Travel Personalities: George Kourounis

The host of Angry Planet talks to Paste Travel about chasing natural disasters and thieves around the world. Find out which he thinks are scarier.

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We travel the world in search of adventure, but “adventure” means something different to everyone. For some, it is trying a new food, for others it is dancing with foreigners. But to George Kourounis—the host of Pivot’s Angry Planet, which premieres April 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT—adventure is all about weather.

We know what you’re thinking. Weather might be the most boring topic out there, the one you turn to during those awkward silences in elevators. But Kourounis—a global adventurer and storm chaser—finds the excitement in it all over the world, and it isn’t always pretty.

The environmentalist travels to inhospitable destinations and experiences the most extreme weather conditions imaginable in hopes of better understanding nature and how to protect the planet. His most recent attempt went viral when he snapped a selfie from within Marum Crater (see above), a boiling lava lake situated within Vanuatu’s Ambrym volcano.

In honor of Earth Day (April 22), we sat down with the explorer to find out what motivates him and talk about his closest calls (get this, they have nothing to do with nature).

Paste Magazine: Tell us about why you travel and when you discovered your love for it.
George Kourounis: I never really discovered my love for travel until I developed my love of documenting Mother Nature’s fury. I started chasing storms back in the late 1990s when I was in my 30s. Part of me wishes that I’d started traveling earlier, but there’s nothing you can do about the past. I travel because I want to visit the most extreme places on Earth and showcase them to people who would never go there themselves. I just love being up close to storms, volcanoes, wildfires—any extreme force of nature.

PM: Tell us about the most life-changing trip you’ve documented for this show.
GK: That would certainly have to be the first time we filmed in the island nation of Vanuatu. My fiancé at the time Michelle and I got married on the crater’s edge of an exploding volcano. Mount Yasur has been erupting every five minutes for the past 800 years, so I knew there was a good chance it would put on a show for us during the ceremony. Yes, I climbed the volcano in a tuxedo and she wore her wedding dress. The locals who performed the ceremony were wearing grass skirts and had feathers in their hair with face paint. It was a surreal afternoon to say the least.

I’ve been back to Vanuatu a couple of times since then, but never back to Yasur. Recently, I’ve been going there to descend down inside the Marum volcano crater on Ambrym Island. It has a violently boiling lake of lava at the bottom that is extremely difficult and dangerous to get to. It requires a 1200-foot rappel on steep, loose rock. That’s equal to the height of the Empire State Building. What a sight to behold, though. Being at close range, witnessing a roiling cauldron of liquid rock is certainly witnessing nature at its most spectacular. You’ll get to see my latest expedition there in one of the new episodes.

PM: What is the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you while traveling?
GK: There have been a few close calls over the years. We were filming in Jamaica after Hurricane Dean and a thief ran off with my producer’s wallet. He snatched it and ran. The power was out so the streets were dark and there were no police around. Naturally, I ran after him and chased him through the streets like an idiot. During the pursuit, an oncoming car hit me. I rolled up onto the hood, over the windshield and roof, and landed on the pavement behind the car. I had so much adrenaline pumping through me that I didn’t even stop. I jumped up and kept chasing the guy until he disappeared into a pitch-black beachside park. I was lucky that I walked away with only a few scratches, it could’ve been a lot worse. The wallet was never found, despite the best efforts of the very helpful police in Montego Bay.

PM: Is there anywhere you would never go because it is just too risky?
GK: Knowing where to draw the line is difficult. I’ve spent so much time in and around natural disasters that I feel very confident with my experience and knowledge. I feel safe most of the time. What scares me are people, they can be so unpredictable. Nature follows certain laws; I can predict where a tornado is going, but desperate people, especially ones with weapons in very remote parts of the world … that scares me. I try to stay out of active war zones, but there have been several times when I’ve had to travel with armed guards.

PM: Where do you go when you want to relax? What is your ideal vacation?
GK: Vacation? That’s a word I haven’t heard in a long time. I don’t really take vacations. I spend somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 nights a year away on adventures, expeditions or filming trips. I don’t really like to sit around on a beach. I guess my ideal vacation is going somewhere exciting that I’ve never visited before.

PM: Where’s one place you’ve never been but are dying to visit?
GK: Oh yes. Mount Erebus in Antarctica. It is the Moby Dick to my Captain Ahab. Erebus is the southernmost active volcano in the world and it contains a rare lake of lava inside its crater. I’ve already been to four out of the five volcanoes on Earth that have this. It is extremely difficult to get clearance to go there, and it gets very expensive but I will get there some day, and hopefully, down inside the crater. It is at the top of my bucket list.

One of the things I really want to accomplish is to visit over 100 countries. I have a long way to go, but I’m more than halfway there.

PM: What is one thing you never travel without?
GK: Toilet paper in a resealable plastic bag, for when nature calls …

Also, a well stocked supply of electronics. Because I do so much photography, videography and computer work when traveling, I always keep on hand:
- A universal outlet adapter
- A North American power bar that I’ve modified for 110/220 volts
- A battery-pack charger with three USB ports and a built-in flashlight
- Several extra hard drives and USB thumb drives. I’m over the top when it comes to backing up my data and photos.

PM: What destination would you recommend for beginner adventurers?
GK: New Zealand is a great place for adventure because it has everything you could ever want—beaches, mountains, volcanoes, caves, SCUBA diving and so much more—all concentrated in a relatively small country. It is an adventure paradise, plus it has world-class metropolitan cities for when you just need to kick back and drink some wine with a fine meal after bungee jumping from a helicopter, or whatever madness you’d like to dream up.

Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel editor.

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