A Word from the Founder
What Do You Seek?
CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS
This was first published in May, 2013 on the exploration blog operated by Swedish Long Rider Mikael Strandberg.
Julian Monroe Fisher should be thanked for taking the time to raise several vital points in his timely article regarding the negative influences of competition on exploration.
The irony is that Julian’s cautionary tale wouldn’t surprise our predecessors, as some of the most famous names in exploration issued similar warnings.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard was the English explorer who accompanied Captain Scott to Antarctica during the 1910 Terra Nova Expedition. Along with two companions, the young biologist made a astonishing winter-time trip. When temperatures dropped to −77.5 °F (−60.8 °C) most of Cherry-Garrard's teeth shattered due to chattering in the frigid temperatures. Many have read the remarkable book he wrote about that trip entitled, "The Worst Journey in the World."
What is often overlooked is how Cherry-Garrard later denounced the “tin-pot adventurers who crowd the front pages of our gruesomely unheroic age.”
Further north in China, two famous travel writers, Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart, made an agreement before they set off in 1936 to ride horses from Peking to Srinigar.
“We were united by an abhorrence of the false values placed – whether by its exponents or the age at large – on what can most conveniently be referred to by its trade name of Adventure. From an aesthetic rather than an ethical point of view, we were repelled by the modern tendency to exaggerate, romanticise, and at last cheapen out of recognition the ends of the earth and the deeds done in their vicinity. It was almost the only thing we ever agreed upon,” Fleming wrote.
Time marched on, all the while genuine explorers continued to express serious doubts about the headline hunters.
Wilfrid Noyce was a member of the 1953 British expedition that made the first ascent of Mount Everest. After Noyce had hung up his crampons, he wrote a riveting book in 1958, “The Springs of Adventure,” wherein he made a detailed study of exploration. Noyce documented the existence, methods and motivations of those travellers who were addicted to adulation.
He condemned those individuals who travel in order to make a notorious reputation, denouncing them as “stunters.” Noyce then provided an excellent example.
“In those happy days it was not so difficult to find something novel and exciting. In the 1890s it was sufficient to ride a bicycle around the world. John Foster Fraser and three companions did and wrote a book. “We took this trip round the world on bicycles because we were more or less conceited, liked to be talked about and see our names in the newspapers.’”
Noyce concluded that exploration had been contaminated by the press.
“Therein lies the greatest danger to the adventurer. How can a man be expected to bear the burden of publicity, to which every adventure is by its very nature unsuited?”
Even the famous 1953 British expedition to the top of Mount Everest which Noyce joined had been tainted by commercial influences.
He wrote, “The wave of publicity was unfortunate. The whole spirit of the expedition was falsified. It had to be made sensational. We were presented as the stars of a dramatic situation….Now I was becoming uncertain who or what I was…. Publicity, with all that it involves, is bound to get the motives of adventurers wrong… Unfortunately supremacy appealed to the popular imagination of a record breaking age, and gradually the expeditions began to receive a press publicity out of all proportion to the value of the undertaking…. an extraordinary distortion of values, a short cut to fame.”
The quiet English school-master prided himself on maintaining the purity of what he termed, “an altogether private affair between a man and his mountain.”
He had gone to Everest, not to find fame, but because “by testing oneself beyond endurance man learns to know himself.” Noyce wisely concluded, “What do I conquer? I conquer myself?”
How unfortunate that instead of becoming smarter with every generation, there are still those among us whose only priority is the aggrandizement of their own ego or the enlargement of their bank account.
Nick Smith is the former editor of the Royal Geographical Society’s monthly magazine. He expressed his views on exploring when he wrote, “Behind the scenes there is still the same mad scramble for sponsorship and patronage, the begging letters, the broken agreements, lonely wives and expectant public. Perhaps even more reassuringly, in the wings the cast of explorers still compromises the same unsung geniuses and braying bigheads, dignified elder statesmen and chancy upstarts, men of iron and posturing fraudsters, as it did in the Heroic Age.”
It didn’t take long for Nick’s cynical observation to be validated. In 2006 The London Times Literary Review ridiculed the book written by a highly-paid British television celebrity turned “explorer.”
“He is not an explorer. He is a stuntman in remote places, a latter-day Munchausen with satellite phone and a video camera,” reviewer Tom Stacy wrote.
Here again, one need only look at history to see the cycle of deception.
In the early 1930s the greatest Long Rider, Aimé Tschiffely, warned the public not to be taken in by “vain men who have written so called confessions to be sold to gullible readers.”
Yet life still follows the pattern of the past. Even though technology evolves, human nature does not. New forms of social media now encourage the constant distribution of personal trivia. People are increasingly defining personal worth solely by public visibility. A fear is growing among travellers that not to be seen is not to exist. Few realize that fame will fade but a stain on their reputation will always remain.
As I have previously written on this blog, there is a strong ethical element inherent in exploration. Julian has detected this in his fine observations about the dangers of competition.
What needs also to be stressed is that every individual traveller, like every generation, comes face to face with the realization that the last enemy is not the geography, it is yourself, that the final trap is not reaching your goal, it is selling your soul.
Sir Ernest Shackleton realized that fame counts for little if you’ve become a slave to competition, nationalism and commercialism. His life was a testament to never putting personal interest before courage, self-denial and friendship.
“I think nothing of the world and the public,” Sir Ernest wrote. “They cheer you one minute and howl you down the next. It is what one is and what one makes of one’s life that matters.”
To arrive at a distant spot on the map is what interests and attracts many people. Unequal to the heroic role in which fate has cast them, they see little and learn less along the way. Their mistake is to confuse geographic arrival with personal success.
A handful of travellers realise that the true purpose of the journey is to arrive at a higher level of self-awareness. What the superior man seeks to explore is the blank spot on the map of his own soul.
So, what shall it be that you seek?
Illumination or personal glory?
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. 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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