Henry Cookson, founder of Cookson Adventures, on redefining bespoke travel
From the north pole to orca research, explorer Henry Cookson tells Tempus about the transformative power of travel
If you have a personal trainer taking care of your fitness, an accountant handling your finances and a housekeeper maintaining your home, why not hire an expert to organise your holidays? A leading explorer with global connections can get you those seemingly unattainable experiences that no regular travel agency could. This is what Henry Cookson thought when he founded Cookson Adventures, a travel company that curates itineraries for high-net worth explorers.
A prime example of the transformational power of travel, Cookson’s adventure began with a trip to the Arctic in 2005. A London banker at the time, he joined a group of equally inexperienced explorers for a 360-mile race to the magnetic north pole. Against all odds, and competing against experienced teams, his team won. In 2016, they reunited with a new challenge, reaching the ‘pole of inaccessibility’ in the Antarctic by foot – they’re now in the Guinness Book of Records for their achievement. These trips and the nature he saw on his travels inspired him to devote his life to making a difference – both for people and for nature.
Back in London, Cookson left his banking job and founded Cookson Adventures, which organises completely customised, bespoke trips. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be high-octane, high-risk, hanging off a cliff face, freezing your toes off adventuring – his connected team can organise anything the client desires. And while Cookson Adventures isn’t the first such agency to offer such services, knowing that Cookson himself is behind it certainly gives it an upper hand. We sit down to talk to Cookson about his current project, a research trip that’s taking a team of scientists to assess a very special kind of orca in the Antarctic.
Why is it so important to you to be involved with conservation projects?
I don’t like people? [laughs] No, growing up in the countryside, I’ve always had an affinity with animals and nature. I grew up spending my summers in Greece where dolphins would be jumping out of the water every day. You don’t see it now. You don’t get the birds singing like they used to because they just don’t have the numbers. When I started to travel to more exotic, amazing places and hearing the stories of the indigenous tribes who’ve lived in the same place for generations, they say the weather’s changed, the climate’s changed, we don’t get the same whale populations any more... it’s all unbalanced. Humanity is exploding, thanks to our never-ending quest for materialism. Everyone is striving for the happiness that consumer goods can give them. It’s sucking the life out of our planet. We need to change our ways, but at the moment we’re a bit too comfortable. Something needs to give.
How are you trying to inspire change through your work with Cookson Adventures?
Opinions are changing but change needs a starting shot. There are two ways that catalyst comes. First, when there’s an event so horrific that we just have to wake up – we’re starting to see that with all the recent fires, hurricanes and typhoons. Alternatively, you get these very interested, influential, powerful people who maybe can be part of that catalyst. The people that can really make that change are the true innovators creating the wealth right at the top. They’ve got the resources. Just as I was affected and impassioned by my earlier explorations, if we can take them to a place, we don’t have to do a hard sell, we can just show them. We introduce them to the locals, our researchers, our NGOs and our conservationists, so they get it from the horse’s mouth. Then, if we can get these people on board, and their children who take over, perhaps we can start making that difference that’s so urgently needed. >>
Are you finding that people are very responsive to this?
They are. I think you got to be almost dead inside to not want to be involved with some of the things we see. For instance, when you’ve got eight humpbacks working together and leaping out of the ocean at the same time as they’re bubble feeding – if you don’t feel affected by that, and feel moved to try and preserve that, then we haven’t got a chance.
You recently returned from Svalbard, the most northerly populated island in the world. What’s so special about this place?
There are these bird cliffs with about a million breeding couples of guillemots flying around and diving into the water. If you go snorkelling there, there are hundreds of birds swimming around underwater. It’s such an unusual sight. The next stop from Svalbard is the north pole, so you get polar bears on the ice cap hunting seals and walrus. Sadly, every season you have to go further and further north to get to the edge of the icecap. There’s a bit of a good news story at Svalbard, though, because whales are coming back following the whaling ban. They’ve been spotting blue whales and humpbacks there.
What’s the most exciting project that you’re currently working on?
In collaboration with one of our clients, we’re funding some potentially ground-breaking orca research in the Antarctic. You see lots of amazing species down in the Antarctic, but orcas are one of the less likely things you’ll see.
For us, if we work with the world’s top researchers and fund their research, we’ve then got them on board as experts and it increases our chances of our guests seeing this extraordinary orca behaviour. There’s a return of investment in the fact that the guests get to see orcas. It might also inspire them to get involved in further conservation projects. So we’re doing good, and it provides an additional element to the client’s enjoyment and, also, hopefully solidifies their passion for nature and saving our planet. I’ve been trying to get this going for the past four years; it’s just been waiting for the right client. Everything aligned for this year – they’re actually down there this year. Hopefully we’ll hear some exciting news very soon.