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Logging on for nearly real adventures

"The second croc charge is more serious. With its mouth open, teeth bared like a rabid dog's, it motors toward the bow. Then there's a bang as it surfaces right under my feet, just below the inflated floor of the raft."

Read in any medium, river adventurer and author Richard Bangs' account of a crocodile attack on Ethiopia's unexplored Tekeze River would be riveting.

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But the involvement goes up a notch when we can log on to the Internet and read about it just hours after Bangs experienced it, wondering, while he and his team are wondering, if anybody will become reptilian shore lunch (the answer, happily, is no).

Bangs, with 35 first river descents to his credit, including such fabled wild waters as Chile's Bio Bio and Africa's Zambezi rivers, is leading armchair adventurers into uncharted cyber-territory.

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The road to discovery is Microsoft's multimedia Web magazine Mungo Park (www.mungopark .com).

This lavishly produced Web site, founded and edited by Bangs, uses every trick at the command of software's multibillion-dollar giant, Microsoft, to make live coverage of adventures-in-progress seem less virtual -- and more real.

Not only can visitors to Mungo Park follow expeditions' day-to-day progress, they can hear freshly recorded audio, look at videos and still pictures the day they're shot, and ask expedition members questions in live "chat" sessions.

Bangs pronounces adventuring and the Web a perfect match. In actual and virtual exploration, he says, "You are engaged. You interact. You make decisions."

Last fall Bangs launched his publishing adventure by leading the first descent of the Tekeze, which flows through a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon. The gorge is haunted with the mythical, biblical past of the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon's mines and the final hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant.

January's centerpiece was real-time online coverage of the space shuttle Atlantis' mission to the Russian space station Mir. In the first online chat with astronauts in space, an international audience asked questions ranging from the shuttle's construction to whether astronauts dream in space.

"I think the biggest kick I've ever had was sitting in NASA's Mission Control, saying 'Atlantis, this is Mungo Park,' " Bangs says.

Millions of cybernauts shared Bangs' kick, accessing the Web site's space pages some 10 million times.

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In April, Mungo Park featured a Fiji diving expedition and live underwater chat with Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of diving's patron saint, Jacques. May's live adventure is an ocean-to-ocean trek across Panama's Darien Gap.

Future destinations include an Indonesian village and Cuba. Past adventures are there to be relived, in complete, multimedia form, in Mungo Park's archives.

Mungo Park's riches are greater than headlining expeditions-of-the-month and technical multimedia trickery. The site is a wonderful repository of information and literary entertainment.

"I would like to think we are a bit like the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the New Yorker, National Public Radio," Bangs says. "We're getting some of the best travel writers in the world."

And not only travel writers. Its highly eclectic contributors include Tom Robbins, Barry Lopez, Martin Cruz Smith, Jane Smiley, Tama Janowitz and Tim Cahill.

Military-hardware-maven Tom Clancy wrote an eyewitness account of the space shuttle's takeoff. From Deepak Chopra, a feel-good guru, comes a New Age audio bite: "Space travel will allow us to pursue once again the mythical journey to the sacred."

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Mungo Park has room for dead authors, too. The space shuttle coverage included accounts of space travel, as imagined and written by Jules Verne. The Cuba trip is part of an homage to Ernest Hemingway.

Visitors to the site can follow their curiosity every which way, learning, among other things, about its namesake, an oddly named Scotsman whose early 19th-century explorations of the Niger River were retraced in an overland trip, "Mungo's River Road," covered by the Web site.

We meet the explorer through, among other things, readings from Park's journal by adventurer-author David Roberts.

Mungo Park's multimedia and writing get behind each other in a multisensory experience that feels like going somewhere more than it feels like sitting at a computer.

Some of the credit goes to Microsoft, which has deep pockets and a stable of the world's best Webheads and programmers. Software's behemoth has the means to be tricky. It has the will, too.

The company's most visionary move may have been hiring Bangs, whose credentials in adventuring are at least as impressive as his publication experience, which includes writing books.

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Bangs founded Sobek expeditions, which combined operations with Mountain Travel in 1991, forming the country's largest adventure company. He remains on the company's board.

At an initial meeting with Microsoft, Bangs recommended a magazine editor he knew. But the company went for a trip-leader/editor; and armchair adventuring, present and future, has been transformed.

Bangs also hopes Mungo Park will inspire cyber-adventurers to try the real thing.

"If you can do something to create a flow from inspiration to action, you've done something for the consumer," Bangs says.

Mountain Travel-Sobek is laying plans for a Tekeze descent recapitulating Mungo Park's downriver first.

Logging on Experiencing

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Mungo Park in all its interactive, multimedia glory calls for computer gear and a brace of software "plug-ins." These miniprograms are downloaded from Internet sites, then installed so Mungo Park's bells and whistles, such as animation graphics and 360-degree panoramic shots, perform.

Since this is a Microsoft site, it's not surprising that those using the latest versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer are somewhat better-equipped to enjoy Mungo Park.

Those with the Netscape Navigator browser must do an online scavenger hunt for such plug-ins as Real Audio, Shockwave, Future Splash, Vivo and Surround Video. The quest and installing the plug-ins can take an hour, and it may not end happily.

Those who want to see and hear Mungo Park perform before putting time into this techno-hassle should consider a trip to a cybercafe, with fully loaded computers linked to the Internet via ultra-high-speed transmission lines.

Mungo Park's founder and editor in chief, Richard Bangs, is unapologetic: "Out ahead of the curve, that's where I like to play. Some people can't get the full experience yet. But they'll catch up."

Internet: With Microsoft's Mungo Park magazine, you can experience the excitement of land, water and space travel and hold real-time chats with the participants.

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Pub Date: 5/18/97


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