Off The Grid Adventures
Published: April 2009
By Jeff Wise
For adventure travelers in a fully networked, BlackBerry-addicted world, finding a place to unplug and get away—really get away, to the North Pole even—is the ultimate luxury.
There are few landscapes on earth more worthy of being deserted than Namibia's Skeleton Coast, a battered, fog bound, all-but-lifeless expanse of dunes along the Atlantic that over the centuries has claimed the lives of countless sailors—hence its ominous name.But these days, the eerie landscape is the backdrop for an increasingly popular luxury destination: the Skeleton Coast Camp, a tented adventure lodge on an exclusive concession of 600,000 pristine acres.
More and more, travelers are seeking out such remote corners of the globe for their vacations. In an age when media and telecommunications form a seamless web, bombarding us with information and images from cell phones and pagers and BlackBerrys and TV screens, getting away from the din and the clamor requires venturing farther and farther afield. Deserts and the poles are among the dwindling number of refuges from hypermodernity. Rugged? Remote? Fundamentally unfit for human habitation?Then you might have a chance of finding some peace of mind there.
"It used to be that when you went to Europe, it was too expensive for someone to contact you," says Norman Pieters, owner of Karell's African Dream Vacations, which organizes trips to Namibia. Now, he points out, you can travel to the far side of the globe and not really be away—your office, your friends, your everyday concerns are all as close as your hip pocket. In a place like the Skeleton Coast, Pieters says, "You have time to actually take in nature and your surroundings."Sure, there are easier ways to keep your BlackBerry from buzzing. Many frequent travelers relish airline flights as escapes from connectivity (and were up in arms when the FAA recently announced that it might lift the ban on in-flight cellphone use). Many spas forbid wireless devices—the Spa Ojai at the Ojai Valley Inn, for instance, is a designated "freedom zone" where you can't use your cell phone (or smoke or bring a pet, for that matter). Many hotels, including the Ritz in London and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, ban cell phones in certain areas.
But the most definitive method of disconnecting is to go somewhere without any coverage at all. Ultima Thule, a lodge in the middle of Alaska's WrangellSt.Elias National Park, trumpets its lack of cell phone reception on its Web site. Although lack of coverage is part of the draw, customers still suffer electronic withdrawal. "Some people have trouble not being connected, at ﬁrst," says owner Donna Claus. "They're antsy. But then they accept it, and they go out and have a great time."
As cell phone towers continue to sprout, as Wi-Fi hot spots continue to spread, escaping the mediated world becomes harder and harder—and ever more exclusive, an expression of privilege. And yet off the grid is where one can still come face-to-face with the original thrill of adventure, that sense of strangeness, of being in a new and different place, that travelers once took for granted. Cutting the electronic umbilical cord is an escape from the familiar.
To meet the rising demand for such getaways, luxury adventure outﬁtters are adding trips to more-remote destinations. International Expeditions, which arranges adventure-packed nature tours, has just launched a new category of trips called Far-Flung Journeys, focusing specifically on hard-to-reach locales such as the Gobi desert in Mongolia and Niger's Sahara. "What's considered remote is continually changing," says cofounder and executive director Steve Cox. "At one time, Belize was really remote—we were the first company from North America to go into the interior. Now it's almost commonplace. So we're having to go a little bit farther out all the time."
Mountain Travel Sobek, which has long specialized in bringing top-end service to wilderness vacations, is also expanding its offerings to the most untraveled destinations. Among its newer catalogue entries is Libya Desert Adventure, promising "spectacular infinite landscapes, wild rocky massifs, and huge sand dunes, including areas where no other groups have traveled."
"We're always looking for new destinations like this," says Kevin Callaghan, the company's CEO. "We talk to our folks in the field and ask them, 'What do you think is cool?Where isn't anyone else going?What's your favorite place that you don't want to tell anyone about?' "
The irony, of course, is that once travelers reach the most untrammeled spots, they're not untrammeled any more. In fact, you could argue that the luxury-adventure trend effectively torpedoes the whole idea of wilderness. Is a place wild if you go there and find a hovering helicopter full of day-trippers sipping champagne?
Witness the saga of British explorer David Hempleman-Adams, who endured howling 55-below blizzards, braved shifting ice, and survived multiple plunges into the frigid ocean during his 1998 attempt to reach the North Pole. In eight weeks, he and his expedition partner, Rune Gjeldnes, trekked 600 miles; though his fingertips and toes suffered from frostnip and he nearly ran out of food, he and Gjeldnes reached the pole. Standing amid the anonymous pile of ice blocks at 90 degrees north, they made a toast with brandy and smoked celebratory cigars.
A few hours later they were startled by the sound of a descending Russian Mi-8 helicopter. They emerged from their tent to watch 10 warmly bundled visitors climb from the aircraft onto the ice. "They were tourists," Hempleman-Adams says. "They stayed five minutes, gave me a candy bar, and left." At first, Hempleman-Adams says, he was bothered by the spectacle of people taking the easy route to the pole (they had cruised in on Quark Expeditions' icebreaker and then flown to the pole from the ship).
"I thought, you know, it should be harder to get there than just flying in," he says. But with time, he came to see that he had much in common with the adventure travelers. "They had the same love of the Arctic and the same wonderment about it that I did," he says. "It's simply that I was more fortunate to be able to do it my way. After I came to terms with that, I had the ultimate respect for them. Because they didn't have to do anything dangerous. They could have gone to Miami and sat on a beach."
Jeff Wise is a T+L contributing editor.
Karell's African Dream Vacations
800/327-0373 or 305/ 446-7766; www.karell.com; seven-night custom itineraries to the Skeleton Coast from $5,778 per person.
WrangellSt. Elias National Park, Alaska; 907/688-1200; www.ultimathulelodge.com; $5,600 per person per week, including meals and all activities.
800/633-4734 or 205/428-1700; www.ietravel.com; 15-day trips to Mongolia, including three days in the Gobi desert, from $3,798 per person.
Mountain Travel Sobek
888/687-6235 or 510/594-6000; www.mtsobek.com; 13-day Libya Desert Adventure from $5,030 per person.
800/356-5699 or 203/656-0499; www.quarkexpeditions.com; 16-day trips to the North Pole aboard a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker from $18,995 per person.