In a recent interview with The Times, Sir Ranulph Fiennes (71) is quoted as saying: “the golden age of exploration is over”.
It is a bold statement but in mourning the loss of worlds left to conquer as The Times put it, Fiennes was highlighting that the urge to explore remains strong, but that the end goal of the protagonist must change.
In fact, it is a shift that has been underway for some time. Take the circumnavigation of South Georgia by sea kayak, completed by New Zealanders Graham Charles, Mark Jones and Marcus Waters in 2005 for instance.
Beyond its primary goal, that of achieving a notable ‘first’, this bold undertaking served to highlight the ecological importance of an isolated island in the far-flung South Atlantic, the raw beauty of its primitive landscape and the life it supports. But it also made a very important statement. Adventure matters. Indeed one could say that if the age of exploration is over, adventure has never been more important.
As Graham Charles wrote in his introduction to Unclaimed Coast (the first kayak journey around Shackleton’s South Georgia): “We wanted to do more than just ‘do’ adventures. We wanted to confirm the value of adventure in society at large. Adventure, through its ability to inspire, serves the audience and protagonists alike. The values and norms that define our culture are shaped or supported by the stories we tell.”
But as the golden age of exploration slips into the shadows, so too has our sense of what adventure constitutes become increasingly vague, misguided and in some cases simply laughable. More disturbingly, adventure is increasingly packaged and sold like any other commodity, often with scant regard to the impact upon the remote and fragile landscapes and communities in which it takes place.
Consider the blizzard that hit the Himalaya in November 1995 after which reports of Westerners’ neglect of their Nepalese staff in particular were rife. Illustrating the fundamental disconnect between true adventure and paid for, off-the-shelf adventure packages, Sherpa guides and porters were left to die in the snow, in some cases barefooted while still burdened with their clients equipment. Equipment that might well have prevented their death, while trekkers who had paid for their ‘adventure’, a safe passage home at a convenient time being part of the package, were helicoptered to safety in order that they might not miss international connections.
It is an extreme example but regrettably, it is not overly difficult to find similar cases, in more recent years. The point is that to embrace adventure, is to embrace the possibility of risk and loss. Buying our way in, and then out when it goes wrong, utterly undermines everything that true adventure stands for and the rewards it can bring.
And those rewards can be had without travelling to far flung corners of the globe. Adventure is certainly about kayaking remote coastlines, rowing oceans and climbing big mountain walls, but it could also be starting a new business or indeed willingly undertaking any venture that leads to change, in the knowledge that its pursuit may put material wealth or more at risk, but that the rewards will enrich the life of those who choose it beyond measure.
To choose adventure, we must first accept its nature. And in a post-exploration age, as Joe Simpson noted: “the frontier will be ethical”, rather than physical or geographical. In other words, the way in which we embrace the challenge of an unclimbed peak is more important than gaining the summit. It is a philosophy that is applicable whatever the undertaking.
The golden age of exploration may be gone, but real adventure is still possible. It is there for the taking in all manner of guises and is certainly not exclusively available to the sporting elite. If we wish to preserve the values of the healthy, progressive society Graham Charles and friends believe in, we must protect it. And to do that, we must take time to understand and make room for those amongst us who would embrace adventure.
As Yvon Chouinard said: “Let my people go surfing.”
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