For the first time in history, people with the means to do so can go anywhere on Earth—and even places beyond Earth. Any number of alpine guides can escort you to the “death zone” at the summit of Mt. Everest. Tour operators and scientific institutions will lead you on dogsledding trips to the North Pole—a point that first was visited by humans in 1909—or take you to the South Pole by private jet and deposit you there for a few hours of photo opportunities and Champagne toasts. Within five years, Space Adventures, the Arlington, Va., company that sent Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, and Greg Olsen to the International Space Station, will offer a mission aboard a Russian Soyuz-TMA spacecraft that will orbit the moon.
As the world and its surroundings have opened to adventure travel, the people who partake in such excursions—and their purposes for doing so—have changed. Geoffrey Kent, whose tour company Abercrombie & Kent has helped transform adventure travel into a luxury pursuit, says that his clients today are quite different from those he had when he and his parents founded A&K in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1962. Then, the typical Abercrombie & Kent customer was someone who had inherited his or her wealth and could afford to spend weeks or even months on an exotic trip. Today’s upscale adventure traveler, observes Kent, is likely to be a self-made professional who is cash-rich but time-poor.
The time constraints of modern travelers have translated to increased expectations for adventure tours. Customers of A&K and other high-end operators demand extraordinary experiences—white-water rafting in the Andes, observing African wildlife—in fixed, concentrated periods of time. They want guaranteed magical moments, and they will pay a hefty sum to ensure that those moments occur.
Over the course of its four decades of leading safaris and other excursions around the world, Abercrombie & Kent has adjusted to the changing needs of adventure travelers. The company’s Just a Week Away program, which it introduced in 2000, offers carefully structured itineraries that distill extreme experiences into seven action-packed days. A&K also pioneered the use of private jets for group tours, a luxury that eliminates hassles, saves time, and provides access to parts of the world that are otherwise difficult to reach.
Of course, adventure travelers demand more than efficient itineraries; they want authenticity and hands-on experiences. They do not want merely to watch orcas from the deck of an icebreaker in Antarctica; they want to go out in Zodiacs to observe the animals up close and even touch them if they can. Such people tend to be hypercompetitive about their adventures, placing as much emphasis on their experience portfolios as on their stock portfolios. The trip itself is important, but so is the ability to return home and tell everyone where you’ve been and what you’ve seen.
This emphasis on accomplishment has created a context of adventure travel brand names—Everest, Kilimanjaro, Antarctica, the Big Five of African wildlife (lion, elephant, rhinoceros, leopard, and Cape buffalo)—that are the bases for bragging rights and membership in an elite club. As someone who has reached the North Pole or ventured into space, you belong to an exclusive circle whose members include such august names as Robert Peary and Neil Armstrong. That’s good company to keep if you’re an orthopedic surgeon from Dallas whose claim to fame is patenting a technique for removing bunions.
While it may not offer trips to outer space (yet), Abercrombie & Kent understands the individual who would embark on such a journey. Most people who can afford a trip to the North Pole—and certainly to outer space—are accustomed to a particular level of sophistication. From the time he devised a portable refrigeration system for his African safaris in the 1960s to his 2004 introduction of the Spafari (a trip that combines Big Five game viewing with upscale accommodations and spa treatments), Geoffrey Kent has elevated the service and amenity levels of adventure travel. Kent and his business partner and former wife, Jorie Butler Kent, describe the experience their company provides as “the A&K cocoon.” When you sign up for an A&K trip, they insist, everything will be taken care of for you: transportation, visas, permits, guides, luggage handling, even waiting in lines at airports and hotels.
A&K envelops its clients in this “cocoon” of comfort and safety while transporting them to destinations and experiences completely unlike anything they are accustomed to at home. At Baines’ Camp in Botswana, the company’s newest African safari lodge, guests stay in one of five suites set on elevated platforms among shade trees near the Okavango Delta. Named for Thomas Baines, a painter who explored the upper Zambezi River and Botswana alongside David Livingstone in the 1850s, the camp is decorated in themes reflecting the artist’s depictions of Africa. But its amenities and appointments—bamboo blinds, wrought iron sconces, pewter bathroom fixtures—could not be further from the dangers and physical hardships of 19th-century exploration. In this juxtaposition of rugged scenes and modern luxuries, Baines’ Camp, and thus Abercrombie & Kent, addresses perfectly the desires of today’s adventure traveler.
Richard Wiese is the president of the Explorers Club, a 101-year-old adventure and field-science organization based in New York City, and the host of the syndicated television program Exploration with Richard Wiese. Last year, he ascended a previously unclimbed mountain in Alaska’s Wrangell Range.