Part one of a two-part story on the Godfather of River Cruising and AmaWaterways’ history

A passion for adventure, a relentless desire to travel off the beaten path and the completion of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal fueled AmaWaterways’ Co-Founder and President, Rudi Schreiner, to innovate river cruising, earning him the well-deserved nickname, "the Godfather of River Cruising."

The Austrian Sikkim-Nepal Expedition

Growing up in Vienna, Austria, close to the Danube River, Rudi has always had a deep connection to rivers, but this is only part of the story that ignited his river cruise vision. It was 1973. As a 21-year-old studying architecture at the Technical University of Vienna, a thrill-seeking Rudi, his roommate Martin Uitz and his friend Richard Gippelhauser embarked on a research mission to study how social structure in Nepal affected the architecture of communities. Funded by the Ministry of Education, the students’ trip would turn into a life-changing seven months spent driving from Vienna to Nepal, with diversions in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most peaceful yet transformative part of the young men’s experience was during their time among the rural Limbu tribe in Eastern Nepal. The Nepalese rice farmers had taken up residence in the unspoiled landscape near the third highest mountain in the world: Kangchenjunga, where it is believed by some there is a valley of immortality.

The Big Adventure

When the trio returned from their 7-month journey, they sold their story, "The Big Adventure is Not Dead," to the largest newspaper in Austria, the Kronen Zeitung. The paper’s cover page showed a photo featuring the three young men standing on top of their Volkswagen van in front of the Himalaya Mountains. Their 20- week two-page Sunday story sparked the interest of more than one car company to entice the young men to promote their brand on their next journey.

So, in October 1974, the men drove all the way from New York down through Central America to Peru in a Mercedes Benz van, arriving in April 1975 in the Peruvian Amazon. During their six-month journey, Rudi built his first river vessel, a raft, and researched the Achuara tribe, a subgroup of the Jivaroan indigenous peoples who hunt for and shrink heads, close to the Ecuadorian border.

No Fear

Rather than focusing their research on major tourist sites like Machu Picchu, the young travelers concentrated on the stories of the people they met. They visited Honduras after a hurricane and witnessed the devastation firsthand. They visited Nicaragua after a major earthquake. They stayed in the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima. With their press pass from the paper, Rudi and his friend were allowed almost anywhere. They also spent more time with the Jivaroan tribal Indians.

"These experiences were life-changing and empowering," Rudi recalls, "and ultimately led to my lifelong love of travel."

At the end of their journey, they sold the car in Bolivia, took a detour from Rio, Brazil to Senegal and then flew home. They had amassed many goods: a 25-foot canoe, pottery, baskets and headdresses, which they sold to museums, and were asked to collect even more. However, further "collection missions" quickly extinguished the bright flame that had once inspired Rudi. He wanted to meet people and learn about their culture, not just procure their objects.

A Dream Was Born

Rudi returned to college and later worked in Vienna as an architect; however, that job lasted just one year. "I couldn’t sit still in an office anymore," he admits. In hopes of reliving the excitement he’d had on his first expedition, he became a summer tour guide for U.S. students in Europe. He eventually settled with his family in California, where he opened not one but two student travel companies. However, the effects of the Gulf War made a deep impact on the industry as less students felt comfortable heading overseas.

In 1992, Uniworld recruited Rudi to develop new tours in Eastern Europe. As fate would have it, the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal finally opened in 1992 and Rudi was quick to envision a new tourism business developing around long-distance river cruising. The significance of the canal's completion meant connecting two of Europe’s greatest rivers: the Rhine, via its tributary the Main, with the Danube, allowing travel from the North Sea all the way to the Black Sea. More than 800 years prior, Charlemagne dreamed of connecting these two rivers, so 1992 fulfilled his vision and created a new visionary in Rudi.

What started as 100 river cruise passengers in 1994 turned into 20,000 passengers by 2000. That year, Rudi left Uniworld with a group of 15 people and opened the Viking River Cruises office in Woodland Hills, California – and a new industry was born. But it wasn’t until 2002 when Rudi joined forces with the late Jimmy Murphy, owner of Brendan Tours, and Kristin Karst, who was then heading up Viking’s Group and Incentive travel division, to start their own river cruise company—AmaWaterways.

Discover what happened next in our AmaWaterways story and Rudi’s vision for the future of river cruising by reading Part Two: The Big Adventure Continues.

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