I sit here outside Nairobi, unpacking mentally and emotionally from another Secret Compass expedition. This time eight team members from the widest possible variety of backgrounds trekked and climbed in the remote bush of South Sudan, the world's newest country, before rafting for five days on an almost unexplored section of the mighty White Nile. That followed on the heels of 2011's three-week horse and yak trek to Lake Zorkul in far north-eastern Afghanistan, arguably the world's most notorious country. As I sort through the inevitable backlog of electronic missives from civilisation enquiring as to my success, health, or even continued existence on this earth, I am repeatedly asked the same question from my friends - why?
Why do I devote my spare time, spare funds, and considerable effort in planning and execution to taking off to some of the most remote, and ostensibly inhospitable, places on the planet? What's wrong with two weeks on the beach in Thailand anyway? When asked to explain his ambitions on Everest, Mallory replied Because it's there. True, but so is the Thai beach, and the answer doesn't explain why choose one over the other. Of course there is the enjoyment and excitement of the activity itself. A trek in the mountains, or a river raft trip, is worth the time, effort and money by itself.
But these things can be enjoyed in relatively civilised surroundings. We live in a world where everything is pre-selected, packaged and delivered neatly to our door on request. Our food, our entertainment, our travel, all available in easily consumable servings. Thanks to modern technology - Youtube, Facebook, any number of pay-TV channels - it seems as if every part of the world has been digitised, uploaded, voiced over and put to a cool soundtrack. We can download the e-book or buy the HD Blu-Ray disc. We can be sold these things - however we can't be sold the experience. Because these things are just impressions, copies, filtered through someone else's senses. The true experience of being there, seeing it and hearing it for ourselves can never be packaged.
We can only have that by undertaking the journey ourselves. Theodore Roosevelt said (amongst many things) The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; Secret Compass expeditions involve only a limited amount of face marring, but the sentiment rings exactly true. It is better to be in the arena - trail, mountain, river - ourselves than to watch from the sidelines while others do it for us. Our society also tends to package and provide to us our information and opinions. These opinions may not be exactly what we would have formed for ourselves if given the opportunity. Another advantage of an exploratory-style expedition is that it almost requires us to become informed about the region we visit, in more than a superficial, sound-bite way. We may not always be going where no-one has gone before, but we are treading the path less travelled. It requires more than a cursory effort to do the necessary research beforehand. One fact uncovered leads to another, a map here, an obscure blog there.
Before our boots wander across the landscape, our curiosity wanders across the available information (such as it may be). And once in country, our curiosity is only aroused even more; our knowledge is confirmed or corrected, our opinions reinforced or refuted. We look with different eyes if we think our views are pioneering too. The opportunity to acquire unique knowledge of a remote location is only half the story however. Once back in civilisation, with the dirt removed from clothes, hair and fingernails, we have the chance to share our new-found perspective with friends and colleagues, and anyone else who happens to enquire. The water-cooler conversation is significantly different if we've just returned from South Sudan rather than southern Spain.
But as much as anything we take part in these expeditions because it's in our nature to do so. We humans are natural explorers, natural adventurers. Watch a small child at play: everything they do is exploration, is a question of what and why and how. What's around this corner, what's behind that door? They are constantly pushing their own personal horizon outwards. As adults our sense of adventure gets lost in the noise of everyday living. Exploration isn't a part of our nature, it is our nature.
This article was originally published on the website of Secret Compass, who ran the mentioned expeditions to Afghanistan's Wakhan corridor and South Sudan. I'm uploading it here in response to Explorers Connect's recently posted question Why do we explore?."