A Word from the Founder
(This article was first published on the Explorers’ Web website in December 2012.)
A recent article about the formation of an internet-based ‘adventurer’s club’ sheds light on an international issue, namely the future of exploration organizations in general.
Allow me to begin by stating that it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the existence of exploration/geographical organizations in countries whose native language is not English. For example, Russkoye Geograficheskoye Obshestva, La Société géographique royale du Canada, Association des Géographes Français and the Japanese Geographical Society all come to mind.
However, the best-known examples of this organizational activity are still to be found in England and America. Nor can there be any doubt that those who were previously entrusted to act as standard-bearers of mankind’s exploration community have recently undergone an intense and well-deserved public scrutiny.
Times change. In the early years of the last century, radio was in a comparable state of development to the internet today. Yet experts believed Canada’s Rocky Mountains presented an insurmountable barrier to the passage of radio waves. When American Long Rider Lewis Freeman set off to explore the Rockies in 1924, he took along the most advanced communication system then available, a two-tube radio. Freeman’s historic attempt proved radio waves could travel over the mountains.
Photo courtesy LRG.
The Los Angeles-based Adventurers' Club, which was formed in 1912 as an exclusive "gentleman's club," has endured an on-going debate about its collective decision not to allow women to join its ranks.
In 2011 the New York-based Explorers' Club, which was formed in 1904 to promote "the bonds of good fellowship," witnessed the leaders publicly tearing themselves to pieces in a bid to maintain personal power.
The London-based Royal Geographical Society boasts that it “enshrines such famous names as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Shackleton.” The world witnessed the depth of that commitment in 2009 when a cabal of academics, led by Dr. Rita Gardener, attacked efforts to preserve the organization’s exploration traditions.
When the London Times ran an article headlined, “ Dr. Livingroom I Presume,” Gardner shot back by denouncing explorers who were “frozen in the sepia-tinged past.”
The organization’s website is also quick to remind the public that it “was granted its Royal Charter under Queen Victoria in 1859.”
This is double-speak worthy of any modern politician.
What has never been publicly disclosed is that in 2005 the RGS leaders removed the official portrait of the organization’s current royal patron, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, without either the agreement or knowledge of the Fellows worldwide.
The missing portrait was replaced in 2010 after Members of the Long Riders’ Guild, more than a hundred of whom are also Fellows of the RGS, sent an ultimatum to RGS President Michael Palin.
Previous attempts to have the portrait restored having been ignored, the Guild wrote to President Palin to say that plans were under way to organize a mounted protest in London. Long Rider Fellows from around the world were preparing to ride their horses from the London RGS headquarters to Buckingham Palace to deliver an apology to the Queen on behalf of the Fellows.
When representatives of the Guild arrived in London in the summer of 2010 to discuss the matter with Dr. Gardner, it was revealed that the missing portrait had been replaced in the Council Chambers.
Yet what is under discussion is not if Her Majesty is being treated with respect by the organization that continues to use her name to enforce its policies. The very nature of all the 19th century style exploration organizations is increasingly revealed to be misleading and irrelevant.
During the bitter 2009 debate about the future of the RGS, I reminded the Fellows that many of us had risked our lives so as to be eligible to join the once-proud organization. Today the RGS website announces, “Membership is open to anyone with an interest and enthusiasm for the world's peoples, places and environments.”
More members mean more money. By lowering the standards of admission, and focusing attention instead on the misleading debate about who is or isn’t a “real” explorer, the lucrative financial side of the exploration clubs continues to elude discussion and investigation.
My wife, the Anglo-Swiss Long Rider, Basha Cornwall Legh, and I were both elected Fellows of the Explorers’ Club. An example of the profitable exploration business recently arrived in the mail, when we received a request from the Explorers’ Club to pay our annual dues of $500.
Is it any wonder that in a world suffering from massive unemployment, one in which funding any expedition is increasingly difficult, such an organization is seen as a refuge for “cocktail explorers”?
Of course if you’re willing to pay an extravagant annual fee you can rub shoulders with genuine explorers at weekly lectures, or in the case of the Adventurers’ Club, you can attend their annual “night of high adventure.”
But that’s only the small tip of the big-money iceberg.
During the 2009 power struggle within the Royal Geographical Society the academics were quick to denounce the “chaps with maps” whose exploits had actually made the organization famous. But that didn’t stop them from later using the same romantic notions to raise immense sums of money.
The RGS website states, “The Society raised £860,000 ($1,384,767) to restore the external facade of our historical Kensington building and to create a new Members' Room.”
Across the Atlantic, the Explorers’ Club is also appealing to a sense of nostalgia to rake in the big bucks.
“Join the “Explorers Immortals” and engrave your name or dedication in stone on new floor tiles for the terrace at The Explorers Club Headquarters. Adorn our landmark outdoor space and help pay for urgent work for Phase II renovations by making a tax deductible donation of $1,000 per dedicated tile to our Lowell Thomas Building Fund.”
With “nineteen active chapters in the United States and nine international chapters” the Explorers’ Club is like the Royal Geographical Society. They are businesses involved in making a profit derived from glorious trophies of the past.
This is not to imply that this is unethical. It’s a matter of recognizing the brutal mercenary nature of the businesses which dwell within the halls of what were once the high temples of exploration.
It is also about the public’s need to acknowledge the lack of shame involved in these institutions. Instead of enriching their corporate headquarters, the high priests and priestesses of these organizations could be sharing funds with genuine explorers and fielding important expeditions.
But that’s not the way things work. The Golden Age of Exploration is valuable and they know it. And as the Long Riders learned, every cent counts.
In 2005 twenty-eight Long Riders’ from five continents, many of whom were also Fellows, met at the RGS headquarters in London. They were on hand to witness the donation of the world’s first collection of equestrian travel books, a library of 100 titles published by the LRG Press and presented to the RGS.
One traveller in particular was in attendance. Australian Long Rider Tim Cope had halted his historic 6,000 mile solo ride from Mongolia to Hungary and flown to London from Kazakhstan. Despite being the first person to be made a Fellow of the RGS while still in the saddle, no representative of the organization would agree to greet him.
When the Long Riders gathered in the main hall after the book donation, they were informed by an RGS representative that they were not allowed to take any pictures, as “even a photograph of a chandelier is worth money to us.”
After the Long Riders presented the literary collection, they were told the RGS would not allow them to pose on the grounds for a group photograph.
Photo courtesy LRG.
This attitude of using the past to make money in the present can be seen in the current leadership’s decision to rent out RGS headquarters for “special events and themed weddings.”
The organization hasn’t hosted a Shackleton-themed Bar Mitzvah but it seems that such a possibility exists.
Ironically, the growing sense of frustration at this lack of international leadership is well-documented.
In 2004 film director and underwater explorer James Cameron urged the public to recognize the vital need to encourage more, not less, exploration.
He warned, “Exploration is not a luxury. It defines us as a civilization. It directly or indirectly benefits every member of society. It yields an inspirational dividend whose impact on our self-image, confidence, and economic and geopolitical stature is immeasurable.”
Where was this poignant appeal published? Not in the magazines of any of the exploration clubs. Cameron’s cover story appeared in Wired magazine, a publication known for its reporting of technical issues.
Eight years later what do we see?
A lone individual calling for the formation of an internet-based exploration club.
There are indeed reasons why such a 21st century effort is worthy of investigation and encouragement. The strongest argument for this is that such an approach is already working.
The Long Riders’ Guild, of which I am one of the Founders, began with five Members from three countries. Today there are Members in 47 countries and every major equestrian explorer alive belongs to the Guild. The Guild website has been visited by millions and is an academic endeavour free of all advertising.
I hasten to add that there are no dues or meetings involved in becoming a Member of The Guild. One is invited to join after having ridden a minimum of one thousand miles. Nor will you be awarded a silver trophy, a blue ribbon or a shiny big belt buckle from The Guild. All you will receive is the respect accorded to you by your fellow equestrian explorers, a respect earned by a elite group of men and women scattered around the globe, all of whom chose to saddle up their horse and then set out on a life-changing equestrian journey.
And that’s the defining difference between the Guild and the 19th century style exploration clubs. The Guild is a brotherhood of like-minded horse-humans who share a passionate commitment to protect, preserve and promote mankind’s ancient art of equestrian travel.
We share information, encourage the young, loan equipment, publish books, chastise criminals, protect horses and ensure that equestrian exploration continues into the future.
Similar advancements have taken root in the international exploration community, as a new generation of leaders have questioned policies and practices of the past.
Eight million people watched Felix Baumgartner jump to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere. The record-breaking project was not endorsed by any of the traditional exploration societies. It was sponsored by the Red Bull drinks company.
Photo courtesy Luke Aikens and Red Bull Stratos Project.
Instead of commuting to one geographic location, today’s explorers are increasingly turning to alternative sources of wisdom such as Explorers’ Web. Created at the dawn of the internet age by the European explorers, Tom and Tina Sjogren, this dynamic organization does more than merely cover the news. It is a renowned champion of ethical exploration.
In an age of 24/7 news service, the exploration clubs publish traditional magazines containing information which is out of date before it is released to an increasingly diminishing readership. In stark contrast the American journalist, Kraig Becker, has developed the Adventure Blog, which provides free daily doses of cutting-edge exploration news from around the world.
Nor has investigative journalist been sidelined. The Swedish explorer turned internet journalist, Mikael Strandberg, led the international team which exposed the fallacies involved in the “Long Walk” hoax.
Mankind continues to evolve with the ages.
Children no longer visit the school library to consult the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Teenagers no longer spend Saturday night watching a movie in the family car at the drive-in theatre. Likewise, fewer adults see the exploration clubs as being representative of their needs, goals or politics.
Proof of this diminishment may be detected in the recent American presidential election.
When we awoke to the news that Obama had won, I told Basha that this election was unlike any other which those of our generation had ever seen. Large portions of the population, who had traditionally been subjected to prejudice, ridicule or violence by a politically powerful white majority, expressed their collective power though votes. The result was, I believed, more than just a victory for Obama.
Within 48 hours of the election, articles began to appear which confirmed my belief. Political scientists were the first to realize that the American electoral landscape had radically changed.
In this CNN article I saw an electrifying line.
"Romney lost by relying on a tapped-out, ever-shrinking group of voters."
And a London story next ran this sentence.
"The Republicans lost because America has changed, and the extreme conservatism they currently expound has indeed lost its appeal."
Back in 1972, almost nine in 10 youth voters (87%) were white. By 2004, only 62% of youth said they were white. This year, about 58% of voters 18-29 identified as white; 42.1% of youth self-reported as African-American, Latino, or otherwise non-white.
Across the water, the latest British census has revealed that just 3.7 million Londoners described their ethnicity as 'White British' in 2011 - down from 4.3million in 2001, and making up 44.9 per cent of the city's population.
Foreign-born: This map shows the number of British-born people living in England. Darker areas indicate a higher number of British-born individuals living in an area, while lighter areas have a higher number of foreign-born residents. The figures - the ranges of which are found in the bottom left-hand corner - are taken from the 2011 census, conducted by the Office for National Statistics.
Photo courtesy Office for National Statistics.
The racial populations of both the US and UK are now radically altered from how they looked in the mid-20th century. Moreover, the exploration traditions which reflected the collective history of both of these once white majorities is either increasingly ignored or ridiculed by the vast majority of non-white residents in those countries.
Consequently, if Romney lost because whites are no longer the single most powerful section of the population, is it fair to conclude similar social changes foreshadow the growing marginalization of the white-male-dominated American and British exploration worlds, as they have traditionally existed since the late 19th century?
Many within these communities have told me privately that they believe the Emperors of Exploration have no clothes.
Likewise, a rising number of members have questioned the need to maintain a million-dollar headquarters as an excuse to validate exploration.
What is wanted, they say, are leaders willing to put the needs of others before their own personal glory. Yet I predict that the club treasure chests will continue to be spent to protect the perks of desk wallahs, not to actively encourage more expeditions.
Likewise there will always be those who use membership in such an organization to justify their exploits, just as there will always be those within who enrich themselves on the deeds of those braver than themselves. They will undoubtedly rush to defend the traditional clubs, while hoping to deflect attention away from the ethical issues which have been largely ignored.
Yet for all of these reasons, I believe the exploration clubs will increasingly be seen as a relic from the past.
That is why I believe the time has passed when we spend valuable time engaging in debates about the need to reform institutions whose original mission has been eroded by a succession of unworthy leaders.
Thankfully democracy and exploration are both encouraged by widespread social exchange. That is why a new generation of explorers, who have never visited Los Angeles, New York or London, will use modern communication skills to interact, encourage and educate each other.
The declining influence of the white male and of his outdated social institutions will spur the growth of a new ‘Age of the Citizen-Explorer,’ a time when ordinary men and women work together to usher in an exploration renaissance.
Such a movement is open to all of humanity, not just a privileged few.
CuChullaine O’Reilly is the Founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, the world’s international association of equestrian explorers. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Fellow of the Explorers’ Club and a Member of the Adventurers’ Club. Author of "Khyber Knights,” he is currently completing the “Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration,” the most comprehensive equestrian exploration guide ever written.
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