Episode 19 | July 5, 2016

Life is an Adventure-Follow Your Wanderlust with Richard Bangs

A Personal Note from Orion

I believe life should be lived as an adventure.  There are so many places to see in the world, so many cultures, so many experiences to be had.  So if you have that wanderlust like I do, then my interview with Richard Bangs will give you some inspiring insight on the most adventurous, safe, and fulfilling ways to travel the world. 

It’s really more than just hopping on a plane – there are little known destinations that will blow you away with their richness in culture, history, and nature.  We talk about everything from respecting local customs, how to travel with a purpose, giving back to local communities, and the things you can do to enlighten and open up your spirit by connecting with different parts of the world.



About Today’s Show

‏‏Hello and welcome to Stellar Life! Today I have with me a master wizard traveler, his name is Richard Bangs. He is called the father of modern adventure travel. He has spent 30 years as an explorer and communicator, published more than 1000 magazine articles, 19 books, and many many documentaries. His recent book, The Lost River, won a National Outdoor Book Award and a Lowell Thomas award for best book. He also won numerous awards for his documentaries, including Emmy Awards, Lifetime Achievement Conservation Award, and many many more. Richard is currently executive producing Richard Bangs’ Quests for PBS, and he is the CEO of White Nile Media. Hi Richard and welcome to the show!

‏‏Hey, thanks! It’s so great to be here, thank you for the introduction!

‏‏I’m so honored to have you, you are so special. I have never met anybody who has done the things you have. And my first question is why do they call you the father of modern travel?

‏‏I think it is qualified as adventure travel. That is defined as active outdoor participatory travel that has some measure of challenge to it. It could be physical, it could be spiritual, it could be cerebral. But there is some challenge to that. So that is adventure travel. And I guess some people, I think it was the New York Times, came up with that, because prior to founding my adventure travel company, Sobek, there really were no organizations or companies devoted to taking people on trips around the world to see and experience this type of travel. It is sort of a modern way to share these assets of the world.

‏‏Right. But you also participated in the making of online travel.

‏‏Yes, okay. And that was sort of a tributary, a different route I took for a while. I went to Microsoft and was part of the team that expounded Expedia.com, which was one of the first online travel agents. And it is now certainly one of the largest. And that was a wonderful experience to help cobble that together and take an idea that allowed people to plan and transact and book their own trips!

‏‏Yeah! Thank you for that!

‏‏Well it was a big effort with a lot of people involved.

‏‏And we all appreciate you.


‏‏What’s the difference between a physical, spiritual, or a cerebral adventure? Can you give me an example of each one?

‏‏Yes, I think physical was the first one, and that is the traditional concept of adventure travel where you climb a mountain or you plunge down the rapids of a river. These are experiences that take a measure of physical acuity to make a safe passage. So you train often in advance and you push yourself perhaps beyond your normal limits. There is a sense of great achievement when you actually do this, you pull it off. That is the physical, and that is sort of the easiest to explain. But there are all these cerebral challenges that come with adventure too, and that’s understanding the environment and cultures with whom you come in contact and diving deeply into their perceptions of the world, their interpretations of what they see and experience, and trying to understand them. That is an intellectual quest. And very often, that inspires research both before and after your own experience, so it is a wonderful, almost academic exercise. The spiritual, you travel to a place that may have special meaning, like Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu is a great one. It may have religious overtones, it might have sort of a mysterious spiritual background, it may have sort of a cosmic energy to it. You go there and not only feel the energy but are willing to absorb it and make your own interpretation of the spiritual aspects of a place and tie it to your own being.

There are all these cerebral challenges that come with adventure too, and that’s understanding the environment and cultures with whom you come in contact and diving deeply into their perceptions of the world. Click To Tweet

‏‏My first physical adventure was a actually New Jersey. The Tough Mudder-have you heard of it?

‏‏I haven’t heard of the Tough Mudder, what is it?

‏‏The Tough Mudder is a 20 mile obstacle course designed by British Special Force.


‏‏It was very tough. I did it with a whole team of people and there were crazy obstacles. First off, it was 30 degrees outside.

‏‏Oh my god.

‏‏You run a mile, then your first obstacle is called a Chernobyl Jacuzzi, which is a big pool of ice water. And you go in and out and there are ropes and burling walls and electric barbed wires. It was fun!

‏‏Wow, it sounds like you are training for special forces or something.

‏‏I trained a month. But I was in great physical shape back then, I didn’t have to train that much.
But boy, that was a lot. You know it still gives me a sense of achievement, a great story to tell.

‏‏Quite an accomplishment. Now you are from Israel, were you in the Israeli Armed Forces?

‏‏Yes I was.

‏‏And was the training similar?

‏‏I can’t tell you, or I’ll have to kill you. No, because I was intelligence, so my training wasn’t as difficult as doing the Tough Mudder, actually. And my personal spiritual and cerebral adventure was when I lived in Japan for three and a half years. That was intense and amazing. You know how I got there? I actually had a travel book. I was a car salesperson. Bored out of my mind. Never went out of the country, and I got this book and it had all these majestic, beautiful places and I read it really fast and highlighted all the places I wanted to see. I gave my two week notice, I think I had about $7 in my pocket and I went to Japan.

‏‏I love it, I love it. Everybody should be inspired by that story. Really, I mean I can’t be more of an advocate for that kind of activity, and that is throw off the yoke of anything that isn’t giving you delight and pleasure and take off for the road.

‏‏Yep, that’s exactly what you did. Do you remember your first extraordinary travel? How did you start all this?

‏‏That’s a great question. I came from the east coast of the United States. I was born in Connecticut and grew up in kind of the Washington DC area, and had sort of a normal childhood up until high school when I discovered the thrills, the adrenaline of river running. I went down the Potomac, the Shenandoah, the Rappahonnack, all these beautiful rivers that are in the east coast in the Appalachian Mountains and the Shenandoahs, and loved it. It became a kind of new metric that I used to measure myself and my happiness, I think. Then I applied to be a river guide down on the Colorado, near the Grand Canyon. I got the job somehow and that was even bigger and grander and more fantastic than anything I could have ever imagined. I defined myself as a river guide throughout my college years. But soon after college I decided to take my skills, my special skills, overseas and take on some of the rivers of Africa. Ethiopia, which has the largest and steepest rivers in the continent. I headed over with a group of friends and we started heading down these wild, unknown, never-navigated-before rivers, the Blue Nile, the Omo, the Baro, the Awash, and a host of others. And it was beyond anything I could ever imagine. Every turn was like a child seeing things for the first time. And that part of Africa was fresh and different for me. There were people along the rivers who had never seen people from the outside before. It was first contact situation. And the wildlife, having encounters with all the wildlife of Africa, including the crocodiles and hippos who populate the rivers. And the sights and scenery, the flora. Everything about it was different. It set me off on this course. Let’s see what we can find that is different around the world. That’s how I started this little company.

‏‏And your company is very very impressive. How many times have you almost encountered death?

‏‏Well, more than a few unfortunately. And there have been people early on when we were young and reckless and more into the more physical aspects of adventure than now that was had some accidents and lost some folks. I came close a few times. That come up a sort of existential dilemma to continue down this path that could create extraordinary feelings of transcendal understanding but also had this very steep downside if something went wrong. Or to retreat and live sort of a normal life as most of us do in four walls and with routine. And I couldn’t bring myself to do that so I continued. I think the regrets are few at this point. Every day I get up and wonder what the adventure ahead might present.

‏‏Right. Have you read the book The Rise of Superman?

‏‏No, I few people have mentioned it to me. I have to get that book. I might as soon as this show is over.

‏‏Well the premise of the book is that people who pursue adventure and high risk activities get into states of flow. If you want to be more successful in life, you have to get out of your state of routine. You don’t have to be very very extreme, but maybe something like take a trapeze class. Anything that gets your adrenaline up and gets you in the state of flow. When you get into a state of flow in adventures, it’ll help you get into a state of flow during other activities. Because you’re a very successful entrepreneur. You’ve won so many awards. You wrote the music too for your documentaries?

‏‏No, I’m sorry.

‏‏Oh no!

‏‏I’m not that much of a polymath, but thank you.

‏‏So how do you get into the state of flow?

‏‏I think that is a good way to describe it. There is sort of a zen aspect to it. And when you are in the midst of some of these activities, time does seem to slow and your senses seem to heighten so you can absorb and interpret it seems like a thousand more contact points than in your regular life or normal life. And it also brings you to a plateau of conscious that isn’t achieved without the help of drugs. It almost is like a drug, when you get into this flow. And I don’t know that it is something that you can turn off or on at will, but by pursuing the edge, the unknown, the adventures, the different, you can certainly facilitate and trigger that flow experience. It does fold over into your non adventure life, I think that you continue to try to push the envelope, even in the mundane. When you do that, this flow-that’s a wonderful way to put it by the way, the flow.

By pursuing the edge, the unknown, the adventures, the different, you can certainly facilitate and trigger that flow experience.

‏‏Isn’t it wonderful, it is almost like a muscle that you exercise.

‏‏Yes, because it becomes familiar and you can become lethargic if you don’t exercise it and push yourself. I think the wonderful thing is when you recognize that you can push yourself in almost everything you do. From putting on your socks in the morning, to cooking, to taking a walk. It doesn’t have to be climbing Mount Everest or cascading over waterfalls. It is an awareness that can happen in almost any activity if you put your mind to it.

‏‏So I heard you speak at MeTAL this weekend, and I have the catalog of your company and all of its adventures.

‏‏I hope you get to join some.

‏‏I am, I’m going to.

‏‏Great! Well, I started-the company is a combination of two entities, Sobek and Mountain Travel. I started the Sobek side; it was initially doing first descents of rivers all over the world. I did 35 first descents of rivers. But we quickly discovered that the greatest joy in this type of activity was returning and sharing the discoveries we made with other people. It turned from really a selfish activity, like let’s go have thrills and spills, to where let’s share this with like-minded people and let them delight in the same sort of understanding s that we did and the encounters that we had. In many ways this can help an emotional attachment to a place or a culture. Or something that might be threatened. We build a constituency of people are emboldened and connected to various issues around the world, and we’ll act to help preserve or enhance. It is a way to not only help individuals but our planet as a whole. And we did this by packaging everything that we do into a series of catalogs. We started doing these catalogs many many many years ago. They are still sort of the calling card of what we do. But it is also only the beginning. There are 250 trips in the catalog on all 7 continents. And those are scheduled departures. But trips are open to anybody who want to do anything. I did a trip for Bill Gates and his family to Antarctica. It was in a way that we had never done before, nor anyone had ever done before. Bill only had a very short amount of time, so we were able to charter a flight from southern Chile with the Chilean Army and fly directly onto an island where we had a special boat situated, and we took him right onto the continent. And we’ve designed trips for Barry Diller and Jeff Bazos and Martha Stewart and many many others who want a trip that is not necessarily listed in the catalog but is to their taste and liking.

‏‏And your guys are top experts.

‏‏Yes, so we would like to believe we have the best guides around the world. It is quite a network at this point. A world wide network, world wide web, of the world’s greatest guides.

We would like to believe we have the best guides around the world. It is quite a network at this point. A world wide network, world wide web, of the world’s greatest guides. Click To Tweet

‏‏How many adventures do you do yourself now?

‏‏As many as possible, I’ve never really stopped. I love the motion, and the emotion all of this allows. I just got back from South Africa a few days ago, and before this I was in Saudi Arabia on a pioneering trip where we took the first group of American adventurers through the empty quarter. Before that I was in Bhurma, before that in a place called Djibouti, which is a little-known country in the horn of Africa. It is this never-ending quest, and I look forward to the next one. As soon as I land, it is “What’s next?”. Did I lose you?

‏‏No, I’m here! What’s next? What is next?

‏‏So I’m like some of our clients, I like to devise my own trips. I’m designing a trip to Mt. Elgon in Uganda, which is a volcano, and one of the most beautiful mountains in Africa, but one that very few people know about. And many people have stayed away from it that do know about it because it was cited by Richard Preston in his book The Hot Zone as the source of Ebola. So on the face of it, you go “Oh, it would be crazy to go there”. But it was a series of accidents that allowed Ebola to emerge from a cave in Mt. Elgon. And it is unlikely that those series of accidents would happen again. It was a bat that bit an infected monkey. A nearby worker went up and slept in the cave and cut himself and cut himself on crystal and was bitten by a bat and that started this whole thing.

‏‏That sounds surreal.

‏‏It does sound surreal. But the climb itself is spectacular, a five day trek to a 15,000 foot peak that overlooks the source of the Nile. So I’m very excited about it.

‏‏Wow, how many countries have you been to?

‏‏Whew. About a hundred and fifty.

‏‏Wow, how many countries are there in the world?

‏‏There’s no consensus at this point, but there’s about a hundred and ninety that are recognized by the UN. And they’re quite a few that are not recognized. Like I was in Somaliland, which is in northern Somalia, which believes it is its own country. But the world does not recognize it yet. It has its own currency, it has its own Parliament, but nobody recognizes it as a country yet. And there are quite a few of those. There are others that are possible countries in the making. Puerto Rico is one of them, it is currently a protected territory of the US. But they vote every few years as to whether or not it should be its own entity. There are many situations like that. By some counts there are 300 countries in the world. By the UN, 190.

‏‏Wow. So you’ve seen people from all over the world. How different are they?

‏‏Very different. And very much the same. It is really wonderful to recognize and celebrate that you find and appreciate when you travel the planet. Saudi Arabia was a great example. Their way of thinking, there way of seeing the world, Wahhabism, is so different than the way we walk through the world. Yet there are some things that are very similar. I’ll give you one example. We were in Riyadh, at a wadi, which is a dried riverbed, with some ancient ruins. And a group of veiled women came up to us and started taking our picture because you don’t see much for westerners in those parts. They are all taking our photos with their cell phones. One walks up to me, veiled, and says “Where are you from?” in perfect English. I go, “I’m from America”. She says “Where in America?” I said “California”. She said “Where in California”. I say “Los Angeles. Your English is really good, where did you learn English?”. She goes “From watching American movies on my computer at home”. And I go “What’s your favorite American movie?” She says “Well, The Devil Wears Prada”. So I mean, there is some sort of common human strain where everybody can react to. Storytelling is universal. Certain pieces of humor, certain rituals are common everywhere. Everything from birth to weddings to death to puberty. Manhood and womanhood. All of these things are acknowledged in similar ways. All over the world. And then there are so many things, mostly customs, traditions, histories, that are very very different.

It is really wonderful to recognize and celebrate that you find and appreciate when you travel the planet.

‏‏You inspire me. I’ve only traveled to 24 countries.

‏‏That’s a lot! That’s a lot!

‏‏But I want to do more. I want to see the world. It is like, once you start, you can’t stop. You are a different person. Did travel change you?

‏‏I think it continually changes you. I think it can help you to evolve. I think if you stay at home and make safety your primary concern and you never leave the port, you never make any discoveries. You cannot evolve in any meaningful way. But if you get out and take the risk of movement-there’s always risk involved, it can not only happen, but you begin to happen to things and people that you meet. There is this door of perception that opens up that sort of allows this assemblage of data that comes in, is interpreted, and it motors not only a deeper and heightened awareness but also allows for evolution of consciousness.

‏‏It’s so beautiful, I could listen to you for hours. You speak in such a beautiful poetic way. Also I went on your YouTube and watched a view of your videos. Such beautiful description. So thank you.

‏‏Well thanks! The world is a beautiful place. It is hard not to get inspired and not to be moved when you move.

‏‏Yeah. What are the most hidden secrets in the world? Places people don’t know of that are really magical.

‏‏Wow. Well there are certainly some places that I have found magical and keep them as sort of personal. But there are others that I think visitation is essential for conservation of wildlife, but also cultures and such. Because it is through visitation that you build up a constituency. And there are so many places on the planet that are magical, as you say, that aren’t seen by people. They aren’t known, that is one of the reasons. One that I will just throw out is Indonesia. Although it is well known as a country, it is not highly visited by Americans. Parts of Indonesia, such as Kali Mantan, which is on Borneo, which is one of the largest islands in the world, is culturally integrous with the Diak peoples, it is wildlife-rich, including orangutans, one of two places in the world you can see wild orangutans. But it also has tiger, it has rhino, it has siamangs. It has all sorts of wildlife. Some of it unique to Borneo. It has magical rain forests with more diversity than any place in the world, outside of the Amazon. But this is important for us to go and see it. This magic will sway you, it will blow you away. But Borneo is being mowed by timber poachers down faster than any other place on the planet. Mostly because there is very little regulation, there is very little policing of what is happening. And many groups are buying the hardwood timber that comes out of Borneo. Others are mowing down forests to create palm oil plantations. You can fly over the forests of Borneo as I did this last year and see what used to be primary rain forests but now is acres and acres of palm oil trees. Both of these are crimes against the planet. And there aren’t enough people who are aware that this exists to make it top of mind and a political thing to help stop it.

‏‏Right. And you say you do Adventures with Purpose. What type of causes do you support?

‏‏Well, environmental causes certainly, and Adventures with Purpose are adventures that have been filmed for TV, a series of television specials I’ve done for PBS for several years. Everything from global climate change to rivers being dammed with big dams in places they should not, to desertification to many many other afflictions on the planet. Extraction. Unwise extraction. Not careful extraction. That’s a big thing. I’m also very much interested in the human condition and certainly try to be involved in issues that can help people who are oppressed or need help in the world. I’m working on a series with my friend Peter Gruber, the producer, called Vanishing Peoples. We’re looking at 13 different small tribal groups throughout the world who are on the edge of extinction and their languages are disappearing, their heritage, their culture. We hope to celebrate their unique cultures in a series we are putting together and maybe bring attention to them to help and preserve what should be preserved and honored.

‏‏Yeah, the state of the globe is not that great, and anyone like you to raise awareness for the state of the planet or the human condition is so necessary.

‏‏I think so, I hope so.

‏‏Yeah! So let’s go back to travel? What are your favorite travel tips?

‏‏Travel tips? That’s a big leap!

‏‏I know. Saving the planet to travel tips.

‏‏Well I would say the first travel tip is to be mindful as possible when planning and actually taking a trip, and that is being sensitive to different cultures and their traditions and mores, and not being the ugly American.

‏‏Yeah, I just saw-we’re getting married in Costa Rica, at Osa Peninsula.

‏‏Oh that’s fantastic! I love Costa Rica.

‏‏Yeah, and so I was watching some Costa Rican tips. They said one of the worst things you can do to someone in Costa Rica-they don’t care if you’re the ugly American or curse or you’re a little bit rude, but if you slam the door of their car, they will get so mad.

‏‏Yeah, it’s true! All of these little things. I actually did a PBS special on Costa Rica called “Adventures with Purpose“, I should get you a copy before you go, because they very much celebrate the pure life. It’s an exchange, instead of saying “salaam” or “good morning”, they say “pura vida”. And they mean it.

‏‏They are really wonderful people, I love the Costa Rican people.

‏‏Yes, by some measures and indices they’ve had over the years, they are the happiest country in the world. So not a bad place to start a new happy life, that’s great.

‏‏Yeah! So any more travel tips?

‏‏Well, let’s see. I would say become involved. You know we have to triage our own involvement, because no human being can get involved the way they would like to. But when you are touched by a place or people you meet, they become like family. That’s why I think it is important to become involved. And lend some time or money or energy or creativity to issues that are local and important to those you touch and touch you. Costa Rica is a great example.

‏‏I love it, the idea of giving and giving back, I think it is so important.

‏‏Absolutely. There are a lot of simple rules, support the local economy wherever you go, don’t stay in a foreign owned resort, as many of them are, because money is spirited out of the country. Do what you can to help the local economy and stay at local places that employ local people and make local arts and crafts. That makes a big difference. Economics are ultimately the engine of choice, meaning that if people support a viable economic livelihood, they can make sensible choices in their lives. They don’t have to become slaves. They don’t have to work menial jobs, they can go to school, they can get educated, they can be able to pursue life as they should be allowed to do when they have the choice. Choice comes from good economics.

‏‏Yeah, I went to Colombia, I think it was 8 months ago? We visited a school in one of the worst neighborhoods. The kids go to school because they are fed in school and we just-it was amazing just to go there and maybe contribute a little bit and connect with what is going on instead of stay in our lovely hotel.

‏‏Absolutely, it makes all the different.

‏‏I believe that when you give, you receive. I just saw a video on Facebook, called The Tale of Two Seas. There are two seas in Israel. One is the Dead Sea, and one is the Sea of Galilei. The source of both of them is the Jordan River, but one is salty and bitter and one has so much life and birds and plants around it. Because the Dead Sea has no outlet, the water goes in and it stays. The Sea of Galilei, the water goes in and leads to more streams of water. It is like that, the more you give, you don’t block the energy. The more you give, the more you receive in life.

‏‏Absolutely. I think that is sort of one of the Christian tenets that came out of Israel. It is universal and it is true.

‏‏What are your tips for stellar life?

‏‏Stellar life. Well, I think pursue the good path. And that can be interpreted in a lot of ways. One of the key words in that phrase is pursue. That’s movement, that is not being content, it is complacent, it is not being immobile, it is moving forward. So, pursue is the first part. And the good path is taking the path that will lead you to the place where you can make the most difference. Most positive difference. There are many paths in life, and people are forever wondering, they have since the beginning of consciousness, what our purpose in life is. One thing that I think everybody agrees on is that a worthwhile purpose is one where you improve the lot of the planet. In any way you can. And that is the good path.

A worthwhile purpose is one where you improve the lot of the planet. In any way you can. And that is the good path. Click To Tweet

‏‏Amen, amen to that.


‏‏Thank you so much!

‏‏Thank you, I really enjoyed it!

‏‏Where can people find you? I’m sure people are dying to see your documentary and watch you on YouTube and go with you on an adventure. And read your books, you have books! And articles!

‏‏Well there is a website, Richardbangs.com. You can go there. The company is www.mtsobek.com. So either of those are a good place to start!

‏‏Well thank you so much, I’m honored to have you on the show.

‏‏I’m delighted. You’re a fellow traveler in spirit, I’m very happy about that. And I’ll get you a copy of that Costa Rica thing.

‏‏Yay, thank you! And thank you listeners. Have a beautiful life. Go get out of your comfort zone and have a stellar life, I will talk to you soon. Bye!

Links and Resources:

About Richard Bangs

Richard Johnston Bangs is an American author and television personality focusing on international travel. He is the host and executive producer of a series of American Public Television specials, including Richard Bangs Quests and Richard Bangs Adventures with Purpose.



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