There are a handful of adventure travel companies that really define the genre. Wilderness Travel is among them. The 40 year old company creates extraordinary itineraries, has legions of repeat travelers and has a knack for discovering or rediscovering lost corners of the earth. I recently had chance a chance to speak with Barbara Banks, a 20 year veteran of the company and now their director of marketing and new trip development.
I think of Wilderness Travel is one of the original adventure travel companies, along with Mountain Travel Sobek and Butterfield Robinson. Can you tell us about its origins?
Wilderness Travel was started with the dream of a climber and photographer, Bill Abbott, who was raised in South America. His vision, in 1978, was to share the incredible places that he had come to know in his years of tramping about the continent. And with a hastily leased office space, and the first desk consisting of a closet door set on two sawhorses, ‘South America Wilderness Travel’ was born. The cultural trips and mountain treks that were dreamed up struck a chord, and the company grew, first with more offerings in South America, then including more countries and continents: treks in Asia, safaris in Africa, and WT’s signature cultural and hiking trips through Europe’s most enchanting landscapes. Based in Berkeley, California for over 40 years, Wilderness Travel is proud to be owned and run by its original founder, Bill Abbott, and the next generation is stepping into the business. Bill’s daughter, Nicole, has joined the company, and is committed to carrying its legacy and ensuring that it stays true to its founding principles: to provide the absolute best experiences possible in adventure travel.
What is it that makes Wilderness Travel stand apart from the competition?
Wilderness Travel has always been a company of travelers, for travelers. We are not owned by a conglomerate, nor do we answer to stockholders. We are owned by our original founder, and therefore can stay true to our original values, of providing the most unique, authentic travel experiences possible. We don’t mind putting in the time to research new routes, new destinations before the crowds get there, revisiting the classic destinations to bring a new spin to the experience; we are always pushing to ask ourselves, ‘is this trip the best it possibly can be’? We offer trips because we have fallen in love with the destination, and the incredible people who know these places as home. This is not a numbers game for us, trying to get the biggest market share. It is a labor of love, grounded in respect for the destinations and their people, and the desire to see our presence there supporting the communities and bringing money deep into the local communities.
You take a lot of pride in your guides. How do you source them and what makes them unique?
Our Trip Leaders are our absolute pride. Some have been with us for over two decades, some are rising young stars who are making this profession their life’s work. We look for deep knowledge of a specific place—we don’t just shuffle guides from country to country. We look for them to have real knowledge of the region’s history, culture, natural history, and cuisine (!), and we look for people who have a special gift for sharing their deep knowledge in a fun and memorable way. Clients often say that they not only got a wonderful adventure, they got an impromptu college course on coral reef ecology, or the Italian Renaissance, or the history of the Incas, while traveling with our guides. They just have that spark that makes them be like a campfire that you want to sit close to, and listen to stories late into the night. And they are a tribe—we find them by working with our other guides, having them keep an eye out for that next rising archaeologist or marine biologist or climber who wants to share their ’home turf’ with others. Many become so popular that clients will ‘follow the leader’ to their next adventure, on trip after trip.
Wilderness Travel is now far reaching, with cruises, safaris, trips to Polar Regions and even special departures like a 2019 total solar eclipse trip to Polynesia. How do you maintain the quality without spreading yourself too thin?
Great question. We do a lot, but we also stick to what we know best. We are mostly a hiking and cultural adventure company. We don’t do bicycle trips, rafting trips, canyoneering. We know what we love and what we can do well, which is to design great itineraries. We have the depth to be able to create and deliver fantastic trips because we stick to our founding values. We don’t try to be everything to everyone; our trips may span a lot of levels of exertion, but the same ingredients are always there: a carefully designed itinerary, perfectly paced to reveal the best of a destination, a superb Trip Leader who is adept at sharing their deep knowledge and connecting our travelers to the place, accommodations selected for their location and their welcome—we can bring these elements to a trip just about anywhere. If we feel we can do it well, we will do it.
The company takes great pains to describe the levels of trip difficulty, from 1 (Easiest) to 7 (Most Strenuous). I’m guessing that you get a very wide range of travelers in terms of fitness and ages?
Thank you for noticing! We want to help travelers find the right trip for them, so we have an extensive trip level grading. We also include a section in every trip’s Detailed Itinerary, ‘What the Trip is Like’, reviewing trail conditions (is it Switzerland-smooth, or following narrow shepherds’ trails in the Basque Country?), any long drives, dusty conditions, or other factors that can add up in the sense of rigor in a trip. Once travelers find Wilderness Travel, they tend to stick with us for years—it is not unusual to have folks who have been on 10, 15 or 26 trips with us. They may start out with a dream climb of Kilimanjaro, a trek in Nepal, hiking to Machu Picchu, then if the knees demand it, ratchet down to a more moderate hiking trip, or even one of our curated expedition cruises. We have enough experience to create all types of trips, and do our best to communicate what they entail, so that travelers end up on a trip that they can enjoy from beginning to end.
Tell me about the “Patagonia! Epic Climbers and Conservationists” series of trips that you have planned. These strike me as itineraries that are beyond the usual offerings of an adventure travel company.
This is one of our Special Events, which we offer every year, and they are truly unique. We create programs to see eclipses in remote locations with renowned astronomers (2019 and 2020!). This program is one that we dreamed up to celebrate the incredible place that climbing has in Patagonia—Alex Honnold, the world’s greatest free solo climber, will share his stories, renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker, Patagonia’s Environmental Officer Rick Ridgeway, and Kris Tompkins will all share the vision of conservation that was born of the incredible feats of climbing in this epic realm. Five special hiking trips will follow this event, and the event benefits the incredible work of Tompkins Conservation. We have offered events on wildlife and human origins in East Africa with Jane Goodall and Mary Leakey, one in the Himalayas with Sir Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner, special symposiums on the Incas, the Mayas, and ancient Egypt, all with renowned experts. We love to bring our clients together with these legendary leaders in their fields. It is something that we can do thanks to our years in the business, and we love designing the special trips and safaris that accompany these events. Next one is celebrating Namibia’s extraordinary vision for conservation, in March 2019, with a panel of experts and a series of unique safaris. I can send links to any of these events.
As someone who has taken a lot of WT trips, can you name three places that you loved but are still under the radar for most travelers?
The Faroe Islands are surreal. Iceland, without the tourists—‘We are the Vikings who got seasick’ say the wry Faroese, who settled this archipelago that lies midway between Norway and Iceland. Lush islands that nourish Faroese sheep, renowned for their thick wool (‘Faroese gold’), Europe’s highest sea cliffs—2,000’, fantastic seafood, and world class hiking—as well as a Michelin starred restaurant—all in a country of just 55,000 inhabitants. The Faroe Islands are a world apart, mystical, Scandinavian chic yet traditional, an unforgettable destination.
Kyrgyzstan lies in the heart of Central Asia, once a vital link on the Silk Road, then locked away under the Soviet Union’s key for decades, now wonderfully available, yet strangely untouristed. You can hike in the Celestial Mountains, sleep in a felt tent (ger), ride horses that run like the wind, eat exquisite food in outdoor restaurants, and experience a meld of cultures, from the proud Kyrgyz people to the Dughan of Lake Issy Kul. The mountains are pristine, the hiking is incredible, and the welcome is one of the warmest in the world.
Zimbabwe has the wildlife, and you can get closer to it than in any other country in Africa. This is a true safari experience! Guides in Zimbabwe must undergo a rigorous 4 year course to qualify for their license. For the safari-goer, this means that when you see wildlife, you can actually get out of the vehicle and walk—unheard of in East African parks. Track herds of elephants, watch hippos frolicking in a pool, and experience an abundance of the great species in Africa. Hwange National Park is a gem, and we explore the richest parts of it, with packs of wild dogs to watch, bands of cheetah brothers, magnificent lion, zebra, plus real cultural encounters with the communities that these lodges help support.
Are there any trips in 2019 that you’re particularly excited about?
We love designing trips! The table in the conference room is about 15 feet long, perfect for rolling out maps and looking at new routes. We come up with a dozen new WT Expeditions each year; these are dream trips to the farthest corners of the map, or in depth explorations of our Trip Leaders’ favorite places. For 2019, we are particularly excited about a new trip with our Japan expert, “Pearl Divers and Pilgrimage Trails” which will explore the dreamy landscapes beyond Kyoto, as well as hiking portions of the Kumano Kodo, and visiting an untouristed village of pearl divers. Bulgaria to Transylvania explores the ancient monasteries, mountain trails, and traditional villages of Bulgaria and Romania with an expert guide, an exuberant and knowledgeable daughter of this region. Hiking in the Azores is a first to link the exquisite villages of the Azores, with hikes through these verdant islands, thrilling whale watching (5 species!), superb local cuisine, visiting the only tea plantation in Europe, sampling craft gin, and savoring a meal cooked in the geothermal vents of the Azores’ still-warm volcanoes. Not to be missed. And closer to home, Adventures in the Bay of Fundy has kayaking, a puffin refuge, lighthouse hikes and lobster bakes, in charming New Brunswick. Plus hiking in the realm of ‘the Cloud People’ of Peru, the ancient land of the Chachapoyas.
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