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Fun and daring to explore

Fun and daring to explore

Not much has been seen into the ways and means of exploring and explorers. What really makes an "explorer?" It is easy to conjure a mental image of a figure dressed in tweed or khaki, a telescope under one arm, chart or rifle in another. That would be a typical kind of Victorian traveller in Africa. But appearances, of course, are as varied as motives. Most, nonetheless, were driven to make contributions to knowledge. That was usually the first justification, but it is well to be wary of this word "exploration." James Cook spoke of making "voyages of discovery," John Hanning Speke aimed for "geographical discoveries," others talked of "journeys," "travels," even mere "wanderings." As men of science came to the fore, new species were valued as much as new territories. Yet, the more that was discovered, the less was known. For those at home, filling in the blank spaces of foreign lands was true exploring, but foreign to whom? And what place in this narrative for those local guides and porters who made such discoveries possible?

What of those people who knew these lands before the Westerners came with their overstuffed expeditions, and who had, in many cases, seen most of these wonders before? They left few records, scarce trace. There have been all sorts of pioneers and travellers, artists, adventurers, missionaries, surveyors, scholars, geographers, whalers, mariners, geologists, biologists, fossil-hunters and engineers, diplomats and mercenaries, administrators and colonists, entrepreneurs and photographers, through to some modern-day travel writers. All have captured something of their first sight of a land in a memorable or meaningful way, immediate and unmediated. What unites everyone is that they all, at some stage in their varied lives, took a risk; they chose to defy the conventional, to brave a difficult voyage, to leave the comforts of home and explore. They all let the promise of the unimaginable lead them over the horizon and they were willing to embrace the unknown. And they all set down a record of what they had seen for others following after them. By opening the notebooks of others, we are able to join them on significant historic journeys. Notebooks clearly matter. They are invested with intricate practical and personal value and many layers of meaning. Yet there is no reason think too hard. Here is art for its own sake, images that speak of the thrill and the boredom of the field and the joys and frustrations that are encountered. There must always be room for the old-fashioned habit of writing on paper. Next time on a journey it will be wise to pack a little notebook in the rucksack alongside all that electronic gear. Curiosity must be followed.

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