“Not One for Caution”

A ruminative essay
by Robert Earle Howells

A full-grown hippopotamus can pretty much swallow a rubber raft whole. Tip it over? Like a bathtub toy. Chow down on Homo sapiens? Like Reese’s Pieces. It might be prudent, then, for any sane person to adopt a credo something like “Don’t paddle a rubber raft through hippo-infested waters.”

Richard Bangs isn’t much for credos. Certainly not cautious ones that would dictate a life bereft of challenges. Which is why, one day in 1981, Bangs gingerly threaded a raft down a stretch of Tanzania’s Kilombero River among — hold onto your paddles, folks — 2,000 hippos.

Compulsion to share

Dodging a couple thousand hippos is all in a day’s work for a man who has spent more than 30 years navigating strange waters and pushing personal and geographic boundaries with zeal, grace and a generous compulsion to share. If anything separates Richard Bangs from your average world-traveling vagabond, it is that he invites us along for every wild ride.

He lets us sit shotgun on wild first river raft descents, get splashed with hippo mucus, feel the spray of frothy water in our faces, and hear the affectionate hum of exotic, disease-carrying insects in our ears. With Richard as river guide and adventure-travel executive, as magazine writer and book author (with more than a dozen titles to his credit), as filmmaker and Internet-travel pioneer, his virtual and live fellow travelers have paddled African rivers, journeyed to Antarctica, trekked to Himalayan mountain thrones, bestowed digital cameras upon New Guinea highland villagers, and made the first 21st-century Western foray into Libya.

The adventures begin

Bangs’ appetite for running wild water dates back to college summers spent as a Colorado River guide in the Grand Canyon. After college Bangs and some friends concocted a plan to run wild rivers in Ethiopia. It was then, he recalls, that “the axis of my life began to spin around my identity as a river guide.” In February 1973, he and his scruffy crew successfully ran the Awash River, despite an omnipresence of poisonous snakes, lions, hyenas, man-eating insects and, most terrifyingly, crocodiles. (“Think about it; their most basic instinct is to eat meat. We were easy targets.”)

With the logic of the smitten (“It was an amazing, life-changing experience”), Bangs and his penniless friends figured they could finance a return trip or two by taking clients along. And so they did — on the Omo River in Ethiopia — and Sobek Expeditions was born, named in gratitude for the Egyptian crocodile god who mercifully spared the lads on those early first descents.

Sobek became a river-running exploratory company via which Bangs and fellow guides totted up a dizzying succession of first descents: the Yangtze, Euphrates, Blue Nile, Indus… “You name a great river, we probably did the first descent.”

But for Bangs, Sobek was about more than bagging rivers: “It became this wonderful canvas whereby I could pursue anything I wanted. As my curiosity grew, Sobek expanded. Any thing, any place I was interested in, I could pursue: wild rivers, mountains, literature, film, ecology … it was all incorporated into Sobek.”

Worldwide horizons

When Sobek merged in 1991 with another adventure-travel company, Mountain Travel, the combined company carried on the spirit of those early years, while Bangs began exploring yet another horizon: the Internet. A Web site he helped create for Mountain Travel Sobek in 1993 was among the first travel sites on the Internet. Early on he grasped the Web’s “you are there” potential: “You could spend a year producing a catalog, but the Web could change. It was dynamic. You could hear the sound of a glacier crunching, a camel breathing.”

Soon it occurred to him that he could “broadcast” an entire expedition live over the Internet, which he first did with a 1995 voyage to Antarctica in a Web production called Virtual Antarctica. This caught the attention of a certain tech company based in Redmond, Wash. Bangs, in fact, received a phone call from no less than Melinda French Gates, who coaxed him to come to Microsoft to launch a pioneering Web site that would feature live, multimedia dispatches from expeditions around the world.

That site, Mungo Park, lived for two ahead-of-its-time years before it begat Microsoft’s juggernaut travel site Expedia and such spin-offs as Expedia Travels magazine — Bangs was the publisher — and Expedia Radio, where he was executive producer. He then continued to meld his twin passions, the potential of Internet technology and a zest for exploring places and cultures, as writer/producer for Slate magazine’s Well-Traveled, MSNBC’s Great Escapes, and MSN’s First and Best. All of which were preparatory for his most recent adventure: Richard Bangs Adventures for Yahoo!.

Just as Sobek was a canvas for a younger Bangs to explore and expand, Richard Bangs Adventures (let’s face it; he’s earned the eponymous title) was his forum for another ambitious mission — in his words, “to understand, celebrate, and share as much as possible in a lifetime.”

Now, there’s a lot of lifetime in a man like Bangs, and as it turned out RBA was not the last stop on his travels, and the project was launched into hiatus after a year and eight robust expeditions.

So once again, Richard Bangs is off on an adventure and bringing us along. But watch out for those hippos; they’re still lurking in mysterious waters.

Robert Earle Howells is a contributing editor to National Geographic Adventure magazine, a longtime correspondent for Outside, and the former editor of the Outside Buyer’s Guide. He is a two-time Lowell Thomas Gold Award winner for his adventure travel writings. This biographical sketch originally appeared on the Yahoo! site Richard Bangs Adventures.