Magazine article Geographical

Adventure Bound: The Search for New and Exciting Travel Opportunities-Not to Mention Good Dinner Party Stories-Has Led to a Rise in the Popularity of Truly Adventurous Holidays. Minty Clinch Joins a Challenging Horse Trek through the High Pamirs of Tajikistan to See What All the Fuss Is About

Magazine article Geographical

Adventure Bound: The Search for New and Exciting Travel Opportunities-Not to Mention Good Dinner Party Stories-Has Led to a Rise in the Popularity of Truly Adventurous Holidays. Minty Clinch Joins a Challenging Horse Trek through the High Pamirs of Tajikistan to See What All the Fuss Is About

Article excerpt

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Riding in the High Pamirs. Four weeks in the wilderness in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Communal tent or sleeping outdoors at altitudes above 4,500 metres. Twelve-hour days on horseback in boulder-strewn uplands. Itinerary strictly uncertain. Rationing essential whenever food runs low. Ditto vodka. Cost: 5,000 [pounds sterling], international flight not included. Any takers?

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Too many, as it turned out. When High Plains Drifter, the inaugural Wild Expedition, appeared on the Wild Frontiers website in 2007, the niche adventure company was inundated with requests. They squeezed in one extra rider, bringing the total to eight, but had to turn several people away.

The adventure begins on the 4,282-metre Kyzyl-Art pass on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. Not many people pass this way, and those who do are often running drugs between Afghanistan and China. We're heading the other way, but 15 horses, five Land Cruisers, a dozen foreigners and a track laden with hay and barley require paperwork, authorised and unauthorised payments, and the patience of several saints.

But eventually the young soldiers relent and celebrate our release by vaulting into our saddles and galloping our horses around their compound, whooping with joy.

WILD SPIN-OFF

Jonny Bealby, a travel junkie who has written books about crossing continents on motorbikes and horses, started Wild Frontiers in 2002 to feed his own habit. Currently, the company takes about 750 people a year to far-off places. Seventy per cent of them are women, perhaps, as Bealby claims, because they're more inquisitive, but more likely because they're less confident about going it alone. In 2005, he identified a niche for trips to extreme destinations such as Yemen and Afghanistan. Four years later, they make up 15 per cent of his business.

The Wild Expeditions spin-off represents a natural extension of the quest for travel kudos. As each trip is a one-off, they pander to the growing popularity of 'vanity travel'. 'In a very real sense, I sell dinner party conversations,' Bealby explains. 'In that context, the Bahamas versus Bhutan is a no-brainer. The Bahamas marks you out as a pleasure seeker, whereas Bhutan suggests an interesting person with tales to tell over the creme brulee. Being the first in your peer group is key.'

Many of Wild Frontiers' bread-and-butter trips apply a proven adventure formula--part culture, part trekking--to out-of-the-way places, but the Wild Expeditions ramp up the 'adventure' element. This year's flagship is a trek with 400 camels and 40 Tuareg in the Tenere Desert in Niger. 'It's essentially their trip, so if they stop for three days, you stop, too,' Bealby says. Next year's main journey will follow Joseph Conrad into the heart of darkness on Blood River, aka the Congo, from Kigali to Kinshasa.

RETRO ELEMENT

Trips such as High Plains Drifter have a retro element that harks back to the dawn of the adventure travel industry in the 1960s and '70s. In the days before gap-year toffs clustered at every intersection, those who wanted to break out of the straitjacket of a fortnight on the Costa Brava joined pioneering expeditions, riding in tracks and camping under the stars for months at a time. The most popular option was the route through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to India, the jumping-off point for jobs in Australia and New Zealand.

In the increasingly cash-rich, time-poor '80s and '90s, such journeys were packaged by companies such as Explore, Exodus and a myriad of imitators into adventures that fit neatly into annual leave patterns. Want to take the Reunification Railway from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City? Spot lemurs in Madagascar? Ride from palace to palace in Rajasthan? No problem. Two weeks will do it, with time for a bit of R and R along the way.

The 21st century, with its cheap flights and exhaustive list of 'safe' options, is tough on those looking for genuine 'firsts', but the go-anywhere, do-anything tourist has never had it so good. …

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