Hurtling down white water in the Himalayas, chasing after the world's longest pythons in Indonesia, or searching for a lost Mayan city in the steamy jungles of Central America are no longer the exclusive stuff of intrepid, pith-helmeted 19th-century explorers.
Britain's Prince Charles has just launched Operation Raleigh, an ambitious, four-year scientific and archaeological expedition that will soon place such exotic adventures within reach of some 4,000 young men and women from varied backgrounds and cultures - including 1,500 Americans.
Operation Raleigh, named to commemorate Sir Walter Raleigh's first colonizing expedition to America, in 1584, will follow in the wake of Operation Drake (1978 -1980), a smaller but similar round-the-world scientific expedition that marked the 400th anniversary of Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe.
British Army Col. John Blashford-Snell, the energetic, mustachioed leader of both expeditions, says Operations Drake and Raleigh are the ''ultimate challenge for young people'' - especially underprivileged youngsters who might never have the chance otherwise. The aim of Raleigh, he says, ''is to inspire the young, so that they may develop their leadership, and thus communicate with others - and inspire them with the same pioneer spirit that men like Drake and Raleigh possessed.''
The most positive result of such an expedition, Colonel Blashford-Snell says, is when''you can get one good leader with the good sense to use his leadership properly to 'turn on' other young people, to communicate with his or her contemporaries after returning home.''
While the first phase of Operation Raleigh does not begin until November 1984 , a series of reconnaissance expeditions is being carried out now by some of the young explorers from Operation Drake. And the process of interviewing the 17- to 24-year-old applicants for the 1,500 American, 1,500 British, and 1,000 other ''venturer'' openings on Operation Raleigh will begin late this summer or fall.
The expedition itself will consist of 15 three- or four-month phases involving 40 expeditions, with 200 venturers in each phase. Some 600 scientists will come and go throughout the four years. The operation's flagship, the Sir Walter Raleigh, is a 220-foot, 1,900-ton converted North Sea factory ship. Several sailing ships from other nations will also join the expedition.
The first phase calls for underwater research in blue holes off Andros Island in the Bahamas. The venturers will also be counting reef fish in areas exposed to spear fishing in Bahamian waters. Archaeological exploration and excavation of a sunken 17th-century city in the British West Indies and salvaging a 17 th-century Scottish cargo ship discovered by Operation Drake off Panama in 1979 are also planned for this first segment.
In the second three-month phase, venturers will explore wrecks off the Falkland Islands and carry out glaciological, geological, and paleontological studies in Antarctica.
Other areas of the world to be explored between 1984 and 1988 include diving on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia; archaeological exploration in the southern alps of New Zealand; wildlife conservation in Kenya (possibly with the aid of a Goodyear airship); studying desert regions in Oman; and exploring rain forests along the Zaire (Congo) River.
Helping local communities, Blashford-Snell says, is a very important part in all phases of Operation Raleigh, as with Operation Drake. ''We ask, 'What would you like done?' '' Blashford-Snell says. ''When they recover from the shock that we're not going to charge them,'' he says, supplies are sent in to villages at the head of difficult riverways; bridges and small buildings are built; and wells are dug.
The expedition is being organized by members of the Scientific Exploration Society (a registered charity in Britain), the Explorers Club (in Britain and the United States), and the Institute of Underwater Archaeology, a nonprofit corporation based in Miami.
Colonel Blashford-Snell says he expects most of the estimated $16.5 million needed to finance the operation to come from various charities, companies, and individuals sponsoring individual venturers. Each venturer will be asked to help find such sponsors to pay part or all of the tax-deductible $5,500 price tag for his or her trip. But Blashford-Snell says a venturer simply ''cannot buy his way on the trip. They must be selected.''
Many items are also expected to be donated, such as fuel oil, airplane tickets, inflatable boats, outboard engines, radios, and other necessary goods. Walter H. Annenberg, former US ambassador to Britain, has already provided the seed money for logistical preparations.
Young people applying to Operation Raleigh will have to meet certain basic requirements. They must be between 17 and 24 years old (although a 12-year-old today will be eligible for a place in 1988). They must speak English, be reasonably fit, able to swim 500 yards, and meet the requirements of the local application committees (addresses in Britain and the US will be announced in the fall).
David Pincus, the executive director of the Institute of Underwater Archaeology in Miami, says that ''not just the best or brightest students will be selected. Young people who apply will be judged on merit, scholarly aptitude, as well as enthusiasm.''
Roughly one-third of the venturers will be disadvantaged young people - those who wouldn't normally have the opportunity to see other worlds and cultures. There will also be 40 places set aside for disabled youngsters.
Mr. Pincus says there were almost 60,000 applications for only 400 places on Operation Drake. He is ''expecting 500,000 applications for Operation Raleigh - and that's conservative,'' he says.
Once the venturers have been selected, they will get basic outdoor survival training as well as scuba diving, mountain climbing, and even swamp training by Seminole Indians in the Everglades to prepare them for the rigors of the Raleigh expeditions.