You’ll find in a plethora of dusty old tomes words to the effect that many a great explorer went out and ‘conquered’ what lay before them. Indeed, much of the New Worlds wealth was built on the maxim divide et impera (divide & rule). It’s the very embodiment of what we imagined boldly happened on the high seas, jungles or polar-regions in bygone days. It’s an approach to exploration however that for centuries has led to continual wars and rising poverty for many parts of the globe.
It was only this week that I heard a man stand up in front of a packed auditorium and profess that true explorers never set out to conquer but discover something anew, reveal some hidden truth and return to report about it. The meaning was simple - ruling over others is not a prerequisite to go forth and discover. So what about today? Can we still discover, reveal lost truths and engage an ever media bombarded public in this spirit?
Superficially there are what we might term sporty ‘explorer tourists’, men and women with deep pockets who can afford to hire swathes of sherpa-like helpers to quite literally carry them (and their endless gear) to tops of mountains, depths of the forests and ends of the earth. Though enjoyable and inspiring to those involved, it’s not exactly informative. To them the world is a plaything. The spending does help local economies and provide wages to inhabitants, but considering the environmental problems facing our planet there is strong evidence that ‘explorer tourists’ cause real harm to sensitive eco-systems and only exacerbate climate change. The staggering amount of rubbish at the base of Mount Everest is just one example.
On a more serious level there are ‘scientific explorers’ and here we have good records going back to the likes of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. The remit is usually scientific research and conservation in remote parts of the world. This may also include offering knowledge, education and/or community aid. However this is not without issue. Who funds the research, and what that research can then justify, can have a huge bearing on big commercial programmes. You only have to look at the battle between official governmental research and other founded evidence to see a clash of views. Differing scientific papers countering each other on the mere existence of climate change is one the dominating issues of our time.
No, what I’m talking about is exploration where we can still believe in the wonder of the natural world that lies outside our front door. In an age where every possible technological tool is readily available to us (and whilst I appreciate that such things as GPS tracking and satellite phones etc. are great safety aids) we still need explorers who can leave the baggage of civilisation behind and explore in their raw human state - to face environments and peoples head-on without a hoard of gadgets and team to operate them. If we’re to seriously tackle the big environmental issues of our time we’re all going to have to reduce many of our tech vices not increase them.
The man I heard talk this week is one such person who fits the bill. Benedict Allen is an explorer who is nearing the end of his #ultimateexplorer tour of the UK. I caught up with him on the Aberdeen leg on a chilly February evening. Benedict travels light, uses local skills and refuses any back-up in order to fully immerse himself to the resources locally. It was when just 24 that Benedict’s philosophy of having no back-up would be tested to the limit.
Along with several other indigenous initiates Benedict was to undergo what is known as the ‘crocodile’ male initiation ceremony in Papua New Guinea. He chose to do this to fully understand something of the Niowra and their forest world. Locked away and force-fed they were all severely scarified over their chest and back and beaten daily over a six weeks period.
Many years later Benedict would revisit the Niowra in Papua New Guinea and meet up with several of the locals he had first met in his youth in a touching exchange (shared by a video clip to the assembled audience on a huge projector screen). In-between these two encounters Benedict managed to fit in the first crossing of the Amazon Basin (a mere 3600 miles), the first documented journey the length of the 1000 mile Namib Desert and a 1000 mile lone crossing of the Gobi Desert. He also trekked 1000 kilometres with an unfamiliar dog–team through the Russian Far East in the worst winter in living memory in an attempt to cross the Bering Strait alone.
Just to give credence to the above – Benedict had no expedition team behind him and no staged stunts for the camera. This was one man’s goal to live by, and possibly even die by, the regions and cultures of indigenous people.
To my mind at least the greatest achievement of the true explorer is the confrontation of the human spirit. To look your fellow man in the face, see yourself and your failings in the harshest environments on earth. To learn like a child planetary skills from people who have very little possessions but everything in the blessings of their natural habitat. To leave behind the culturaly homogenising technology that most of us would struggle to do without for a day let along months a time. And, to realise the materials of the trappings we crave for are now crippling the planet.
As Benedict’s talk drew to a close he reiterated that we are in fact all explorers. That just a few short steps away is a vibrant world waiting to reveal its wonders to us over and over again no matter where we live. True, we can’t all be Benedict Allen’s of the world, but we still need to wake-up to the disposition that we all share the same earth and better look after it and look after those who depend upon it for survival. As the auditorium emptied it also struck me, there is no back-up plan if we muck it up this time - this may well be our ultimate challenge. As for an ultimate discovery - like the soul’s calling of the man I met this week, it can only be the discovery of self!
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© 2017 Robert Aitken