The Call of the Wild
If jumping off a 330-foot bridge, coming eye to eye with a great white shark or scaling glaciers and mountains sounds like your kind of trip, we’ve got some folks for you to meet
Dan and Sheryl Tishman live on sixty acres of rolling meadows and woods in the northwest corner of town that, to many residents, might seem a suburban savannah of open space and free-roaming wildlife. But to the Tishmans, it’s far from wild enough. So last December, the couple took their two sons — Josh, sixteen, and Gabe, eleven — to Africa for Christmas vacation.
Dan, who is president of Tishman Realty and Contracting, met Sheryl while both were working for the National Audubon Society, and as a family they have skied in Telluride, where they have a house; sailed on Penobscot Bay in Maine, where they have a boat; and hiked on the north slope of the Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle. But this vacation would take them farther from home.
Following a seven-day safari in Kenya, the family trekked to a base camp in northeastern Tanzania, part-way up the highest mountain in Africa. There, over a campfire, Sheryl read the boys Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” then at midnight the family pushed off for the Mount Kilimanjaro summit, 19,380 feet above the East African plains. Although an onset of the flu forced Dan to turn back at 15,000 feet, Sheryl and the two boys continued climbing, across a glacier face under a full moon, through the night. They arrived at the summit at the break of dawn on Christmas morning, just in time to see the sun come up over the plains of Kilimanjaro National Park below, Amboseli National Park in Kenya to the north, and Tsavo National Park, also in Kenya, to the east.
The Tishmans aren’t alone in seeking family adventure vacations well off the beaten path in exotic destinations. According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, in the past five years, half of all U.S. adults — some 98 million people — have taken an adventure trip, the fastest-growing segment of the leisure travel industry. And family vacations, according to a recent American Express Travel Services survey, are the fastest-growing sector of the adventure travel market.
One reason is Baby Boomers and their undiminished ardor for breaking boundaries. “Unlike their parents’ generation, they consider travel a necessity, not a luxury,” says Diane Terry, a Greenwich resident and founder of Private Journeys with Diane Terry, which packages family and women’s adventure vacations around the world. “And they think of themselves as forever young.”
Boomers also tend to prefer interactive itineraries over passive ones and have the spirit and funds to go just about anywhere they want. “it’s a generation that tends to shy away from the tourist traps and doesn’t do anything typical,” adds Yvette DeVries, a tour consultant with African Portfolio, a Greenwich travel agency that books trips to Africa and the Indian Ocean islands. “It’s like an adventure vacation is their birthright. They want it for themselves and they want it for their children.”
Once considered too remote to all but a few, Africa is now easily accessible to families — with safaris that are accommodating and with vast learning experiences for children — while retaining its near-mythical status as the ultimate adventure. So popular have African family vacations become that in June of last year, Diane Terry led six Greenwich families on a two-and-a-half-week safari in East Africa, including children and several women who had traveled with her before.
Rob Leary had never taken his family out of the country. “For the most part we had done pretty traditional stuff,” he says of his trips with his wife Nora and thirteen-year-old daughter Emma. “Most of our vacations had been skiing at resorts in the western United States and a lot of Caribbean vacations, but nothing very exotic.”
But three years earlier Nora had gone to Kenya on one of Diane Terry’s women’s adventures, and when she and her traveling sisters came back home, they talked up the trip to their families.
Still, Leary remained skeptical. “I was not excited about the trip. It was not on the top of my list of things to do. It was a large commitment of time — seventeen days — and I had some apprehension about all the different families I didn’t know, although that wasn’t a big deal for me because I like people generally. And I thought it was going to be very sedentary — just sit in a jeep and watch animals.”
Leary’s greatest concern, though, was the political climate in Kenya at the time. “With a young daughter, I was concerned about our safety,” he recalls. It also worried his company, ING Investment Management Americas, where he is chairman and CEO. The company had prohibited nonessential travel to the East African country for much of the year.
But Diane Terry had been closely monitoring events in Kenya and was well aware of both the potential for disaster and the misperceptions created by the media. The latter was a particular challenge in guiding women’s trips. By late spring, however, the situation had stabilized, and Leary packed his bags. “I knew it would make my wife happy,” he says, “and I knew it would be good family time together.”
What he didn’t know was how good Africa would be for him. Despite differences in careers and backgrounds, the six families quickly bonded with one another. And, staying in a luxury tent in a small camp in the Masai Mara park, Leary found the landscape and wildlife breathtaking. Then he began getting to know the natives.
“The people were a-maz-ing, and I had not expected that. We spent a lot of time with the Masai and the Sumburu. They were incredibly welcoming; their English was good enough that we could have very real, very good conversations. I felt that it was not a tourist-native kind of relationship but more of a human relationship.”
Another vacation highlight, strangely enough, was part of a trend to include “volun-tourism” into itineraries. Near the end of the vacation, the families visited an HIV orphanage and spent a day with the children.
“We brought them gifts and supplies and then spent the day with them, just being with them, playing with them, talking with them,” Leary remembers. “And for all of us, it was so humbling. These kids are so happy and so optimistic about life. It was a real wake-up call about how blessed we are. Their great attitude about life just totally energized all of us.”
THE THRILL OF THE HUNT
Nick and Tracey Utton needed no guide to the African continent, nor any introduction to high-adrenaline adventure. Both are in their blood. “We’re from Africa, and there’s a spirit of adventure there,” Nick says. “We’re thrill seekers.”
The Riverside couple grew up in South Africa and have returned each year with their children — Caroline or “Callie,” eighteen and James, sixteen — ever since the two were babies. “But we wanted to do different things each time. We didn’t want to just see family,” says Tracey, who as a girl went on camping safaris with her family and after college worked as a guide for the South African Tourist Board. “So we’d always tack a trip on, something exciting, something fun, for a week or two at a time.”
A year ago last August, Nick and James went shark diving in Gansbaai, two hours north of Capetown, where a boat took them five hours out from the coast to an area known as Great White feeding grounds. Armed only with cameras, they climbed into a metal cage and were dropped into five-foot swells with a couple of feet of breathing space at the top. As a crew member teased the sharks with chum tied to a rope, the two ducked under the surface again and again, holding their breath for as long as they could, to see eye to black eye with the monsters of the deep.
“We love the thrill of the hunt, but we don’t hunt,” Nick Utton explains. “There’s the excitement and the adrenaline, but also it’s being with nature. To see these Great Whites in their natural environment — no more than a meter away — was phenomenal.”
This August, Tracey and Callie traveled to Zambia, where Callie bungee-jumped — for the first time — 330 feet off the Victoria Falls Bridge. Then they journeyed on to MalaMala, a safari destination, where they were joined by Nick and James. From there the four went to the Ivory Tree Lodge, two hours outside of Johannesburg, for an “Out of Africa” wedding of a niece of Tracey’s, with park rangers armed with rifles (for protection from wildlife) serving as attendants.
This lifetime of family adventures has left its imprint on Callie and James. “The benefit of these trips is that our kids know a lot about the rest of the world,” Tracey says. Adds Nick, “It broadens their minds, broadens their horizons, gives them an appreciation for animals and nature. They’ve become better rounded as opposed to this society we live in, which is not really a microcosm of the world.”
RISKS AND REWARDS
Steve and Ingrid McMenamin are partners in Indian Harbor, an alternative investments company in Greenwich. “Alternative investments are all about taking risks,” he says. “Without risk there is no return. We aggressively look for risks in our professional lives, and we look for that in our adventures.”
Together, the couple has gone open-ocean kayaking in Alaska’s Chichigo Wilderness and Norway’s Lofoten Islands, technical ice climbing in Aconcagua, Chile, and kayaking on shark-infested waters in Palau.
That the McMenamins have money but no children answers most of the questions regarding their pursuit of extreme vacations, except perhaps this one: Why?
“You never feel more alive than when you’re seeing these things and taking these kinds of risks,” Steve explains. “When I’m ice climbing and up there, I say to myself, ‘Why am I doing this? Am I out of my mind?!’ And then I move through the fear and I get to the top and I go, ‘Oh my God, does this feel good! I’m on top of the world.’
“It’s a rush,” he adds. “It’s a little addicting.” It’s also a hobby the couple’s Greenwich friends and relatives don’t share. “They think we’re crazy,” McMenamin says. And perhaps with good reason. Steve almost died from blood poisoning while scuba diving off Fiji, and Ingrid, while climbing a near-vertical peak on Mount Blanc in Chamonix, fell 600 feet before arresting her fall.
Yet the odds remain good enough for the McMenamins to continue adventuring in faraway places. This past April, through Wasatch Powderbird Guides in Utah, the couple chartered an aircraft from Air Greenland, flew first to Copenhagen then to Greenland, and once on the frozen continent, took a smaller plane to a tiny, ice-covered runway parallel to the ocean, and, finally, a boat a little farther up the west coast to Manitsoq, a fishing village inhabited by Danes and native Inuit Indians.
“It’s a wild frontier, all ice and rock, bigger than Alaska, and one of the most beautiful countries we’d ever been to,” says Steve.
With a small group of fellow adventurers, they were helicoptered to the top of a 7,000-foot mountain. “Aesthetically it was stunning,” Steve says. “You’re skiing next to a fjord and right down to the water’s edge. It was so bitter cold, but in bright sunshine, that the snow stayed in shape, so that we were making forty to seventy turns, uninterrupted, without having to stop. A lot of us had been skiing thirty-plus years, and it was the best skiing we’d ever done.”
“We feel like we’re sort of citizens of the world now, and that if more people did this, there would be fewer wars and more understanding,” Steve said after returning from Beijing and Tibet. “When you meet people in these countries you realize that they’re not bad people. The Chinese, at the household level, are wonderful, honest, sincere people — as people are around the world. And you don’t get that when you’re on a packaged tour.”
The addictive nature of over-the-top adventure vacations appears to be spreading through town. “It turned out to be the best family vacation we ever took,” Rob Leary said upon returning with his wife and daughter from Kenya last summer.
Next on the Learys’ list of adventurous things to do: Climb Mount Kilimanjaro and possibly join Diane Terry and other local families next June, when she will lead three successive family groups to India. There, the families will see the Taj Mahal, then journey by car and river raft for a week in Ladaka, referred to as “Little Tibet” and home to one of the last Tantric Buddhist societies.
Between now and then, Diane is trying to keep her daughters safe and healthy in the wilds of Greenwich. Last summer, after the other families left Kenya, Diane’s three teenage daughters — Hunter, nineteen, Paige, seventeen, and Whitney Rose, thirteen — stayed in Africa another week with their mother, scouting new destinations, without incident. But in mid-August, while Paige was riding her bicycle near home here, she was hit from behind by a landscaping truck that sped off, leaving her semi-conscious.
“We worry about the safety of a post-election visit to Kenya, where tribal violence erupted earlier this spring, but we don’t worry about the safety of our teenage daughters riding their bicycles through Bruce Park,” Diane says, marveling at the irony.
Paige suffered no serious injuries. She is recovering and should be in shape to take on the other side of the world next June.