Global Scavenger Hunt: The Super Bowl of Travel

Predating TV's Amazing Race, this scavenger hunt spans the world during a 23-day adventure

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Elephants in Sri Lanka (photos courtesy of The Global Scavenger Hunt).
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Bill and Pamela Chalmers at the San Diego Travel & Adventure Show.

Scavenger hunts set my endorphins atwitter. A team from my workplace once won a freezer filled with Dreyers Ice Cream for scavenging the most clues during a downtown San Diego hunt. For years, I worked part-time as a guide for a company that does team-building-styled scavenger hunts. And every season of The Amazing Race is must-see TV for me.

In January, I discovered The Global Scavenger Hunt. This Northern California based company had a booth at this year’s San Diego Travel & Adventure Show. When I saw their sign, those endorphins—which were napping peacefully in my brain—collectively opened their eyes, sat up, and reached for their cross trainers.

The trade show booth was manned by husband-and-wife team Bill and Pamela Chalmers. I struck up a conversation, and they turned out to be a gregarious, down-to-earth and truly unique couple who mastermind a 23-day, worldwide hunt that annually crowns the winner of the Super Bowl of Travel.

The entrance fee for a two-person team is $25,000. This year, first prize is $50,000. The 2019 Global Scavenger Hunt is April 12 to May 4. If you’ve got a passport and the moxie—not to mention the bankroll—there’s still a window of time in February left to apply.

Be still, my endorphins.

Courtesy photo.

The World’s Greatest Traveler

Bill Chalmers has always been curious about the world. As a kid, he’d discover things like foreign currency and stamps and wonder where they came from and what their origin stories were.

During the 1980s, Chalmers, who is now 60, worked in California politics as a legislative assistant and consultant. He made enough money—“not too much money, just enough that I needed,” he says—to retire at 40.

Having been bitten by the travel bug, and inspired by the writing of Jules Verne, he started circumnavigating the globe in search of experience and adventure. In 1989, he and a partner won the HumanRace, an around-the-world travel challenge using public transportation. That 40,000-mile, 17-day trek netted him a $25,000 first-place prize.

After winning that race—and with visits to 140 countries notched on his belt—National Geographic Traveler named Chalmers the “World’s Greatest Traveler.” In between circling the globe 17 times, he’s written three travel books, and regularly contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle and HuffPost.

He is always looking for unexplored regions of the world. His wanderlust has never subsided.

“After winning the HumanRace, I wanted to do something like that again, but there wasn’t anything else like it,” Chalmers says. In 1999, while exploring Nepal, he realized he would have to be the one to create the next incarnation of a round-the-world race. The next year, with the help of Chalmers’ then-girlfriend-now-wife Pamela, the initial Global Scavenger Hunt was born.

Courtesy photo.

The Global Scavenger Hunt

To understand what The Global Scavenger Hunt is, it helps to define what the event is not. It is not the Amazing Race—there are no made-for-TV stunts, teams are not picked so they will create drama, and nobody gets kicked out along the way. (Note: Amazing Race first appeared on TV the year after the first Global Scavenger Hunt.)

There is a winner, but the scavenger hunt is less of a race and more of a rally. Teams all fly to the same starting point in a U.S. city. The Chalmers then read everybody the rules—a list that has grown to 14 pages.

After being given a 4-hour warning, teams all fly together on each of what might be up to 10 legs over the next 23 days. Only Bill and Pamela know what the next destination will be.

When teams arrive in a location—be it Taipai or United Arab Emirates—they are given a list of 100 possible activities they could participate in—cooking classes, riding camels, interacting with locals at the supermarket, etc. There are points attached to each task, and each team has to decide on a risk-reward strategy that will earn the most points and win that leg of the hunt.

“There are all kinds of strategies for winning—but the best strategy is to trust strangers in a strange land,” Bill says. “Getting lost and serendipity are all part of this.”

The Global Scavenger Hunt is not a physical challenge. Participants sleep in hotel rooms most nights. Yes, the $25,000 entrance fee is pricey—but it’s all-inclusive. Bill says the rules are egalitarian, meaning you can’t throw money at locals during the event and hire people to do tasks for you.

Courtesy photo.

A Labor of Love

The Chalmers have done the race once a year for 14 years since 2000. They took a year off after 9/11 in 2001, and skipped a couple years after Pamela gave birth to their son.

In 2011, they had to “call an audible” during the hunt when the Fukushima tsunami occurred. But to date, Bill says no participant has been injured, and some of the worst experiences have been simple things like taxi drivers who tried to inflate fares.

The Chalmers usually take 10 to 15 two-person teams on the hunt. They screen applicants thoroughly and say they don’t discriminate—except that they look for outgoing, friendly people who will thrive within a group dynamic.

They get enough applicants to do the race three times a year—but Bill says he’s not in it for the money. “This is a labor of love,” he says.

Indeed. The Global Scavenger Hunt works in conjunction with their GreatEscape Foundation. The nonprofit focuses on building co-ed schools around the world and providing micro-loans and seed money to budding entrepreneurs.

After chatting with Bill for more than an hour, he surprises me when he muses that this could be the last year for The Global Scavenger Hunt. He sounds excited about the prospect of putting together this year’s course. Unstated, though, is the sense that perhaps The World’s Greatest Traveler needs a new challenge.

Who knows? Just as the Chalmers keep the details of each course a mystery until the last possible minute, Bill remains mum on what the future holds for The Global Scavenger Hunt. In the meantime, I’m going to start a targeted savings account for the possibility of the next iteration of the event. And my endorphins are sleeping with one eye open.  J&J

(For more information, go to globalscavengerhunt.com.)