A Thoroughly Modern Explorer: For Half a Century, Robin Hanbury-Tenison Has Been an Expeditionary Force to Be Reckoned with. Nick Smith Caught Up with the Explorer on His 70th Birthday and Discovered That He Has Lost None of His Legendary Thirst for Both Adventure and Controversy

By Smith, Nick | Geographical, November 2006 | Go to article overview

A Thoroughly Modern Explorer: For Half a Century, Robin Hanbury-Tenison Has Been an Expeditionary Force to Be Reckoned with. Nick Smith Caught Up with the Explorer on His 70th Birthday and Discovered That He Has Lost None of His Legendary Thirst for Both Adventure and Controversy


Smith, Nick, Geographical


As our meeting draws to a close, Robin Hanbury-Tenison leaves the Traveller's Club in a buoyant mood. He's just about to have his head x-rayed-not because he's injured himself, but because he's soon to become a work of modern art. It's clearly a source of great amusement for him. There's an artist out there, he tells me, who x-rays the heads of famous people and then turns them into portraits. "It's supposed to say something about them," he says.

We've been chatting ill one of the morning rooms of this grand early-19th-century house because I, too, am supposed to 'say something' about Robin Hanbury-Tenison. The problem, of course, is where to start. Before delving into the past, a quick snapshot of the present reveals more than enough material for several chapters of biography.

He's certainly a busy man. In the past year or so, he has completely revised his Oxford Book of Exploration and published another volume of his autobiography, Worlds Within: Reflections in the Sand. He's about to climb on the publicity treadmill for his latest book, Seventy Great Journeys in History, and has just completed a lecture tour of the Pacific that took in a visit to the Pitcairn Islands, home to the world's most remote community. And today he's meeting with the new Albanian ambassador to discuss his next expedition over lunch.

Hiking, horses and hovercraft Hanbury-Tenison has always been a busy man. Over the past SO years, he has led or taken part in more than 30 geographical expeditions. He can't tell you exactly how many, because, as he says, it "depends what you call an expedition". However, what's certain is that during that time he has compiled a CV that would take most people several lifetimes to acquire. As I comb through it, I find medals, awards, fellowships, honorary degrees, council memberships, directorships and, of course, an OBE. Fie describes himself as all "explorer, conservationist, broadcaster, film maker, author, lecturer, campaigner, farmer".

To save time, I ask him to complete the following sentence: "Robin Hanbury-Tenison was the first to ...". His answer is staggering. In 1957, he became the first to travel overland from London to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). fie completed the first land crossing of South America at its widest point in 1958, followed in 1964-65 by the first river crossing of South America from north to south. There was the first (and only) hovercraft navigation of the Orinoco and the first ride on horseback of the length of the Great Wall of China. Some of these were a direct result of looking at an atlas while up at Oxford and wondering what great expeditions there were left to do. As he says in Joanna Vestey's book, Faces of Exploration, "That was all fairly silly stuff, although we were given an award by the RGS for it."

There are other less obviously adventurous but more scientific expeditions. Of these, probably the most significant was the Royal Geographical Society's largest to date, when Hanbury-Tenison led some 115 scientists into the rainforests of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. This field research, and his accompanying book, Mulu: The Rainforest, are widely credited with having started the international concern for the rainforest. Hanbury-Tenison remembers with real affection his "extremely happy times in the interior of Borneo. In 1976, while doing the recce to find the site for the RGS expedition that became Mulu, I travelled between the Tinjar and Rejang rivers along a route not followed by a European since Tom Harrison did it in 1936. I was accompanied for a week by four Penan boys who were completely at home in unexplored rainforest and just happy to have an excuse to travel through it--with me."

The "with me" is important. He may be 70 this year, but he still has the air of a man who can't quite believe his luck. He remains wide-eyed with amazement at the diversity of the planet he has spent his life roaming and is genuinely overwhelmed by the experiences he has had with the indigenous peoples of the world. …

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A Thoroughly Modern Explorer: For Half a Century, Robin Hanbury-Tenison Has Been an Expeditionary Force to Be Reckoned with. Nick Smith Caught Up with the Explorer on His 70th Birthday and Discovered That He Has Lost None of His Legendary Thirst for Both Adventure and Controversy
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