If there’s one word to describe Paul von Zielbauer, it’s ambitious. Somewhere in between covering military justice and the Iraq war for the New York Timesthe New York Times, he decided to start the tour company Roadmonkey. The unique tours, which are included in National Geographic Traveler’s Tours of a Lifetime issueNational Geographic Traveler’s Tours of a Lifetime issue this year, are a combination of athleticism and do-gooderism that he’s branded “adventure philanthropy.” The participants fund-raise before leaving, then spend one to two weeks bicycling through locales like Peru, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro over the less traveled Lemosho route, all while working on volunteer projects along the way.
Zielbauer has worked diligently to identify and create relationships with their nonprofit partners, which include women’s collectives in Peru, the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, and the Livingstone Tanzania Trust. In the fall of last year, he left the Times to pursue Roadmonkey full time. I spoke with him about the tours and where he’s headed next.
You say Roadmonkey is a different kind of small group travel. How does it distinguish itself?
I’m not a group travel fanatic. As a single traveler I’ve always
avoided group travel. I didn’t want to be on someone else’s schedule or
talk to someone for five hours on a bus. We do small group travel for
people who don’t like group travel. We don’t always know exactly what we’re going to do, and there’s a serendipity in
that. Planned serendipity is our operating philosophy; we’re
willing to divert from the plan and go with our guts, branch out and be
different. Right now, every tour company on the planet has a volunteer or give-back component. Ours is organic and it always has been. It’s not an add-on, it’s why we exist.
Tell me about your decision to leave the Times and begin working on Roadmonkey full time.
When I left the Times
in early September of 2009, I’d already lead two trips and was planning
a third in Vietnam. It got to the point where you can’t really do it
halfway and [the newspaper] is not an environment where you can be
doing other things outside of your work. The newspaper business is
changing a lot and shrinking, and I felt this was an opportunity to do
How do you the tour groups work?
limit our group to 10 clients or less, and we ask them to raise between
$500 – $1,000 in tax-deductible donations. It’s generally been pretty
easy to raise $500 through tweets or Facebook, or they send a blast
email, but some people go nuts in a positive way and raise several
thousand dollars. We raised $11,000 for our first expedition and that’s
a lot of money in places like Tanzania and Vietnam. When we have a
surplus of funds in each place, our clients get to determine how it’s
used. They are the keepers of that fund. We make a point of working
with groups that are organized and will get done what they’re going to
So what exactly is a Roadmonkey?
way I describe it is a curious individual who seeks the unknown, breaks
the rules when necessary, tests the limits whenever possible, and works
to help people in need. A little bit of a rebel and trying to do good
for oneself and people who need it.
Getting There: Roadmonkey has three trips scheduled for this year, all
of which still have spots available. Go whitewater rafting and
cycle the Central Highlands in Vietnam and construct a children’s
playground in the Mekong Delta (October).
The Big Deal: Right now, Roadmonkey is
discounting the Peru trip (was $2,900, now $2,700) and if you bring a friend, they’ll
get half off, meaning that’s $2,000 a person. Check out the video to get a sense of how the trips work.
Photos: Above, Hiking Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; below, cycling through Vietnam. Video: Muir Beach couple Steve and Joanie Wynn share a video series from
their recent trip to Tanzania featured in December’s Journey. The
footage is part of a documentary they are producing for their
production company, Bayside Entertainment.
Photos and video courtesy of Roadmonkey.