CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS
There have been a number of entries on Mikael’s blog recently which, though apparently unrelated, do in fact share a common thread – namely the theme of ethical exploration.
Mikael first released a very important article which examined the topic of “Fakes and Cheats.” Though the focus was on polar liars, the topic could have just as easily have been laid at the door of any type of exploration. Equestrian exploration and long distance travel, for example, has its share of frauds lurking in the closet.
The most notorious of these charlatans was the Old West impostor, Frank Hopkins. Though the fantasies which make up the Hopkins Hoax are too numerous to list here, his most ridiculous mounted deception involved the fanciful claim that he made a lightning-fast winter time ride from Germany to Mongolia, a journey which the ice-delivery man could not have undertaken as he was in fact living in New Jersey with his wife and four children. Hopkins abandoned his family at the depth of the Great Depression, absconding with a young neighbour woman, and spent the rest of his days lurking on New York’s Long Island. From there he peddled wild stories to an American press already addicted to lurid tales involving off-beat countries and phoney claims of resounding bravery.
Hopkins might have been a pathetic footnote to equestrian travel history, if the Walt Disney studio had not decided to release the movie, “Hidalgo,” which they perpetrated as having been based on Hopkins’ “true story.” In reality, the man couldn’t spell “truth”.
Hopkins lied, not by accident, nor to appease sponsors, but to fuel his maniacal desire to aggrandize himself at the expense of authentic heroes. Yet anyone who follows the exploration news released by ExWeb will have seen far too many current examples of people who have sold their souls in order to attain fame and fortune. For example, recently there was a well documented case involving a fraudulent mountain-climbing claim. As Mikael rightly noted in one of his introspective articles, people do make genuine mistakes, in which case, as our host suggests, they should apologize.
But what if it wasn’t a mistake? What if the so-called explorer was, like Hopkins, throwing out the rules, riding rough shod over the truth, chasing a buck, prostituting their personal integrity in exchange for a quick roll in the hay with that whore “fame”?
As Mikael’s sleepless night recently demonstrated, it’s easy to announce that you’re an explorer, yet how do you pay the bills without selling your soul? In an age of electronic media, instant news and the cancerous onslaught of reality-based television, how do individuals maintain their personal integrity in the face of a world who is willing, nay even eager, to wink at exploration exploitation? How can the public trust the media which aggrandises a liar like Hopkins?
The answer, if I may suggest it, is always a personal one. It is a concept which goes by various names, including ethics, morality, principles, standards, ideals. Few men offer us a more dignified example of those rosy words than the Antarctic explorer, Frank Wild.
Born in Yorkshire, Wild is one those quiet heroes of Antarctic exploration whom we would do well to remember in this day of exploration chicanery. In 1901 this modest man accompanied Captain Robert Scott to Antarctica on the Discovery expedition. In 1908 he travelled with Sir Ernest Shackleton when that champion nearly bagged the South Pole. In 1911 Douglas Mawson placed Wild in charge of his Antarctic base camp. Between 1914 and 1916 Wild barely managed to survive the horrific series of accidents that crippled the Trans-Antarctic Expedition. This included being marooned on Elephant Island, where he survived on a diet of penguins and seaweed. Finally, in 1921 Wild returned to Antarctica for the last time. During that journey Sir Ernest died of a heart attack, yet his loyal lieutenant assumed command and completed the expedition.
Because he was a genuine hero of exploration, Wild was awarded the Polar Medal with four bars by the British government. The Royal Geographical Society awarded him their Patron’s Medal. The diminutive explorer was made a Freeman of the city of London and honoured with a CBE by Britain’s monarch. Cape Wild on Elephant Island and Mount Wild in Antarctica both bear his name.So, I ask you then to ponder how cruel was Wild’s ultimate fate, as before he died in 1939, virtually penniless and largely forgotten, this brave explorer had been reduced to taking jobs as a storekeeper, cotton farmer, hotel barman, mine manager and railway worker? And what does it say for the true value of the man when I reveal that Wild’s Polar medal recently sold for £132,000 !
What we mustn’t lose sight of, nor encourage to occur, is the base betrayal of exploration’s higher goals. As Frank Wild proves, and Mikael Strandberg recently learned, no matter how many medals a king hangs about your neck, when the fanfare fades you are still left with a host of unpaid bills and a crowd of vindictive enemies who will envy your success and even steal your dog.
One should never be tempted to pawn exploration’s greater glories for a dose of fizzy, transitory, cheap fame. A recent case of exploration exploitation was revealed in Nepal, where a Sherpa announced that he is planning on taking his ten-year-old son to the top of Everest. Why? So that the child can beat the already dubious record set this year, when a 13-year-old California boy became the youngest person to climb that sadly soiled peak. This isn’t the act of a reasonable father. These are the actions of a money-hungry sperm donor.
What are we to make of the startling dichotomy between Wild’s genuine bravery and the Nepalese parent’s aggressive ambition? Why should we care? Because our frail planet is in desperate need of genuine exploration heroes. Allow me to explain.
In the summer of 2008 an area of the Arctic sea ice twice the size of Great Britain disappeared over a couple of weeks. Nor is our globe’s trouble confined to the Poles.
Five hundred miles off the coast of California a rotating oceanic current called the North Pacific Gyro is acting like an oceanic toilet bowl. Lodged within this plastic vortex, which is nearly six times the size of Great Britain, is an estimated 100 million tonnes of man-made waste and debris, including plastic bottles, tyres and chemical sludge.
Of equal worry are two other recently discovered facts. For the first time in the history of our planet, a single species, humanity, has become the dominant ecological force, and scientists predict that fifty per cent of all known species currently inhabiting the Earth will be extinct within the next fifty years.
In the face of what appears to be an on-coming climatic catastrophe, why do the wanderings of Arita Baaijens and Mikael Strandberg matter? Who cares if she disappears into the Sahara with her camels or if he ventures back into the frozen wastes of Siberia again? If their journeys don’t make a buck, pull in an audience or promote a product what good are they?
This isn’t a new message. It is the cynical philosophy of transitory greed. It’s the siren song which every explorer confronts, in the dead of the night, when they awake, in a cold sweat and wonder, like Frank Wild, Mikael Strandberg, Arita Baaijens and others have done, why they’ve made such a difficult personal decision. This is the late-night soul-chilling moment when they wonder why they forsook a normal job, a dependable emotional relationship, a pension, in fact all the things that their peers sought, and found, embracing instead the explorer’s constant companions, personal confusion, emotional despair and financial loneliness.
As Wild proves, you don’t become an explorer because of the pay. That’s why in this day of celebrity authors, lying politicians, venial television stars and common day crooks, the handful of true explorers shine like bright stars in a world full of transitory mediocrities.
Ethical exploration has always been one of humanity’s sterling accomplishments, because lodged within that tiny cadre have always been a handful of men and women, like Mikael and Arita, who throughout the long march of our species, have summoned the courage to march away from the safety and taboos of their hereditary village, and set off into the unknown in search of scientific and personal knowledge.
Our species will always need ethical explorers who continue to seek the outer edges of knowledge. As Frank Wild proves, television can’t make you a hero of exploration. Only your own rock hard grip on personal ethical behaviour will steer you through the shoals of deceit and onto the shore of true spiritual bravery.
CuChullaine O’Reilly is the Founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, the world’s international association of equestrian explorers and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club. He is currently completing the “Horse Travel Handbook,” the most comprehensive equestrian exploration guide ever written. This is his second article as a guest writer. Read his first here!