Exploration: an outdoor activity or what?
Last year I attended Explore 2009, the annual expedition and fieldwork planning weekend at the Royal Geographical Society. A truly unique event for old hands & newcomers in the field of exploration. Had a wonderful time, made lots of contacts, but went home rather confused.
Maybe I was getting old.
Tell me if I am wrong!
For me the core of exploration is curiosity, facing the unknown, discovery and if need be: walk the thin line between life & death. I was therefore surprised to notice that so many speakers at Explore 2009 talked about exploration as a kind of outdoor activity. Risks were to be avoided at all cost. Media attention on the other hand not. To appear on television seemed as important, if not more, than the mission itself. How odd, I thought. After all, this was not a social club. We were at the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society.
Most explorers are not suicidal and they will avoid disasters if they can. But true exploration is not a picnic. If you are not prepared to take risks which might cost you your life then you’d better stay home. Yeah, I can hear you. As I said: Maybe I am getting old and maybe my ideas are outdated. They certainly go back a long time, all the way back to the romantic era of exploration. Don’t want to offend anyone, but what to think of the four guys in the audience who shared their plans at the desert panel meeting. Cross the desert on motor bike, call home every day via a sat phone. If home didn’t receive the expected call they were to take action. You want A-D-V-E-N-T-U-R-E, you brag about your upcoming expedition or journey, but when something goes wrong you call mammy and daddy to save you.
Sounds pretty ridiculous to me.
‘We have a wife and children,’ came the angry response from the bikers.
‘Stay home,’ was my advice
Next topic: Media coverage. Based on what I heard, most researchers and adventurers define the success of their expedition in terms of media coverage. If the expedition hits the news: Hurray! Mission accomplished. If not, sad faces, mission failed.
Media coverage is important. We want recognition for what we do. Also, most expeditions are expensive and to attract sponsors you need a media plan. So, nothing wrong with media per se. But having said that: does an expedition serve as a ticket to fame or to satisfy curiosity?
What to think of the Dutch woman who travelled from Egypt to South Africa on a mini-tractor and – according to hearsay – was unhappy because she didn’t receive the attention she had hoped for. Please god, save us from self centred adventurers (SSA) who don’t give a damn about people, culture, environment. SSA claim their expeditions serve a purpose (the woman on the mini-tractor focused on positive news from Africa….), but in reality the journey is a one (wo)man show: Look at me, see how special I am.
What about scientific expeditions? Students and researchers need media coverage to reach a wider audience and to satisfy sponsors. Fine. And what if there’s no media coverage to speak of? I would say: no problem. What matters is the outcome of the expedition. If the results are good, publication in academic journals will follow and that is what counts..
There’s another category I forgot to mention: adventurers who cannot resist the call of the Sirens. If you’ve heard that call you know how strong the pull is. Nothing can stop you. Parents, wife, kids, reason, lack of money, disinterest from the media, without wax in your ears you have no choice but to obey the sirens. You have to follow your inner voice, no matter the consequences, and that story is as old as human kind. It’s the stuff of legends and myths. What these stories have in common is the lone hero, a woman or man who goes out into the unknown to fight dragons and demons or to fulfil impossible tasks. If she/he fails, the hero(in) dies. If she/he succeeds, glory awaits upon return. To me, that is what exploration is about: venture into the unknown, no matter the costs, and return to share your findings with the world you left behind.
Happy ending. Explore 2010. Four women speakers on the main stage. No fuss about risk management. Instead the four women explorers shared insights and expertise with the audience. Their motto? Guess what: You Can Do It Too!
Arita Baajiens is a seasoned explorer who´s homepage is at http://www.aritabaaijens.nl