Born to Explore: Richard Wiese on Cultural Exploration and His Hardest Expedition Yet–Fatherhood
Photograph courtesy Born to Explore/ABC
Some people seem to have exploration hard coded into their DNA. This is true for Richard Wiese, whose globetrotting parents took him to some of the world's most far flung places starting at an early age—including climbing Kilimanjaro at age 11. We spoke to Wiese, former president of the Explorers Club and a lifelong adventurer and field scientist, about his new TV show, Born to Explore (Saturdays on ABC, check local listings). Once admittedly fueled by testosterone, Wiese is now a family man, and it shows. Here he explains his shift away from adrenaline to a slower, more deliberate approach to experiencing the Earth's amazing places, cultures, and creatures. Tune in this week to see Australia's rugged Northern Territory (see a preview below).
Adventure: By the time we publish this interview you’ll be Iceland. What’s going on there?
Richard Wiese: We're shooting episodes of Born to Explore about volcanoes and looking into Viking ancestry. Iceland is very interesting because the Mid-Atlantic Ridge goes right through Iceland, so y ou have the North American plates and the European plates colliding or spreading apart from there. So everything in Iceland is predicated on volcanoes. In fact, the term "geyser" comes from Icelandic.
A: You’re kind of a volcano hunter, aren’t you?
RW: I actually studied geology at Brown; I've done quite a few projects with volcanoes—and quite a few active ones: Cotopaxi in Mexico when it was erupting; Etna in Sicily, Italy; Soufriere Hills in Montserrat; Kilauea in Hawaii. Volcanoes seem to chase me around … or the other way around.
A: Which volcano would you recommend for a first-time lava trek?
RW: Kilauea in Hawaii is probably the most active and the safest one to go up to. But Etna is interesting, too, because you are in Sicily. There are more complex volcanoes out there, but they are beyond the Volcano 101 trip.
A: There’s a legacy of exploration in your family. Tell us about your father's record of solo flying across the Pacific?
RW: My father was a pilot for Pan American Airways. In 1959, he was just trying to earn some extra money because he had four little kids. Someone had asked him to take an airplane from Texas to a ranch in Australia, so he flew across the Pacific under the radar because, at that time, Pan Am really frowned on its pilots doing barnstorming or anything that was considered a stunt. When he crossed the Pacific, he didn't even realize he was the first to do it. And he's a low-key guy. Nowadays people have a publicist and this and that. And he's from the school where you just do things for the satisfaction of doing it.
A: Are you interested in retracing that flight at some point?
RW: It's funny, I never thought about it, though I used to do some flying. My father is a really great guy—both my parents are. And he never got any recognition for this first flight. To me it's not a stunt, such as being the first to do something in a pink Cessna. It's a legitimate flight. Lindberg was the first to solo the Atlantic, and my father was the first to solo the Pacific. It's a great story that’s never been told.
A: You climbed Kilimanjaro at 11 years old, which is certainly an early start to adventuring. Was there a moment when you decided you wanted your life to be about exploration?
RW: Life takes many funny twists and turns. I was lucky to have some really great influences in my life, such as my father. As a little kid, when there were hurricanes offshore, we would go to the south shore of Long Island and go swimming in the big waves. This kind of stuff just seemed normal to me growing up. The fact that I went to Kilimanjaro at 11, at the time, didn't really dawn on me. But I've led about 15 different groups up Kilimanjaro now, and I see how hard it is; I have a different respect for the mountain now than I did at age 11.
A: What was your favorite part about being president of the Explorers Club?
RW: My favorite part was having access to some of my boyhood heros. I was lucky to have gotten to know Sir Edmund Hillary, Buzz Aldrin, Jane Goodall, Neil Armstrong, Thor Heyerdahl. When you get a phone call from Buzz Aldrin, or a giant of an explorer like that, you have to pinch yourself. And now they are my friends.
A: What is the next frontier in exploration?
RW: I think there are a couple things. The microbial world is the next rain forest, in terms of industry, medical, and all sorts of agricultural advances. I've done some work in the field of extremophile, which are basically organisms that live in extreme environments. For example, we went to Ethiopia to take a sample of fresh lava from a lava lake to see if there was any life in it. When I was a kid, we were taught that there were nine planets and life lived at above freezing and below boiling, and that's it. We now know that life is much more robust. One type of microbes that we found on the top of Kilimanjaro had properties that allowed it to heal itself from ultraviolet light … that may have an application in car paints or house paints that peel.
And obviously astronomy will be ongoing. I think there will be discoveries that I can't even guess right now.
Actually we just did a really big dinosaur dig in Alberta, Canada. Here you have a place that isn't necessarily known for dinosaurs like Mongolia, Patagonia, or China. But we were in the largest, possibly densest find of dinosaur fossils ever. The number of species of dinosaurs that we know is really just a fraction of what was really out there. So there's constantly new discoveries with that. I think that while we have been to most places on terra firma, there are so many things just right in front of us that are unveiling themselves with new scientific methods.
A: You've clearly been many exciting places. What's been your most memorable extreme adventure?
RW: You know, there are a couple places that come to mind … when I cross-country skied to the North Pole—that was an extreme experience because of how cold it was. There are colder places, but it never got above -25 degrees. You are working hard and trying to stay warm.
A: But after years of bold exploration you’ve changed?
RW: There are elements of exploration now that are taking me in a different direction now…. Maybe it’s because I have taken the testosterone out of some of the things I used to do. I've found that there's a level of knowledge or maybe spirituality in indigenous people that I hadn't noticed when I was younger. For example, consider the Aboriginal people in Australia. Here you have the longest continuous culture in the world—and they’re not a group of people who you will necessarily become fast friends with. But every once in a while someone will say something that may sound simple, but it is so profoundly relevant. I had this one guy recently talk about how the Aboriginal people lived in the rhythms of the Earth. And then it made me think how, in our “advanced society,” we really try to change that rhythm—and it invariably does not work. Such as building a jetty in the ocean to stop the waves from going in or coming out. The Aboriginal people also eat foods that are seasonal. They are in a rhythm with the Earth that I don't have…because I didn't grow up as close to the Earth. That’s an example of something I am opening myself up to.
A: What initiated this shift in focus?
RW: I've always been interested in Australia, for sure, and I've gone there quite a few times just because I like it. But I’ve noticed that any place I gone with PhDs or whoever … the best experts on the particular animal we were studying were always the locals, the people who had been hunted the animals for generations. And maybe they don't say it in as sophisticated a way, but their level of knowledge seems to be always more sophisticated than interlopers. So it was a gradual observation about local knowledge.
Say you go to New York City, are you going to hire somebody who is a PhD from Switzerland to take you around the city? Cab drivers know more about it, they may not articulate it in the same way, but they certainly know what's going on. So I think that's been a little bit of a shift. Being a parent now makes me view the world a little differently as well.
A: Yes, you now have three kids under three years old. Did becoming a parent cause the shift?
RW: Invariably when I watch certain outdoor adventure shows they are pretty entertaining. But I also think, If this guy were that good in the outdoors, he wouldn't be that close to death every week. So there's a certain degree of insincerity that I don't like in that. And I've been involved in those kinds of shows.
I'm an older athlete, even though I feel like I can still compete at a high level. But when I do things just for adrenaline sake, then it's really just all about me and my experience. I'd been missing out on the experiences of others. I always say that the most interesting aspect of any expedition I go on is the people I meet along the way.
A: And your new show Born to Explore tackles this idea?
RW: It's a little challenging for us, too, because we have 26 original half-hour shows. Everyone of the stories we are doing is begging for another two weeks of studying and probing. But we are trying to really be inclusive and take a more holistic view of the animal or expedition. We’re really trying to look at the culture that surrounds it.
A: What are some of the destinations in the show?
RW: The Northern Territory of Australia, we go to Ayers Rock or Uluru. We tracked down the world’s largest herd of wild camels. They were only introduced there 150 years ago, but they have done so well that there's 1.2 million of them.
A: Are they hard to find?
RW: No, not at all! They were actually a little bit of a pest. Central Australia is one of the harshest environments, the Outback. It has the longest continuous culture in the world, the Aboriginal people. And it has an animal that shouldn't be there that's thriving. And at night, when we looked at the stars, due to the lack of pollution and light, you feel like you are looking at the edge of heaven, the stars are that dense. Then there is Uluru, this rock that changes color like the Grand Canyon. You can't help but feel, Is there magic in that rock? I don't want to get too hokey pokey, but there are some really incredible sights and scenes, if you open yourself up to it there.
A: Did you feel a spiritual connection at Uluru [Ayers Rock]?
RW: I did, and not in a typically religious way. When you look at this great monolith of a rock that’s 1,200-feet high, and you see it changing colors before your eyes during sunrise or sunset, you can't help but be really impressed by nature. The Grand Canyon is like that, too, I'm a big fan of it. It's a really neat hole in the ground. I think you feel the spirituality in that there is a rhythm to nature; and you're seeing one of the greatest spectacles on Earth.
A: Didn't you all go look for the Rainbow Serpent?
RW: Yes, and that to me is one of the best untold stories. It’s the oldest known story on Earth and the creation story of the aboriginal people. It probably dates back 40,000 years. We went to the Arnhem Land, which is the top end of Australia. The amount of undiscovered rock art there is incredible. I know in France the art is around 18,000 years old, but it's 40,000 year old in this part of the Northern Territory. And there are miles of it that have not been seen by Westerners.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
A: So were you searching for drawings of the rainbow serpent?
RW: And we did find it. Ultimately the conclusion is that it's a mythical creature, and many, myths are based on threads of reality. The rainbow serpent was based on an original explanation for how the Earth was created. So if you look at it, it's really an amalgamation of many different animals…a crocodile, a barramundi fish, and a snake. It's their way of explaining the land around them. It's a good story unto itself.
A: Most people stay away from saltwater crocs. But you went to find them in Kakadu National Park. Why?
RW: Crocodiles date back to the time of the dinosaur. They are these big creatures that are perceived to be very dangerous, which they are. But for the aboriginal people, it’s a creature that’s part of their myths and stories and dreamtime and their existence. So when you have a troubled crocodile that may be near large population centers, the European solution is to shoot them in the eyes and be done with them.
But they feel like they would no longer like to do that. They’d rather just bring it some place else. The problem with that is that the crocs are able to find their way back very well. So now, after they capture them, they use a magnet to scramble the croc’s navigation and put if somewhere else.
A: You’ve traveled so far and wide? Where does Australia rank?
RW: I’ll tell you what I like about Australia: You have a really remote and rugged place, say like Kakadu and Arnhem Land, that’s really close to good roads. In Australia, if I stop in a camper and I’m not near a water’s edge, I’m really safe. There are no animals that are going to eat me. The stars are really great. It’s probably not going to rain. So it feels really safe and tranquil. I do have an affinity for the Northern Territory of Australia, more than any other part of it.
A: What are some of the other destinations in the show?
RW: We have the Alberta dinosaur dig up in Labrador. We go to Iceland. Then we go to Botswana and Uganda, followed by Morocco in December. Then we go to Hawaii in January.
A: That’s not bad at all.
RW: I purposely picked Hawaii in January because I thought we’d all need a little spirit of Aloha.
A: What’s on your Adventure Bucket list? Your dream trip?
RW: My dream trip is really going around the world with my kids. It would be nice to show my kids the world like I saw it with my father. To see the world and introduce my wife and kids to some of the special places I’ve been.
A: Will your kids every go out with you for the show?
RW: No, it's too distracting. I have a girl at 3 and two boys at 1.5. It’s so hard just going to a restaurant. I always tell people the most exhausting expedition I’ve ever been on was fatherhood.
Springboard Vacations offers trips to the Northern Territory, including Uluru, Kakadu, Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands, Alice Springs.