This Guy’s Life Has Had More Than One Excellent Adventure : Travel: Costa Mesa businessman Charlie Gibbs leads would-be explorers in search of exotic cultures and dive spots.
Charlie Gibbs has swum with sharks, stared into the face of barracuda and hiked through leech-infested jungles where headhunters once roamed. But on a moon-lit beach in the Southeast Asian island of Borneo last year, Gibbs encountered something for the first time:
A turtle stampede.
“I was run over by 350 turtles!” Gibbs says with laugh.
OK, so they were only six-inch long turtles, newly hatched and scrambling toward the surf in an instinctual frenzy. But when Gibbs aimed his video camera’s spotlight at the scene, the turtles did an about face, rushing toward the spotlight instead. Within seconds, Gibbs’ feet and ankles were buried under a pile of tiny, writhing reptiles.
Such is the life of the adventure traveler, which Gibbs has been since watching his first episode of “Sea Hunt” more than 30 years ago. Today, as owner of the Costa Mesa-based Creative Adventure Club, Gibbs leads would-be explorers around the world in search of exotic cultures and dive spots rarely experienced by most tourists.
It certainly seems his calling.
As a high school student at Orangewood Academy in Garden Grove in the early 1960s, Gibbs started a scuba diving club, exploring the undersea worlds off Laguna Beach. While at Orange Coast College, he made solo trips to Baja before realizing there was a market for low-budget, high-adventure travel.
For $25 per person, all expenses included, he loaded students into the back of his pickup and headed to Mexico for three- to four-day camping trips.
“I was poor and couldn’t afford to travel so it worked out great,” Gibbs said. “I got a trip out of it. I got some cash out of it and, usually, a lot of leftover food. One trip a month paid all my bills.”
Trips to Baja evolved into excursions to the Yucatan peninsula--including the then-sleepy little town of Cancun. If Gibbs has a claim to fame, it’s this:
“In 1967,” he says, “I brought the first toilet seat to Cancun.”
In 1980, Gibbs, then a free-lance photographer, traveled for the first time to Southeast Asia--an experience that changed his life. He had heard about the plight of Cambodian refugees fleeing the country by boat. At that point, Gibbs said, most newspaper stories about the situation provided only sketchy details. He decided to check it out for himself.
“I kept reading about these tragedies on the back page, just little blurbs,” he said. “I figured if nobody cared, there has to be a story there.”
There was--though he didn’t figure on getting involved. Gibbs met a family of Cambodian children, orphaned when their parents were executed by the Khmer Rogue. The five sisters had been unable to get permission to leave the country. Gibbs pleaded their case with the U.S. Embassy, which worked to secure immigration papers.
Fifteen years later, the children--now U.S. citizens--are going to school and raising families in different parts of the country. Gibbs, on the other hand, heads back to Southeast Asia two or three times a year, under far more pleasurable circumstances.
He founded Creative Adventure Club in 1980 and runs the business out of his home in Costa Mesa with his wife, Julie, a native of Borneo. The business is doing well, not great, Gibbs says, but that’s all right. He didn’t go into it to get rich.
Gibbs, a certified scuba instructor and pilot, offers tours to exotic places such as Nepal, Thailand, Bali and the outer reaches of Australia. His specialty, though, is Borneo, the third-largest island in the world. On a recent jungle trek in the Sarawak region of northern Borneo, Gibbs offered visitors a close-up view of proboscis monkeys (known for their Jimmy Durante-like schnoz), a trek up Mt. Kinabalu (at 13,455 feet, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia) and a hike through the treetops of the rain forest via a 200-foot high suspension bridge.
Many times, he arranges for travelers to spend a few days in a longhouse, the traditional dwellings of Dayak tribes people. Long-houses, built on stilts above rivers, can be a quarter mile in length and house up to 100 people.
“I had one guy from Newport Beach tell me the best meal he had anywhere was in a longhouse,” Gibbs says with a grin. “I don’t know what they fed him.”
Gibbs has a special love for Borneo, which is made up of parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and the tiny country of Brunei. Julie Gibbs was born in the small Malaysian village of Kelawat; her father was the village chief. When she and Charlie married five years ago, a water buffalo was slaughtered in their honor for the wedding reception feast.
Gibbs’ resume of adventures includes swimming with 20-foot long manta rays in the Great Barrier Reef, being surrounded by a school of about 1,000 barracuda while diving off the coast of Borneo and visiting a village of sea Gypsies who live in huts, some a mile from shore, in the shallow waters of the Celebes Sea. While eating dinner on a beach in Malaysia, a sea snake slithered under the table and laid her eggs in the sand.
Despite his many adventures above and below water, Gibbs says he finds the native people to be most inspirational. He says while a few “purist” adventure-oriented travel agencies discourage tour groups from making contact with locals, thinking it might further spoil the native culture, Gibbs doesn’t entirely agree. On one recent trip, some in his tour group gave locals a spontaneous demonstration of disco dancing.
He says it’s similar to the deforestation issue. Westerners, he says, often complain about the rain forests being cut down in places such as Borneo, forgetting, perhaps, that much of the United States was heavily forested before civilization crept in. Gibbs says he doesn’t like to see rain forests destroyed either, but he knows there’s another side to the issue.
“Time goes on, the world is modernizing,” Gibbs says. “I don’t know . . . There’s really not much you can do about it.”