Posts Tagged ‘Explorers’

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Great Explorers’ by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Bookdealer magazine)

February 7, 2011

Treading carefully on the frontiers of discovery

Antarctica by Nick Smith, author of Travels in the World of Books
Antarctica, December 2010. Photo: Nick Smith

 

Exploration in the 21st Century is different to how it used to be. For sure there’s still a flourishing band of adventurers ever willing to be the first to do something extremely dangerous in a hostile and remote environment, and the world would be a duller place without them. But with important environmental and cultural issues on the agenda – climate change, the fate of indigenous peoples, and wildlife conservation – our approach to what we now accept as genuine geographical exploration is changing. And importantly, so is our attitude to the great names of the past who made the first steps to push back the frontiers of knowledge. While a century ago we might have celebrated the achievements of those who claimed unknown pockets of territory for Empire, today we’re much more likely to be interested in some of the lesser-known pioneers who penetrated the interiors of far-flung continents in search of scientific data.

Nobody is more aware of the problems modern exploration can throw at you than the great 20th century explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Exploration – a classic published nearly two decades ago – he notes wryly that time and again, ‘the European explorer, as he “discovers” some new land, makes a passing reference to his native guide.’ He goes on to refer to a cartoon in the Geographical magazine that appeared long before I was ever in the editor’s chair, depicting two pith-helmeted explorers who wonder, as they stand at the foot of a huge waterfall with their baggage bearers: ‘You don’t suppose they might have discovered it already, do you?’ Hanbury-Tenison has always been aware that the history of exploration is crashingly Eurocentric – something that today a swelling body of braying academic commentators seem to think they’ve found out for themselves.

But that’s all right, because unlike those of other travellers, the deeds of explorers, Hanbury-Tenison informs us, ‘have a lasting significance which may affect the destiny of mankind.’ Two decades on there are different challenges. Today, even the most respected and accomplished explorers tend not to describe themselves as such. This is because of a semantic shift that, for no reason I can see, has ring-fenced the word, reserving it for use only in the context of historical figures. This is totally barmy, but words change their meanings, and political correctness makes fools of us all. Even the occasionally flamboyantly outspoken Hanbury-Tenison tones it down a bit in his prefatory essay to his authoritative The Great Explorers. The language has changed, but the sentiments remain the same: the pith helmets may have disappeared from his imagery and the vaunting notion of destiny may have been brought under control, but for Hanbury-Tenison explorers are still people who have ‘excelled in their geographical endeavours to an extent that has changed the world.’

His new book profiles forty such individuals in biographical portraits spanning half a millennium, contributed by expert writers in their field. The result is a monumental tome that’s a genuine contribution to modern thinking about the nature of exploration. It could have been a bland reiteration of the received orthodoxy, names that trip so easily off the tongue, but Hanbury-Tenison challenges our assumptions, not so much with what he says – this is a curiously anonymous book for one written by so many heavyweights of the genre – but by what he doesn’t say.

In the field of Polar endeavour alone there are enough absences of old favourites to get the armchair explorer choking on his pemmican. What no Shackleton? No Scott? Instead we have a much more international cast in the shape of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, as well as what are, to the outside world at least, the lesser names of Edward Wilson and Wally Herbert.

This is interesting for two reasons. First: as the veneer of Empire begins to fade Hanbury-Tenison is able to be more objective as to who’s who. It’s no longer traitorous or heretical to say that Scott was pipped to the post by a better explorer, albeit a bloody foreigner. We now know, no matter how much it might hurt our national psyche, that Amundsen was simply a more enlightened and experienced campaigner, more capable of improvising. Second: rather than automatically acknowledging the scalp-hunting exploits of explorers whose ambition was to be first to do something, there’s a strong implication in The Great Explorers that an expeditioner’s greatness ultimately rests in their contribution to our understanding of the world. Shackleton may well have served up the best handful of chapters of derring-do in the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, but did he increase our knowledge of the planet in the way that Wilson – scientist, doctor, naturalist and artist – did? In the section entitled ‘Life on Earth’ we are treated to essays on Alexander von Humboldt, Marianne North, Alfred Russel Wallace and (a favourite of mine) Frank Kingdon-Ward. Given its name, it would be easy to suppose Hanbury-Tenison might have had in mind including David Attenborough. But he didn’t, and quite right too.

The essays themselves are first class and I particularly like the way Hanbury-Tenison has matched up his writers to their subject. So we find that the chapter on Mungo Park was written by Anthony Sattin; that on Livingstone by Claire Pettitt; that on Wilfred Thesiger by Alexander Maitland; that on Gertrude Bell by Justin Marozzi, and so on, where in every pairing the latter is an acknowledged expert on the former. For me this – along with the sumptuous picture editing – is the book’s key strength and what sets it apart from similar enterprises. The Great Explorers simply oozes authority and ease with its subject matter. I did raise my eyebrow slightly on noticing that one of the contributors is also one of the great explorers. In fact, our leading speleologist, Andy Eavis, it seems was commissioned to write the final chapter on Andrew James Eavis. Maybe this isn’t as much of a problem as it first seems: Eavis writes in the first person, and, as there are few specialist authors on caving better than Eavis, it sort of makes logical sense to give the man the job. I’m not saying that this editorial decision creates a flaw in the book, but it does represent to me at least a minor inconsistency.

This quibble aside, The Great Explorers is nigh-on perfect, operating on two distinct levels. First, as a sensible interpretation of the historic record for the non-specialist whose interest lies beyond cannibalism, frostbite and flag-planting. Second, for those aware of how the murky undercurrents of political correctness are distorting the wider picture, it’s good to see Hanbury-Tenison serving up a balanced, if sometimes surprising, cocktail of what our true exploration heritage is in a world where many are frightened to use the word.

The Great Explorers, edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison is available from Thames & Hudson, £24.95, pp 304 · ISBN 978 0 500 251690

To find out more about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a former editor of Geographical magazine. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club in New York and of the Royal Geographical Society. He writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph and his latest book Travels in the World of Books was published last May

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Nick Smith’s article on his North Pole adventure as published in Winter 2009 Explorers Journal

January 22, 2010

Ninety degrees North, the easy way

A century ago no one had been to the North Pole for certain. Today you can sail to 90° North as a tourist on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith did just that and, glass of chilled vodka to hand, ponders the issues involved when you travel to the end of the earth the easy way

Nick Smith at a ceremonial North Pole with the Russian nuclear icebreaker '50 Years of Victory' in the background

Nick Smith at a ceremonial North Pole with the Russian nuclear icebreaker '50 Years of Victory' in the background

For more than a decade I’ve been writing about North Polar affairs, the history of the region’s exploration, its climate, ice cover and biodiversity. And although I’ve interviewed climatologists, photographers, conservationists and sea captains, the people associated with the Pole that I’ve enjoyed listening to most are those explorers who have travelled in the region on foot. These are the people who seem to instinctively understand the big picture, the people with ice in their blood. I’ve learned much about the Arctic from classic explorers such as the late great Wally Herbert, as well as from today’s most notable expedition leaders such as Pen Hadow. Over the years I’ve become fascinated by what draws human beings to this desolate frozen desert at the end of the earth, but never once thought I’d go there myself.

Prior to the 20th century no one had even seen the North Pole, much less set foot on it. We know that a century ago – in 1909 – U.S. naval Commander Robert E Peary might have got there on foot with a team of dogs. He certainly believed he’d achieved his goal, but some commentators think he may have fallen short by as much as 100km. Richard Byrd may or may not have reached ninety degrees north in an aeroplane in 1926. In 1948, Russian Alexandr Kuznetsov set off under the instructions of Joseph Stalin to fly north for scientific and strategic purposes, and in so doing became the first person to undisputedly set foot on the Pole. In 1968 Ralph Plaisted reached it from Canada by combination of snow scooter and air. In 1969 Briton Wally Herbert broke new ground, and his arrival at the North Pole by dog-sledge was the crowning moment of one of the greatest ice journeys of the century.

Since these landmark expeditions there have been many successful arrivals at the Pole by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter and even parachute; by surface traverse, whether complete, one way or partial; by submarine (USS Skate was the first in 1959) or surface vessel. Of these, the first was the Soviet icebreaker Arktika, which reached the Pole on 17th August 1977. Since then there have been 65 Soviet or Russian voyages to the Pole, of which 64 have been in nuclear powered ships. Twelve other icebreakers from five other nations have made token expeditions to the top of the world, but the Russians are the experts.

The reason for this, according to Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory, is simply that there is a need. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. ‘We have very vast country from west to east and there is need to carry cargo by sea and so we need an ice fleet.’ Captain Lobusov explained how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for keeping open commercial seaways, the 50 Years of Victory – or the ‘50 лет Победы’ – becomes available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission the ship in order to make the armchair explorer’s dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

I joined the Victory at Murmansk on the extreme northwest of Russia, on the Kola Bay. Way inside the Arctic Circle, the world’s northernmost city consists almost entirely of glum communist tenements hastily thrown up after the Second World War. After near annihilation by the Germans, who had an airbase only eight minutes away, Murmansk was designated one of only 12 ‘Hero cities’ in Russia. In 1943, Harper’s published an article about Murmansk by Dave Marlow called ‘How it Looked to a Merchant Seaman’, in which he quotes a Scots-Canadian mess-man: ‘they’ve took a beating here.’ The mosquitoes are like flying fortresses and the only dabs of colour are the buttercups and dandelions that seem to grow everywhere in Murmansk.

We sailed for a week via Franz Josef Land, the northernmost Russian archipelago, and landed at Cape Tegetthof, where we saw the wind-blasted remains of explorers’ huts. Then to Cape Fligley on Rudolf Island from which Kuznetsov departed on his successful flight to the Pole. We saw polar bears, kittywakes, walruses, ivory gulls and memorials to dead explorers. As we reached the higher latitudes we navigated through the last of the open water before crunching our way through the pack that got denser and denser as we approached the Pole. Were there any ice conditions that the Victory couldn’t negotiate, I asked the captain through his interpreter Irena. ‘No’ was the reply.

When I set foot on the ice at the North Pole I was the 22,500th person to do so, give or take a small margin for error created by the possibility of unrecorded military expeditions reaching ninety degrees North. The Pole is, of course, an imaginary place; a point on a grid of invented geometry, that in reality is no more or less impressive than a thin membrane of ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The ice that is here today is not the ice that was here yesterday or will be here tomorrow. There is no marker other than one you may bring yourself, and the sapphire blue pools of water that lie on the surface of the multiyear ice here are just as beautiful here as they are at 89°N.

T.S.Eliot wrote in his poem ‘Burnt Norton’ of what he called ‘the still point of the turning world’. At the earth’s ‘axle-tree’ he imagined the past and future to coalesce, a place where the spiritual and terrestrial worlds meet. And although it may be too fanciful to say that to stand at the Pole is to stand with one foot in another world, if you look directly upwards along the earth’s axis you will come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you will reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are then another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of ice. If you have managed to maintain a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

The significance of the intersection of all lines of longitude depends as much on who you are and how you got there as anything else. I arrived at 11:57pm 15th July 2009 sitting in the bridge bar of the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker with a glass of ice-cold Russian vodka in my hand. Something like a hundred passengers from 24 countries had gathered below me in the bright midnight sun to wander around with their global positioning systems, anxious to be the first to claim that theirs read ‘90°N’ exactly. Of course, any such claims were irrelevant because the icebreaker was only at the Pole when the Captain said so, and his GPS on the bridge was the only one that mattered.

As champagne corks popped we cheered and congratulated each other on our passive achievement, as if we’d arrived on skis after weeks of doing battle with pressure ridges, half-starved, frostbitten and with exhausted dogs. A ringed seal popped its head out of a channel of inky black water to see what the commotion was about, to find out what was breaking the rhythm of the creaking ice. There were no birds and despite the razzamatazz that goes with this extraordinary adventure tourism, it was possible to detect something of the deep primal spirituality that has lured the great explorers of the past to this pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere.

Accounts by explorers who arrive on foot after weeks of man-hauling sledges over pressure ridges vary wildly on how time at the Pole is spent. Some scrape together the last of their tobacco and alcohol for an all too brief party, while others become stranded while waiting for the twin otter to get in to pick them up. Tom Avery describes how in 2005 he arrived at the Pole with 4 other humans and 16 dogs only to see an immaculately dressed woman step off a helicopter with a bottle of champagne. She was leading a small group of tourists who had flown to the Pole (presumably from an icebreaker) on a once-in-a-lifetime ultimate tourist experience, as marketed by top end adventure travel companies.

The jury will probably remain out forever on whether tourists should be allowed to travel to ecologically sensitive destinations such as the higher latitudes of the Polar Regions. But the prevailing sentiment on the 50 Years of Victory was that, provided the operator transacted its business responsibly, that the environment came first and that we didn’t cause any unnecessary stress to the wildlife, then not only did we have a right to enter this pristine world, but we would come home as ambassadors, to write articles and tell our friends exactly what it is we’re supposed to be protecting.

As we returned from the Pole the sense of anticlimax was inevitable, but on the 20th July I reminded some of my fellow travellers that we should celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing. After all, we had more in common with one of the astronauts than most of us might have suspected. In 1998 Buzz Aldrin travelled to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. He too went with Quark, only he sailed on the Sovetsky Soyuz, on a trip organised by the Explorers Club and headed by Mike McDowell. Aldrin’s experiences were remarkably similar to ours aboard the Victory, and indeed, ‘except for comments about the cold, I never heard a negative word.’ While at sea Buzz spend much of his time skipping lectures and designing a new rocket on the ship’s stationary, and like me he kept a journal. ‘There’s something about being at the top of the world that’s exhilarating,’ said Buzz. ‘We set up a baseball diamond and played a game of softball at the North Pole, and a group of younger passengers even took an extremely brief swim. The adventure was priceless.’

Nick Smith went to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions. Visit their site www.quarkexpeditions.com