The dangerous road taken

December 06, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

Robert Young Pelton has been kidnapped by Columbian rebels, traveled with CIA paramilitary in search of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and experienced a deadly bomb detonate in a patio below his room in Kampala, Uganda, killing four people.

As the former host of Discovery Channel's "The World's Most Dangerous Places" and the author of four books along the same vein, Pelton has found himself in some precarious situations.

But he insists he's not a thrill seeker.

He's an adventurer.

"I try to shoot for places that are inaccessible, usually because of their danger. I navigate those things. I don't go directly for them," says Pelton, 50, of California, interviewed recently by telephone.


Pelton will speak about his adventures at Mercersburg Academy Monday, Dec. 5, at 7 p.m. in the chapel. The lecture is funded by an anonymous member of the Class of '48, says Lindsay Tanton, a spokeswoman for Mercersburg Academy. Admission to the lecture is free. Seating, for about 800 people, is on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Pelton's life wasn't always so exotic.

"I used to run a marketing company. I used to sneak off for a month every year to relax," he says.

When he got to be about 40, a number of his mentors had died, including his father Young Wellington Pelton III.

"I realized that if I didn't start doing what I really enjoyed, I wouldn't do it," he says.

So he "rebranded" himself and, already familiar with international travel to such places like Africa, became an adventurer.

In aiming to explore those inaccessible places, he and three others were kidnapped near the Panama and Colombia border and he was held for 10 days.

He had recently returned home from Liberia, where rebels were battling the government and where he'd gone for a Discovery Channel show in 2002.

"I promised my wife I'd do more mundane things," so he pursued a hiking story about the Darin Gap in Panama in January 2003, Pelton says.

The Darin Gap is an undeveloped area in the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to the southern tip of South America. It also was the stomping grounds for two major Colombian rebel groups - the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia and the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia (AUC).

"The second day out, the (AUC) paramilitary ambushed these (Cuna) Indians in front of us, killing two of them," Pelton says.

"I had to make a decision. I made the decision we had to walk into the ambush," he says.

Pelton and the others walked slowly in the direction the gunfire came from as he and his associates spoke English to let whomever was there know they were coming.

Screaming AUC members jumped from bushes and ordered Pelton and his comrades to put their hands up, drop their packs and kneel, Pelton says.

Being kidnapped, marched through the jungle at night and held for 10 days wasn't the scariest experience Pelton had in his life - he knew the head of the paramilitary group, whom he had interviewed.

The most violent experience he had was in Chechnya in December 1999 when Russia was hammering Grozny, where Pelton was, with thousands of missiles, bombs and Urgan rockets.

Talking about the more harrowing experiences of his travels, Pelton's voice is calm, almost as if he is detailing mundane tasks.

Next up for Pelton is a National Geographic special based on his upcoming book, "License to Kill: Privatizing the War on Terror," that is expected to air in fall 2006. He also plans to tag along with a group of people paid to hunt down pirates based near Somalia.

Yes, pirates.

Pirates made international news last month when they attacked a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia. The ship evaded the pirates.

It's more likely pirates in a small, high-powered boat would hit a freighter, knowing every freighter has a safe of money and a commodity aboard to sell, Pelton says.

Pelton has enjoyed more peaceful trips, such as a vacation on the Queen Mary 2, but prefers the dangerous road that he says is more interesting.

"It's just what I do. I find it very interesting. I think a lot of people are safer and more aware because of what I do," he says.

If you go ...

WHAT: A lecture by Robert Young Pelton, who writes about travels to dangerous places.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5

WHERE: The chapel at Mercersburg Academy, 300 E. Seminary St., Mercersburg, Pa.

COST: Free. Seating, for about 800 people, is on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

DIRECTIONS: Take Interstate 81 north into Pennsylvania and take Exit 5 (Greencastle, Pa.). Turn left onto Pa. 16 west, going 12 miles to Mercersburg, Pa. Mercersburg Academy entrance sign is on the right.

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