My visit to Ireland last week gave me a lot to think about. How does one define who is an explorer versus adventurer? And who have the right to call themselves explorer? What does it mean being unsupported? And how important is it to be able to have a CV or an Expedition where one can claim to be first in the history of humankind? And, at the end of the day, does it matter if one´s Expedition is unsupported or a first?
I get loads of emails about these issues. It is obviously questions that tends to create debate, opinions and which many in the business talk about right now. In my opinion though, this is kind of an extra class at school, maybe not necessary for most, but important for some. Because I am for all kinds of adventures, no matter what! But since I have received so many emails and thought about it a lot since Ireland, and I have written about it earlier and it is kind of growing by the day on me, well, maybe we in the world of adventure and exploration have to find ways to set up some guidelines to define. It is normal evolution and development. With this article I kind of want to make these issues more clear and possibly more understandable. Let me than first talk about the subject of:
1. Who can call her- or himself an explorer?
The organizers of the 1st Adventure Filmfestival in Killarney made a quite clear distinction between what they see as adventurers and explorers. Basically, if you deal with people, cultures, animals, scientific or un-scientific research and anything else than yourself on an Expedition, you are in the business of exploration. If you, however, either ski to any of the poles or climb a peak like Everest, which basically is a personal thing where the essence of it all is oneself against nature, than you are in the business of adventure. (If you don´t do research in these areas) So, the organizers, the Explore Foundation, wanted to concentrate on what they see as the exploration part and therefore hardly any of the films dealt with mountaineering or polar skiing.
However, everyone seem to start out as adventurer as a youngster, hoping to get into exploration, where the self is less important and the values of the world and life is a greater pull. This applies to me. I saw myself as a new Indiana Jones, but ended up today, wishing I could be Karen Armstrong (See film below) There´s no doubt that age defines. I guess the older you get, the more you understand, the less important one realizes that one is.
How do you define what is an explorer? Anyone seem to get away calling themselves an adventurer, because at the end of the day, that isn´t a chosen title that appeal to the world as much as calling yourself an explorer. Whatever that is. I have seen, especially in Britain, as quick as you have taken the diapers off and start to travel, you call yourself an explorer. It has a grand appeal in Britain especially. Which is fully understandable, since the UK, in my eyes, is still the worlds biggest exporter of adventure and exploration. But also the main part of the exploring world who use the words record breaking, unsupported and being first more than the rest of the globe.
But how do you define what an explorer is? Well, I call myself an explorer, because I have been doing this job since 1986 and I don´t know any other word which summarizes all I do. Soon I will take it away.
However, I have talked to a lot of people involved in this business and it seems like if you are a Fellow of the Explorers Club and the Royal Geographical Society, have featured somehow with National Geographic, have carried the Flag of any of the clubs, you have a reason. But, things have changed lately. To appeal to the Explorers Club, you need to have done years of work and have a scientific base to your explorations/adventures. Makes sense. The RGS seem to have lowered their standards a lot. Being a Fellow there isn´t as much an honor as ten years back. I think it is due to that explorers/adventurers are not wanted as much as geographers. The debate is still going on, see here. Check here what it takes to get in. The word explorer is deleted and the high standards dead. Maybe the president Michael Palin can sort things out.
Others, like for example the important ExplorersWeb, who make a living out of the name explorer, has no clear distinction what defines an explorer, but have set up important guidelines on other important issues which deals with this odd world. They do focus primarily on climbers and polar skiers, though. They also go against the stream and Tom and Tina Sjögren have no interest being part of any clubs I mention in this article. Even if they´re more than qualified.
So, is there a definition? Not really. If you see yourself as an explorer, you are one!
This topic has been discussed and commented in this article, The need for debate on Expedition Arabia. And in CuChullaine O´Reilly´s excellent article on Ethical Exploration! And, of course, Arita Baaijens Exploration, an outdoor activity or not?
I have to admit I had no idea really what it meant, when I planned my Arabian Expedition and I called it unsupported. Mainly because I had the idea, if you don´t have air drops or similar, but do all by yourself, it is unsupported. Than I talked to a legend at the RGS, Shane Winser, and she rightfully said:
“Hogwash! If you carry a satellite phone, how can you call that unsupported?”
So right, as always, Shane. ExplorersWeb has set up a great guideline on rules and definitions to be able to claim this and that, see here! It is almost perfect, but again, it deals with people who go for mountains, poles, oceans and nothing with Expeditions dealing with cultures, people and animals first hand. If you do that, it is impossible to call anything unsupported. However, they do think it is ok with a satellite phone and GPS to be able to claim an unsupported. So who is right?
This topic has been discussed in these two articles, Am I a fake and cheat?
3. To claim to be first.
This is a tag that follows many in the field. I have done those mistakes. You think it will give you more attention. You say; This is a first, unsupported and record breaking. Even if your idea is to photograph relatively unknown tribes in Africa or elsewhere, you still throw in those tags because you think it will draw more attention to what you do. Something I fully can understand. But is it needed to get the attention one obviously wants? And can one really claim to be first today in a way that actually makes a difference now when all the major (except the depth of oceans) geographical prizes have been taken?
I think so, if you choose to do something as challenging as Matvey Shparo and Börge Ousland by crossing the whole North Pole from one side to another in winter darkness. I think that is extra ordinary and historical. So is Ed Stafford´s 2 year walk along the Amazon. Otherwise, to claim that you have been where no other white person has been or you have crossed Greenland in a shopping cart, it is just not true. And it isn´t worth trying to claim it. We live in a world of massive information possibilities and if it isn´t true, it will eventually hit back at you. Look at The Long Walk series. And this article I wrote earlier called Fakes and Cheats. And on top of all this, people are exploring and travelling more than ever.
So, do you need to use these massive words like unsupported, record breaking and the first ever to make a living?
I hope not. I think that in the future, more interest has to lie in matters dealing with the well being of others, building bridges between cultures and creating understanding globally, and less with being first and unsupported. It has pretty much all been done. However, the world is forever changing, so new knowledge is always needed. And always will be. Do we need self occupied adventurers?
Yes, we do. We all have to be reminded that everything is possible. But, I hope, much less.
Initially, when you start a career in this genre, you do claim this and that, you are so full of yourself, I am talking from my own experience here, and possibly it can be a short time winner, to be able to claim that you have done this unsupported and it is a first. One or two sponsors can buy that. But in the long run, if you need to live on it for the rest of your life, it needs to involve matters how we look upon this world and what we can do to sort out the problems we have created for futures to come. There´s only a few who can live on being the one who did the first. Whether it is true or not. So for most people, there has to be something more.
As an example, I had a general email from SVT (Swedish television) yesterday that they have absolutely no interest in self promoting adventures. They get tons of emails from people all over the world who wants to do firsts and unsupported. It is of no interest to them anymore. Just as an example of the changing winds of society.
Maybe Killarney and Explore Foundation could become a hub of exploration and define?
As a final note, see this extra ordinary TED talk with one of my favorite scholars.