Tired Of Disneyland? Take A Trip On The Wild Side

Fists pumping in the air, six of us stood in a circle on the sandy bank of the Rio Grande and chanted, "Umballa, Umballa, Umballa!" It was a bellowed incantation against the evil spirits of the river, which roared in the background. Then we wheeled around, hopped into our canoes, and paddled furiously down the throat of Hot Springs Rapids. Churning waves sloshed over gunwales. Adrenalin surged. And everyone came through upright.

Welcome to the world of adventure travel, where you can journey to some of the globe's wildest and most stunning natural places and explore them intimately, whether by foot, boat, bicycle, or horse. It's life pared down to the basics: eating, sleeping, breathing, with nary a telephone in sight. John Damoose, vice-president for marketing at Chrysler, says he was so pumped up by his first Himalayan trek last fall that he signed up for a three-week trip to Mt. Everest in October.

SEA KAYAKING. That kind of enthusiasm is fueling a boom in adventure travel, sometimes called "eco-tourism." The result is a greater variety of trips than ever before. You can stay relatively close to home--say, mountain biking in the Rockies near Aspen. Or you can tackle a more rarefied adventure: sea kayaking in the clear waters along the shore of New Zealand's Abel Tasman National Park, or hiking up Argentina's 22,834-foot Aconcagua, highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Trips can last from a few days to eight months and cost from $250 to about $7,000.

Aside from adventure, this kind of travel is attractive because the organizers handle all ef the logistical details--plans that could take an individual months to nail down. They book transport to far-flung destinations, organize communal equipment, such as cookware, and make sure specialized gear, such as kayaks, is in place. They also take care of meal planning and cooking. Some, such as Sheri Griffith River Expeditions (801 259-8229), even serve up gourmet repasts, complete with crystal and table linen.

IRISH PUB RIDE. You don't have to be an Ironman triathlete to go on one of these journeys. Most outfitters accommodate a whole range of fitness levels. For instance, Challenge Unlimited's "Great Irish Pub Ride" (800 798-5954) along Ireland's rugged west coast lets bikers pedal from 15 to 80 miles a day. The idea, of course, is to leave plenty of energy for the evening's pub crawl. And organizers are careful to alert people when special conditioning or knowhow is needed. Mountain Travel (800 227-2384) says its strenuous 22-day Aconcagua expedition requires previous mountaineering experience.

Increasingly, trips have a special educational component. Some focus on a particular sport or outdoor activity. The Nantahala Outdoor Center, a white-water paddling school in North Carolina (704 488-2175), organized the Rio Grande trip I went on. Our leader, Bunny Johns, is a reigning U. S. white-water champion who helped us improve our canoeing technique. Other trips study the ecology of a region. Trip leaders at Geo Expeditions (800 351-5041) hold advanced degrees in such fields as wildlife biology and paleontology. Some journeys include volunteer work. The Sierra Club (415 923-5630) sponsors trips to control erosion along the Allagash River in northern Maine, or to survey archaeological sites in southern Colorado.

The big, established organizers of adventure travel offer a broad range of destinations and activities. They include Mountain Travel, Sobek Expeditions (800 777-7939), and Wilderness Travel (800 247-6700). But there are also specialists such as Equitour (800 545-0019), which mounts only horseback treks. And with more than 25,000 outfitters, there are lots of small operators like Mark Hutson, who runs New Zealand Adventures (206 364-0160) from his Seattle home. Small isn't necessarily bad. After all, many biggies subcontract trips to local operators. But if you have questions about whether an outfitter is reliable, get references and make sure it has liability insurance.

There are lots of ways to seek out the right trip. The February, 1991, issue of Outside Magazine (312 951-0990) focused on adventure travel. And every issue includes a classified section with listings of outfitters you can call or write for information. Or you can contact the Adventure Travel Society (303 770-3801).

From time to time, some places in the world are just too dangerous to visit. The State Dept. (202 647-5225) suggests avoiding the Mideast (including Israel), North Africa, and South Asia because of the terrorism threat. The same is true of Peru, where terrorists are active and a cholera epidemic is out of control. Yugoslavia, which is being torn by ethnic fighting, and Indonesia, where Americans have been threatened, are also on State's caution list. It's a list well worth checking before you plan a trip: After all, you want an adventure, not a nightmare.

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