There’s not much down for the modern day would be explorer is there? Everything has been found, conquered, climbed, sailed, plundered (what a great word), claimed, mapped and named already hasn’t it? There’s no unknown mountain ranges. There’s no short cut between the great oceans. Nobody ever did find one, they just made their own, it’s called The Panama Canal. There were only two poles, which hardly seems fair, and they’ve long since been bagged. It looks like every island, every atoll in the remotest quarters of the Pacific have been discovered and, most likely, has a guide book or two covering it. You can’t go higher than Everest. All that charting new routes business, no one really cares do they? If you’re standing on the top of the world, you're standing on the top of the world. Who cares if you set off from Tibet or Nepal? The Pyramids have all been looted. If you wanted it, your Indiana Jones moment has passed you by. Sorry.
Stonehenge is just a left turn off some A Road or other these days. Gravelled parking lot, ice cream and souvenirs available I venture. Even the most remote regions of say, Alaska and Siberia have been somewhat tamed. These places might well be inaccessible by road but they were long since brought into the fold by pioneering aviators. It must have been some rush to set off blindly in a float plane, following the rivers, landing on gravel banks, doing repairs as you go and opening up so much virgin territory. These days, as long as you can pay the going rate, someone will fly you in. There’ll probably be a proper landing strip there with a little wind sock flapping in the distance. A greasy spoon cafe waiting to serve you breakfast.
Granted, there’s estimated to be in the region of 60 indigenous groups still wandering around the Brazilian Rain Forest who’ve never heard a Beatles song but, in a world where the Head Shrinkers of Papua New Guinea are (probably) on Facebook, this knowledge hardly makes you want to get up and go find them does it? True, the odd new creature is discovered now and again. Usually it’s some nocturnal pygmy tree frog a couple of hundred miles inside the rain forest. Or a flightless insect on a dormant volcano crater rim in Indonesia. All good news for the planet, I’m sure, but it pales in comparison to Darwin landing on the Galapagos Islands. And here’s another thing; when was the last time you picked up a newspaper and read of a good old fashioned gold rush? Or any kind of rush for that matter? We don’t do rushes anymore. And that’s a damn shame.
"Stonehenge is just a left turn off some A Road or other these days. Gravelled parking lot, ice cream and souvenirs available I venture."
In many respects, a gold rush was the most accessible of the great adventures. Open to all who could afford a mule, work their passage, swing a pick axe, live off beans and coffee and forego a bath for a year or so. Whereas reaching a pole would set you back a pretty penny - I’m guessing the South one was probably dearer -and outfitting a crew to scale Everest was not something you’d really attempt on a postie’s wages. A gold rush was probably the most democratic of all adventures.
It’s kind of ironic too that there’s so much really well designed and made equipment available to the modern day explorer if only there was something left to explore. When you consider that Shackleton and his band of hardy souls set off to the Antarctic clad in Burberry parkas and slept in reindeer skin sleeping bags; that Tensing and Hillary appear to have conquered Everest wearing the sort of scruffy old jackets your grandad might wear on his allotment; that Livingstone wandered off in a decent pair of khakis and a waist coat, it seems kind of cruel that your average Sunday rambler can kit themselves out in Gortex rain-wear, Vibram sole boots and equip themselves with freeze dried meals, ultra lightweight propane burners, Swiss army knives, water proof matches, water purifying tablets, crampons, nylon ropes, tents that pack down to the size of a pack of fags (alright I’m exaggerating a bit there but you get the picture) all to go for a wander along the well worn trails of, say, The Three Peaks.
Sadly, everywhere and everything has been found and done before. Frightening isn’t it? So what’s a would be born out of time explorer to do? What avenues of opportunity are open for a modern day Voyager, Frontiersman or Geographer? Not many I’m afraid. Personally, I’ve come to terms with not having a country, a mountain or even a small body of water named after me. I rather like the idea of Lake Lake mind but it’s just not going to come to pass. I’ve resigned myself to adventuring vicariously. It’s alright you know. I can handle it. So I’ll not have a shave for a few days, I’ll throw some Patagonia clobber on, get a map out and get stuck into a good book. And there’s some top reading out there. Thankfully, all these bastards who beat me to just about everything either felt compelled to document their exploits or their story has been recorded by others.
There’s no better antidote for a mountain climbing jones than Jon Krakuer’s excellent Into Thin Air. If nothing else, the fact that so many expertly guided, well equipped people perished on Everest so long after Tenzing and Hillary first conquered Everest makes the latter’s achievements all the more remarkable. Feel like taking to the skies? Jean Poter’s The Flying North is a first rate history of the cowboys of the sky who tamed the Alaskan wildness. Barnstormers who bought planes on h.p. then figured out how to make it pay.
Want to discover a lost civilization? Try The Lost City Of Z. Follow author David Grann as he tries to retrace Percy Harrison Fawcett’s last voyage into the heart of The Amazon. Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that the Pacific Islands were peopled by Peruvians by constructing a balsa raft and getting a few of his mates to push off into the ocean currents to prove a point so you don’t have to. His book, Kon-Tiki - which has had various subtitles over the years - is one I like to read in the bath, gives you more of a ‘being there feel.’ Staying with the nautical feel, you can’t beat Ernest Shackleton for a bit of good old fashioned heroic failure. Thank the good Lord you weren’t on-board the icebound ship Endurance and marvel as Shackleton and his men over come adversity after adversity and make it safely home against all odds.
Hard for some but try put aside any prejudice you may have toward Brad Pitt, pretend you’ve never seen the movie if it helps and grab a copy of Henrich Harrer’s Seven Years In Tibet. Cliche, I know, but the book really is much better. As gripping as these tales of daring do are you can’t help but get the feeling that the option to drop out and burger off halfway ‘round the globe wasn’t really available to earlier versions of you and I. Have no fear, I cannot recommend highly enough Peirre Breton’s The Klondike Fever. Cataloguing the successes and failures of those hardy souls who set out to seek their fortune in the gold rush of 1896-97. Chancers, gangsters, dreamers, schemers, loners, saints and sinners all. Fact as they say is stranger than fiction. Not only that but it’s just plain better. And none more so than in this magnificent history. If you don’t enjoy it, I’ll send you your money back.
"In a world where the Head Shrinkers of Papua New Guinea are (probably) on Facebook, this knowledge hardly makes you want to get up and go find them does it?"
Charles Darwin was a bit of a dark horse wasn’t he? We know him for his theory of evolution , the sort of topic that can put most of us to sleep but, have a gander at his Voyage Of The Beagle and you’ll find another side to him. Five years he spent criss-crossing the oceans on that boat. Five years hanging out in some of the coolest least accessible places on the globe. All without the help of Tony Wheeler’s Lonely Planet empire.
What does it say about us that Robert Falcon Scott is better remembered than his more successful adversary Roald Amundsen? I’m not sure and frankly, I don’t care. I can live with it. It’s in us as Englishmen I fear. We love the heroic failure don’t we? We’re uneasy with success. It’s just not done. With that in mind I am comfortable in my enjoyment of Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s The Worst Journey In The World. You can’t even begin to imagine the heartbreak Scott and his men must have felt having successfully made it to The South Pole only to find those bloody Norwegians had already planted their flag and were heading back to base camp can you? Worry not, it’s all here in black and white for us to savor.
I suppose anyone with designs on adventure can find something to satisfy their craving but there really is nothing out there compares to what’s gone before. There are mountain climbers out there who set out to climb the highest peaks on every continent for instance but it’s just not the same is it? Everyone knows where these mountains are. You can be guided up and down most of them if you have the readies. I recently read of a man who swam up the Amazon. Knock yourself out pal, that just doesn’t do it for me. We live in a time of Google Earth and GPS devices and that’s all well and good. It’s hard to get lost and that’s kind of a comfort if your little sister is driving to Aberdeen for instance but it’s also a bit crap isn’t it?
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