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We're all explorers now: the roots of adventure travel lie more in the Swinging Sixties than in serious exploration, but its emerging position as a serious option for the short-break tourist means more of us are going farther and farther afield. Tom Chesshyre takes a walk back down the hippy trail.

My feet were agony itself. New hiking boots had robbed against my heels, creating blisters the size of ten-pence pieces. I was sunburnt, my back ached and I'd overfilled my pack (never, never again). I was totally knackered--I'm not used to climbing anything more taxing than the front steps to my flat.

The accommodation for the night was an A-frame mountain hut with a tiny living room and little else. The toilet, located 50 metres away, consisted of a ramshackle wooden hut with a hole in the floor perched precariously on the edge of a precipice (look out below!). Our group consisted of six tourists, two tour guides and 77-year-old Duran, our host for the night. He grinned toothily, rolled cigarettes and made black coffee with the consistency of treacle.

That night, we slept on the floor. It was very uncomfortable. We were tired. We were 1,400 metres up a mountain in a village with 50 inhabitants. But we were on holiday, and we were, despite all the aches and pains, having a brilliant, indelibly memorable time.

These days it's pretty easy to have a proper adventure on a short package holiday. My trip to the Dinaric Alps, just outside Sarajevo in Croatia, was one of the most adventurous I'd ever been on. Yet it was just a three-hour flight from the UK, and I was travelling for a weekend with Regent Holidays, a Bristol-based tour operator that specialises in off-the-beaten-track destinations in Europe.

Packaged 'adventure tourism' has come a long way. During the early 1970s, it didn't really exist. If you wanted a taste of adventure, you'd have to plan it pretty much yourself: book the flights, consult the guidebooks, find the right maps ... and take the plunge. These were the days of the 'hippy trail', when the likes of Tony and Maureen Wheeler, founders of Lonely Planet, were heading off on long trips through Asia (indeed, it was one such trip that led to Lonely Planet's first guidebook, the groundbreaking Across Asia on the Cheap). Goa, Afghanistan, Kathmandu, Koh Samui and many other backpacker haunts took on an almost mystical 'independent traveller' status. People began to realise they didn't have to holiday in Europe; the whole world was up for grabs, and it didn't even cost that much.

But when the hippies came home, they started to wonder what they were going to do for a living. And so adventure-travel tourism was born.

Hippy trips

It's difficult to come straight out and ask someone you don't know if they used to be (or still are, for that matter) a hippy. "Were you one of the people who used to go backpacking in the early 1970s?" I ask Mike Sykes, managing director of one of the UK's oldest adventure-travel companies. "Do you mean: was I a hippy'?" he replies. "Yes, I was. From 1968 to 1969, I did the overland trip to Kathmandu. Then I went to work in Australia for while. Then I travelled back to the UK, through Southeast Asia, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran. The usual route. I went off on another trip and then finally got my first 'proper' job, working as a tour leader. I was 30 years old."

Sykes's work evolved into Dragoman (the Middle Eastern term for a guide or interpreter), which began in 1981. The company now offers overland trips to 60 countries, with an average price of 120 [pounds sterling]-200 [pounds sterling] a week, excluding flights. Trips are typically six weeks long, although customers can travel for two or three weeks if they so desire. India, China and Central Asia are the big growth areas, and typical adventure tourists are, in order of number of bookings, students, teachers, the retired, accountants, nurses, doctors, engineers and civil servants.

"There are different reasons for wanting an adventure-tourism trip," says Sykes. "There's the really rough-and-tough group who want to go all out for it; there are those who just want an element of danger; there are people who want to go somewhere different so they can impress their friends in the pub when they get back; and there are people who want an element of all of this."

Sykes believes that where adventure-travel companies go, the rest of the travel market follows. "A few years ago, South America was big with us," he says. "Now everyone's doing it. We have to evolve. China and Central Asia are definitely on the up." And he thinks 'overlanding', travelling in a 4WD vehicle on long journeys, is the most adventurous form of travel (Dragoman, the country's leading overland specialist, started with one vehicle and now has 35). "It's the nearest people can get to proper exploration on a couple of weeks off," Sykes says. "We have our own transport, so we can go off the beaten track. If there's a tiny lane going down to an interesting looking lake, we can just decide to go, there and then."

Derek Moore is the director of Explore Worldwide, the country's biggest-selling adventure-tourism company. Each year, 40,000 people take trips with Explore, out of a global market of around 130,000 journeys annually. Moore formed the company--again, in 1981--with two friends. They had, he says, "breathed, eaten and slept travel for as long as we could remember".

According to Moore, there are several trends in adventure travel. The first is that trips have become shorter. "In the 1980s, people went for three weeks, that went down to two weeks in the 1990s," he says. "Now it's as short as ten days, and there are some four-day breaks. We've got a five-day trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda." Holidays have also become more sophisticated (less adventurous?), with hotels replacing camping on most trips. And the travellers' age profile has increased: now people in their 40s, 50s and older are going, not just those in their 20s and 30s.

Adventure travel has, Moore believes, "moved into the mainstream", with several companies, Explore Worldwide included, bought up by big tour operators who wanted a slice of the growing market, but "did not have the expertise to create clones". Explore was bought by Holidaybreak and Exodus, the second largest UK adventure operator, by First Choice.

Crispin Jones is marketing and communications manager at Exodus. Founded in 1974, Exodus is the UK's oldest adventure-travel company, today covering 80 countries. "We began by taking people in Bedford Army trucks from London to the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan," he says. "People used to travel for six months or so. Now, much better air travel means that very adventurous two- or three-week trips are possible." The average customer age is 42.

Exodus recently started up a new programme of trips to Papua New Guinea. "That place has 750 dialects, and it's got some of the wildest jungle in the world," Jones says. But Exodus also features 'soft adventure, experiential travel' breaks-walking through vineyards in Tuscany, or cycling through the Dordogne, for example. "I really hate those terms, but I guess we're stuck with them for now."

Polar travel is another growth area. "We've had to diversify," says Jarrod Kyte, UK manager for Peregrine, which charters two old Russian research ships, relics of the Cold War, for its Antarctic cruises. "On those trips, you can go trekking or kayaking or go out in Zodiac dinghies or you can simply take it easy on board taking pictures." Trips cost 3,970 [pounds sterling] for ten days, flights included--a far cry indeed from the days of Scott and Amundsen.

The Adventure Company--with its does-what-it-says-on-the-tin name--is one of the newer, more mainstream adventure operators. It has been going for ten years, now catering for 8,000 people annually, with a 25-30 per cent annual increase in sales since 2000. It epitomises the new shorter-length approach to adventure. "Short is good," says Mark Wright, the company's managing director. "I think you can have a fantastic adventure in a week, or even less. We do weekend breaks in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. I was there recently, and it suddenly struck me that just a day earlier I'd been stuck in traffic on the M25, cursing, but now I was high up in the mountains, having just finished a trek, taking in the beautiful view, sipping mint tea and eating cous cous."

We're all explorers now. See you in the office on Monday, I'm off to Kyrgyzstan for the weekend.

DO ...

* read up on your adventure operator. Companies such as Explore Worldwide usually have an 'About us' section on their websites, which can tell you a lot about the experience of the operator

* research your destination. Guidebooks will offer good insights as to what is possible, and where

* take out proper travel insurance. Make absolutely certain that any adventure activities you're contemplating are covered

* get fit beforehand, even if you're just going on a trekking holiday

* check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's country advice--you don't want to stray into a trouble zone

DON'T ...

* go for a cheap mass-market option. The expertise of their guides is unlikely to match that of an established adventure company

* overstretch yourself. A gung-ho approach to a trek could cause you to suffer later on

* forget to get all the necessary vaccinations

* fall out with others on the trip. Groups on adventure trips are often quite small and close. It's best to bite your tongue if someone is irritating you

* take lots of expensive equipment such as iPods, digital cameras and laptops if you're travelling in an area with a high crime rate

A TASTE OF ADVENTURE

Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; www.regent-holidays.co.uk) offers a three-night B&B break in a three-star hotel in Sarajevo starting at 420 [pounds sterling].

Green Visions (+387 33 717 290, www.greenvisions.ba) offers six-night breaks, including four nights on a Dinaric Alps trip, hiking, biking and rafting from 228 [pounds sterling].

Dragoman (01728 861 133; www.dragoman.com) offers a two-week 'moderate rated' trip from Ashgabat to Tashkent that starts at 804 [pounds sterling], flights excluded. A camel safari and a trip to Samarkand, Central Asia's oldest city, are included.

Explore Worldwide (0870 333 4001; www.exploreworldwide.com) has a 17-day hiking and four-wheel-drive trip through the desert in Mauritania, West Africa, that starts at 1,869 [pounds sterling]. It includes 11 nights' camping.

Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) has a 16-day hike across the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia, that starts at 2,785 [pounds sterling]. Nine nights are spent wild camping: three are in hotels and two are in a self-catering apartment.

The Adventure Company (0870 794 1009; www.adventurecompany.co.uk) offers a five-day trekking trip in the Atlas mountains in Morocco from 599 [pounds sterling]. It includes a visit to Marrakech and accommodation in a converted kasbah.

Peregrine (01635 872 300; www.peregrineadventures.co.uk) has two-week Antarctic Explorer Expeditions that start at 3,970 [pounds sterling]. Passengers on the cruise ship have the opportunity to camp on the ice for a night.

The Imaginative Traveller (0800 316 2717; www.imaginative-traveller. com) has a 21 -day tour of China that starts at 1,250 [pounds sterling], flights excluded. It includes hiking along the Great Wall of China, rafting and a camel safari.

Guerba (01373 826 611; www.guerba.co.uk) has a two-week overland trip in Kenya and Tanzania that starts at 1,473 [pounds sterling] in February. Highlights include climbing Mount Kilimanjaro via the Marangu route and visiting Olduvai Gorge.

Equine Adventures (020 8667 9158; www.equineadventures.co.uk) has a Horsemen of Krygystan two-week trip for 1,69.5 [pounds sterling] that includes riding across open plains and through mountain passes at heights of up to 4,500 metres.

Last Frontiers (01296 653 000; www.lastfrontiers.com) has 19-night Antarctic expeditions that start at 3,265 [pounds sterling], excluding flights, in January, with trips to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia included.
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL MATTERS
Author:Chesshyre, Tom
Publication:Geographical
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:1984
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