Richard Bangs is an entrepreneur, world adventurer, international river explorer, Web pioneer and award-winning author. He has led first descents of 35 rivers around the globe, including the Yangtze in China and the Zambezi in Southern Africa. Bangs has published more than 500 magazine articles, 14 books, and a score of documentaries; he has lectured at the Smithsonian, the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club and many other notable venues. His book The Lost River: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Transformation on Wild Water , won the National Outdoor Book Award in the literature category. His latest book is Mystery of the Nile: The Epic Story of the First Descent of the World’s Deadliest River.
How did you get started traveling?
My father was an operative in the CIA and was involved in Iran in the 50s; the photos and stories piqued something primal. I organized my first expedition at age 22 down several rivers in Ethiopia, all first descents, and was frightened as could be as I made the preparations, but could not resist the call. It was my first overseas experience, and it overwhelmed and transformed in a way that nothing before or since has.
How did you get started writing?
After exploring the rivers of Ethiopia I started a little company, Sobek Expeditions, to organize commercial raft trips down some of these spectacular rivers. But I had no monies and no way to market the trips, so I thought if I wrote some articles they might attract attention. My first published national piece was about the first descent of the Awash River in Ethiopia, published by SAGA Magazine (long gone). What a thrill — and I was between pages of scantily clad clutching women and men with big knives fighting off bears.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I think when Sierra Club offered to publish my first book, Rivergods, I then believed that what I was doing was credible and perhaps worthwhile. That was 14 books ago, and I often feel I am still waiting for the big “break.”
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Well, facts and stories don’t usually go together in my repertoire. Never let facts get in the way of a good story. I love talking to people, and sharing wine, beer, gin or smack, whatever it takes to bring out the tales.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Finding time to concentrate. I love long plane rides as there are no distractions and you can read and absorb as in few other environments. I recently traveled to Rwanda for a Mountain Gorilla project and spent three days flying there, and it was tremendously satisfying as I was able to read almost every book and article on the subject.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Well, I have never written for money — it has just been for the passion of it all, and sometimes there have been unexpected monetary rewards, but more often not. My motivation seems to be a narcotic urge to decipher and tell stories. Sometimes I think I should enroll in a 12-step program. Do you know of one?
Do you, or have you ever done, other work to make ends meet?
My day jobs have been with the company I co-founded, Mountain Travel Sobek, and with Expedia, Microsoft, Outward Bound (where I was president for a spell), and Yahoo. Writing has been my off-hours obsession, and source of greatest joy.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Richard Burton, Sam Baker, David Livingstone, Maurice Hertzog, Jean-Pierre Hallet.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Forget the 410k. Embrace the joy of the unknown, and laugh at getting lost.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
It allows one to drink the never-ending fount of learning, and keeps life as fresh and new as a child discovering the world beyond the home. There is no better life than traveling and writing without end.