Evocative, Emotive, Inspirational: Q&A with Richard Bangs, the Father of Modern Adventure Travel

If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.


"The Father of Modern Adventure Travel," Richard Bangs. Photo: Richard Bangs.
“The Father of Modern Adventure Travel,” Richard Bangs. Photo: Richard Bangs.

Ages ago, when I first got cable TV, I got it for one reason: the Travel channel.

If you’ve watched the Travel channel over the years, you know it has … well, evolved. Or maybe “devolved” is a better way to say it.

This is one of the reasons I love public TV—PBS—so much. The travel adventures we are introduced to on PBS are pure, unadulterated, real. Untarnished by commercial interests. Authentic.

This includes Richard Bangs’ Quest series, which currently airs on the “Create” channel of my local PBS station (hi, KCTS!). Richard travels all over the world, but it was his exploration of Switzerland—my ancestral homeland—that made me think, “I need to interview this man!” His way with words is mesmerizing, almost putting viewers into a travel trance. You come away from his shows feeling you truly have, somehow, been transported along with him, traveling and exploring far away in some distant land.

Richard Bangs has often been called the father of modern adventure travel, having spent more than 30 years as an explorer and communicator, pioneering “virtual” expeditions on the World Wide Web and leading first descents of 35 rivers around the world. Richard has authored over 19 books, 1000s of magazine articles, produced a score of documentaries, and currently produces and hosts a series of public TV specials. He also is a regular contributer to the Huffington Post.

Thank you, Richard, for your time!

Richard in Qatar. Photo: Didrik Johnck
Richard in Qatar. Photo by Didrik Johnck (flickr.com/deetrak)

Pam Stucky: I am a big planner when it comes to travel, but I know people who look down their noses at that, thinking nothing beats spontaneity while on the road. What’s your philosophy on that debate?

Richard Bangs: Looking down noses is not polite. I think the answer to this is personal, and depends on how each individual approaches the travel experience. There are many who enjoy the research phase as much as the actual experience, and research is in itself a cerebral exploratory. There are others who prefer the “Man from Mars” approach, and do no pre-research so it is as though they have dropped in from outer space, and the experience is entirely personal, unfiltered through previous eyes and interpretations. I am a bit of a hybrid in that I prefer the freshness and surprise that comes from not knowing or expecting too much….imagine rounding a corner and seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time never having seen a published image…Wow!  That would knock you back…same with Angkor Wat, the Pyramids of Giza, Machu Picchu, Victoria Falls, The Great Wall, etc., etc. Instead, because we have all been so overexposed to these icons, the actual experience is usually disappointing, as we witness the actual thing in less than the optimum photo rendition….it is harshly midday; it is crowed with tourists; hazed with pollution; it’s buggy, humid, and hawkers are hustling.

So, I prefer to parachute into a place with minimal background research, and few expectations, and I find I am almost always delighted and awed, and even if some place has been seen and dissected by millions before, it feels like my own discovery. I am not swayed by brochure copy, by overly vivid travel writers, or even well-filtered Instagram.

However, when I return, notebook full of my own impressions, emotions and conversations, then I usually go into research phase, diving into volumes that touch upon what I found interesting, and seeking answers to the questions raised through my travels. It allows me a deeper understanding of what I experienced, and it gives me the chance to make the journey a second time.

Climbing Cotopaxi. Photo: Richard Bangs.
Climbing Cotopaxi. Photo: Richard Bangs.

PS: Having reached midlife, I’ve lately been reading a lot of books about happiness and midlife and the like. One thing that stands out is that every researcher points to “purpose” as one of the keys to wellbeing and a good life. Therefore, the title of your show Adventures with Purpose is especially intriguing to me. What was the “purpose” you intended to highlight in the title?

RB: I spent the early part of my career exploring the hidden crooks of the wilderness world, and was delighted to share the magic of these special places uncovered…but over time as I returned I couldn’t help but notice how these extraordinary spaces had been degraded, dammed, diluted, desiccated, or outright destroyed…I also knew that when folks found a personal connection with these places, they then treated them as though family, and would fight for preservation and integrity…..but, visitation numbers would always be low…figures inversely related to remoteness….so, I set out to reach a broader, influential audience, PBS, and moved forward with a series of specials that hopefully celebrate a destination, but also tells its stories in an evocative, emotive way, one that elicits connectivity, inspiration to visit, and to become involved….I believe it’s working.

First descent of the Awash River in Ethiopia, with Lew Greenwald. Photo: Richard Bangs.
First descent of the Awash River in Ethiopia, with Lew Greenwald. Photo: Richard Bangs.

PS: Clarify for me: what is the difference between your Adventures with Purpose series and your Quest series?

RB: I made the first descent of the Omo River in Ethiopia in 1973, and decided we should record the effort with the tools available, including 16 mm movie film. The result, The Omo River Expedition, ended up on PBS, so that began a long relationship. The current series is called Richard Bangs’ Quests, and is an evolution from Richard Bangs’ Adventures with Purpose, though the underlying mission remains the same….a quest to understand and celebrate the assets of a destination, and extract what lessons might be learned and applied elsewhere, from pioneering environmental practices to progressive policies to the unsung heroes who make a difference. I also, at the core, believe the best way to preserve a wilderness or threatened culture is through visitation, as then the place and its issues become personal, an emotional attachment is knotted, and a constituency is formed which will invest the time, monies, and resources to save that which is meaningful. I think this is achieved in a couple ways with the PBS series (and all media with which I am involved) in that I hope to inspire viewers to actually come and visit a place featured; and if they can’t, then at least I hope I can impart enough of the wonder and beauty virtually to entice support when the inevitable time comes.

Richard in Sumatra at the Bahorok Orangutans Center. Says Richard: "Turning point in my career. I decided not to live with orangutans and instead write for a living."
Richard in Sumatra at the Bahorok Orangutans Center. Says Richard: “Turning point in my career. I decided not to live with orangutans and instead write for a living.”

PS: Why do you travel? What are you seeking when you travel? What do you find?

RB: I was inspired by  the mythopoetics a generation before me. Once a province of the improbable, “adventure travel” was something seen in the pages of National Geographic, not available to the average Jane or Joe. The only adventure travel on Main Street was when a well-planned vacation went wrong. Then the likes of Edmund Hillary, Tensing Norgay, Jacques Cousteau, Thor Heyerdahl and others of that ilk changed it all by showing it was possible, accessible, and with enough passion, practice, and will, it could be undertaken, and relished. I was a beneficiary of these pioneers, and enjoyed the confluence of airline deregulation, political borders smoking away, and a period of relative affluence which allowed a new generation to seek and delight in adventure travel. I started Sobek at this magical intersection, and, with alacrity, began to chronicle our explorations. What a magnificent ride it has been.

Richard at the Zanskar River. Photo: Richard Bangs.
Richard at the Zanskar River. Photo: Richard Bangs.
If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!

(Sorry about that! I hate breaking up posts but it was too long for HP.)

PS: Water shows up again and again in your travels and your writing. You are clearly deeply passionate about water. Tell me more.

RB: Here’s a story of how water crashed into my consciousness: My father never really cared much for the outdoors. He preferred a cozy chair and a fat book, a night at the movies, maybe a ball game on TV, certainly restaurant food. But one weekend when I was a small boy he took me camping. I don’t remember where he took me, but it was by a river, a swift-flowing stream, clear and crisp. I have a faint memory now that my dad had a difficult time setting up the tent, but somehow worked it out and he was proud of the task. With some soda pop and our fishing poles, we went down to the river to have one of those seminal father-son bonding experiences.

The air told me first that we were someplace special. It whooshed, delivering the cool message of a fast river on a hot summer day. Then a muffled sound came from behind, back at camp, and we turned around and could see through the trees that the tent had collapsed. My dad said something under his breath and started up the hill, then turned back to me and said, “Don’t go in the river!”

They were the wrong words.

At first I put my hand in the water to swish it around and was fascinated by the vitality, the power that coursed through my arm, into my chest, and up into my brain. I looked in the middle of the stream, where tiny waves burst into a million gems and then disappeared. It was magic, pure magic. I stepped into the river to my waist and felt the water wrap around and hug me and then tug at me like a dog pulling a blanket. Another step and the water reached my chest and pulled me down wholly into its vigorous embrace. I was being washed downstream.

Effortlessly, the current was carrying me away from confinement, toward new and unknown adventures. I looked down and watched as a color wheel of pebbles passed beneath me like a cascade of hard candy. After a few seconds I kicked my way to shore perhaps a hundred yards downstream. When I crawled back to land I had changed. My little trip down the river had been the most exhilarating experience of my life. I felt charged with energy, giddy, cleansed, and fresh, more alive than I could remember. I practically skipped back to the fishing poles and sat down with a whole new attitude, and secret.

When my father came back, he never noticed anything different. And I didn’t volunteer anything. The August sun had dried my shorts and hair, and I was holding my pole as though it had grown as an extension of my arm since he left. Only my smile was different—larger, knowing. I grew in that little trip, like corn in the night.

Photo: Richard Bangs.
Photo: Laura Hubber.

PS: You have a masters degree in journalism. What are some of the key lessons you learned that help you today in travel writing?

RB: I might say that the key lesson is that rather than report for someone else, or even do the bidding of an assignment,  you should pursue your own passion, and along the way step on the cobblestones of understanding. I set out quite young, with few resources, to experience the world with a vengeance, a never-ending hunt for unwinding the unknowingness that always pricks at me. I found early on that chronicling  these experiences gave me a double hit of enjoyment and enlightenment….I would experience the experience, and then sit down to distill it all and hopefully reach some deeper meaning and joy. That continues to this day.

First descent of the Tatshenshini River, 1978. Photo: Richard Bangs.
First descent of the Tatshenshini River, 1978. Photo: Richard Bangs.

PS: We are now a short-attention-span, sound-bite culture, but you tell stories in a way that demand attention and savoring. Do you think your way of unrolling a travel story is a lost art?

RB: Life and travel are richer than 140 characters.

I do like to share stories with depth and meaning, and though they may not be “snackable,” they are, I would like to believe, worth the time for the right audience, and the medium of the internet can certainly be a powerful platform.

With its power to break the tyranny of geography, to allow people anywhere in the world to virtually travel to wild places through the portals of their screens, and its capacity for information exchange and communications, the Internet can be a more effective tool than anything yet devised to preserve the wilderness through multi-media story-telling. The ledger is long of wilderness areas gone down because there wasn’t a constituency to do battle. Arizona’s and Utah’s Glen Canyon, entombed beneath one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, is the poster child. A basic problem is that wilderness areas are hard to get to, and the numbers who see them, experience them, fall in love with them, are too often too small to make a difference. That’s where the Net could be the instrument of awareness, appreciation and activism that no oversized nature book ever could. For the first time we can showcase the beauty and magic of a wild place to a global audience, and millions can participate in a journey through it, without ever breaking a branch or stepping on cryptobiotic soil. To a degree National Geographic has done this for over a century; and Discovery and others have done this on television and video. But those were passive receiver experiences, where a publisher, editor or producer added his or her own vision to the primary experience, passing it along to a quiescent audience. Now, for the first time, a worldwide audience can receive the data unfiltered from the primary reporter, in all its raw and brutal honesty. And members of that same audience can become players, become active on some levels, participating in the experience by asking questions, suggesting ideas, and sharing information.

The internet is the most powerful intercommunications tool yet, one that tears down the media power towers, erases the information filters of middlemen, and allows anyone to jump into the thick of things and asseverate a voice and opinion. I’m convinced that when the time comes for a call to action to stop the compromising of sacred and magic places, the patronage for preservation will be that much greater for the Web. A few years ago we lost a fight to save Chile’s crown jewel of a wild river, the Bio-Bio, from the concrete slug of a private big dam; but then only a few thousand had ever seen the river. Now more people than visit all the parks in the world, regardless of wallet size, physical abilities, age or weight, can be introduced to a far-away wilderness in a more immediate way, and that means that many more who can fall in love with a wild place, grasp its issues, and perhaps lend a hand when it needs many.

Richard with a new friend. Photo: Richard Bangs.
Richard with a new friend. Photo: Richard Bangs.

PS: I’m also particularly interested in the idea of “failure.” I think we’ve become too failure-averse, and therefore I’m interested in talking with successful people about their thoughts on failure. What’s your perspective on the topic? What is failure? What is success?

RB: I agree that we are, as a society, too failure-averse, and I see it especially in our schools and among parents who over-protect and over-reward their children. It is through risk and failure that we learn and evolve. I worked at Microsoft for a while in the 90s (helping to create travel products, including Expedia), and I absolutely loved Bill Gates’s mandate and the culture he created around it…it was to take risks, and not be afraid of botching up. Most companies punish failure, and that inhibits creativity and entrepreneurship. But back then, Bill encouraged us to try new things, and not be put off by the consequences of failure, because by trying, we all learned, and sometimes we made bold breakthroughs and discoveries. If a ship’s primary concern is to avoid failure, it would never leave port.

I’ve had many failures in my career, some catastrophic. One was an attempt to make the first descent of the Baro River in Ethiopia. A young man drowned, and it haunted me to the degree I almost left the field. But then I recognized a hard truth…that it is better to go forward and be in the ring and perhaps suffer the consequences than to never step at all and die on the inside.

In Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay, Of the Sublime and Beautiful, he posits that terror “is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

If there is a common element to the code of adventure it is the frisson that comes from touching the maw. At the moment of plunge into a giant rapid we are febrile but also unlocked in a way that never happens in the comfort zone, so that the slightest tap makes us shiver to the bottom of our beings. It is then that we make our greatest discoveries about ourselves.

In Hemingway’s classic story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, a milquetoast of a man finds an instant of bliss as he fearlessly (and fatally) faces a charging buffalo. I believe that pursuing your passion, tacking adventure, embracing risk, allows a lifetime deep and rich and connected, if only for a flash, and that it is better than the shelter and security of a dull and deadly existence.

Richard Bangs
Photo by Didrik Johnck (flickr.com/deetrak)

Thank you, Richard! If you haven’t already discovered Richard’s shows on your local PBS station, be sure to check the schedule to find when he’s on air next!

Find Richard at his website, on Twitter, and on Facebook
And be sure to check out his fabulous contributions to the Huffington Post.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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