The New Adventure Class
For the truly intrepid thrill seekers, ain't no mountain high enough. Joseph Hooper reports on the new adventurers and the men and women who can take them safely—and in style—to the farthest corners of Planet Earth.
In 1990, ten years after Jane Williams and her husband, Walter, transplanted themselves from London to his family ranch in Patagonia, Walter died in a farming accident. Williams was left to oversee a working estancia of 15,000 acres in the vast South American wilderness, with 700 cows, 20 chickens, and a fledgling tourist business that she hoped would support her and her two young children. So she turned herself into a horsewoman—exploring the bone-dry grasslands, the forests of rare monkey-puzzle evergreens, the caves and lakes hidden in the Andean foothills, learning everything by trial and error—and over the years she grew to be a specialist in adventure travel. Now her Huechahue ranch, 120 miles northeast of Bariloche, Argentina, has become one of the most sought-after destinations for riding enthusiasts looking for a rugged and spectacular world to explore on horseback. For the length of their stay, guests become honorary family members, lending a hand on the ranch and staying in their own cabins in the estancia's garden. They set out with Williams on brisk all-day rides through her expansive property (a visit to roosting condors is a highlight) or on the three- or five-day horse treks through vertiginous 6,000-foot mountain passes in nearby Lanin National Park. For the novice adventurer, the experience is a soul-stirring change of rhythm and scenery.
This is the state of customized high-end adventure travel today, as Williams and many others have created it. Some travel professionals credit a well-heeled and sophisticated baby boomer generation with starting the vogue of physically active and often expensively customized vacations—far removed from the "if it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium" bus tours or mass-market Caribbean cruises. What is indisputable is that what was once a niche market catering to hunters, fishermen, and mountain climbers has grown into a family-friendly, $220 billion-a-year industry, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. And this growth extends to the highest end of travelers. American Express Platinum Travel Service has reported in recent years a marked increase in bookings of adventure- and culture-oriented trips to Antarctica, South America, New Zealand, and India. Epic man vs. nature struggle has been replaced by a more democratic ideal: adventure for everyone, undergirded with a safety net of cell phones and satellite Global Positioning Systems.
To get a feel for how solid the pillars of first-class adventure travel are, you need go no further than Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, to the offices of Sven-Olof Lindblad, 53, a second-generation pioneer in the field. Lindblad Expeditions offers cruises to places like Antarctica and the Galápagos. But Sven Lindblad will be the first to tell you that it is not like 1956, when his father, the late Swedish travel impresario Lars-Eric Lindblad, chartered an Argentine navy vessel and set sail with a bunch of tourists for Antarctica. "I realized I wasn't going to discover the world," he says. "My father kind of ruined that." Lindblad does have a certain nostalgia for the old days with dad ("we used to do these idiotic things like having people stranded in the Falklands, not being able to get them back to the ship"), but now he takes pride in his highly professional operation. The excitement of doing something first has been replaced with the satisfaction of delivering what he calls a more "honed" product. Lindblad now conducts 30 boat trips a year for between 12 and 110 people at a time, led by a flotilla of naturalists and historians. "Nowadays, I don't expect to kill people," Lindblad says drolly. "How we avoided it twenty-five years ago is beyond me."
If Lindblad and his ilk owe a spiritual debt to the great polar and Himalayan expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the warm-weather side of the business has its roots in the big-game African safari that flourished in the shade of British colonialism. Geoffrey Kent, 61, the CEO of Abercrombie & Kent, grew up in Kenya and happily takes credit for lifting the safari out of the bloody-minded Hemingway era. The breakthrough, he says, occurred when he was serving as an officer in the British army in Libya in the '60s. Anticipating the needs of a general who liked his pampering ("any fool can be uncomfortable, Geoffrey," the general told him), Kent directed a clever engineer to rig up a refrigeration unit that ran off power from the engine of a truck. Kent brought the concept (and the engineer) back with him to Kenya and launched a mobile safari business, with refrigeration, allowing tourists to dine sumptuously without need of freshly killed meat. "I wanted to allow people to explore their Walter Mitty selves," Kent says, "but with cut-glass crystal and Dom Perignon in the bucket, and with the soup being served in time for the hippo's last snort. I'm only half-joking."
Indeed. Kent's Africa proved to be a market winner, and Abercrombie & Kent (the "Abercrombie" is made-up; it sounds tony and lands the company on the first page of the phone directory) is now the colossus of high-end adventure travel, with headquarters in London and Oak Brook, Illinois, forty-five offices around the globe, and a fat catalogue of trips to a hundred different countries. Nearly half the company's business is in customizing trips to the tastes of the client, be it Jimmy Buffett or Jimmy Carter. And A&K has been known to pull out the stops. There was, for instance, the expedition six years ago to the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania. "It was with Prince Charles and the boys [William and Harry]," Kent explains. "We did a walking tour with the Masai. The noted anthropologist Richard Leakey came with us to describe the footprints of man."
Abercrombie & Kent's success has helped breed a new generation of competitors, the best of whom have emulated its exacting attention to clients' wants and needs, but not necessarily in such grand style. For them, quality is not determined so much by material luxury (although that doesn't hurt) but instead by the ability to match the right client with the right adventure, be it "soft"—living like a British lord in the bush—or "hard"—roughing it if necessary in order to experience wilderness or indigenous culture in a way that few Westerners are privileged to do.
"We take people as close to the wilderness as we can without freaking them out," says Cherri Briggs, American impresario behind Explore, Inc. "There is no question that people like to be pushed out of their comfort zone—and we have never had complaints or lawsuits." The 46-year-old blonde adventurer founded her company, which offers guided trips throughout Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, after being pushed out of her own comfort zone 13 years ago, when she broke her neck in a car accident. She emerged physically intact after a year of convalescence, but couldn't return to her successful career in advertising and film production. Instead, she made good on her childhood dream of becoming an explorer of the hard-knuckled old school. (Briggs earned her admission to the prestigious Explorers Club by completing the first documented descent of Mozambique's Lugenda River.) Explore, Inc. became a way to indulge her own wanderlust and to give her clients a taste of something primal and beautiful—the best way, she figures, to win over people of means to the cause of preserving Africa (to date, she says, her clients have contributed about half a million dollars to conservationist causes). "You have these corporately owned luxury camps popping up all over, especially southern Africa," she says. "It is a great product, but the experience is completely canned." Instead, Briggs' lodge-based trips make use of small, privately owned camps; on the mobile safaris, clients sleep in luxury tents on the ground, not on elevated platforms out of harm's way. "I know what it's like to hear a lion swish its tail against the side of a tent," she says. "You think you're going to die. It gives you something genuine to worry about, as opposed to the stock market. It really puts you in touch with the natural world. You, too, are food."
Briggs hastens to add that she's never lost a client or had one hurt (and that includes the late actor Jack Lemmon and his wife). Explore, Inc. manages to pack in experiences that are distinctly off the beaten safari path—on one trip you canoe down the Lower Zambezi River, dodging elephants along the way—without taking undue risks. Most of the time. "Ninety percent of our trips operate at the highest level of what is considered safe and normal on safari," says Briggs. For clients who are drawn to that other ten percent, she says, "we're happy to take them to the edge." Living nine months of the year in Africa, shuttling between safari and her home base in Maun, Botswana, she feels confident tackling something ambitious like a trek in the Republic of Niger to the Saharan land of the Tuareg tribe, the so-called Blue Men of the Desert (their indigo robes stain their skin). "It's like going to the moon," she says. "It's just a sea of white dunes, then you see a mountain with huge slabs of blue marble in it, or a camel caravan goes by." At $10,000 for a 17-day trip, beauty and a measure of danger and discomfort don't come cheap. "Sand, pup tents, and eating goats," is how Briggs describes it. "And it can be edgy. We've got two guides with AK-47s on the roof of our 4x4 to deal with bandits. Our guys were in the Tuareg rebellion. Of course, so were the bandits."
There is "hard" safari and there's "hard" polar adventure, too. That means dispensing with the sleek Lindblad vessels and opting instead for a classic human sled haul to the North or the South Pole. (Sled dogs are banned in the Antarctic lest they spread disease to the penguin population, and dogsled trips are rarely practicable in the Arctic.) Pen Hadow, 42, a.k.a. "Polar Pen," is the dean of commercial polar guides. In the course of some 25 polar expeditions, he's had his dicey moments (last year, after making the first unaided trek from North America to the North Pole, he had to be airlifted out of the Arctic when the ice began to melt and crack). But he's never led a paying client into serious difficulty. "There is this impression," Hadow says, "that on a polar expedition frostbite is a given, loss of limb is likely, and death is a possibility. But compared to high-altitude mountaineering, it's really quite safe." His troop, The Polar Travel Company, is now accepting clients for the March-April 2005 season, those willing to pay upwards of $25,000 for a shot at either the South or North Pole (Hadow is on hiatus in 2004, well occupied with a personal 725-mile slog to the South Pole). The market, he says, is small but expanding, spurred by recent popular literary accounts of the classic expeditions, especially by those heroic, long-suffering Brits Ernest Shackleton and Robert F. Scott. The physical challenge of a trip can be adjusted as needed, Hadow emphasized. "The client needs only a general aptitude for self-reliance and a relentless mental focus," he says. "In 2002, I took a man with muscular dystrophy to the North Pole. We flew to within 200 meters, and he walked the rest of the way in. He was prepared to crawl."
In recent years, the time-honored tradition of expeditionary adventure has grown ever more intense under the name of "extreme sport." Heliskiing is the quintessential hybrid endeavor, the client choppering to remote and dangerous terrain for the pleasure of a run down virgin powder. And the ultimate heliskiing thrill is provided by Australian adventurer and photographer Roderick Mackenzie. In 1989, he climbed Everest. The next year, he decided to do something really difficult: He founded Himachal Helicopter Skiing, bringing heliskiing to the Manali region of the Indian Himalayas. The combination of subtropical latitudes and breathtaking altitudes (up to 16,000 feet), Mackenzie says, yields longer runs, warmer temperatures, and first-rate powder. "I couldn't be bothered to ski anywhere else in the world," he says. Mind you, being dropped onto a huge, potentially unstable snow mass involves more than just good fun. Mackenzie, a physicist and an inveterate tinkerer, works on improving safety equipment (snow penetrometers, mortality sensors, and the like) at his off-season workshop in Melbourne, Australia. Still, he says, "avalanche and aviation are always going to be hazards. For all we know, some American helicopter could mistake us for the Taliban and blow us out of the air."
Incredible Adventures, Inc. of Sarasota, Florida, has taken the quest for instant adventure to its extreme. Since its creation in 1993, the trip packager has been busily assembling a menu of high-octane thrills from around the world: In South Africa, you can swim with sharks and rappel off Cape Town's Table Mountain; in Russia, you can share the throttle with a MIG pilot flying Mach 2 over Moscow; back in the States, you can jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet to perform a HALO (high-altitude, low-open) sky dive (only five civilians have done it, two of them I.A. clients), or submit to a weekend of counterterrorism training at a facility manned by ex-Navy Seals in North Little Rock, Arkansas. This is adventure based not so much on exploration of the unknown as on a controlled dose of fantasy. According to company president Jane Reifert, her clients are typically businessmen in their forties who like "to play rough during the day and then go back to a five-star hotel at night," and are happy to pay about $10,000 a week for the privilege.
As proficient as a company like Incredible Adventures is at creating thrills, the fact remains that today, when virtually all the world's mountains, rivers, and polar wastes have been climbed, forded, and braved, true adventure isn't easy to come by. So it's not surprising that some of the best minds in the business are rethinking the very definition of adventure itself. Pros like Bill Bryan, the 60-year-old founder of Off the Beaten Path and a specialist in Western travel, lure their clients outside the passive tourist role and into a more active engagement with the natural world, the culture, even the politics of the places they are visiting. "Most of our clients are saying they want to have an authentic experience," Bryan says, adding, "but that doesn't mean they want to use one-ply toilet paper or leaves." Bryan and his wife, Pam, customize trips to the North American West using only very well appointed ranches like the Bitterroot Ranch in Wyoming or Smith Fork in Crawford, Colorado. And every trip includes a naturalist to talk about conservation and local history, an approach that reflects the Bryans' passionate feelings about saving what's left of the Wild West from development and mass tourism. And it's this, Bill Bryan says, that clients are coming to demand. "They want to meet local people and learn more," he says. "Fifteen years ago, you might have hired a guiding service to take you hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and floating, and that's about it. Today, our guides are photographers, biologists, and geologists." Adventurists like Cherri Briggs share a similar sense of environmental mission, but Bryan may be in a league of his own when it comes to overseeing the total education of his client. "Pam and I lead one walking trip in southern Utah where our clients listen to environmental activists talk about land issues," he says. "And then we have a barbecue with a Mormon family and get their different point of view. On our Yellowstone trips, our biologists will speak about the reintroduction of wolves, and then we'll talk to a rancher who's had a tough experience with wolves killing his sheep and his dog."
As adventure travel becomes more sophisticated, the distinction between "hard" and "soft" may give way to "outer" vs. "inner." Some trips take a person to a remote and beautiful place, in Everest pioneer George Mallory's words, "because it's there." Some trips hold out the promise of personal transformation by lowering the barrier between the tourist and the touristed. Enkhsaikhan, a 34-year-old travel expert from Mongolia (he goes by only one name, as is Mongolian custom), is the architect of such trips, frequently taking travelers into that isolated country to live in a yurt with a nomad family. "These people live such long distances from each other that seeing any other human face is an event for them," says Enkhsaikhan. His clients (who book through his company, BizInfo Travel) share the fascination, he says. "They want to be inside the skin of a local herder, to compare lives," he says. Of course, he notes wryly, "most of the tourists come in the summer, when it's pleasant. They don't see what it's like when it's minus forty centigrade."
But a few travel operators are willing to dispense with the Potemkin Village approach altogether, offering their clients a glimpse of human struggle on the other side of the tourist divide. Charles Carlow, 38, the founder of Wilderness Australia, has transplanted the African concept of safari to the outback. Lacking the crowd-pleasing punch of African wildlife, Carlow says, "I have to depend on the local people to convey something more subtle," he says, "a feeling of the land." Carlow's offerings in the Kimberley area in the northwest include living on a million-acre cattle station or camping right in the midst of aboriginal culture. "One of our trips is led by a conservationist who works with the Jaru people," he says. "At night, over a brush fire, you'll hear about things like alcoholism and poverty, the things that are usually hidden away." Another trip is led by a Jaru couple. "They might show you some bush food, some sacred sights. They enjoy it, and the money goes into land conservation and other causes."
Culture and politics have come into play even with those operators who specialize in sportier adventure. Norman Pieters, the president of Karell's African Dream Vacations, Inc. of Coral Gables, Florida, routinely sends people to swim (in cages) with sharks off Cape Town, South Africa, and to fly over Zambia's Victoria Falls in two-man planes called micro-lites. And yet lately his clients have raved more about the thought-provoking aspects of the trip than about the adrenaline rushes: tours of Cape Town's Robben Island, the onetime political prison, guided by Nelson Mandela's former inmate associates, and the half-day spent at the New Rest project outside of town, a squatter's camp in the throes of turning itself into a viable community with the aid of private and government monies. "A trip to Africa should touch you on an emotional level," Pieters says, "and these things do."
Or if not the emotions, then certainly the appetite: Everest veteran George Dunn, now a founding partner of the Washington State-based International Mountain Guides, says that one of his most popular trips is the Alps Classics, a two-week midsummer jaunt to the summits of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and the Jungfrau. The trip is something like a fantasy camp for the relative neophyte who, with Dunn's expert assistance, can tackle the storied climbs that gave rise to the birth of alpinism a century and a half ago. Fitness and enthusiasm are a must; youth is not. "These days, our clients are definitely not giving up in their thirties," Dunn says. In contrast to the goal-driven, macho attitude that often prevails among younger guides, Dunn, 50, ensures that half his tour is spent recuperating in the restaurants and hotels of Chamonix, Zermatt, and Wengen. "The evenings," he says, "are all about good food, good stories, and good wine."
The husband-and-wife cycling team of Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter (he's an American Tour de France stage winner; she won cycling gold at the '84 Olympics) have blended a similar cocktail of athletic fantasy and gastronomic pleasure. They hold three or four annual bike camps in Italy—in the Dolomites in the summer, Tuscany in the fall—for recreational cyclists of all ages and abilities who, for one week, are treated like world-class pros. "When Lance Armstrong has a problem in training, everyone stops," Phinney says. "When our guys have a problem, we've also got the mechanic and the masseur to take care of it." The Dolomites camp, based in a four-star hotel in Corvara, ends with participation in the 7,000-strong Maratona bike race that covers some of the same demanding mountain passes as does Italy's premier pro stage race, the Giro d'Italia. "As far as you can see, there are riders coming through the clouds," Phinney says, "and then you see these 5,000-foot mountains poking through. And no cars. That's heaven." Phinney's passion is contagious. And, of course, passion is what sets today's best adventure travel experts apart. They're not just selling the experience; they're also sharing it.
Going to 11 Extremes
casting flies in the rockies
Bill Bryan, founder of Off the Beaten Path in Bozeman, Montana, specializes in a six-day, 650-mile fly-fishing tour of the Canadian Rockies led by local fishing- and walking guides. They'll deliver you to the brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout in the Bow and Elk rivers that wind through some of North America's most spectacular mountains in Banff and Yoho national parks. The trip begins and ends in Calgary; in between, you travel in Canadian Pacific's private vintage rail cars. WHEN TO GO September 1-6. HOW MUCH $5,100; 800-445-2995; www.offthebeatenpath.com.
at the top of the alps
George Dunn's International Mountain Guides, based in Ashford, Washington, puts together a two-week Alpine Classics summit tour of the greatest hits of the western Alps—Mont Blanc (15,780 feet) by way of a traverse route, the Jungfrau (13,650 feet), and the Monte Rosa (15,204 feet). Equal time is spent exploring the towns of Chamonix, Zermatt, and Wengen. Clients should be fit and have had some experience on glacier ice. Their nonclimbing spouses are also welcome. WHEN TO GO Early August. Dunn will also lead a two-week Alpine tour in July for less experienced climbers; it will go to the summit of Mont Blanc by a less demanding route. HOW MUCH $ $3,500; does not include meals; 360-569-2609; www.mountainguides.com.
Take your pick of two bike camps created by husband-and-wife team Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, both former pro cyclists. Their camp in Tuscany provides rolling hills, sunflowers, and pasta during a week of training for the keen recreational biker. The Dolomites camp, in the Alta Badia region, offers stiffer mountain passes and entrée into the local Gran Fondo Maratona bike race. WHEN TO GO October 10-17 in Tuscany; June 29-July 6 in the Dolomites. HOW MUCH $3,000 per person; $4,000 per couple; 303-442-2371; www.bikecamp.com.
sahara on the edge
Perhaps the most "out there" trip offered by Cherri Briggs' Explore, Inc. is a 17-day journey to the Saharan home of the Tuareg, or Blue Men of the Desert (so named for the indigo robes that stain their skin). Rugged camping and travel via LandCruiser through exquisite but in some areas politically troubled regions. Briggs' guides are packing heat. WHEN TO GO Anytime. HOW MUCH $ $9,900; 888-596-6377; www.exploreafrica.net. Perhaps the most "out there" trip offered by Cherri Briggs' Explore, Inc. is a 17-day journey to the Saharan home of the Tuareg, or Blue Men of the Desert (so named for the indigo robes that stain their skin). Rugged camping and travel via LandCruiser through exquisite but in some areas politically troubled regions. Briggs' guides are packing heat. WHEN TO GO Anytime. HOW MUCH $ $9,900; 888-596-6377; www.exploreafrica.net.
a push to the poles
The best way to get to the ends of the earth is with Pen "Polar Pen" Hadow's The Polar Travel Company. The English outfit takes small groups to both the North and South Poles by foot. WHEN TO GO For the North Pole, late February to early May. For the South Pole, November to January. The next available trips are in 2005. HOW MUCH $ Depending on the size of the group, $30,000 to $70,000 for a full-bore, two-month-long expedition to the North Pole; $50,000 and up for the month-long South Pole journey. Most clients opt for the three-week "Last Degree" trips, which stop 60 nautical miles shy of the poles. Those are approximately $16,500 for the North Pole and $33,000 for the South Pole; 44-1364-631-470; www.polartravel.co.uk.
riding into the patagonia wild
On her Estancia Huechahue in Patagonia, 1,000 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, Jane Williams leads week-long horseback-riding trips around the 15,000-acre ranch in the Andean foothills. She also leads a three- to five-day pack trek in the vertiginous reaches of nearby Lanin National Park (it requires a minimum of four people). Unlike the riding, fishing on the ranch is not world-class, but enjoyable. WHEN TO GO August to October; early November to the end of April. HOW MUCH $210 a night; 800-545-0019; firstname.lastname@example.org.
cultural awakening in mongolia
Enkhsaikhan, the brains behind Mongolia's BizInfo Travel, based in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, customizes cultural trips throughout the country. A seven-day tour might include a stay with a nomad family at the Hövsgöl Lake camp in northern Mongolia; sailing and hiking; a folk-dancing concert in Ulaanbaatar; and a visit to the Manzushir Monastery. WHEN TO GO Summer. HOW MUCH $950; 976-11-324-237; email@example.com.
The folks at Incredible Adventures, Inc. in Sarasota, Florida, led by Jane Reifert, do it all—from swimming with sharks to flying MIG jets in Russia. The current cutting-edge thrill is HALO (high-altitude, low-open) skydiving. Jumping out of a plane at 30,000 feet buys you a very long free fall. The operation is located outside of Memphis, Tennessee. WHEN TO GO May-September. HOW MUCH $3,000 for training and one jump; does not include hotel or meals; 941-346-2603; www.incredible-adventures.com.
virgin powder in the himalayas
Australian adventurer (and physicist) Roderick Mackenzie, owner of Himachal Helicopter Skiing, plans six-day heliskiing trips in the Manali region of the Indian Himalayas—moderate temperatures, 5,000-meter altitudes, and the most amazing mountain range in the world. It's a long way to go, but it's worth it. WHEN TO GO Late January to mid-April. HOW MUCH $7,250; 613-9593-9853; www.himachal.com.
the unseen outback
Wilderness Australia, run by the engaging young Australian Charles Carlow, specializes in a 12-day cultural tour of the Kimberley region in the north. It includes a stay on the Indian Ocean coast, a few days at an exclusive camp on Faraway Bay (watch out for crocodiles), and a tour of the Rock Art galleries. WHEN TO GO April-October. HOW MUCH $12,900 per person for two people; $9,300 per person for four; 612-9231-2113; www.wildernessaustralia.com.au.
africa for the activist
The best itineraries from Karell's African Dream Vacations combine extreme sport with social activism. President Norman Pieters recommends a nine-day southern Africa trip that includes a flight in a two-seat micro-lite aircraft over Zambia's Victoria Falls and tours in Cape Town of both Mandela's former prison and New Rest, a squatter's camp being turned into a viable community. WHEN TO GO January-April. HOW MUCH From $3,900 per person, minimum two people; 800-327-0373; www.karell.com.
All prices include hotel, meals, and guides but not airfare, unless otherwise indicated.
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