Magazine article Geographical

In Search of the True Explorer. (What Is an Explorer?)

Magazine article Geographical

In Search of the True Explorer. (What Is an Explorer?)

Article excerpt

With the Golden Age of Discovery long since past, most of the world's surface mapped in detail and motorised transport, satellite phones and GPS receivers readily available, you would think it was time for explorers to hang up their pith helmets. But rather than consigning exploration to the dustbin of history, we simply need to redefine what we understand by the term.

THINK OF AN EXPLORER AND THE IMAGE THAT TYPICALLY SPRINGS TO mind depicts a man in a pith helmet sweating his way through the undergrowth, a troupe of overburdened porters trailing behind him. He's most likely wearing khaki, probably in the tropics and almost definitely Victorian. He's certainly a man and always white.

This caricature, which is gradually evolving into someone resembling Indiana Jones--an adjustment that befits this, the US Age--has been branded on our subconscious. It's a powerful, defining image, but as a portrayal of someone at the forefront of discovery, it is clearly incorrect.

For a start, it suggests that the process of discovery peaked long ago, with Livingstone and Stanley perhaps. But the truth is, when it comes to exploration, we're still literally skimming the surface. Caver Andrew Eavis, for example, has made his way through some 500 kilometres of previously unknown underground networks around the world. He has discovered not only more physical terrain than anyone alive, but also more of what was genuinely unknown than most of the great trailblazers of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, his fellow subterranean explorer Michael Ray Taylor has been wriggling his way deep into the Earth's crust, sometimes more than a kilometre below the surface. There he's encountered previously unrecorded organisms that live in underground corridors dripping with sulphuric acid, and some of the world's oldest-known life forms.

And according to astronaut Edwin `Buzz' Aldrin, we still have better maps of the surface of the moon than of the sea floor. The sea is the world's largest habitat, "home to the least-understood members of the web of lire," says deep-sea zoologist Dr Julian Partridge.

So why does the outdated image of the explorer linger? It's a legacy from a time when whole swathes of territory were being revealed to newly literate populations. The Victorian explorers were the heroes of their day. The Industrial Revolution had empowered the Christian world, and pioneers could go forth to spread enlightenment confident of their superiority. They did this romantically, tragically and, best of all, remotely. Saving London's child chimney-sweeps, street urchins and prostitutes raised awkward questions about the real price of industrialisation being paid by the poor. Saving a savage from the darkness of his benighted condition was much more attractive and took place before an awe-inspiring backdrop. Exploration was something that happened not in a laboratory but in some godforsaken wilderness.

However, even in the back of beyond there were a great many faces other than ours that were crucial to the charting of the world. In fact, the Europeans often arrived extremely late on the scene. James Bruce (1730-94) claimed to have found the source of the Nile, a place that he believed had "baffled the genius, industry and enquiry of both ancients and modern, for the course of near 3,000 years". However, not only had he failed to find the river's true origin--it was that of a tributary, the Blue Nile--his claim indicates the narrowness of European experience, which had simply failed to penetrate the extensive Middle Eastern trading knowledge and scholarship of that time.

This rather parochial view of exploration and discovery is similarly illustrated by the fact that so many `explorers' passed through lands that had been inhabited for centuries. These Europeans, in particular those who headed east, were recorders not explorers. In terms of both knowledge and wealth, we were quite backward compared to many of the peoples we `discovered'. …

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