Magazine article The Spectator

A Desert as Dangerous as Ever

Magazine article The Spectator

A Desert as Dangerous as Ever

Article excerpt

WORLDS WITHIN : REFLECTIONS IN THE SAND by Robin Hanbury-Tenison Long Riders'Guild Press, £11.99, pp. 284, ISBN 1590481623

Exploration has come a long way since the Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang visited India and central Asia in the seventh century AD, returning to warn about biting winds and fierce dragons in the Gobi. His advice for future visitors was don't wear red garments or carry loud calabashes.

'The least forgetfulness of these precautions entails certain misfortune.' Red rags clearly annoyed dragons.

Until the early 20th century, exploration was largely driven and funded by missionary zeal, scientific curiosity and the search for natural resources. Early explorers were employed to stake claims to the imagined fabulous cities of Africa or the gold of the Americas. European rulers sent explorer monks to enquire into rumours of Prester John and a lost Christian empire in central Asia (or India, or Ethiopia, nobody was very sure). The coasts of the Americas, Africa and Asia were known early on because they could be reached by ship.

The interiors of the great continents remained obscure for longer, but were described in detail by the late 19th century. The Royal Geographic Society, created in 1830, gave momentum to this work.

By the middle of the 20th century, exploration in the traditional sense had achieved all its potential. The physical world was mapped and largely known, and the independent traveller, even with the benefit of satellite images, geographic positioning systems, and all the other modern travellers' toys, could no longer so easily return home with new and surprising information about strange customs, new plants or half-buried cities.

Deprived of its traditional subject matter, exploration mutated. A Guinness Book of Records variant sees people inventing ever more demanding and absurd tasks: fastest to the North Pole on one foot, or crossing the Sahara in a wind-powered wheelbarrow. The RGS, now the doyen of scientific exploration societies, has encouraged the emergence of expeditionary science, or scientific survey work done in remote places, often in difficult conditions. Robin HanburyTenison has been closely linked to the RGS and a powerful force behind this evolution. He has himself travelled widely, and although not a scientist has encouraged the RGS's new direction. …

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