In the late 1980s, Geoff Manchester and his classmate Darrell Wade formed a collective with 12 other travelers. They bought and converted a Victorian Council rubbish truck into the ultimate, all-terrain adventure vehicle. As part of a generation of young Australians with a persistent itch to see the world, they then shipped the truck to the UK before driving it down to and through Africa. What started as a liberating and insightful experience, ended up driving Geoff and Darrell to start an organisation that provides travel experiences that broaden minds and instill travelers with a sense of ownership and freedom.
Today, Geoff & Darrell are the Co-Founders of the Intrepid Group – an international travel organisation that provides sustainable, experience-rich experiences in an industry that is facing enormous issues around sustainability and capacity. We sat down with Geoff (amicably known as ‘Manch’) to talk about the power of travel to change the way people see the world and create a lasting impact on the people & places we visit.
- From truck and trip design, to gorilla encounters and dangerous border crossings – hear how Geoff & Darrell’s adventure through Africa lead them to rethink the way we travel the world and go on to found the Intrepid Group.
- Discover how the Intrepid Group balances purpose & profit to provide travelers with sustainable & experience-rich experiences, and its people with meaningful & empowering work.
- Gain insights into how travel experiences can create a lasting impact on the communities we visit; its role in addressing a growing climate of fear & xenophobia; and how we might create travel products that mitigate over-tourism.
Before we talk about Interpid’s beginnings, I’d like to hear about your and Darrell’s inspiring trip through Africa after university. Could you speak about that a little bit?
Yeah sure, I can speak to it a lot! Darrell and I had done 5 or 6 years of work post-university and had gone traveling for a year. During that year, we did a trip across Africa which was a self-organised trip. A group of 14 of us got together and we formed an informal cooperative, pooled some money together and we bought a city council tip truck. We put it on an orchard on the outskirts of Melbourne, stripped it down to basics, and then rebuilt it for what we needed to travel through Africa. We put in long range fuel and water tanks. We built storage areas for all the spare parts for the truck and camping equipment, and on the top it had more seats and storage area. So we spent about six months building that truck, and then we put it on a ship as deck cargo and send it to London.
We all then flew to London, got the truck from the docks, loaded it up and then drove it through France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and then spent the following six months driving it through Africa. Lots of stories came from that – we would have done fifteen or twenty border crossings. Every border crossing has a story to it.
One of the really good things about that trip was that everyone had a responsibility. So everyone was really closely involved in the trip. I was one of the three drivers because I had a truck driver’s license; I did border crossings; and each night I had to unload the truck and in then in the mornings I had to load the truck up again. Other people had jobs like ensuring that the truck was mechanically okay all the time. Someone was responsible for making sure we had enough fuel all the time, and knew where we would buy our fuel. Someone was responsible for planning our route and giving us options of exactly where we would go. Someone was responsible for our food supply. But everyone had responsibilities around shopping for food and cooking food.
We would meet commercial, overland trips coming the other direction because at that time overland travel was quite a big thing. The passengers in those strips had no idea what was going on. Whereas everyone on our truck knew where we had just been, where we were going, how the truck was performing. Everything.
Sounds incredible! A self-owned and self-driven (literally) trip. Was there any moment on that trip that really stands out for you?
We spent a lot of time in Zaire, which is now the Congo. You know how people visit mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda? Well, the same mountain range is also partly in the Congo, and we visited the mountain gorillas there. That is still the best travel experience I have ever, ever had. In those days it will pretty uncontrolled, and we had a couple of hours with the gorillas and they were just wrapped around us. I mean, one of them came and checked me out from less than a foot away. He was just looking at me. Checking me out. Meanwhile, you’re watching all the young gorillas jumping around and annoying the older silver back gorillas. Watching them get angry and just go charging off through the jungle and just demolishing everything ahead of it because they’re so big. That was the most amazing experience.
As I said every border crossing was an experience. We had several issues where the border guards wanted us to bribe them and we just wouldn’t do it. Darrell and I, we used to just play dumb. They would have lots of locals coming through and would take bribes openly, or even smack them around sometimes if there was a bit of resistance. The only place we had to really pay a bribe was in Nigeria, because they said we had to give them money or we’d never get through.
How did that experience of going through Africa then translate into founding the Intrepid Group?
When we came back from Africa, we sat down and thought about whether we wanted try and get a job or start our own business. We decided to start our own business in an industry we really knew nothing about. We really had very little idea about the industry, but we knew what we wanted to do. We knew we wanted to take people traveling in a way similar to what backpackers do – using public transport, staying in small hotels and guest houses. At a better level than backpackers, but essentially the same style. A style of travel where you really get to experience a country for what it is as opposed to being tourists isolated in high rise hotels.
It was while we were in Africa that we started talking about the concept of creating Intrepid, and talked about it in quite a bit detail. What we were doing was creating the unique selling points of Intrepid. Intrepid would be using public transport, staying at small hotels & guest houses, and trekking and visiting tribal communities. We felt that a group of fourteen was probably a bit to big and a group of 12 would probably be the ideal number for that sort of trip. We learned a lot about communicating with people, and ensuring that people knew what was going to be happening in the following days of their trip. We’ve always been pretty strong on talking to our groups not only about what’s happening tomorrow, but I always loved talking to groups about what was going to be happening in three or four days’ time and sharing how excited I was about where we would be in a few days’ time. Even if I’d only been there a month before. I was still always excited to be going back to somewhere like that.
“Leading a group of travelers is the best job in the world. Everyone is on holiday, and 99% of people know how to have a good time while on holiday.”
We knew where we wanted to take people, and our first destination was going to be Thailand. We’d both traveled there as backpackers so we had a good idea of where we wanted to go. We went over again and planned out the itinerary in lots of detail – from buses, to accommodation, to the experiences we’d offer. We then came back to Melbourne, wrote a brochure and got it properly printed so that it looked reasonably professional. Then we went and visited every travel agent in Melbourne. Some thought it was a good idea, others thought it didn’t have any legs in it whatsoever. We also did a bit of advertising ourselves because we wanted to get some direct customers. That was a real experience in learning how to sell a product – we’d never really done that before.
Five or six months passed between releasing the brochure and running the trips. I was then the one who went over to Thailand and started running the trips while Darrell stayed in Melbourne and did the sales & marketing. Leading a group of travelers is the best job in the world. Everyone is on holiday, and 99% of people know how to have a good time while on holiday.
What is it for you personally that is most significant about traveling?
I think the most significant thing is meeting people of different cultures; learning about their way of life, religion, and politics; and getting to experience it with them themselves, according to the way they live. For us, that’s what we were always about. For a while our byline was ‘real life experiences’. I think that is what kept us quite distinct from the rest of the industry at that time. Whereas now the industry has moved and is more about giving people experiences rather than just going and seeing things. So we’ve had to think about how we stay ahead of everyone else.
I have a bigger question Geoff. Nowadays in the world there is a lot of intolerance for other cultures, and arguably a shift in thinking that is considered more xenophobic. How do you see travel playing a role in mitigating that climate? Is there potential for travel to help us overcome the issues associated with such thinking?
Interestingly, about 10 years ago I went to Egypt with my family. I had never had any great desire to go to Egypt – not for any particular reason – but my wife had always wanted to go and our kids had learned all about Egypt in primary school. I went to Egypt and was just blown away by how welcoming the people were. Since then, I have been traveling around the world saying that every teenager should visit Egypt to experience how welcoming Islamic people can be.
Travel is really important for this reason – it gives people exposure to different peoples and their religions. It enables people to empathise, and understand that other people are very similar to you in many, many ways while also being quite different. You then realise there is no reason to be threatened by them. I’d like to think that for most people who experience that, they do develop a different way of viewing the world. I think 99% of people go and have an experience that will change their outlook on the world. You can’t help but be moved by what you experience. Whether it is just the way people live; whether its their religion; whether its their history – there has got to be something you find meaningful when you go traveling.
“Travel is really important for this reason – it gives people exposure to different peoples and their religions. It enables people to empathise, and understand that other people are very similar to you in many, many ways while also being quite different.”
How would you describe your personal purpose?
I have always enjoyed experiencing how other people live. I’ve never really suffered from culture shock. We can take people to places that are really different, and they will be up against the wall not knowing what to do. I’ve always been quite comfortable with people from other cultures. As soon as I started traveling and experiencing that, I just wanted to do more and more of it. It became really important to me and was a stimulus to creating Intrepid.
Backpacking is an amazing thing to experience, but what happens to all those people who aren’t comfortable backpacking? Do they just stay in resorts their whole traveling lives? Someone should offer a style of travel that opens them up.
Thinking about the travel industry, where do you see it going in the next 10 years?
Travel really has not been operating in a sustainable way since around the time of the Second World War or so. The number of travelers has grown exponentially, towards unsustainable levels. So we are hitting the limits to growth in travel. I guess we’ve been hitting that limit since the 70s.
Certain travel industries in certain countries are saying that enough is enough. That they just can’t handle any more. That is something that we are grappling with at the moment, and trying some alternatives. However, a lot of the industry isn’t necessarily isn’t coming up with answers. If things go on the way they are, the number of people traveling is just going to keep growing at 7 or 8 percent a year because the Chinese are still only just getting into it and Indians have not really started, let alone lots of other nationalities.
“Backpacking is an amazing thing to experience, but what happens to all those people who aren’t comfortable backpacking? Do they just stay in resorts their whole traveling lives? Someone should offer a style of travel that opens them up.”
The success of the travel industry is a threat to itself. Travel needs to find a way of attracting people to do things that have much more capacity to them. If you want to go see the leaning tower of Pisa, or the Last Supper, you have to book it in months in advance. If there is 50% more people travelling in 20 years, the capacity of that doesn’t increase and so there has go to be something for these people to do. You know, no more people can be going to Venice. Not many more can be going to Barcelona. So travel needs to be finding other experiences. Experience is the word, because people less and less want to go and see the leaning tower of Pisa, and instead want different experiences. So the industry needs to be creative & innovative in developing product alternatives that people will enjoy just as much if not more.
“The success of the travel industry is a threat to itself. Travel needs to find a way of attracting people to do things that have much more capacity to them.”
At a high level, what is the impact that Intrepid seeks to create?
The immediate impact is to change the way people see the world. We want people who travel with us to travel in a different way – at a very grass roots level, with lots of interaction with local people and plenty of what we call ‘real life experiences’. We want people to change the way they go out and see the world, but we also want an outcome on them being a change in the way they view the world. So that they don’t see the world as threatening, and they understand that people everywhere around the world just want to get on with their lives and have a good education, be secure, have enough food, and somewhere to live. As we said earlier – something really important in increasingly xenophobic times.
The second part about impact is the one we can have on the destination. The potential benefits of tourism to people in the destination. Our style of tourism isn’t about big multinational companies that own hotels. It is about people on the ground who happen to work in tourism – or didn’t work in tourism until they met us – and they start to create a business and get a good income from offering tourism services. Tourism has this really big economic issue around leakage. So a lot of the money that goes into the country often leaks out due to the demands of tourists. Like having to import bus coaches at a standard that tourists want; or having to import produce to provide food that tourists need. So for a long time economists were really down on the benefits of tourism, but if you run tourism in a way that wealth really stays there it is much, much more beneficial.
We have dozens of stories about how the people who provide services for us have said that what we do really benefits them in amazing ways. For example, we have a female leader in Cambodia who came to Australia last year and won award for being one of our very best leaders. She is about 4 feet 8 inches tall and would weigh 40 kilograms at most, and she was brought up by her mother along with her four siblings. They didn’t own a home and her mother wasn’t skilled in anything so she earned her living as a beggar. They grew up in the country but she had to go to Phnom Penh with her mother to beg, and there she saw these tourists. She decided she wanted to get involved in the tourism industry, so she did and later got a job with us.
But her mother more or less disowned her because in a lot of countries working as a tourist guide can be taken to mean you are a prostitute because you are with foreign men. Everyone in the village thought negatively of her. This lady started working for Intrepid and was really successful and earned a good income. Eventually she became one of our best leaders. She bought a house for her mother, and the people in her village saw this. She came to Australia – something beyond the belief of anyone there. Everyone now respects her and understands that it is a really good role for a woman in Cambodia.
“For a long time economists were really down on the benefits of tourism, but if you run tourism in a way that wealth really stays there it is much, much more beneficial.”
That’s an incredible example of empowerment. Thinking back to that trip you had through Africa with your friends, what things do you want Intrepid to hold onto forever?
The really big one is that we always have purpose beyond profit. I guess that is one of the main reasons why we became a B Corp – to get the mission lock of having purpose beyond profit. Darrell & I didn’t start the business to become wealthy, we started the business because we wanted to take people traveling in a very different way. That is why I am really against this concept of companies existing to really maximise the profits of their shareholders. People don’t start businesses to become wealthy, they start businesses cause they want to offer a product or service to the community that they believe will have some value.
At a more practical level, I’d like for us to always have this focus on real, ground-level travel that enables people to experience countries as they really are. Having that experience with local people and opportunity to learn about the history, culture, religion and politics of where they are visiting. I’d also like for us to always be a company that has a culture of empowerment for our own people. Enabling them to enjoy their work, and develop and feel like they are doing something that is really valuable.
If you were to walk into Intrepid in 15 or 20 years, and the organisation had accomplished everything it set out to achieve, what would the world look like?
The world would have a huge number of travelers but they would be experiencing the world in a much more meaningful way. They will therefore be much more at ease in their place in the world, and much more relaxed with the way that people are different from them. I guess that might mean we’d have less conflict in the world. Whether that is possible I don’t know, because I guess you will always have people who are war-like. Throughout history you have always had people who want to dominate one way or an other. So maybe that means you can’t get rid of that, but hopefully more understanding will reduce the instances of conflict.
Fear makes people act in a really unpredictable way. If we can remove fear, people will behave much better. It’s interesting that we have politicians wanting us to be scared because it is a benefit to them and what they want to achieve. But the more people travel, the harder it becomes for politicians to make us scared of other people. If we have all traveled to Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Iran, and we love being around Muslim people, it would be very hard for government to say we should be scared of those people. In the last 15 years, it has been quite obvious that is what they are trying to do – make us scared.