My first attempt at tracking down eco-travel guru Richard Bangs finds him in New Zealand, on his way to dinner. By the next day, he’s in Fiji with his son, heading for a village so remote it confounds even his steadfast BlackBerry. When, finally, we do get in touch a few days later, he’s in L.A., where he’s about to go shopping for a new one. 

There are two things about Bangs one may surmise from the information above, the first being just how mind-bogglingly often he is on the move, usually looking from vantage points so beyond exotic that sometimes he’s the first Westerner — or person — to witness them. As the head of Sobek Expeditions (named after the Egyptian crocodile god) Bangs, 56, has spent a lifetime fording un-run rivers. His adventures have included harrowing first descents of the upper Nile, the Amazon, the Indus, the Ganges, the Euphrates and the Yangtze. When Sobek was founded in 1973, there was no such thing as a permit to explore an uncharted river. “We just went,” says Bangs. “We looked like invaders from Mars, I’m sure.” Since those early days, times have changed and the company has grown. Sobek now employs a 200 guides and 40 other staffers, and offers skiing, sailing, diving, and balloon trips in addition to river runs.

The second thing to know about Bangs, the BlackBerry juggler, is that he doesn’t see modernity and tradition as necessarily at odds. In the world’s poorest and most remote areas, he believes, encouraging Western tourists to support the maintenance of ancient cultural traditions makes sense — especially if it means fending off hungry developers. Bangs’s form of tourism gives people a chance to make a living being who they always were, allowing them to keep their land, lifestyle and customs.

“I think it’s wonderful in many ways that you can barely find a wild river on the planet that isn’t commercially run, or a mountain that isn’t trekked,” says Bangs, countervailing conventional wisdom. “Travel creates advocates for places — places that would’ve been paved, lumbered, or otherwise compromised.” Very early on, Bangs recognized that the currency his company traded in was the pure wilderness experience, and that if he didn’t preserve what he was offering it would quickly lose appeal. “From the early ’70s, we were already reflecting the old Sierra Club attitude of ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints.’” Over the years, as more of the places Bangs visited and enjoyed began to be dammed, diverted, or dried up, the whole proposition took on an extra acuteness.

Bangs has written 16 books about his experiences and is currently working on a PBS series. In his latest book, Adventures with Purpose, he recalls his travels in such far-flung places as Nepal, Macedonia, Libya and Bosnia. The book is an elegant account of those adventures written in the style of a 19th-century explorer, which, with the exception of the BlackBerry, Bangs basically is. Does the man ever rest? “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he says. Does anyone believe him?

Story by Nathalie Jordan. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Oh, the places he's been
This on-the-go man has been all around the world working in service to the world's rivers.