The boom in extreme holidays: to the ends of the earth

Tired of the Lonely Planet guide, Tom Morgan set up an extreme travel agency ­ and has now won an entrepreneurship award. By Emily Dugan
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The Independent Online

Do you fancy being imprisoned in Azerbaijan or running over a cow? How about racing a 150cc rickshaw along the banks of the Ganges? Or clashing with bandits in the Mongolian desert?

It may not be everyone's idea of a holiday, but for Tom Morgan, the founder of extreme travel agent The League of Adventurists, danger is the essential ingredient for an enjoyable break.

It seems he is not alone. Mr Morgan, 27, who boasts he has spawned "a community of other idiots", has already had to invent a host of new wacky trips to stop his thrill-seekers encountering each other on the road. And now the travel junkie-turned-businessman has won the Shell LIVEwire Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for creating an organisation that not only makes money - and lots of it - but that sets trends in an ever more competitive market.

The business, which started at the 2004 Mongol Rally with a one-off race through bandit country in "any crap car that has an engine with no more than one litre of power", is a successful example of what has become a phenomenon in the travel industry.

Huge numbers of small, quirky and smoothly marketed independent travel companies have sprung up in recent years. Offering tailored itineraries of voyages into the unknown and providing clients with service on a highly personalised, basis, the modern, downsized equivalents to Thomas Cook and the like are taking on the old-school giants at their own game - and winning.

They may not offer customers the traditional "dream holiday" with lashings of sun, sea and sand but what they lack in predictability they make up for in spontaneity.

And, the travel agencies say, their fans would not want it any other way. "As a student I got frustrated with guides like the Lonely Planet that took all the fun out of travelling," Mr Morgan said. "I found that when I had most fun was when I went off the edge of the map and got lost."

Mr Morgan began his interest in bizarre journeys while on a student exchange in the Czech Republic. He decided to drive with a friend to the "most stupid place" he could think of in his Fiat 126. With "about 12 quid" in their pockets, they decided that Mongolia was that place, but they only got as far as Iran before being turned back at the border. Despite the breakdowns and uncomfortable nights, the entrepreneurial explorer describes it as "one of the most fun holidays" he ever had.

So on his return Mr Morgan set up the Mongol Rally, a race through the desert with wholly unsuitable vehicles to raise money for Mongolian charities. An ominous note on the website warned: "We can't guarantee your arrival at the finish line, or your safety."

For three years Mr Morgan ran the rally as a hobby while he did a succession of non-committal jobs that ranged from waiting tables to stuffing envelopes.

With swathes of guidebook-guzzling travellers following each other from one predictable destination to the next, there was an emerging enthusiasm for unusual holidays. And in 2006, when the number of cars in his race had risen from six in 2004 to 167, he decided to launch the rally as a business venture.

He teamed up with Dan Wedgewood and Lamorna Trahair, to launch a travel company that specialised in gruelling "holidays" and whose mantra was to make it "as hard as possible for the people taking part".

Returning Mongol Rally enthusiasts have sung its praises. One did his first trip on a Honda C90 commuter scooter. It took him five weeks and left him stuck in Siberian rainstorms without so much as a tent. Next year he's coming back with a latex Mr Incredible costume, and an even less functional 50cc moped.

Now the team has added the Rickshaw Run, a race of 150cc-powered rickshaws through India's mountains, jungles and dirt tracks. Next year will bring fresh dangers, with a rally to the Cameroon and a dugout canoe race down the Amazon.

The Adventurists plan to expand into a bespoke service, arranging the logistics for the adventures of individual clients. But they will not be holding anyone's hand.

As Mr Morgan says: "If you want a support crew there's a very nice place called Butlins in Bognor Regis."

Skydives and ski slopes

Sky and Snow Adventures -

30-year-old ex-Royal marine Andrew Field established Sky and Snow to share his love of adventure and to break the mould of the standard package holiday.

Field specialises in offering personalised experiences including skydiving, skiing and summer breaks in the Alps. He is a qualified skydiving coach, white-water rafting guide and ski instructor. He says: "My love for the outdoors and living life is immense. I get great personal satisfaction from teaching, helping and of course learning from experiences as well, and hopefully you can learn from mine."

Cycle on the wild side

GPM10 -

In 2003, cyclist Mark Neep set up GMP10 in Chamonix and with help from elite mountain-bike and roa- rider Sam Gardner, and time-trialist Steve Walkling, he offers a different type of cycling break. The focus is on weekend breaks rather than complete weeks, so you can fly out to Geneva on Friday and be in the mountains on Saturday morning.

All-female weekend breaks trace the stages of the Tour de France and Dauphine Libere cycle races. Covering 225km of Alpine climbs, cyclists get the full works, shouted at by the trainers following in cars and offered energy bars if they're flagging. His adventures are a tough training session.

Surf a volcano

Black Tomato -

Black Tomato was established in 2005 by Tom Marchant, James Merrett and Matt Smith, a trio of ex-City boys in their late 20s with a huge passion for new experiences.They ensure the quality of Black Tomato trips by insisting that a member of the senior management team has personally experienced the holiday. Their offering includes motorbike safaris through the Philippines, volcano surfing in Nicaragua and trips to Switzerland to replicate James Bond's famous leap off the Verzasca Dam in Goldeneye.

Dip into the danger zones

Hinterland Travel -

Adventurer Geoff Hann has been running tours to the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran since 1972. Far from sending him spiralling down into bankruptcy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have presented him with a business opportunity. Hann is continuing to offer tours throughout 2007 and 2008 to some extremely sensitive areas, such as Kurdish Iraq, and Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan. International flights and insurance are not included in the price of the tours, which are subject to frequent last-minute changes due to military activity.

Educational thrills

The Explorer School -

Founded by the explorer and writer Robert Trigger, of Angry White Pyjamas fame, The Explorer School is an attempt to bring learning to travel. Instead of the usual corporate relationship between tour guide and traveller, it aims for a more informal interaction where both parties can learn from real, unpredictable experiences.

Mr Trigger started the company because he wanted to spend more time in the desert, but the trips on offer include canoeing in the Rockies and jungle adventures.

Unique experiences

Tim Best Travel -

Tim Best happily gave up an inherited taxidermy business to open a travel bookshop, and it was not long before he decided to put his expertise to further use.

Now one of the country's most exclusive bespoke travel agencies, Tim Best Travel provides totally unique itineraries for each client. No task is too specific, with each trip tailor-made for the interests of the travellers. Recent holidays have included trekking with gorillas in Rwanda, Latin American bird-watching and musical festivals in Mali.