I'm pulling into Sea-Tac Airport, passport in hand and packed for a 10-day international trip, and I have no idea where I’m going.
Jake Haupert, co-owner of SoDo-based travel company Explorer X, goads me to guess as we corkscrew up the parking garage ramps, but even a peek at the departure airlines—JetBlue, Air Canada, Norwegian—doesn’t cough up any clues. Pre-trip instructions mandated anti-malaria pills and tank tops, so I’m pretty sure Nova Scotia isn’t the ultimate destination. In almost four decades of flying out of Sea-Tac, this is by far the most thrilled I’ve ever been to navigate those slinky-shaped parking structures.
Haupert’s two-year-old company specializes in transformational travel, experiences more about inner revelations than tourist traps. This surprise framework is what they call a Project X: a bespoke trip booked for me but with only my loosest direction, tailored to what I’d like and what will challenge me. Two months earlier, the ever-grinning travel guru had peppered me with questions for a solid hour—where had I been already? What’s my rough budget? What did I want out of travel, and what kind of challenges was I willing to face? The interview felt akin to a therapy session.
I was soon directed to get shots (typhoid, hepatitis A) and pack warm-weather clothes in muted colors. Crowdsourced speculation on social media narrowed it down to South America or Africa, or maybe Southeast Asia; you know, a good half the globe.
These mystery trips are only a slice of Explorer X’s offerings, but all fall under the umbrella of transformational travel. Borrowing language from mythology professor Joseph Campbell, the company casts every trip as a “hero’s journey” shaped by a “call to adventure,” some kind of “trial,” and a triumphant “return;” I’m not sure if I’m off on vacation or to slay a dragon.
Imminent heroics aside, the surprise aspect has already shown its power, freed me from dithering over logistics. Unfamiliar serenity replaces the weight of pre-vacay anxiety. Living in the moment is the elusive goal of travel, but spontaneity’s easy when it’s the only option.
The reveal unfolds in a wine bar outside of Sea-Tac security when Haupert hands me a memoir called When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. I frantically try to remember where in the world crocodiles live, but Haupert helpfully circled the country name on the first page: Zimbabwe.
A few loose associations bounce through my head: Rhodesia, the name this southern African country had in the colonial era. Mugabe, the strongman who oversaw a violent, decades-long regime until just recently.
I give myself a whirlwind Wikipedia course while waiting in a TSA line, learning that after civil wars and a fraught process of independence from British rule, the country of Zimbabwe, born to its current form in 1980, is almost exactly the same age as me.
I’ll say this about mystery travel: 23 hours of flights—Seattle to New York to Johannesburg to the town of Victoria Falls—are much more pleasant when you haven’t been dreading them for months. I’m only barely fatigued when I pass through a gleaming airport to meet my first Zimbabwean, Butch.
Reedy and well over six feet tall, Mark “Butch” Butcher is already distinctive; the white bristle mustache and schoolboy energy complete the package. Like many Zimbabweans, he speaks in a cadence that sounds like an Australian accent that enrolled in a posh British boarding school. The former park ranger founded Imvelo Safari Lodges, a series of luxury camps sprinkled on this western end of Zimbabwe.
As impatient as I am with packaged tours—no control freak likes an itinerary made by someone else—the country itself quickly drowns that out with dramatic landscapes. Imvelo’s Gorges Lodge near Victoria Falls is perched so close to the edge of the Batoka Gorge that I catch myself gripping the pillars of the covered patio for safety. The Zambezi River, having hurled itself over the thundering Victoria Falls just 10 miles upstream, is 650 feet down, and black eagles nest in the canyon walls on the Zambia side. Even as the natural vista unfolds before me, I start to understand the deeper social ecosystem I’ve stepped into.
“The people, the tourism, the animals,” Butch likes to list, ticking each element off on his fingers. “Got to have all three. Take one away and it doesn’t work.” He’s built Imvelo as part of an interdependent trio; high-end tourism fuels the local economy, so those locals move to protect the wildlife to keep the tourists coming. Two Imvelo lodges are built on communal land, a classification of public acreage mostly used by subsistence farmers throughout the country; the lodge’s royalties fund village services the fractured national government all but ignores.
Two days later, we venture into Hwange National Park, a swath of land the size of Connecticut that’s lousy with the continent’s signature wildlife. Spotting these animals from trucks, kayaks, and even on hikes is satisfying in its simplicity, an all-day Planet Earth marathon: There’s a monkey! Cool. A lioness wrangles her three cubs, and elephants march in by the dozens at the watering holes called pans. The giants don’t lumber so much as silently glide across the plains. Butch understands elephants so well he can predict exactly where they’ll stop to smell us, and tsks them like naughty toddlers when they mock-charge (which is terrifying). Hwange is a rare stretch where African elephant herds are growing; the residents number almost 50,000. Though the enormous animals are still sometimes poached for ivory within park borders, the more imminent threat here is overpopulation.
Butch’s holy trinity is everywhere. Even amid the ridiculously luxe glamping tents, the park pulses with wildlife as hornbills hop between mopani trees and hippos bark during orange sunsets. One camp’s night watchman used to be a local poacher; after getting caught a few times he was offered a better way to feed his family. Voila, one less poacher. A rhino sanctuary is under construction, as is the medical clinic it will fund. Tourist dollars fund wells dug alternately in villages for the locals and inside the national park for thirsty elephants. The people, the tourists, the animals—each needs the other two to survive.
As vast as the zoological experience may be—and as quickly as I get used to hot water bottles tucked between the covers during turndown service—I quickly sense the Zimbabwe I don’t see. Camp staff, both black and white Africans, practice warm hospitality, but it’s hard to grasp the racial dynamics of this part of the world—even as I admit that a casual visitor to the U.S. could hardly intuit our own social tangle.
No one really talks about Zimbabwe’s hopelessly inflated currency; everyone uses U.S. dollars instead. This end of the country is relatively stable, but the capital of Harare is rocked by political unrest and power shortages. The dire conditions under Mugabe and now post-Mugabe rule come up only with the two Zimbabweans in the tour group, in the kind of meandering conversations that arise during four-hour drives without cell service.
On trips they lead themselves, Haupert and his staff facilitate discussion and meditation as part their hero’s journey model; solo clients like me get reading materials and a journal. Transformational travel answers the growing demand Haupert, onetime owner of Seattle travel company Evergreen Escapes, sees for vacation experiences with depth. He and his partner founded the international Transformational Travel Council to promote the style.
But for all the talk of heroes and journeys, Haupert says they deliver their message without getting too metaphysical or deploying abstract language. “We want to step out of that woo-woo space and into the mainstream,” he says. “We try to stay away from words like consciousness, spiritual, holistic. The word journey turns off some people.” People like me, who cringe at its reality-show connotations and Eat Pray Love self-absorption.
Ten days in Zimbabwe left me giddy with delight, but I struggle to label it transformational; I come home with new insight about the complicated tripod of locals, nature, and foreigners, but don’t feel like I’ve triumphed over anything. In the post-trip debrief Explorer X does for all clients, Haupert encourages me to let smaller personal transformations seep in. “It’s a process, not a product,” he tells me, the one thing that does ring true.
I’m left hungry for the mystery—when that pre-trip information vacuum left space for clarity. When I had to focus on how I wanted to travel because the where had been taken out of my hands. The sojourn to Africa was posh indulgence, sure, but I think of the conversations I had around campfires with safari guides offering sober tales of truly deadly animals. Of their young apprentices, many young village men, who study each night for the country’s elite guide exam. The quest for some kind of authenticity in travel can sour what is, by definition, an artificial and temporary experience; when I gave up looking for it, I found it more easily in pockets and moments.
Once back in range of cell service I find myself looking up the history of Zimbabwe, of Zulu kings and the Ndebele people and even explorer David Livingstone (of “…I presume” fame). Not knowing anything before takeoff was bliss; the reminder, post-trip, of how little I know—that’s actually even better. I can’t deny that I’ve reignited my global curiosity, even as I realize I should hardly need a transatlantic flight for that.
Think travel agents went the way of the airplane smoking section? Mystery trips are giving new life to professional trip planners, whose agencies across the country offer everything from weekend getaways to elaborate scavenger hunts.
Unlike Explorer X’s bespoke experiences, this DC-based company has a simple price structure for domestic and international trips, starting at $750 per person, including airfare—and you can leave as soon as a month from now.
When jetting off to somewhere you’ve never heard of sounds too much like a bad ’80s thriller, this outfit will compile road trips with a mystery destination, accommodations included.
The global high-end travel agency has created a kind of Amazing Race minus the reality show drama. Their Get Lost trips drop you in a location and you must solve puzzles to navigate your way out—to an indulgent resort.
Editor's Note: This trip was funded by Seattle Met, the author, and Explorer X’s travel partners.