Walter (Walo) Kamm: Lifetime of adventure
“Shaping a life is in many ways the same as painting a picture. At the beginning you have a certain feeling, a preference for shapes, or for colours and contrasts. Much of what goes into the finished picture cannot be predetermined. Yet a certain direction can always be followed; a process begins to emerge – quickly, if the conditions are favourable; slowly, if we face adversity,” writes Georg Weber in the foreword of his book Aus Eigenem. It is a fitting introduction to the ‘10 blueprints for life’ that he goes on to examine. First comes the story of a remarkable man called ‘Walo’.
Fleeing the nest
Even as a child, ‘Walo’ Walter Kamm had a desire to venture beyond the boundaries of the world he knew. His home on the Katzensee in Zurich was “bleak” – his father was an “unnaturally quiet man”, his mother “at loggerheads with everyone”. He escaped his everyday by reading tales of great adventures – one day it would be the North Pole, the next Mount Everest. But while he was dreaming of new horizons, his world was caving in. Despite his academic potential, Kamm had to complete a commercial apprenticeship following secondary school and thereby continue family tradition.
It would have been easy for the story of Walter Kamm to disappear into obscurity, for the cogs on the wheel of life to continue turning – but the direction had already been set. Kamm was a dreamer. His desire to ‘experience’ would not be fulfilled by a conventional life. Kamm wanted to discover new horizons, one after the other. He wanted to make his own tracks and explore where no man had gone before. He made his first “little escapes” from the everyday as a teenager. At 16 he hitchhiked to Paris, where he was mugged while sleeping on the banks of the river Seine. It was an unfortunate start, but the Zürcher was not perturbed. At 21, he undertook his first long-distance journey across 15 countries around the Mediterranean in a VW-Beetle.
Two years later, the “doors of the world” opened to Kamm when he took a position as an accountant for airline company TWA. Taking advantage of cheap flight tickets, he spent his precious holidays crossing oceans. But three weeks’ annual holiday allowance simply weren’t sufficient. The then 25-year-old therefore took the life-changing decision to become a full-time traveller. Three long-distance journeys over land took him to Asia and back with the Trans-Siberian Railway. Later on, he ventured from the source of the Amazon River to its estuary, finally journeying around the world.
At a time when there were still no “suitable travel guides” available, Kamm was often breaking new ground. He became one of the first trekkers to venture to Nepal, as well as one of the first foreigners to be allowed to enter the Himalayan regions of Ladakh and Zanskar for decades.
Dedicated to travel
His seven “globetrotting” years were a lesson in life, says Kamm today. “When travelling, I became more easygoing, literally more open. I understood myself and other people better,” he says. He put his thoughts and experiences down on paper as he went along.
“During his evenings spent writing, the traveller pursues another land, he extends his travels beyond the physical,” writes Sylvain Tesson in his book Kurzer Bericht von der Unermesslichkeit der Welt (Short report on the immensity of the world). While it is common for travellers to keep journals, Kamm wrote to finance his next adventure, publishing his stories as photo-documentaries in renowned newspapers.
On the road, he boosted his budget with odd jobs. Once, he ended up spending three months on the film set of ‘The Last Movie’ in the Peruvian mountains surrounded by Hollywood stars. He also turned harvest hand in New Zealand and deckhand on board a freight ship from Buenos Aires to Rotterdam. They were experiences that enriched his tales of adventure and enticed readers back home.
From time to time, Kamm’s path would bring him back to Switzerland and, in spring 1974, he gave his first lecture about his adventures. “I realised that many of the young people in the audience didn’t come only to see the pictures or hear my tales, but to glean tips about how to have such adventures themselves. At that time, there was still a desperate need for information,” reveals Kamm. Realising the potential of this, he decided to set up an information centre – initially the ‘Globetrotter Club’ and later the ‘Globetrotter Service.’ It was the start of his journey into business.
As an entrepreneur, Kamm had limited means but the right timing and virtues – diligence, discipline, modesty and decorum. “It was predictable that independent world travel was going to become a big deal,” he muses. “I was lucky to be a pioneer in this field.” His big break came in 1976 with the advent of ‘grey market’ tickets – flight tickets that were sold much more cheaply in order to fill big aeroplanes. Kamm anticipated the demand, bought tickets abroad and sold them on. From there, it was upwards and onwards.
“It was a wild ride, like an expedition into the unknown,” he smiles. “Almost every year, we opened a new store. I was working 70 to 80 hours a week, and ‘holidays’ became an unknown concept.”
Over time, Kamm and his business partners Andy Keller and Andre Lüthi acquired numerous other companies, including Air of Travel, Media Touristik, Background Tours und Globotrek. For 26 years, he also managed the ‘Globetrotter Magazin’ as Editor-in-Chief. Today, Globetrotter is the fourth biggest tour operator in Switzerland. Annual turnover is CHF 250 million.
Now, as a pensioner, Kamm flirts with his next expedition – his own charity, which would allow him to work more as a mentor and patron. A pile of ideas has already built up on his desk. Trekking tours are also on his wish list – “as soon as my knee gets better.” He might go to one of his favourite destinations: the big mountainous regions of the world, from the Himalayas to the Alps, the Pyrenees to the Andes, “because nature and ways of life there have remained so untouched.”
Despite an unalloyed lust for travel, Kamm appears satisfied as he sits in his comfortable corner of Bellevue in Zurich, surrounded by his second passion, books. They are packed onto the shelves, great tomes full of great tales – tales just like those of he who wrote his own life.