Richard Bangs has been coined “the father of modern adventure travel,” a title he makes sure to correctly attribute to the forefathers who came long before him. His adventures have taken him around the globe for more than 40 years, resulting in an impressive variety of freelance articles, documentaries, TV shows, and lectures. In our interview today, Richard talks about his newest project, the PBS show Adventures with Purpose, and offers some tips for new freelancers who wish to break into the travel industry. Check out Richard’s site to see what he’s up to now!
Richard, you’ve been in the travel industry for over 40 years. What have been the “keys” to your success as a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker, and lecturer?
I think “keys” and “success” may be wrong constructs, as I am not sure if there is any device that if replicated will unlock the cabinets of wonder; nor do I think pursuing a measure of achievement is an ineludibly sage path. I might venture to say that the better trail is pursuing passion, and stepping om 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.
Tell us a little bit about Richard Bangs’ Adventures with Purpose, which airs on national public television. How did you transition from writing to film, and what’s that process been like for you?
There was not much of a transition as the two merged early on….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 the invest 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.
What does it mean to you to be called “the father of modern adventure travel?”
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 at this magical intersection, and, with alacrity, began to chronicle our explorations. What a magnificent ride it has been.
What was your first big break in terms of freelance writing and how did that affect future assignments?
It was more about the “doing” than the writing. I was lucky at my start in that I was keen on making first descents of the great rivers of the world, such as the Zambezi, the Blue Nile, the Indus, the Euphrates, the Yangtze, and many others, and since nobody had been before, when I wrote an account, it was perceived as an exclusive, a unique piece of reportage covering a sexy and extremely adventurous subject. The quality of the writing was less attractive than the singular coverage. I actually wince now when I look back at some of my original scribblings. If I had been writing about a popularly covered subject, say Hawaii, I never would have been published. My first published piece was in a men’s magazine popular at the time, Saga Magazine, now long gone. But it, for a time, prospered on the type of purple verbiage at which I excelled. From there I worked at improving the craftmanship, as it meant a lot to me to get it right, and to correctly convey the feelings, smells, and sights of a place and time; and to tell a good story, as the ultimate persuader is a potent narrative. I went back to school and earned a masters in journalism to help in this journey. And I continue today trying to always do something better than before.
If someone close to you asked you for advice on what it takes to become a freelance writer in the travel industry, what would you tell this person?
I would advise new writers to go out and do what they love, to quench their particular inquisitiveness, to travel with their own purpose, and then interpret what they’ve seen and done. That will have bearing and pith for both them and their readers.
With the influence of digital media, social networking, and online marketing, where do you see your career going in the next five (or ten) years?
I’ve never thought of it as a career…just a never-ending pursuit for the garden of innocence, turning unknown corners, and returning to that childlike state of grace, where every sight, sound, and sensation is new and resonate. Travel allows that. And when decoding the experience, it doesn’t really matter what tools are available, from a journal to a camera to a tablet, or whatever distribution channels bubble up, from print to radio to television to Vine, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, or a million others….at the end of the day, it’s about living a good story, and then telling it.
Richard Bangs has oft been called the father of modern adventure travel. He has spent 30 years as an explorer and communicator, and along the way led first descents of 35 rivers around the globe, including the Yangtze in China and the Zambezi in Southern Africa. He recently co-directed the IMAX Film, Mystery of the Nile, and co-authored the Putnam book of the same name. His recent book, The Lost River: A Memoir of Life, Death and the Transformation of Wild Water, won the National Outdoor Book Award in the literature category, and the Lowell Thomas Award for best book. Richard has published more than 1000 magazine articles, 19 books, produced a score of documentaries and several CD-ROMs; and has lectured at the Smithsonian, the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club and many other notable venues. He writes a semi-regular feature with the NYTimes and is currently producing and hosting the new PBS series, Richard Bangs’ Adventures with Purpose.
Interview conducted in July, 2013 by Kristin Mock.