Imagine this as your next escape from work: You’re navigating a makeshift route through the heart of the Madagascar jungle, from coast to coast, using a French military map from the 60s. As you sift through the rainforest, wading down a series of rivers, you come across a village of roughly 200 inhabitants. Some commotion ensues as you approach its shores on a raft like an alien; this is likely the first time these people have seen anyone with fair skin in the entire village’s history.
You can throw away the terms vacation and tour. What London-based Secret Compass provides are expeditions tailored to providing adventure-seeking young professionals with a more meaningful escape during those precious vacation days. “It’s about the ability to meet extraordinary people while undertaking an experience as a team,” says Expedition Leader Xavier Aubut, an ex-corporate finance associate from Montreal who will be leading Secret Compass’ October excursion in Socotra (and was recently featured as a YPDaily on Notable).
Whether an excursion to Afganistan’s diverse Wakhan Corridor (officially the first mountain bike trip into the high mountains; video below) or mountaineering the Secret Peaks of Iraqi Kurdistan, Secret Compass’ trips are coordinated by former commanders of the British Army – in collaboration with a host of local personnel, NGOs and businesses – with a specific aim in mind.
“You need to have a focus to achieve something, which everyone is working together for. When your feet feel like they have been prodded with hot irons and you have just crawled under a fallen tree for the umpteenth time, you can focus on that aim. Unless you put that aim there, you don’t have that same sense of achievement at the end of it,” says co-founder Tom Bodkin. While many look to conquer arduous physical challenges, others are driven by the mental stimulation and long-lasting character development offered by discovering Panama’s 5000-year-old petroglyphs or descending Sierra Leone’s Moa River, for example. Regardless of the expedition, you’ll certainly be experiencing a varying degree of all three.
So, what makes an ideal candidate? “We design the trips so they’re achievable by everyone, as long as you’re reasonably fit and have the right mental attitude,” says Bodkin. He referenced an Egyptian man whose furthest walk before embarking on the Madagascar tour was probably from his house to his car.
But that’s not to say expeditions are a cakewalk you’ll be guided through from start to finish. Secret Compass staff aren’t boot camp sergeants, and you have to motivate yourself to persevere the rag-tag slew of obstacles. Your vehicle might break down all of a sudden – almost a guarantee, says Aubut – and the weather can be incredibly temperamental. Bridges go down, roads wash away, infrastructure is dodgy and the Western ideal of customer service is mostly unrecognized. You’ll encounter people who’ve endured the horrors of war and see the world in ways we can’t fathom. Even perceptions of time will be a mystery.
And that’s the thrill of it. “Don’t think about your perceptions of a place and look into the details and see what it’s about, what the reality is,” says Bodkin, adding that many people have the impression that Sierra Leone is still a war-torn country although it’s been stable without any underlying issues threatening to bubble up for over a decade.
That’s the nature of media coverage – and movies like Blood Diamond – and also why Secret Compass has become part of a bigger picture for many post-conflict regions. Through its expeditions, the company has managed to stimulate local economic growth on a small scale where tourism still benefits populations directly. Though developing what would resemble an organized structure of tourism takes time – about a decade, by Bodkin’s estimate – it’s hard to think of a more valuable travel experience on both the giving and receiving end.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the entire experience, however, is the permanent fixture of humbleness and perspective engrained into your personality upon returning from an expedition. “You come back feeling lucky to have what you’ve got. You can’t get that from a backpack Euro trip,” says Aubut to summarize what most expedition travellers remark upon completing a trip. “You stop complaining about the daily struggle of the first world.” It’s the perfect getaway suited for the young professional lifestyle: work hard, play hard, and contribute to community while living a healthy, active lifestyle and improving your personal self eternally in the process. Count us in.
The success of Secret Compass’s team expeditions has encouraged the team to begin crafting bespoke services that allow individuals to contribute an idea and let it grow from there. “Why not go parachuting for a week in Bolivia?” suggests Aubut, admittedly pushing a little far right off the bat. But it’s this impossible-is-nothing attitude that makes these trips so notable, and we can’t help but admire the optimism. We also couldn’t think of a better idea for bachelor/bachelorette party.
Click here to see a full list of current expeditions offered by Secret Compass, ranging from nine days scaling the peaks of Iraqi Kurdistan ($2340, April 12-20, 2014) to 22 days of exploring the land of fire in Kamchatka, Siberia ($4520, July 5-27, 2014).