TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
PURE AWARDS JUDGE RICHARD BANGS LEADS US TO THE COUNTRY THAT DOESN’T EXIST
WORDS BY SARA HENRICHS
PURE Awards judge Richard Bangs tells us about his first adventure, his passion for exploring first descent rivers and why the internet is the most powerful intercommunication for adventure travel.
Sara Henrichs: You have been called the father of modern adventure travel, how would you identify contemporary adventure travel?
Richard Bangs: It really should be the “bastard child of adventure travel.” The real fathers are 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 (www.mtsobek.com) at this magical intersection, and, with alacrity, began to chronicle our explorations. What a magnificent ride it has been.
What, then, is contemporary adventure travel? It has a broad sweep, as it really includes any experience that stretches the legs, the arms, the spirit, the mind in the course of a journey. Rather than horizontal tourism, in which the traveller often returns burned and spent, this is dynamic, interactive travel, with forward momentum, returning the traveller fitter and with a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves. So, that means anything from an extreme climb to a safari to a Himalayan trek to a cruise to the Galapagos to a hike down the local creek, to, dare I say, a stimulating travel read on a website or in a book.
SH: What was your first adventure you experienced?
RB: Here’s a story of my first adventure: 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.
SH: And which adventure has marked you the most?
RB: It was the 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.
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 would like to believe that the day of the drowning there allowed a lifetime deep and rich and connected, if only for a flash, and that it was better than a dull and deadly senectitude.
SH: How many hours do you sleep per night? And how many hours are you thinking about a new adventure? What drives you?
RB: Sleep? I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
I’d rather do adventure than think about it; but then again, there is adventure in the conceiving and planning, so perhaps the answer is 25 hours.
What drives me? A Land Rover or a Prius, depending on the destination.
SH: Tell us about how you founded the first multi-national river running company and leading first descents of 35 rivers across the world. Which river did you like the most?
RB: I started my career in my late teens as a river guide on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Then, I decided to take what I learned to Ethiopia, to make the first descents of a number of rivers that fall off the Abyssinian Plateau, including the Omo and the Blue Nile. We called our little adventure Sobek Expeditions, after the ancient crocodile god worshiped along the Nile, hoping he might look kindly upon us and grant us safe passage. For the most part, it worked, and we went on to explore wild rivers around the world, from the Yangtze to the Zambezi to the Euphrates to many others. Which is a favourite? That’s like asking a Dad his favourite child… They are all different, and all wonderful and talented.
SH: You have proactively been promoting adventure travel on the Internet, how do you see the future of communicating travel online?
RB: 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. 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.
It 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.
SH: Which social media do you think will be the most influential one?
RB: Life is larger than 140 characters. www.youtube.com/richardbangs
SH: What is your next adventure?
RB: The country that doesn’t exist: Somaliland. Come join me!
SH: Is there a place you haven’t been yet and can’t wait to go?
RB: Everywhere, and then some.