Visit the Born to Explore office and Marble, an Australian shepherd, is bound to greet you. Not with a wagging tail but, rather, a low growl. These are his people, his space. Luckily, host of the TV show, Richard Wiese, will step forward, take hold of the dog’s collar, smile and extend his other hand for a friendly welcome.
The offices aren’t the sleek white, glass and chrome of a Manhattan exec; instead, they’re perfectly suited to the show—down to earth. As Wiese shows you around, you’ll notice that there are more rooms and hallways than what at first seems possible in a small space. It’s like a rabbit warren. Lots of nooks and odd angles, as if it has grown organically around the root system of a gigantic tree. Even the light is inconsistent, with shaded corners and bursts of light; the floors creak under your feet in a pleasing way. In fact, it’s all very pleasing—especially the eye-catching photos of exotic locations and people that are displayed here and there on the white walls.
The recording studio, in the remote back office, is small and bare. That’s surprising, because these offices abut a neighborhood BBQ joint with a penchant for rowdy live music at night. At the other pole of the office, way up front—and overlooking the comings and goings of shoppers hunting for cosmetics, high heels, and designer jeans along Main Street—is the conference room. Here the Born to Explore crew plans the next place and culture in the whole wide world to explore and, ultimately, air on Saturday mornings on ABC. The amusing dichotomy of regional paradigms—Main Street versus anywhere from the North to South poles—is lost on Wiese, host and founder of the program. Every destination fires up his curiosity.
He takes a seat, a simple desk and computer monitor nearby. A tousle of blond hair (once featured in a Head and Shoulders print ad). Tan skin. An easy, perfect smile. Hands at rest on his knees. He faces you and simply settles, calm, at ease. This man is ready to answer anything. He loves to share what he does. Why not? Exploring and sharing are not only his profession, they’re also in his genetic coding.
Home and Far, Far Away
World-class, lifelong, widely respected and famous explorer Richard Wiese has been domesticated. The married father of three lives in Weston and has been spotted doing stroller duty along Main Street, retrieving toys tossed out the side. Google him and you might find an image of him stuffed inside a fiberglass elephant carnival ride, towheaded twin boys on his lap. “Yeah,” he says with a big smile, “that was in Easton.” From the shot, you wouldn’t suspect Dad has been nose to trunk with wild elephants in India, Indonesia and Africa or that mentioning this family photo would jumpstart a serious discussion about the largest land animal on earth (habitats, uses in various countries, threats to their existence, and so forth)—as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
“We’re doing a PSA, a public service announcement, for Save the Elephants,” he says of the show, adding that Born to Explore has covered elephants in Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, India and Indonesia. “In Namibia elephants have adapted to the desert environment,” and in Tanzania, he went “hunting with the Hazbe, using bow and arrow.” He’s off and running about his experiences with them and thinks nothing about launching into an in-depth conversation about elephants within five minutes of meeting someone, because, for him, such topics are common and his concern.
Listening to his impressions of far-flung places, you’ll slowly acknowledge that the comparisons of Wiese to the legendary Indiana Jones are completely fair. He’s part university professor (albeit with a bazillion images on a computer and a TV show to reach his students) and has a natural leaning to being so soft-spoken, intellectual and unassuming that you’d underestimate his extraordinary capabilities in the field. Of course the Hollywood adventurer chased villains; the real deal puts satellite collars on jaguars in the Yucatan, treks down the deepest canyon in the world (in Peru), and leads expeditions to the Northern Territory of Australia to research the origin of the Aboriginal myth of the Rainbow Serpent (a 15,000-year-old story about “an amalgamation of creatures to explain the world,” he explains).
The comparison isn’t news to him. There’s even a shot of him sporting the full Indiana regalia, but he doesn’t convincingly fake comfort with the getup. Muddy, sweaty and performance clothes—T-shirts to parkas—suited to Earth’s wide-swinging elements seem more natural. He discovered twenty-nine new life forms in the crater of Mt. Kilimanjaro. He tags alligators and hikes mountains with a scientist’s intellect and an adventurer’s curiosity. Put it this way: At hand he keeps “clothes that rinse and dry quickly, a water purifier and a tiny hard drive with all my vital info on it,” he once told Travel + Leisure magazine.
As much as he appreciates the athleticism and discovery of adventure, he’s quick to point out that he also loves meeting people, exploring cultures and becoming more socially conscious. “The big game changer is having kids. I like to think I’ve become more interesting. It’s not about my personal experience of climbing a mountain; it’s about sharing that experience or taking the time to get to know the people who are actually carrying my stuff up that mountain,” he says.
He admits the testosterone-fueled, grand adventures are, indeed, great, but these days travel is about connection. “I’m spear fishing with a local tribesman on the Indian Ocean, then cooking the catch on the beach, or fishing with the only fisherwoman in Chile. These are the people who you don’t notice, ignore or miss if you’re just following some guidebook. We’re getting an intimate look at countries and cultures,” he says.
This intimate look includes every near-and-far place on the globe—the more exotic, and, yes, some danger, the better. His passion for inquiry is infectious, whether it’s puffins in Scotland or endangered Sumatran pachyderms. “In Canada we wanted the polar bear experience on foot, not some sort of buggy,” he offers as explanation, “and I thought it wouldn’t be complete without going with the Inuit. So you find yourself up on the Hudson Bay during polar bear migration with some Inuit who’s intimately familiar with the body language of a polar bear, and, you know, you’re forty feet away from a ten-foot-tall carnivore.” If the memory causes a chill to run up his spine, it doesn’t show.
One of his favorite places: Morocco. “It’s seven hours away, and you feel like you’re taking a trip back in the Bible. It’s super exotic. You meet the most interesting man there. Then you go to these dye pits, which are ancient tanneries. And instead of just looking at them, suddenly, you’re in there. There are these animal skins and pigeon poo, which they use to soften it,” he says, drawing a mental picture of the place. “It took me months to get the dye out of my toes,” a smile flashes and he points out more photos on the computer. “We went to a village where we were the first non-Moroccans to visit, which is incredible in this day and age. This town, up in the mountain, just opened roads to it, and we were the first people. For $500 we bought that whole village shoes and blankets.” Adventure. Culture. Social consciousness. That’s the mission.
Looking Back and Up
Wiese’s father, Rick, an adventurer, was the first person to solo the Pacific Ocean in an airplane; and his uncle, Dr. Richard Lanza, is head of the Nuclear Engineering Department at MIT. They pop to mind when asked about his mentor. “Most kids talk with their father about sports. I used to talk to my father about weather.” Young Richard would later become a weatherman on TV. As for his uncle, he says, “He always had time for phone calls for a discussion on science. I still call him up when I have questions.”
Wiese followed suit early on. At only eleven years old, he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his father. “At the time, it didn’t seem out of the norm for me,” he says. “Just because my father was an airline pilot, it was not unusual for him to ask, ‘Hey, you feel like coming on this trip or that?’ I would routinely go to Africa for a weekend or Europe just because.” As a junior at Brown, he took the Pan Am 1 flight around the world in forty-eight hours. “I wouldn’t do it now. I think it’d be too exhausting. I sat in economy, by the way.” (Roughing it even early on.)
His science degree framed and on the wall, Wiese began his travels in earnest and eventually, with dirt in the cleats, took his place among the elite. In 2002 he became the youngest president of the Explorers Club—the 110-year-old, self-described “international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore.” Wiese has his own definition: “A very eclectic group of eccentric people with an interest in field science.” Based in Manhattan, the club provides grants and otherwise supports explorers. Its membership includes or has included lofty names with extraordinary firsts, such as Ernest Shackleton, Sir Edmund Hillary, Jane Goodall, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. “The presidency of the Explorers Club is difficult and not fully defined. It’s a voice or face of the club. Raising money. Bringing in new members. Trying to put an agenda together. It’s part explorer, fundraiser and public relations,” he says. He served four straight terms before tacking to a new career on the horizon.
Taking To The Air
With the world a playground of discovery, Wiese uses his experience and interests to host and serve as executive producer of Born to Explore, the No. 1 show in the nation in its time slot on Saturday mornings (find it on ABC). Viewers watch him explore the habitats of seals, moose and snakes, or not-suspiciously enough consume things heretofore unrecognized as food (for example, a witchetty grub eaten by Aborigines). In short, the show discovers new places as well as promotes mankind’s relationship with nature and animals and facilitates a broader understanding of people. The common link relies on the ability to translate a personal interest as a dynamic storyteller and unofficial cultural ambassador. The show has been nominated and won many awards, including an Emmy, a Parents’ Choice and Telly. A selection of plaques are hung up in the office, but many others haven’t made it up yet.
Wiese has been on BBC and Discovery Channel; he hosted the international television show Exploration with Richard Wiese and was a member in the series Hottest Place on Earth. (Where is that place? Ethiopia. The mission was to extract fragments of DNA from molten lava to look for evidence of microbial life in conditions that have been thought incapable of sustaining life.) He also filmed survival tips for the History Channel’s series on Stanley and Livingstone. But he doesn’t seem to like looking back. “Yes, yes,” he says, as if such trodden ground holds far less interest than veering off to create and explore a new path.
Join his journey on his website (and Google for that elephant shot).