Swedish Explorer Mikael Strandberg recently asked me to write some words about what exploration means. Here is an expanded version of what I sent him.
Like the novel, which is supposed to be 'dead' as an artform, yet refuses to go away, so exploration is assumed to be all over, a thing of the past.
I read that polar explorer Pen Hadow was, even after making the first solo unsupported trip to the North Pole, somewhat reluctant to call himself an explorer. You can see why. Ours is an age where the very word ‘explorer’ excites a hostile snigger, or, at best, an indulgent smile. In one of Haruki Murakami’s novels the hero meets a ‘TV explorer’, a superfluous nitwit with offroad vehicles and all the right clothing. He muses that since the world is all explored then only someone deluded would dare to call himself an explorer. It’s a widespread view- ESPECIALLY AMONGST PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER TRAVELLED IN REALLY REMOTE PLACES. Ours is the age of the instant internet know-all, the smartass with a smartphone, attitude and no experiences beyond the suburban. He’s watched a lot of telly though so he thinks that the telly view of the world is the correct one. But what about the places where the telly people never go? There are plenty.
It is quite simple, however, to say who an explorer was in the past- he was someone who went where others had not been and brought back information. That’s what most people will tell you, but in fact this is a modern definition, the scientific definition so to speak. If you look at explorers from Marco Polo to Richard Burton their actions are not so high minded: they were simply people who ‘tried to get places’. No more articulate than that really. They wanted to get to a new place by a new route, a shorter one usually. Their motives were usually economic. Or territorial- claiming land for their own country.
We forget all that now and teach in school that explorers were like modern scientists but in funny clothes. The fact that modern scientists, with aeroplanes and helicopters and skidoos and special clothing can go where any of these old explorers, who suffered such hardships, went, makes the scientists imagine they are cut from similar cloth. Not a bit of it.
The old explorers brought back news, information about things they found, rocks, plants, lost cities- but all this was by the by. They simply wanted to go somewhere no one had been before or get somewhere by a new route, a route no one else had used before. Or no one from their culture had used before.
Explorers are in fact the lineal descendants of those hunter gatherers who went in search of new game and plant rich areas. They were curious, flexible minded and courageous. Courageous because they were going outside the comfort zone of the tribe.
There is survival value in going outside the comfort zone- whether that zone is psychological or physical. It, is, in fact, what explorers do. They explore regions beyond the culture’s comfort zone. Captain Kirk, of course, summed it up rather well, “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” They may or may not bring back their discoveries in a form that is currently called ‘scientific’.
I used to find it odd that Buzz Aldrin in his space suit and tiny rocket capsule and Ranulph Fiennes making the first polar circumnavigation of the planet could both be labeled explorers. Yet they are: both have gone outside the comfort zone of the culture.
Maybe the journey involves an interior path too. Becoming initiated into a remote tribe counts as exploration- with both and internal and external journeying out of the usual comfort zone.
It is a slippery concept, exploration, especially in a world that many, wrongly, believe is fully explored. But what does ‘fully explored’ mean? That it has been photographed for Google earth? That someone has flown over it in a jet plane? That it was driven over in a jeep? We confuse map making with exploration. We have great maps of places that remain unexplored. I’ve used plenty of maps that are 50% fantasy or blank. Even ‘accurate’ maps won’t tell you whether humans have been this way before or not. My own view is that somewhere is not explored until a human being has looked at it closely and moved over it at walking pace. I have been in desert wadis where there are no vehicle tracks. The valley was unexplored- by any definiton- and I was the first person, since the previous wet period 5000 years ago - to visit such a place. That a car passed within two kilometres of this valley but didn’t see it and stop means nothing. They might just have well not have been there.
The other form exploration in the modern world takes, is to do an old route in a new way, or to link up several old routes. To do it using less gear and in a less complicated way counts as exploration- why? Because this is a more intimate way of experiencing the landscape. You find out new things about yourself. You necessarily leave the comfort zone. In the challenge, say, of towing a sledge solo to the North Pole in winter, you discover, because you are the first to sumount this challenge, a whole range of new solutions. That is the discovery element of this exploration.
Discovery without challenge- for example buzzing around Antarctica on snowmobiles looking for dinosaur bones- though fun is more science than exploration. When there is no challenge, physical or psychological, the results obtained don’t ‘change’ the discoverer. He hasn’t ‘earned them’ in the way an explorer has. I think we are drowning in information these days we haven’t earned.