Adventure tours and negligence

elevator surfing
Elevator surfing

Every year, someone comes up with a brand-new kind of adventure – usually more risky than the last madcap idea. First there was base-jumping with a parachute from cliffs, towers and monuments. That’s illegal in many places. Not satisfied with the level of risk, urban crazies (they sometimes call themselves “street activists”) are trying to reclaim the concrete jungle for real adventure with sports like Geocaching, Elevator Surfing and Drainboating. More on these weird challenges later.

Where does innovation in extreme sports take adventure tourism? Many enthusiasts would like to introduce their passion to paying clients. What better way to earn your living. But careful! Accidents can be very costly.

Let’s first look at the general problem. It’s great that at last adventure professionals can get qualified to work legally in South Africa under AQN’s Generic Adventure Site Guide (GASG) skills programme and assessments. But what about new, uusual, or  unregistered adventure activities? You don’t have to leap from skyscraper to skyscraper to be doing something the officials have never heard of. But out there are the experts who established whatever new activity is involved, who have taken their falls and been around the block a few times. These are the Subject Matter Experts (SME), or we hope they are, and it’s on them that would-be guides would have to rely for training.

That raises another problem. The guide may become an expert in his or her own right – but is it safe to induct tourists into truly innovative experiences? Adventure has been defined as “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks”. There’s a good article about this in Wikipedia which sets out to explain adventure education programming. It’s said to be a challenge involving possible harm and uncertainty: in other words, you can come to grief, hurt or kill yourself, and don’t always know how risky the activity really is. I won’t repeat the argument here but it does make me wonder whether adventure guiding conforms to any such definition.

Surely the adventure guide aims to limit risk, avoid harm, and know the limits to which people can be subjected? If this weren’t the case it would be impossible to run a business successfully. It’s true that every year people who are not really capable of climbing Everest do give it a shot, paying a lot of money to operators and Sherpas, with the inevitable outcome that some die and others are crippled by frostbite. There’s been a lot of criticism of the ethics of this kind of thing; though the rebuttal is always that the clients knew what they were getting into and should have been prepared for it. They also signed very strict indemnities.


A signed indemnity does not absolve the guide of negligence. So back to the problem of how to qualify as an adventure guide and operate legally without fear of prosecution or sueing? If you are sure you can manage risk and at the same time give your tourist participants a rush of adrenaline, then go for it. All you need is that SME to show you how to do it safely and responsibility. But IS that all?

drainboatingNo it can’t be. For one thing you must complete a number of generic unit standards in adventure guiding that have little to do For one thing you must complete a number of generic unit standards (US) that have to do with adventure tourism generally. They deal with such topics as leadership, care of customers, environmental practices, itinerary design and so on. There is nothing here about you chosen outdoor speciality (whether it be something well established like abseiling or new like geocaching). For another, the SME is surely required to provide learning materials and curriculum that covers the special requirements of the sport or activity.  There has to be training, supervision, learning and testing before you get to the assessment phase.

All right, I promised to explain what the newfangled urban adventures are.

  • Geocaching has been described as a “game of high-tech hide and seek”. Participants use a GPS receiver or mobile device to hide and seek hidden containers known as geocaches.
  • Elevator surfing is highly dangerous (like its relative, train surfing), involving accessing the roofs of elevators and even jumping between moving elevators where possible.
  • Drainboating is another hazardous one, infiltrating storm drains, sewers and other subterranean waterways that are large enough to pass through in an inflatable.

For more see this charming site: Urban Ghosts – Hidden History and Offbeat Travel.

Of the three, only geocaching could possibly become a tourist activity; and then one would have to look out for risks such suffocation in old fridges or poisons in industrial tanks. Would people pay to do this? No doubt some would – the crazier the better. On a designed course with safe containers it might be okay and it could be a good test of GPS or orienteering skills. But that does not give the guide free rein to risk their lives (and his own) doing something that is often illegal and clearly extremely dangerous. Anyone who offers it is probably, by definition, negligent.

The new urban sports are are the limit of risk. There are many other other adventure challenges that do meet the criteria of manageable risk where it would not be negligent to offer tours.

  • Coasteering: (not a registered US in South Africa). This entails clambering along cliffs on the ocean edge, jumping into pools, and anglesey4coasteeringsometimes abseiling or swimming in currents, is one such well proven sport.
  • Tubing: (also not a registered US in South Africa). Tubing may take place on relatively safe, small rapids in canyons is another. But let’s not forget that South Africa’s worst ever adventure accident happened on a tubing trip on the Storms River when 13 died. A flood turned a shallow stream into a wall of water that carried the group into a narrow canyon and drowned all but the guide himself. The flood should not have come as a surprise because there was plenty of evidence that rain in the mountain catchment areas produced exactly such torrents quite often.
  • Canyoneering: (there are registered standards here).  I’m indebted to Walther Meyer, an expert in the area, for providing the opinion here.


Operators and guides need to be well aware of the risks they are putting people through. Thus it is not “uncertainty” that one seeks in adventure tourism, but a very large degree of certainty, to avoid risk as far as possible. You will never get complete certainty. People can still come to harm but the whole aim is to avoid it.

Does this rule out the term adventure altogether, as a misnomer for guided outdoor challenges? I don’t think so. It is certainly an adventure for people to try something marginally risky and enjoy the rush of feelings and thoughts that risk brings. The risks, however, must be known and understood by those who offer the activity.

And this means that, starting with the SME who teaches the activity, as much as possible must be known about the nature of the risks, the kinds of environments to be used, the level of skills and fitness required by participants, and the nature of instruction given before the trip. If there is solid knowledge, and high standards of responsibility are applied, new kinds of adventure can be offered.

– Graeme Addison

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