The Favourites of Jack Wheeler

Jack Wheeler in the Virunga mountains of Rwanda.

Jack Wheeler’s life is like out of a movie – in fact, Sylvester Stallone once offered to buy the movie rights to his life story. He’s been on adventures to every single country in the world (UN 193), is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the first skydive onto the North Pole (“Northernmost Parachute Jump”), has three “first contacts” with undiscovered tribes, created the “Reagan Doctrine” that got rid of the Soviet Union, has a PhD in Philosophy teaching Aristotelian ethics on a university level and has been leading expeditions to remote places on earth for forty years through his company, Wheeler Expeditions. It’s no wonder the Wall Street Journal called Jack “The real-life Indiana Jones.”

What are three of your favourite countries and why?

I’m not sure at all how to answer – because it mostly refers to your most enjoyably memorable experiences in a country, unrepeatable moments in time. Further, countries don’t stay put in time – they change, for what you may think better or worse while others think differently.

It’s also difficult because the world is filled with wonderfully extraordinary countries and cultures. How literally in the world do pluck out just three and ignore the rest? And yes, I get asked this question all the time and still don’t really know how to answer. But okay, I can’t weasel out anymore, so here we go.

Portugal
First is Portugal. After America, it’s been our home for many years. The weather and climate remind my wife and me of California, where we grew up only better, warm as Southern California, green as Northern. The beauty everywhere is astounding, the food and wine fabulous, you’re immersed in thousands of years of history (Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe, founded by the Phoenicians over 3,000 years ago as Alis-Ubo, “Safe Harbor,” as a trading post along their route to the tin mines in Cornwall during the Bronze Age).

Plus, the sun sets in the ocean here. The world’s biggest surfing waves are at Nazaré. Yet what really counts is the people. The Portuguese are among the nicest, kindest, sweetest people anywhere, while Portugal is one of the safest countries in the world.  Of all the planet’s First World countries, it’s hard to find one more friendly, calm, and welcoming than here.

This cliff-top fishing village is Azenhas do Mar – Watermills of the Sea – on the Portuguese Riviera. Rebel (Jack’s wife) loves Portugal so much she taught herself to be fluent in Portuguese. If you’d like a personal experience of the best of Portugal, Wheeler Expeditions can arrange it for you!

Jack’s wife, Rebel.

Nepal
Next is Nepal. I’ve been going to Nepal since 1963. Now we operate there the single greatest adventure on the planet requiring normal good health and no special set of skills – our Himalaya Helicopter Expedition to the base camp and higher of all eight 8,000-meter mountains of the Himalayas in Nepal: Kanchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Makalu, Manaslu, Cho Oyu, Lhotse and, of course, Everest.

L-to-R: Everest West Shoulder, Everest Southwest Face, Lhotse South Face, Nuptse East Shoulder

We fly above the Khumbu Ice Fall and into the Western Cwm of Everest at 22,000ft: L-to-R Everest West Shoulder, Everest Southwest Face, Lhotse South Face, Nuptse East Shoulder

Kingdom of Lo – best-preserved traditional Tibetan culture on Earth.

We visit the independent Tibetan Kingdom of Lo, sovereign since 1380, and the even remoter region of Dolpo to visit Dolpa Tibetans and their Sacred Lake of Phoksundo. Then we go paragliding in Pokhara and a lot more. There’s no experience like it in the world.

Tuvalu
Lastly, what comes to mind is Tuvalu (too-vah-loo). One of the world’s smallest, least known, least visited countries on Earth, lost in the Pacific west of Kiribati and south of Nauru – but it’s no failed state like those two. They handle their money earned from fishing licenses in their EEZ very well – the professionally audited Tuvalu Trust Fund has $140 million and growing – that for a population of 11,000.

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Funafuti and the other atolls are beautiful, pristine, and kept clean. No one uses cell phones. You go and find whomever you want to talk to on your motorbike. There’s one small internet café, some satellite dishes for Pacific Sky television, but most families don’t have a TV.  They’d rather spend time with each other and friends, swim and fish in the lagoon, play volleyball at the end of the day, sing and dance at night.  Tuvaluans are very self-entertaining people.

They have to be because the Brits, Aussies and Kiwis make sure they’re isolated. They maintain a wonderful cheerfulness in the face of British vindictiveness (for demanding their own freedom rather than succumb to Brit demands they take orders from Kiribati). You won’t find people more at peace with themselves and their life than in Tuvalu. As always, it’s the people that make a paradise.

Tuvalu photo provided by Jack Wheeler.
Tuvalu photo provided by Jack Wheeler.

What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?

The first is family. I tell the story of why my father said yes when I asked if I could climb the Matterhorn at 14 in What Life Is All About. When I reached the top with my guide, Alfons Franzen, Dad was flying around the summit in a small plane, and we waved to each other. One of the most profound moments of my life to this day, it was the experience we shared at his death in 1980.

Jack with guide Alfons Franzen Matterhorn Summit 9/15/58.

The sequel, also told in the link above, is when my son Brandon turned 14 and asked me to climb the Matterhorn again with him. He breezed up, but it was a real struggle for me at 54. He made it, my guide didn’t think I could, so after summiting, Brandon came back down to get me.  We climbed the last 500 feet together.  Thus here we both are on the summit of the world’s most famous mountain.  There are no words to come close to expressing what this means to each of us.

Family comes first.

Family comes first. The adventures and life-memorable experiences I’ve had with my sons Brandon and Jackson and my wife Rebel are what mean the most to me. Today, what’s most exciting and rewarding is having my sons Brandon and Jackson join me in running Wheeler Expeditions. Both have been on so many expeditions with me since they were five and six years old. Brandon had a distinguished career as an officer in the US Marines, while Jackson is fluent in nine languages.

Meanwhile, Rebel is not only my life partner; she’s also Managing Partner of Wheeler Expeditions. So working together with Brandon, Jackson and our team, we’ll be able to offer life-memorable experiences to more extraordinary places to adventurous people of all ages than ever. That’s cool.

Brandon, Rebel, and Jackson.

In terms of personal achievement, the one that means the most to me is my being the unofficial liaison between the Reagan White House and all the various Anti-Communist insurgencies that emerged in the 1980s: in Nicaragua with the Contras, Angola with UNITA, Mozambique with RENAMO, the TPLF in Ethiopia, the Hmong in Laos, the KPNLF in Cambodia, the Karen-ni in Burma, and most especially, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Jack with Mujahideen Commander Qari Baba in Afghanistan.

I spent much of the 80s with these insurgencies as they fought to liberate their countries from Soviet imperialism. I also spent time with all the democracy movements emerging in Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union itself. It’s why I’m credited in a number of histories of the Cold War as the originator of the Reagan Doctrine that was successful in breaking the Soviet Union apart like Humpty-Dumpty.

Jack with President Reagan in the White House.

Now in terms of something simply personal mind-blow awesome, this is right up there.

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April 15, 1981 – this is the exact moment when I landed on the sea-ice at 90 North latitude, the North Pole, to set a Guinness World Record for “The Northernmost Parachute Jump.” On a Wheeler Expedition to the top of the world, we landed our ski-equipped Twin Otter on a configuration of Arctic Ocean sea-ice called an “old frozen-over lead” precisely at 90N. My clients got out, we took the fuel drums out, rear door off, took off again with me, the pilot and co-pilot. I had pilot Rocky Parsons go up to 8,000 feet for a mile of freefall, directed him to the spot – tiny black dots of our people on the ice – told him when to cut the engines, and I was out the door.

What a rush, falling straight down on the very top of our planet, a world of ice below – meadows of rubble ice, rivers of open water called leads snaking through the ice, lakes of water called polynyas, pressure ridges of turquoise ice, terminal velocity, backflips, somersaults, fun in the sky. Altimeter shows 2,500 feet, time to go – pull out the hand deploy, see the canopy furl out in full, grab the hand toggles, spin around for more fun, line it up to come in next to everyone, stand-up landing, Guinness Book. Totally cool.

What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?

I haven’t the faintest idea. I’m sure there have been plenty, but I don’t remember. My brain cranks out enough oxytocin to erase them from my synapses. That’s because, to me, bad experiences don’t matter. Yes, it’s critically important to learn from your mistakes so you don’t make them again – but it’s just as critically important not to be traumatized by them. You do this by not considering them as significant events in your life.

What are three of your best travel tips?

Okay, first and most important is: Don’t go to a country just to check it off the list. Having been to a country just to say you’ve been there, just as a tick in the box, means nothing. Nothing. It’s what you did there that counts, what you experienced, what you learned.

My advice is to go to those places that fascinate you, that call to you, that you want to make a part of your life. You have one life – that’s it. One chance to make it special. Fill it up with memories. Not with ticks on a checklist. When your grandkids ask you about a country, you never want to say, “Well, uh, I was there for just a little while and looked around” You want to be able to light up and say, “Oh, wow, while I was there, I did the coolest thing, here’s the story.” Our goal, by the way, at Wheeler Expeditions is for you to be able to say that back home after you’ve been with us. The second is to understand this. There’s an old saying, “The more I know, the less I know” – i.e., the more you know regarding any subject, the more you realize how much more there is to learn. It’s the same with travel – the more of the world you see, the less you see.

That is, the more of the world you see, the bigger it expands in your mind. There’s a tiny speck in the Pacific called Niue. Go there and explore it – it’s now a lot bigger for you than a tiny speck on the map. You’ll never get to the end of all the history, the beauty, the wonder, the magic of what there is to experience on our Earth. There will always be people to befriend and learn from.

The bottom line is: If you have an adventurous attitude toward life, you’ll always be excited about packing your bags and being off to experience more magic in the world. Third, you want something practical, and that would be my Five-Step Jet Lag Solution. I’ve given it to a number of corporate CEOs, diplomats, Capitol Hill staffers, Congressmen and Senators. They tell me it works. It works for me. Here it is, and I trust it will work for you. The first step is water. Drink lots of it. Keep bugging the stewardess (oh, right – flight attendant person) for another bottle of water (yes, water, no sugar poison drinks). Airplane air is very dehydrating, thus exhausting. Keep drinking lots of water the day of your arrival. And all right, beer is okay. Guinness is good for you.

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The second step is daylight. The worst thing you can do is spend the day of your arrival (and subsequent days) indoors in some convention hall or meeting room. Get outside and into actual daylight as much as possible. This also means: stay up, stay active. No afternoon naps. Stay up until it’s good and dark and bedtime

The third step is exercise. What you need to do is get your cardio-vascular system’s attention for about twenty minutes the day of your arrival and subsequent days, preferably first thing in the morning. Do what you want – bodyweight squats, push-ups, sit-ups, jog, whatever it takes to elevate your pulse rate to 180 minus your age for at least 20 minutes or more. If you start to get wiggy in the late afternoon, do the same for 10 minutes at least.

The fourth step is nutrition to reset your body clock. To jumpstart your brain, take two capsules of Blast caps from Life Enhancement first thing in the morning on an empty stomach with fruit juice. This will provide your brain with the specific nutrients it needs to make the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, the brain’s go-juice. To reset your sleep cycle, take between 1 and 3 mg. of sublingual melatonin, available at your local GNC. It’s the natural hormone that creates the physiological condition of “biological night” in the brain’s clock, the SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus). The sublingual version gets it into your brain faster and more effectively.

The fifth step is attitude. Always remember the immortal words of Buckaroo Bonzai: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Forget about what time it is back home. As soon as you board the plane, set your watch to your destination’s time zone. From now on, that’s what time it is. Never say something like, “Well, the time here is such-and-such, but the real-time for me is…” No, the really real-time for you is Buckaroo. Time: where you are right then and there, or where you will shortly be. Put all of these together, and you’ll be pleasantly amazed at how quickly and easily you’ll adapt to your new time zone. Have a great adventure wherever you go! Jack Wheeler is the founder of Wheeler Expeditions. He can be contacted at jack@wheelerexpeditions.com.

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