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The Happy Wanderer

March 17, 1985|JERRY HULSE | Hulse is editor of Traveling in Style.

If Lars-Eric Lindblad had lived in the year 1000, he probably would have set foot on the North American continent before Leif Ericson. Or, turning eastward, he might have reached China before Marco Polo. The Viking wanderlust is dominant in his genes. He is almost constantly on the move, taking travelers as intrepid as himself to the ends of the earth. --From the introduction by Roger Tory Peterson to "Passport to Anywhere" by Lars-Eric Lindblad with John G. Fuller (Times Books).

He is a big man--6-foot-3, 190 pounds--and on this day he has just returned from his 30th journey to China. He will be in his office only long enough to sit through our interview and sift through a stack of business correspondence. Two days hence he will be off on still another adventure, this time to Africa with daughters Ana Maria and Maria Cristina. The enormous appetite Lars-Eric Lindblad possesses for travel is insatiable. With the exception of Albania, he has visited every country on earth--many several times. (He missed Albania because of that communist nation's refusal to issue visas to Americans).

As the world's most traveled man, Lars-Eric Lindblad heads the company that bears his name; it is a name held in high esteem by travelers and peers everywhere. Indeed, to join a Lindblad tour is to take part in a learning adventure that eclipses the most meticulously planned travel scenario. Lindblad explorers gather at isolated oases in distant deserts; they visit Zulu tribes in Africa, sail to Antarctica, climb mountain peaks in Tibet, invade St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai and witness the dawn at such exotic destinations as Patan, Bhadgaon, Phuntsoling, Bagdogra, Paro and Thimpu in India, Nepal and Bhutan; they sip martinis chilled by 10,000-year-old glacial ice, ride across sand dunes in Land Rovers, toss bait to the hungry piranhas of the Amazon and exchange pleasantries with the natives of New Guinea.

They are travelers who seek peace, culture, adventure and escape in a package provided by Lindblad, travelers who find no particular joy in riding down the Champs Elysees snapping photos of the Arc de Triomphe or marching with their Instamatics through Trafalgar Square and Tivoli Gardens. They seek something far more culturally satisfying and stimulating, and it is Lindblad who sets them free. The jowly, rotund adventurer sells luxury travel on a grand scale. Besides his own airplanes, ships and Land Rovers, Lindblad operates desert camps and jungle lodges in regions where few dare to tread. Not everyone, Lindblad decided years ago, wants to do one of those maddening "It must be Tuesday because this is Belgium" routines; not everyone wants to rush through 21 countries in 14 days, returning home with little more than a few rolls of film with which to bore friends and neighbors absolutely silly. Instead, Lindblad's groups find joy in exploring isolated islands in the Indian Ocean and studying Darwin's finches in the Galapagos. They are travelers who hunger for adventure--from the peaks of the Himalayas to the jungles of Africa and to the unexplored wastes of Antarctica.

There is, for example, a Mrs. Featherstone, a spirited 80-year-old from Pennsylvania who, although confined to a wheelchair, traveled with Lindblad across the Gobi Desert on a trail blazed by Jenghiz Khan and the armies of Kublai Khan. Although Lindblad had misgivings when Mrs. Featherstone joined the tour, her spirit proved indomitable. She slept in a yurt and rode in a Land Rover on an exhausting journey across the steppes of Outer Mongolia. For her, it was a magnificent adventure. Nevertheless, Lindblad told of "becoming bone-tired from the sheer logistics of getting Mrs. Featherstone around." At one point he had no choice other than to strap her to his back while lowering her down a rope ladder dangling from an airplane while she cautioned: "Don't drop me, Mr. Lindblad, don't drop me." Mrs. Featherstone's spirit remained undaunted. Indeed, Lindblad recalls how she shouted while riding away, strapped to a camel: "This is absolutely fabulous, Mr. Lindblad. Just the way they did it in the old caravans of Kublai Khan."

\o7 On one side trip to Arvaiker, the plane that took us to Karakorum failed to come back to pick us up at this desolate spot. A brisk snowstorm was brewing, and there were no overnight accommodations. Our government guide informed us that the only option we had was to drive back to Ulan Bator and pointed to some buses and cars that looked as if they could never make the first bend in the road. He reminded me that we ought to leave immediately to avoid the snowstorm. When I asked him how long it would take, he estimated some 36 hours. I could not visualize Mrs. Featherstone or any of the others being able to survive such a trip on hard, unforgiving seats without heat in the vehicles. The temperature was down into the 30s, and the roads were merely tracks in the sand and turf.

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