There’s a lovely anecdote, in the Asian section of this volume, about Sven Hedin’s tape measure. Hedin, in his time, was ‘the greatest explorer in the world’, a testament to his ambition and ruthless determination. He was less adept, though, at keeping track of his possessions, and lost his tape measure near Lake Lop Nor in Sinkiang in 1901. More than five years later it was found by Aurel Stein, a happy accident indicating that there used to be far fewer people tramping around the world’s remoter regions.
Most of those who were doing so are celebrated here, in tales ranging from the familiar to the unexpected. Among those covered are famous rivals Burton and Speke, along with a reminder that Speke died in a shooting accident the day before the two were scheduled to debate at the RGS; Samuel and Florence Baker, whose travels helped solve many of the mysteries of the Nile, and whose marriage had its own source in a Turkish slave market, where Samuel bought Florence; Fridtjof Nansen, ‘the greatest intellect and most creative mind in the history of polar exploration’, who caused a ship to be deliberately locked in the ice of the Arctic Basin so that its subsequent movement might prove the existence of a trans-polar current; and Charles Montagu Doughty, whose writing style was considered so difficult that his Travels in Arabia Deserta was rejected by numerous publishers before ultimately becoming a classic.
The origins of the Great Game are explored too, when amateur explorers wandered across Central Asia, often in disguise; the local knowledge they gathered on their travels as likely to end up in a Whitehall file as in a volume of unread memoirs. Well illustrated, with facsimile letters and maps galore, this is a fine introduction to the subject.
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