The Art of Living Dangerously: True Stories From a Life on the Edge

The Art of Living Dangerously: True Stories From a Life on the Edge

Reviewed by Casey Fahrer

What is adventure? Most American boys discover adventure in books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s 1885 story of a young Southern boy floating on a raft down the Mississippi with an escaped slave. Or Daniel Defoe’s, Robinson Crusoe, which features a man who leaves the comfort of England for a life of rough sailing and shipwreck desolation. Then there’s Homer’s Odyssey, an epic poem depicting the ten-year journey of Odysseus as he battles to return home from the Trojan War.

Adventurers can still get the thrill of living on the edge without spending years on a boat. Adventure tourism provides numerous exciting escapes that don’t require climbing Mount Everest or trekking across the Kalahari.  Biking, surfing, skiing and skydiving all are examples of adventure tourism. Backpacking combines hiking with an appreciation of cultures encountered along the way. Homestays are another way to embrace the local culture in a given destination. Heritage or religious travel can fit into this category.

Richard Bangs is the modern “father of adventure travel.” After starting his journey rafting on the Colorado River, Bangs continued his explorations in Ethiopia, Zambia, Borneo and Patagonia. He began venturing on a large scale in 1973 and has continued his explorations to every continent on the globe.

Bangs helped found Sobek Expeditions in 1973. The international rafting company was a launchpad for many of his adventures. It later merged with Mountain Travel in 1990 to form his current company, Mountain Travel Sobek. In addition to his business, Bangs has published 19 books and over 1,000 magazine articles.

“Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have a keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden path by the lure of little voices, the mysterious fascination of the unknown.”

That quote comes from Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, somebody Bangs says “loved a good adventure.”

Richard Bangs, starts his book, The Art of Living Dangerously, with that quote, making readers immediately aware of the turbulent ride they will enjoy while accompanying him on his adventurers. His memoir details a wide variety of adventures on every continent plus Antarctica. Whether it is visiting war-torn countries, going on daring expeditions down rivers or venturing into seldom-visited nature preserves, Bangs travels with studied aforethought.

Hear his thoughts while standing on the bank of the Lungwebungu River in Angola: “I was once at such a place, standing on the banks of an unrun river, wild with anticipation, vested with a feeling of launching into something exceptional, something archetypal, beyond normal lives, discovering as the nineteenth-century seekers of the source of the Nile.”

Adventure travel is on the rise. Data from 2021 shows that the adventure tourism industry earned just shy of $300 billion that year. As it is a truly global style of tourism, Europe accounted for about half of adventure tourism destinations in 2021, followed by Central America (20%) and North America (14%.) The industry continues to grow and is expected to eclipse $1 trillion by 2030. Many countries welcome adventure tourism due to its positive economic impacts and sustainability.

Adventure often is an alternative to what routinely is available. Take Peru’s Machu Picchu. A normal day tour to the area arrives on a bus. Adventurers may opt for a three-day trek along the Inca Trail. Some of South America’s most beautiful locations offering treks are Iguazú Falls, Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca, and the Patagonia Mountains of Argentina.  North America has the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Alaskan heli-skiing and various subterranean cenotes.

Europe has a wide array of adventures. Seeing the northern lights, snorkeling along the continental shelf in Iceland and parasailing the Mediterranean.

As for Asia, visit the Himalayas or the Anatolian caves of Cappadocia, which sheltered early Christian communities after Jesus’ crucifixion. Bangs explored some of Pakistan’s vast mountains and floated down the Indus River.

One example of Bangs’ adventures is his journey to the famous Krakatoa volcano. After departing from Jakarta, he traveled to the site of the 1883 eruption and battled the elements to reach the top of what was left of the summit. He also spent time exploring Papua New Guinea. “We visited a crocodile farm and watched keepers throw huge chunks of raw beef and fish to the crocs,” he writes, noting that crocodiles are integral to the country’s ecosystem and have a place on Papua New Guinea’s currency.

“By making that step beyond the equipoise of provisional comfort there is the chance to be swept away by glorious displays of flocks and herds, to be baptized into the marvels of the natural life,” Bangs says about taking the opportunity to explore all that the Earth has to offer. He defines what it means to live dangerously while on these adventures when after a long week of traveling through Nepal he says, ‘there may be rules, but they bend in every direction, and there are beasts at every post.”

Bangs believes many of the world’s greatest adventures are tainted by human interaction. “Many years ago, I set out with a Sobek team to make the first descent of the Çoruh River in eastern Türkiye,” he remembers. “The classified topo maps we had secured from the CIA suggested a steep gradient, making large and difficult rapids likely. But as we prepared to launch, an elder from a neighboring town came to me and advised us not to run his river. He had walked up and down the river all his life and he declared it unnavigable. ‘You will die.”’

Should the Sobek crew have ignored the warning? The Çoruh today has been tamed with dams, making it a source of energy but destroying its natural beauty and excitement.

“In the 1980s, I explored the Alas Basin in Sumatra, running through the largest orangutan reserve in the world,” Bangs writes. “Timber poaching has reduced the once luxurious habitat to a scrawny shadow, and the ‘men of the forest’ are on the brink of extinction.”

“As promising as adventure travel is as a tool for environmental conservation, and cultural enabling, travelers—even the most well-meaning—have an incontrovertible impact on the places they visit. It is impossible to visit an environment, a culture, and not exact some toll.”

Adventure travel has a stereotype that only the wealthy and pristine can do it, but that is not the case. The average trip costs a little less than $1,000 per day. Don’t worry if you are single or have a family either. The most common adventurer is typically in their 30s, but people fresh out of college and over the age of 50 also are active.

Many websites help plan a thrill-seeking getaway. G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Overseas Adventure Travel, and Contiki are some of the most-used sights in the industry. There is also Bangs’ own travel company, Mountain Travel Sobek, that offers many trips throughout the world. According to Richard Bangs, the same fulfillment can come whether it is by the route’s pioneer or the wanderer who follows along in his footsteps.

The Art of Living Dangerously

True Stories From a Life on the Edge

Richard Bangs, Lyons Press, 376 pp. $40 hardcover

ISBN 9781493074297


Casey Fahrer studies Broadcast and Digital Journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. His recent East-West News Service stories looked at tourist-friendly airports and the growing popularity of airline premium economy seating.