Adventure travel ventures off the beaten path
By Patricia A. Staino
Camilla Nielsen never imagined herself eating a fried locust in Thailand, or trekking with a group of men wearing nothing but penis gourds. She never dreamt of walking the ancient trail at Delphi or taking a "shortcut" across the crusty surface of a volcano. But that was before she discovered her inner adventurer and traveled to exotic locales such as India, Kenya and Thailand to hike, climb and trek.
More and more often, women like Nielsen are taking adventure vacations in lieu of the usual beach trip and bus tour. They are excavating the czars' summer gardens in St. Petersburg, working to save the endangered black rhino in Zimbabwe or "simply" taking a lodge-to-lodge trek in Nepal. If there is sand in their vacation, they are more likely to be digging in it than sinking in their toes.
An adventure vacation is travel in which you actively and physically participate, as opposed to a 'tour' in which you are more or less a passive observer, says Susan Eckert, founder of AdventureWomen, Inc. That's why Eckert's 2000 roster includes trips such as "The Emerald Ride" (horseback riding the Kilarney Trail in Ireland), "The Montana Cowgirl Sampler" (hiking, horseback riding and fly fishing in Montana), and "The Gates of Heaven" (a lodge trek in Nepal that includes an elephant safari and two-day rafting trip).
Sometimes the draw of adventure travel is experiencing something new, and sometimes it is experiencing something no one else has. "One volunteer said the greatest appeal is that the next discovery could be yours," remarks Mary Blue Magruder, Director of Public Affairs for Earthwatch Institute, a group that sponsors scientific research projects for which the general public can volunteer to take part. She says women choose these types of trips because they offer a sense of accomplishment unlike any they may experience in their everyday life. "To be a part of saving an endangered species, or being the first to touch an ancient mammoth bone, or the first person in 40,000 years to touch an ancient stone hand axe - it's almost addictive."
Earthwatch Institute, established 30 years ago, combines adventurous spirits and concern for global well-being to promote conservation of natural resources and cultural heritage by partnering scientists, educators and the public. In this case, the adventure vacations are actually non-profit research projects, led by scientists, for which the travelers volunteer and pay their own expenses.
An Earthwatch expedition can be mentally and physically challenging. On some journeys, volunteers might swing a pick-axe in the desert heat to unearth dinosaur bones; or on voyages, they may capture and surgically outfit lemon sharks with transmitters and tags; or perhaps with the help of a translator, they could interview women in Zimbabwe about obstetrical healthcare. And at the end of each day, volunteers eat as the locals do, whether it be a five-course meal at a four-star restaurant, vegetables cooked in a solar oven, or cheese sandwiches from their backpacks. They may sleep in the open air under the stars or under the turrets of a European castle. No matter what the environment, travelers are completely immersed in a new, unique culture.
Each year, Earthwatch sponsors more than one hundred projects as domestic as Idaho, Maine and Maryland and as exotic as Belize, Cyprus and Tanzania. "Earthwatch provides a fascinating way to walk into someone else's life and live it intensely for two weeks and then go back to your own-but often changed in exciting ways," enthuses Magruder.
Most travelers agree that immersing themselves in another culture is the most exciting part of adventure trips. And that doesn't just mean eating insects or sleeping on the ground. Sometimes it can simply mean getting to know the locals a little better.
"In the early '80s, I was volunteering with a marine biologist in the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga," recalls Magruder. "Tonga has a 300-pound king and to them size is beauty. At the end of our time there, the Tongans roasted a pig for us and there was music for dancing. All the Tongan men rushed to ask our big, beautiful volunteer, Sandy, to dance, totally ignoring all the other smaller volunteers!"
Other women enjoy adventure travel not because it introduces the unexpected, but because it fulfills a lifelong dream. "Women of my generation were expected to become either a nurse or a teacher," maintains Claire Nelson, 65, who chose the latter. "But I always had an image of 'Claire the Scientist' in the back of my mind. Earthwatch Expeditions made that dream a reality."
Nelson has joined Earthwatch on 14 research projects, focusing on habitat preservation and the environment. One of her most memorable experiences occurred in the dry tropical forest on Mexico's West Coast when her research team temporarily trapped a jaguar to survey.
"This was not just any jaguar but the first one to be captured in Mexico for scientific study," she reveals. "This animal was one of the most powerful forces in pre-Hispanic history and is teetering on the brink of extinction. I was there and I have the photo to prove it. I was almost a scientist!"
For Nelson, her Earthwatch travels have given her the freedom to roam the globe. She says there is no more satisfying way for her to travel - her curiosity is salved and she is giving something back to the world.
"I grew up with National Geographic," she says with fondness, "and this was my chance jump into the pages."
Adventure travel also allows women to meet new people from a variety of backgrounds and bond quickly over common circumstances. "The women who come on these trips get an experience in exploration and camaraderie that's sometimes missing from their daily lives," claims Eckert, who has been running all-women adventure vacations for almost 20 years.
Such was the case for Camilla Nielsen, whose first AdventureWomen vacation - to India - was a surprise birthday trip booked by her husband. "I had such a good time, not only enjoying the sites but more especially the complexity of the people (I was traveling with) - different backgrounds, ages, ideals and desires - that I decided to continue traveling with AdventureWomen's groups."
This fall, Nielsen is taking her daughter on her first AdventureWomen trip to celebrate her 30th birthday - a lodge-to-lodge trek in Nepal.
"I have learned that I'm okay and that I can DO even when it seems difficult," said Nielsen. "I have learned to believe in myself. I never thought I would walk across the Sahara with a herd of camels; I never thought I would watch the sunflowers follow the sun across the sky as the day passed; I never thought I would ever stand where the Incas ruled and lived and played; I never thought I would start my day by diving off the side of a teak ship in the Fiji Islands. Almost everywhere I go is to a place I never would think I would see."
By Sally E. Smith
It was 1992 and this California girl was long overdue for a vacation. I wanted to "get away," and decided New Zealand was about as far away as I could get. My itinerary was loose - a bus pass in my pocket, a book listing cheap "pub beds" in my duffel bag, and four weeks of time on my hands - but before I left the States I had booked a five-day trip with Bushwise Women.
The "Work Party" expedition to their Bushline Lodge on the West Coast of the south island of New Zealand was an experience I'll never forget. In exchange for some labor in sprucing up the lodge and about $75, I got to experience New Zealand's breathtaking beauty and unbeatable Kiwi hospitality.
Eight years after my trip, I still smile when I think about the lessons I learned during that week. After I tried to give nearly disastrous advice about a construction project (it was a cultural thing - I was thinking in inches and they were thinking in centimeters - or is it millimeters?), I satisfied myself with painting one of the outbuildings. I couldn't get into much trouble there.
I also gained valuable insight into the nature of English idioms. Another woman on the work party was German, and I distinctly recall that, in a discussion about vehicles, when I referred to my truck as being "on its last legs," she responded, "Your truck has legs?!"
Roz Heinz from Bushwise Women introduced me to the lovely habit of morning and afternoon tea. At first, my overachieving American mindset caused me to be amused when Roz stopped the van midway from Christchurch to the lodge, brought out the Thermos of tea and the plate of scones, and set up an informal tea service near a babbling brook. As the week progressed, however, I came to appreciate the rhythms that allowed for this twice daily ritual.
The other thing I appreciated was that my size was simply not an issue. As a supersize woman, I naturally had reservations about my ability to keep up, but found that they were completely accommodating. In retrospect, I imagine this meshes with their philosophy of recognizing, tapping into and reinforcing the strength of women, but at the time I was silently appreciative.
Their website says, "When you come with Bushwise Women, you enter a whole women's network." This couldn't be truer. A couple of years after my trip to New Zealand, I got a call from Roz, saying that she and Cynthia, her partner, would be coming through Sacramento and would I like to get together? While we didn't have tea (as I recall, it was lemonade), we had a delightful time, and I continue to think of Bushwise Women with fond memories.
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