though you may have missed your chance to shell out $36,000 for Odyssey 2000 (a 20,000-mile, 45-country, 366-day bicycle trip taking off on January 1, 2000), there are still plenty of lavish ways to commemorate the end of an age.

  • Ah, the Concorde. Fast, sleek, sexy in that seventies kind of way—and arguably worth every penny of the $55,000 Abercrombie and Kent is charging for its retro-chic "Supersonic Safari." For three weeks passengers will be whooshed at 1,000 miles per hour through the African skies, deplaning to take in the lions and ibex in the Serengeti and to bob under the spray of Victoria Falls. Cocktail hours and flowing champagne raise the glamour quotient, and fellow passengers will all be, according to Abercrombie and Kent, "discerning travelers." The tour departs February 11. Call 800-323-7308 for details.
  • When the Russian economy shriveled, so did the rubles funding its national oceanography program. Undaunted, ingenious scientists hit on another means of subsidizing their subaquatic research: wealthy Western tourists. As the highlight of an $18,950 voyage through the Azores, outfitter Zegraham DeepSea Voyages (in association with the Russian Academy of Sciences) is taking undersea adventurers 7,875 feet below the surface of the Atlantic in a $25 million research submersible-cum-pleasure-pod. (Just like Mir, but underwater!) You'll marvel at spewing hydrothermal vents, eyeless shrimp, and lethargic albino fish. "You may be able to see a five-foot-long tube worm, but it's not a guarantee," says Zegraham's Chris Ostendorf of the nine-hour dive. Tube worms or no, everybody gets to keep a souvenir video—all in the name of science. Zegraham is running only two of these 13-day Azores tours, leaving September 16 and 23. Call 888-772-2366 for details.
  • For the well-heeled goth, Creative Adventure Club is offering the "Land of the Walking Dead" tour. A relatively modest $5,000 includes travel to an undisclosed village in Indonesia's remote South Sulawesi (undisclosed to "protect the village from tourists," according to CAC owner Charlie Gibbs) to join an annual festival in which wrinkled, embalmed corpses of long-interred ancestors are dug up and carried back to the village for a cleaning, a blessing, and a fresh wrap. Activities include the bloody machete slaughter of water buffalo and pigs, followed by a race: The strongest and most agile village men sprint back to the burial grounds, carrying the dead. "In the end it's really about making friends," says Gibbs. The two-week tour, which also includes a little sunbathing in Bali, leaves in August. Call 714-545-5888 for details.

Be Careful Out There

A traveler's advisory on the world's most adventurous places

Beyond livestock-packed buses and vanishing money belts lies a whole other set of daunting travel woes, like errant tornadoes, insurgent guerrilla armies, and drugproof diseases. These more serious hazards are not necessarily reasons to deny your hankering for adventure. But do check out what's going on where you're going (e.g., this is not the year to visit Chechnya) and educate yourself on State Department travel warnings (202-647-5225; travel.state.gov) before heading into uncertain territory. Below, a selective roster of adventure-travel destinations where you might get more than you bargained for.


DISEASE OUTBREAKS/ HEALTH THREATS

Solomon Islands: An island traveler's biggest worry used to be UV-cooked skin—a blessing compared with the mutating strains of drug-resistant malaria being freighted around the South Pacific by mosquitoes. The World Health Organization lists 101 countries affected by malaria, but the Solomons (along with Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and Myanmar) are considered "high risk." So be sure to choke down oral mefloquine with your mai-tai, add topical deet when you slather on suncreen, and spend your nights under bug-proof nets.

Malaysia: First came England's mad cows, then Hong Kong's tainted chickens. Now it's the pig's turn to wreak a little havoc. More than 100 Malaysians have died from a previously unknown disease, the Nipah virus, which is thought to be transmitted through the consumption of pork. Take a pass on bacon when you're visiting.

Kenya: With the rainy season comes Rift Valley Fever, a virus transmitted by the Aedes mosquito and in the meat of infected animals. Until a vaccine is available, use insect repellent religiously, and subscribe to vegetarianism for the length of your trip.


POLITICAL INSTABILITY

Myanmar: When the draconian Burmese government declared 1996 "Visit Myanmar Year," it managed to woo some 200,000 foreigners to ogle its golden pagodas. But repression and paranoia are hard habits to break. Last September, a 28-year-old British woman was sentenced to seven years of hard labor for singing revolutionary songs in public (she served just over a month, thanks to British diplomatic efforts), and some human-rights groups urge tourists to take their dollars elsewhere. If you go, stay off your pro-democracy soapbox or be prepared for trouble.


NATURAL DISASTERS

Ecuador: When Guagua Pichincha blew its top in October, blizzards of ash coated Quito. Since then, the 15,092-foot volcano has continued to rumble at random, belching cinders over the city and dusting nearby trekking routes. The exhalations are expected to continue for several years, as are the power outages and the particle-choked fallout, which occasionally disrupt flights to the Galápagos. Also keep an eye on Tungurahua, near the town of Baños—at press time, an eruption was imminent.


LAND MINES

Cambodia: With one land mine for every two of its 11 million people, Cambodia is a world leader in mine-infestation. A national effort is in the works to uncover and destroy mines in the most populated areas, but it could take decades to complete. Locating the devices, however, isn't a problem: They currently litter many roads, rice paddies, and forests. "If you visit, don't even walk off the road to pee," warns Susan B. Walker, government relations liaison for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.


TERRORISM/ANTI-U.S. THREATS

Uganda: Ever since a group of Hutu rebels slaughtered eight unsuspecting tourists on a gorilla-tracking expedition in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest last March, Uganda has struggled to coax foreigners back into the woods. The latest strategy: a government-sponsored entourage of soldiers, armed rangers, and machete-wielding trackers that will accompany tourists on their excursions. (The Ugandan president himself travels with less protection.) Still, in-park overnights are considered unwise as rebels continue to bunk in the jungle.


CRIME/RANDOM VIOLENCE

El Salvador: The bloody 12-year civil war ended in 1992, but during peacetime this country has developed one of the world's highest crime rates. The war left many combatants jobless and armed, and hence robberies and carjackings of foreigners in former military zones are frequently reported. Travel after dark is strongly discouraged by the U.S. State Department. Still, surfers flock to the famous point break at La Libertad, where consistent five-foot swells run 300 yards to shore. Most hotels padlock their gates at sundown, but come morning, surf's up again.


Heed the Swede

If he biked to Everest and back, he must know what he's doing. Right?

True adventure involves a certain measure of unpredictability. Who better to educate us on handling encounters with the outlandish than Gõran Kropp, the Energizer Bunny expeditioner and self-proclaimed "Crazy Swede" who in 1996 rode his bicycle 8,580 miles from his homeland to Mount Everest, summited without oxygen, and then cycled back home. We recently tracked down the 32-year-old phenom in a remote corner of Scandinavia (where he is training for the next two endurance feats on his world agenda, a solo ski traverse from Russia to the North Pole and a 7,400-mile sailing and skiing expedition to the South Pole) to solicit his advice on adventure travel. Heed his wisdom at your own risk.

That bicycling-to-Everest stunt was pretty impressive. Do you recommend such an intense experience for all adventure-seekers?

No. That was just my personal protest against all these huge expeditions and all this high-altitude Sherpa stuff. If you need this kind of help, maybe it's good to try a shorter mountain.

Which takes priority when you plan a trip: the activity itself, or the cultural experience?

The culture and religion are important, but that stuff is a bonus. Still, I want to see as much as I can—you only have one life to live. If you have two lives, it's a bonus.

Having passed through countless countries, any advice for breaking the language barrier?

Use English. It works, no problem. If not, you can also do a lot with gestures—like when you need the toilet.

What's your philosophy on expedition training?

On an expedition, you often don't eat for two or three days, but you still have to perform. I try to have the same circumstances while I'm training as I would up on Everest, or wherever. Hard physical training without proper food or energy in my body.

What about equipment? Do travelers need the most high-tech stuff?

It's better to go back to basics. I had fancy lightweight wheels on my bike, and on the Asian roads they became shaped like—what do you call it—an olive. I had to take a bus 180 miles to Tehran to fix them.

How should travelers cope with stress on the road?

Just remember you're on vacation and you're supposed to have a nice time. It's OK to call home and tell your mother to send your favorite biscuits.

How long does it normally take for a person to go a bit loony out there?

It's not the amount of time; it's your troubles. Once I was in the countryside of Pakistan enjoying my lunch, and a huge crowd popped out from houses to look at the Western guy with his bicycle. They were standing right in my lunch! One of them took my map, so I took it back. Another one pulled me up by my underwear, and it got to pieces. Then he tried to hit me with his fist, and I got furious and hit him hard in the head. It was like a Tyson match. I thought I would be dead, but everybody ran away.

Having been through that, did you learn any lessons about avoiding unpleasant social situations?

Now, every time I have a lunch break, I make sure to take the first guy I see and hit him hard in the head. [Laughs.] Just kidding.

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