Call of the Wired
09/22/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
IN THREE DECADES OF ADVENTURE travel—including rafting trips down 35 of the world's previously untamed rivers—Richard Bangs has tasted frustration. As the fans of his 10 books and hundreds of magazine pieces know, Bangs has also tasted hippo and crocodile meat, jellied goat blood and monkey brains—but that's another story. Now, spending a sedentary moment in his memento-filled Redmond, Wash., home, Bangs, with his 2-year-old son in his lap, laments how confining mere words can be. "I once tried to describe gamelan music from Indonesia as a liquid rainbow," he says of the tinkling percussion-based sound. "But the truth is, unless you've heard gamelan music, there's no way anybody can convey it to you. You really have to hear it."
That's one reason the stocky, 47-year-old founder of America's largest adventure-travel agency has headed again for a brave new world: the Internet. Recruited by Microsoft to create an online travel magazine, Bangs last year launched Mungo Park (www.mungopark.com), a free site—named for the celebrated Scottish explorer—on the World Wide Web. By touring Mungo's text, audio, video and live chat sessions, browsers can "virtually participate," as Bangs puts it, in expeditions as they unfold. The site now draws more than 100,000 visitors a month. Says Bangs: "This could be like creating National Geographic 100 years ago."
For Mungo Park's first featured expedition, Bangs led a 23-day rafting journey last fall down Ethiopia's previously unexplored Tekeze River. From campsites at the bottom of the river's 7,000-foot canyon, Bangs and a 21-person team used laptop computers and a satellite phone to beam up photo images of crocodiles pursuing their inflatable rafts—and to publish diary entries reflecting how they cared for one colleague who suffered a 106-degree fever. In April, Bangs arranged for Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of the late Jacques Cousteau, to conduct a live chat session from 30 feet underwater near a coral reef in Fiji. Bangs, says Cousteau, is "helping to create a global village without any borders."
But not without celebrities. Author Tom Clancy covered a space-shuttle launch for the site in January, and in June filmmaker Oliver Stone participated in a live chat about Vietnam. In July, actress Mariel Hemingway took a trip through Cuba, visiting her grandfather Ernest Hemingway's old haunts—such as the Floridita restaurant and the Ambos Mundos Hotel—and filing daily dispatches. Bangs himself kicked off the Hemingway tribute by running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, while wired for sound for a live Net broadcast. To elude a ban on recording equipment, he hid a microphone under flesh-colored tape. "In a way, it was like running a river," recalls Bangs, whose play-by-play account was remarkably calm. "There was this whole flow of bodies, and you just had to figure out how to navigate."
It was a desire to steer his own course through life that lured Bangs into full-time adventuring. One of four children of Louise, a homemaker, and Larry, an administrator at the CIA, Bangs grew up in Bethesda, Md., and took his first canoe trips on the Potomac River. By the time he was at Northwestern University, majoring in English, he was guiding rafting trips through the Grand Canyon during vacation breaks. After graduating in 1972, he decided to embark on a yearlong African rafting binge before heading to law school. He and close pal Lou Greenwald formed a company, Sobek, to guide others interested in challenging the African rapids. Sobek, which merged in 1991 with Mountain Travel, today rakes in $15 million annually. (Bangs stepped down last year as president of productions—though he still remains on the board—to start Mungo Park.)
But Greenwald never saw Sobek's success. In 1975 he and Bangs took on the flood-engorged Blue Nile in Ethiopia, and Greenwald, in what Bangs terms a "freak accident," died when he became entangled in ropes and was dragged behind his boat through raging rapids. Shaken, Bangs "developed a real hatred for rivers," he says. He kept to dry land long enough to earn a master's in journalism at the University of Southern California. But after a year, encouraged by friends who would "stop by all tan and happy and full of tales of adventure," he rediscovered his passion. In 1987 a team led by Bangs was the first ever to navigate China's Upper Yangtze without a fatality, a journey he recounts in his 1989 book Riding the Dragon's Back. "He's got more of a zest for life than anyone I've ever encountered," says his wife, photographer Pam Roberson.
Bangs met Roberson, now 49, in 1983, when she attended a lecture he was conducting in Oakland about an expedition he had taken through New Guinea. Over the years, the couple have collaborated on book projects that took them hiking, biking, rafting and paddling all over the world. (Their son Walker already has dogsledding and cross-country skiing trips under his belt.) Roberson professes not to worry about her husband's safety during his solo wanderings. "If something happens, it's not going to happen the way most people think it will," she says. "He recently had a close call on a five-minute commuter flight. I figure with someone like him, that's the way it's going to happen."
Bangs and Roberson will celebrate the holidays this year by retracing the route of the magi to Bethlehem for another Mungo Park feature. The Middle Eastern trek doesn't rank among Bangs's most dangerous, but when asked if middle age and fatherhood have finally settled him down, the river runner takes a deep breath and stares at the ceiling. Sunlight glints off a tin bracelet clamped to his left wrist. It was given to him 24 years ago by an Ethiopian houseboy who told him that he would escape harm as long as he wore it, and Bangs has never taken it off. "In my early 20s, I was doing all these wild, arrogant things. At that age you really have no baggage," he says. "Now when I venture out there is responsibility, accountability and a recognition of mortality." He pauses. "But I'll always take risks. Without risks, there is no chance for rewards."
JOHNNY DODD in Redmond