Talk about a life of adventure.
As a child, Nat Hab adventure director Emily Kleinburd immersed herself in wildlife encyclopedias, devoured nature documentaries, toured national parks and begged (her words) her parents to go birding.
“I was also obsessed with Steve Irwin and Australia and loved animals,” says Kleinburd, whose passion for all things Aussie later inspired her to study abroad down under during college and, ultimately, seek out a career in travel.
After moving to Colorado and learning about Nat Hab in an Outside magazine article about the “Best Places to Work,” Kleinburd joined the company in 2015 to direct a variety of North and South America tours. In 2019, while directing Nat Hab’s Yellowstone journeys, she also ran the world’s first zero-waste adventure.
A few years later, “the stars aligned,” says Kleinburd, and she began directing Nat Hab’s Australia North, Australia South and New Zealand Nature Explorer tours. “It was a cool full-circle opportunity,” she adds, “after having been so obsessed with Australia as a child and studying there in college.”
From Running Trips to Running Races
When Kleinburd’s not running perfectly planned trips, you’ll find her running along mountain trails, snowboarding, backpacking, playing soccer and chasing her next adrenaline rush. Among her most epic adventures, she counts skydiving and bungee jumping in New Zealand, scuba diving Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and, most recently, completing Colorado’s High Lonesome 100—a self-described “hell of a course” that includes 23,500 feet of vertical gain. 100 miles. Straight through. In only 35 hours.
“I don’t like sitting still!” says Kleinburd with a laugh. “I’m not that good at it, and I like to move around a lot.” Case in point: For this interview—Good Nature’s second in our new series highlighting Nat Hab staff —Kleinburd spoke to us from her partner’s van on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, where she’s been learning to surf.
Read More: Check out our first staff profile, an interview with wildlife photographer and Nat Hab social media manager Dana Cama.
Fortunately, we were able to get Kleinburd to pause long enough to dive into an active discussion about her adventurous lifestyle, her work and what she has in store for Nat Hab travelers on her Australia and New Zealand trips. (Don’t worry: It doesn’t involve running 100 miles without sleep!)
Our Interview With Emily Kleinburd, Nat Hab’s Australia and New Zealand Adventure Director
Q. “Adventure Director” sounds like a dream job. What’s the position entail?
It’s definitely part dream job, and other times a “normal” desk job where I’m immersed in Excel spreadsheets and hundreds of emails each day!
What’s especially interesting to me is that my work touches all elements of our company. For example, I work with my marketing colleagues to ensure we’re representing trips accurately and with my co-workers who handle pre-departure materials so that travelers know everything they need to know before departing. And, of course, I work with our Expedition Leaders to make sure they’re completely prepared for each trip.
The more glamorous side of the job is scouting. This is where I get to go out in the field and design itineraries, meet with guides and partners, assess hotels, select activities and work out all the logistics so trips flow seamlessly.
Q. How do you measure success, especially for a new trip?
Hearing from travelers after their trips and reading their positive evaluations is the ultimate reward. Also, our Expedition Leaders are so skilled and seasoned; when they return from a test run and say, “This is a great itinerary, our guests are going to love it,” I feel great.
It’s been especially exciting to launch our Australia trips, which were years and years in the making, and see them going so well.
Q. We’re excited for Australia, too! Can you share a few highlights?
On our Australia North tour, travelers see three unique environments that are quintessentially Australian: the Outback, the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. In the Daintree, many of our groups see cassowaries—an endangered, flightless bird. And on the Reef’s Lady Elliot Island, there are these huge manta rays you can snorkel with. Then we head to Kakadu National Park in the Outback to learn from an Aboriginal guide while boating up a river flush with crocodiles.
Australia South visits Tasmania, Kangaroo Island and the Great Ocean Road. You get a diversity of ecosystems and weird Australian wildlife while covering a lot of ground in an efficient way. Kangaroo Island, with endless coastlines and huge populations of koalas, is super special, as is Tasmania’s Derwent Valley, where we take a kayaking tour to spy platypuses. And I have to say, seeing an echidna in the wild when I was scouting was one of my favorite experiences ever!
New Zealand is also one of those incredibly beautiful places on Earth, and the culture is fascinating. There are stunning landscapes, gorgeous birds and lots of dolphin sightings. Our New Zealand Nature Explorer travels all over the South Island, visiting places like Milford Sound and Stewart Island to spot kiwis. We just added a North Island Extension so travelers can see the whole picture of New Zealand.
Q. How do you make sure you’re incorporating Nat Hab’s sustainability goals into a new trip?
When I’m out scouting and assessing activities, hotels and partners, every decision I make is made with sustainability in mind. At Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef, for example, we stay in an ecolodge run by a family that’s committed to reef conservation.
In 2019, I learned so much while managing the World’s First Zero Waste Adventure in Yellowstone. Now, I’m able to apply those learnings to my current trips.
I also look for ways to get our travelers involved. In Tasmania, we visit a conservation sanctuary near Cradle Mountain where we learn about Tasmania’s insurance policy that helps protect the endangered Tasmanian devil. Our travelers can even adopt endangered Tasmanian devils that are later released back into the wild.
Along with partnering with World Wildlife Fund, Nat Hab also regularly donates to eco-minded partners and projects in the places we visit. On Kangaroo Island, which was severely impacted by recent wildfires, we’re supporting rewilding efforts. Our partner there has worked with locals who have planted this whole new landscape in some of the fire-affected areas. We get to see this regrowth and learn firsthand about forest regeneration.
Q. You’re not a person who likes to rest. Does this help with your work?
Definitely. When we’re out scouting, it’s usually 16-hour days starting around 6:00 in the morning. I’m not back in my hotel until night, and then I’m taking notes on everything we did that day. I’m also constantly thinking through each part of the trip and how it’s all going to fit together.
So yeah, it’s helpful to not be someone who likes to sit still for a long time. But it’s also great that I work for a company where work-life balance and a love of travel are essential. And people understand that we have passions outside of work.
Q. Speaking of passion—and endurance—you just ran a 100-mile race. How’s that even possible?!
It’s a ton of training, which obviously can be tricky with work. You really need to be intentional about carving out time.
Still, the hard thing about running 100 miles isn’t physically doing it. It’s mentally overcoming all those things that tell you to stop and then making yourself keep running. So, it’s a fascinating mental challenge for me.
Q. What goes through your mind at, say, mile 75?
Honestly, I was puking at mile 13, so the battle started early for me! Then I was dry heaving for about 60 miles. I felt sick for so long that I felt like I wanted to quit.
I really don’t like quitting, though, so it mostly came down to how mad at myself I knew I would be if I gave up. I also had medical checks where they told me I was okay to keep going. And a lot of people were there supporting me who I didn’t want to disappoint. Before the race started, they asked me, “What do you want us to tell you if you say you want to quit?” And I told them, “You should ask me if I’m dying, and if I’m not dying, then I shouldn’t quit!”
I kept thinking: Okay, I’m not dying. And I’m still moving. And by mile 70, I knew I could finish. When we finally dropped down in elevation and I started feeling better, I was like, I’ve got this!
Q. How did you reward yourself?
Pizza. I definitely had a beer, too. That morning, I went to a cold river and put my feet in, and the following night, my partner and I camped out and laid in a hammock for a few hours. Before the race, I was mostly focused on training, so I was just running a lot. After the race, I decided to do more climbing and mountain biking, and now I’m surfing. So, the real reward for me is that now I can do more activities aside from just running.
Q. What are some other epic adventures you’ve had?
In college, skydiving over Fox Glacier in New Zealand was very cool. You can see three ecosystems—the ocean, rain forest and glaciers—all at once.
I also bungee jumped at Nevis Highwire near Queenstown. But bungee jumping is way more intimidating than skydiving. With skydiving, you’re strapped to someone, and they do the jump for you. But with bungee jumping, you’ve got your ankles strapped together, and you’re standing on this plank … looking down … and then they say, “Three, two, one jump!”… and you physically have to make the jump yourself!
Q. You’ve convinced me that I never want to bungee jump! For Nat Hab travelers, what level of adventures should they expect?
Rest assured, when I plan trips, I know my clientele and am planning with them in mind! And I also find a lot of joy in finding quiet moments on trails, away from crowds, looking for wildlife.
The level of activity of course depends on each trip, but in general, I love including a diversity of activities—from gentle kayaking to safari drives to talks with local experts like wildlife rescuers. I also love finding remote, beautiful walks with high wildlife density to give our travelers the best chance of spotting the amazing critters that the South Pacific has to offer.
Q. What’s up next for you?
I’ll be spending another few weeks in Mexico, learning how to surf. And ski season’s here, so soon I’ll be back in Colorado, doing as much snowboarding as I can.
Trip-wise, I’m still working to streamline our Australia tours a bit more and looking at developing a few new tours in the next year or two. It’s all very exciting, so stay tuned!
All photos © Emily Kleinburd