How to be a 21st century explorer

Exploring challenging parts of the world is now one of the most dynamic sectors of the travel industry – and an elite coterie of destination and security specialists has risen to the occasion. Sophy Roberts reports

A Natural World Safari expedition to Arctic Canada
A Natural World Safari expedition to Arctic Canada | Image: Manuel Lazcano

At the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is Virunga National Park. It is the natural habitat to around 200 of the world’s remaining 880 mountain gorillas. It is also at the centre of a region that is rich in oil and minerals, which has made it a target for exploitation. In March, DRC prime minister Matata Ponyo said the country was looking into redrawing Virunga’s boundaries to make way for extractive industries. Although discussions about it are ongoing, this is extraordinary for a World Heritage Site park established in 1925, but also testimony to how much pressure there is to make the DRC’s land pay for a desperate civil war-torn population.

These pressures are not going to go away anytime soon and how much of that wealth will ever reach the people most in need is hard to know. Transparency International ranks the DRC, joint with fellow African country Chad, a lowly 154 out of 175 countries and territories in its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Yet in the midst of all this complexity, there is the tourist lodge Mikeno, where the comforts are genuine: soft linens, hot showers, impressive food. Not that the sybaritic is why one would come here; Virunga is bafflingly beautiful enough. It sequesters not only gorillas, but also one of the world’s largest crater lakes bubbling with lava, glacier-crowned mountains and palm-fringed hot springs.

A Geographic Expeditions group viewing silverback gorillas in DRC's Virunga National Park
A Geographic Expeditions group viewing silverback gorillas in DRC's Virunga National Park

Here, on the edge of a forest, it may feel like one is standing in Eden, but of course this place is also riddled with problems, which won’t quite let the DRC shake off its Conradian Heart of Darkness reputation. The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office marks much of the country orange, “advising against all but essential travel,” with the remaining areas marked red “advising against all travel,” – a position derived from the DRC’s civil conflict with armed militias, which by 2014 had caused 2.7m people to be internally displaced, according to the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency). While I don’t witness these issues in my comfortable tourism bubble, the horrors of this region are well-documented and openly discussed with me by my travel planning expert, Kate Doty of San Francisco-based GeoEx, who is under no illusion about the challenges that this country presents as a holiday destination.

Doty is well-experienced in the DRC, having worked there since 2009; her on-the-ground contacts know which parts of this vast park are relatively safe, and which are not. She is familiar with security briefings and can navigate the fine line between a false sense of safety and the more meaningful information that comes from people in-country who know the lie of the land. Doty commands trust, as she understands there is a fundamental responsibility at play, both towards Virunga, which needs to be understood at a local level, and towards the client who wants to travel to frontier destinations, with a candid appraisal of its issues.

“There is a moral imperative to investing in and supporting troubled parts of the world. At the right time, tourism can help create confidence, bring about security and help rebuild peace, but it is also important not to be glib,” says Praveen Moman, founder of Volcanoes Safaris, which operates four eco-luxe lodges just across the border in Uganda and Rwanda, where he has played a key role in opening up Rwanda’s tourism industry after the 1994 genocide. He has a keen eye on how tourists respond to fear, information and travel advisories, and the fragile, porous lines between them.  


“The majority of travellers tend to go by the trends of the market, media reports and the tour operator. They don’t have the time or inclination to investigate the reality on the ground and can be jumpy about places with a mixed reputation,” says Moman. “Most stick to safe, obvious choices, and that’s their right. The sort of traveller I deal with – upmarket, independent, adventure-oriented – is generally well-informed. They take care in their decisions, weighing up the nuances of the travel advisories. We engage with them and tell them what we think, leaving the decision to travel to them. It’s a big responsibility. Then there are people who aren’t using a formal international or local tour operator. That gives them incredible freedom, because they’re answerable only to themselves and can have some amazing yet safe experiences in so-called trouble zones. There is also the fourth category, people who consider themselves immortal.”

It is this quandary I’m working through – how to write this story if I can’t quite pinpoint the line between intelligently assessed risk and immortality – when a Google alert flashes on my computer screen. It is March and there has been a terrorist attack in Tunisia, at the Bardo Museum in Tunis: 23 people killed, including tourists from Japan, Colombia, Australia, the UK and several European countries. As the repercussions unfold, a deliberate act of violence is now fuelling another exodus of tourism across the entire Maghreb region, which had already been affected by the 2010-2011 Arab Spring in Tunisia. But that’s what happens: fear seeps across borders, affecting not just the locus of the incident but whole regional swathes sharing the same religion, or continental boundaries. It is as if there’s no knowing any more, no rules, in a world crippled by the random.

“That’s the culture we’re living with,” says Max Lawrence, owner and MD of Moroccan travel specialist Lawrence of Morocco. “Before the Bardo incident, we were already having a difficult time selling holidays to Morocco, because of the French climber beheaded in Algeria in September 2014. I’m sure the Tunisia event will have an effect too, not just on Moroccan tourism, but in places on the other side of the world, like Indonesia. In the travel industry, fear reaches further than is logical.”

A Journeys by Design helicopter safari in the northern ranges of Kenya
A Journeys by Design helicopter safari in the northern ranges of Kenya | Image: Tropic Air

Jonny Bealby, whose 12-year-old business Wild Frontiers has been predicated on travelling difficult regions, is more sanguine: “Travel has always carried risk. I agree those risks now look more wide-ranging than ever in the context of Isis and Al-Shabaab. The question is how to manage this situation – not by running scared and sticking to villa holidays in Spain – but by proving our expertise to people who may sometimes need reassurance, yet fundamentally still want to travel to extraordinary parts of the world. There are no certainties in this business. Instead, there are only strategies to travel intelligently – in the right hands, backed up by the right security information. To travel fearfully is to take away the reason why so many of us get on planes in the first place, to satisfy a deep human impulse to understand the unfamiliar.”

As numerous luxury tour operators struggle to keep their heads above water with a general retreat to safety – which is understandable, when such companies can be sued for negligence if something goes wrong – others, like Bealby, aren’t suffering quite as one might expect. At the extreme end of his tour offerings, Bealby says his business is secure: “Kashmir is selling well, Iran is off the scale, our trip to Pakistan in May was sold out by March, and three months before departure our visit to Afghanistan had only four places left.” Bealby’s remarks tie up with a thesis that’s supported by other parallel trends – among them the fact that risk management is now one of the most dynamic areas of the market, especially among those who can afford it.

It is penetrating the deeper, more intelligent security story that consumes Michael Becker. Becker, 56, lives in Bedford, New York, with his wife and two young children. He is clean-cut, chiselled and wears a suit, which is not what one would expect from a man who has climbed Mongolia’s Altai Mountains and Tajikistan’s Pamirs and rafted the Yarkand River through China’s Xinjiang province. Out of these experiences, and professional expertise in risk-mitigation consulting, Becker identified a need for GeoSure Global, an app that uses hundreds of high-level sources, including the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the WHO, United Nations, US State Department and Interpol, to produce location-specific “threat temperatures” to replace the giant swathes of red that national institutions use to mark entire countries as no-go zones. You search for your destination and, like the community-based road traffic app Waze, you not only get the official amalgamated data, but also information from fellow GeoSure users. “We still need to get to scale with the real-time user base,” says Becker, “but our ambition is for GeoSure to function as a single prism on security information, by deploying a so-called ‘smart data’ approach that uses sophisticated predictive analytics to give a numerical, personalised impression of a security situation, as opposed to a loose narrative description. The world does seem a more dangerous place for travellers right now, but it doesn’t have to mean we should stop exploring.”  

Adventure Network International's South Pole camp
Adventure Network International's South Pole camp | Image: Russ Hepburn

Security companies, which historically support industries like the media, oil and gas, are responding to a similar shift in demand with their services now being utilised by high-end private travellers, says Richard Mitchelson, who is the MD of Rocam International, the private-security company he runs out of Singapore. “The travel sector is beginning to see value in what we do,” he says. “It’s not about guns or high-profile, heavy-set personnel. It’s about a subtle presence; it’s having someone watching your back so that you can enjoy other things.”

Lisa Lindblad, a New York-based travel agent who looks after high-spending clients all over the world, says she is already using similar services, by working with a company called Panoptic Solutions. “Proper security has always been important,” says Lindblad, “but it has just become more available. Only now are we becoming conscious of it, of individuals and companies out there catering to more than just heads of state. It’s also not as expensive as you might think.”

As a guide, Rocam charges $1,000-$3,000 per day, exclusive of travel costs, for an experienced security handler to look after a traveller or a small group in a hostile or higher-risk environment, which is comparable to the daily fee of a top safari guide in Africa. On a recent trip to Chad, I didn’t feel it necessary to be accompanied by one of Rocam’s staff, but I did consult Mitchelson about security sources and the equipment. He trained me in the use of satellite communications and supplied a small but brilliant security device that fits into my pocket. I’ve since used it in a couple of trickier places – I press a button twice a day and his agency (and my family) can track my GPS co-ordinates right down to the tree I’m sleeping under in the desert. Press the panic button and Rocam activates a crisis response plan (the nature of which depends on the policy I have taken out and the nature of my need).

Kalash men at a Joshi festival on a Wild Frontiers trip to Pakistan
Kalash men at a Joshi festival on a Wild Frontiers trip to Pakistan | Image: Jonny Bealby, Wild Frontiers

Insurance companies are also evolving, with competitive quotes from the likes of Battleface Travel Medical Insurance supporting individuals travelling to FCO-listed zones. A quote for seven nights in the DRC, which included a higher-risk trip in the border territory with South Sudan, was £53.60 for emergency medical evacuation. Like blanket security warnings, blanket travel insurance policies are no longer sufficient for the fragmenting market, says Will Bolsover, founder of UK-based tour operator Natural World Safaris, which specialises in wildlife-focused trips to challenging parts of the world: “Due to the sheer remoteness of one of the Arctic camps we use, we’re now providing clients with specific search-and-rescue insurance, which is offered only by a few approved insurance specialists in the world.”

Bolsover’s remarks are a reminder that while the geopolitical comprises a dominant strand in the current fearful travel climate – it’s the side we think about, because it is never off the news – there are other facets to personal security, which are becoming more prominent in line with the increasingly ambitious trips undertaken into wilderness areas where the threat isn’t terrorism but topography and wildlife. Companies like Adventure Network International, which takes travellers to an inland camp at the South Pole, understand that there is a difference between a holiday and an expedition; you just have to look at the pre-trip detail to get a sense of how seriously they take client safety in a climate with an average wind chill factor of -40/-50˚C. Arctic Kingdom is another, specialising in polar bear viewing trips in the north. In Africa, Will Jones, director of Journeys by Design, which is experienced in travelling deep into “forbidden” parts of the continent, such as Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, employs security elements like helicopters to get clients in and out fast.

“People tend to think that just because a holiday is listed in a brochure then everything is safe,” says Bolsover. “It’s not always. It’s a false sense of security that has come from being able to afford something and being able to jump on a plane. It’s [something] that we, the travel industry, have perpetuated. As a result, people forget to appreciate that even in relatively simple places, there is an element of danger.”  

Camel riding in the Moroccan Sahara Desert on a Lawrence of Morocco organised tour
Camel riding in the Moroccan Sahara Desert on a Lawrence of Morocco organised tour | Image:

Bolsover has to think like this. In Alaska, Natural World Safaris operates a seven-day grizzly bear tracking expedition, which is done on foot. “It is a photographer’s dream as the largest grizzlies in the world battle it out over the salmon run,” says Bolsover, “but there are only one or two guides that we would trust to run such trips. An exceedingly high guiding competency is required – these guides know these animals intimately and have to understand the smallest change in the grizzlies’ body language.” Pepper spray and flares are provided for the guides.

Still, one can’t assume that there’s no unforseen risk to extreme travel because of the length of the indemnity forms we’re now asked to sign, such as the one at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort in Canada, where the small print gives warning of the “many risks, dangers and hazards, including, but not limited to… being bucked off, kicked, stepped on, trapped under, bitten or otherwise injured by a horse… being hit by a skeet or a portion of a skeet… stray bullets… collision with animals”.

Nor can you assume that by travelling in a group (another burgeoning trend in the more security-challenged parts of the world) you’re any safer than you would be travelling individually with a private guide. Group travel sells well and helps keep prices relatively low, but it’s in no way an assurance against something going wrong, when the truth sometimes includes stories that never reach the press, from helicopter crashes to crocodile attacks.


As Praveen Moman says, “Every traveller must decide on his comfort zone, and for each of us that is different.” I think about my kids, aged seven and 10: would I take them to Papua New Guinea? Absolutely, but only in the security of a boat. Would I take them to the Congo? Probably not, if only because one needs to understand the depravity this country is plagued by to appreciate its achievement in opening up to tourism. Would I take them elsewhere in Africa? I do often, because of people like Doty, Jones, Moman, Bealby and Bolsover who know what they are doing. We might be living in a dangerous world, but we’re also living in the knowledge economy. The good operators know it – extraordinary trips are not about price, but about knowing the risks and managing them well.

For inspiration for intrepid explorations, see Adventures to the South Pole, Surfing in Sierra Leone and Cycling in Sri Lanka.