Richard Bangs travels around the country talking about his travels around other countries. He shows slides of natives with thick, colorful paint on their faces. And he shows slides of breathtaking landscapes.
One of the high points of his talks is an “illustrated” story about the lemurs of Madagascar, an endangered monkeylike species that certain restaurants on the island serve char-grilled over rice.
On one trip, Bangs and his companions decided they wanted to do something about this. They wanted to report it to the World Wildlife Fund–and prove that the local government was in cahoots–but they needed evidence. And, Bangs admits, he and his companions wanted to get a taste of the delicacy.
So they cajoled and manipulated–and finally entrapped–an unsuspecting woman who went into her restaurant kitchen, pulled out a lemur carcass, showed it off to them, and then prepared it in a mushroom, ginger, and wine sauce.
Bangs documented the entire episode with photographs–from the cook and the carcass to the finished dish, which everyone in his group sampled. “It was good,” he says.
Bangs says he has a knack for adventure travel because his father was a CIA operative. “I think it’s possible to do anything.” In 1972, after graduating from Northwestern with a degree in English, he found a group of people interested in descending the Awash River in Ethiopia (where a friend’s father was U.S. ambassador). He volunteered as tour guide; the rest of the group financed the trip. According to Bangs, the river was filled with “crocs, hippos, snakes, malaria, yellow fever, and sleeping sickness.” But the trip ended without a mishap–and he decided to formalize this newfound calling of arranging and leading adventurous trips to unknown, unfamiliar, and untrammeled spots around the world. He named his business Sobek Expeditions, after the Egyptian crocodile god.
Twenty years, thousands of trips, and ten adventure-travel books later, Bangs has become guru to 1,000 Chicagoans from every walk of life–and to 16,000 Americans in all. They sign up regularly for trips such as Everest Escapade, Walking Wild New Zealand, and Ultimate Botswana Camping Safari. A five-day tour of Quito, Ecuador, costs $395; the first Western descent into a section of the Brahmaputra River in northeastern India (a 26-day trip last November) cost $8,470.
Bangs merged his company with Mountain Travel last year, creating the largest adventure-travel company in the world. He says adventure travel caters to people who came of age in the 60s and experimented with their minds, bodies, and spirits, people who today are secretaries and teachers and municipal-bond salesmen.
“It’s very hard to have a sense of accomplishment in everyday life,” says Don Lubin, partner with the law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and a Bangs “client” who took a hike through the Swiss Alps. “But I had a marvelous sense of accomplishment knowing I had climbed a mountain. . . . It was a great experience of life.”
Fred Krehbiel, CEO at Molex, a company that manufactures electrical switches, connectors, and terminals, loved adventure trips so much he bought part of the company and became Bangs’s partner. “Adventure travel has nothing to do with age. It’s a mentality. People want to get a feel for the local topography. They want to feel cold at night and walk and hike and get rained on. They want to feel nature. They want to be challenged physically in different parts of the world.”
Bangs says he likes “to get people excited. I like to incite people to travel again. And I like to raise their awareness with issues like the lemur.”
The World Wildlife Fund did take action based on his evidence, he says; they shut down the restaurant. “Burn this restaurant!” he shouts as he shows slides of beautiful table settings, plates full of food, wine glasses, and camaraderie.
Bangs will speak Saturday at 7 PM at the International Adventure Travel Show in the Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker; admission is $7. Call 708-888-8326 for more information. He’ll speak at the Field Museum next Saturday, January 18, at 2 PM. Call 322-8854; admission is $10, $7 for museum members.