‘I know less now than when Explore began about what an expedition is.’ It’s an arresting confession from Shane Winser, who heads up Geography Outdoors, the Society’s expedition advisory centre, to which hundreds of aspiring expedition leaders turn each year for encouragement and advice.
Yet her admission hints at the wider truth abut how expeditions have changed since 1975, when Canadian anthropologist Dr John Hemming was appointed Director of the Royal Geographical Society. Hemming’s appointment came at a time when the global conservation movement was shifting its attention from species conservation to habitat protection. Hemming believed that students would be able to undertake geographical surveys in remote and challenging locations if they could be marshalled to organise scientific expeditions that were safe and worthwhile.
Serendipitously, a group of students at the Polytechnic of Central London were planning their own ‘World Exploration Conference’ that same year. One of the undergraduates, Nigel Winser, invited Hemming to speak at the event. The Director agreed. The President of the RGS, Sir Duncan Cumming, delivered the opening address.
One year later, the first ‘Planning a small expedition’ seminar was held at the Royal Geographical Society in conjunction with the Young Explorers Trust. Hemming and his volunteers assembled a stellar cast of field scientists and experts from the growing number of British organisations that were becoming involved in exploration activities. Attendees that year were able to choose from a smorgasbord of workshops covering desert, marine, polar, mountain, forest and savannah environments. In 2016, these workshops can still be found on the Explore programme. But they are now accompanied by a plethora of disciplines and special interests that would have been unimaginable to the organisers of the 1976 event.
As Explore has evolved, so has its reach – and its audience. You might sit down to enjoy TED-style talks in the Ondaatje Theatre on the Friday night and find yourself next to a businesswoman planning a sabbatical to undertake citizen science in Uganda. You could wind up having a drink in the bar on the Saturday evening with a postgraduate scientist organising a field research project in Kamchatka. And at lunch on the Sunday perhaps you’ll be swapping stories with a team of amputees who are about to cross a Patagonian icecap. However, there is one attendee demographic that has reduced in number in the 21st century: the undergraduate.
“Yes, the blanks on the map are few and far between. But never has there been more urgency to understand how the world works”
Dr Ceri Lewis is a senior lecturer in marine biology at the University of Exeter and the chair of the marine panel at Explore. Like many of her peers, Lewis trod a familiar path through her undergraduate career with a mix of laboratory research and fieldwork. But it was Lewis’ participation in the 2010 Catlin Arctic Survey that catapulted her career. ‘The ability to do some exciting, high profile research in the field got me noticed,’ she says. ‘It made me look different from the rest of my colleagues.’
Many of the Generation X and millennial eras arrived at university with a nascent understanding of fieldwork techniques, coupled with exposure to outdoor education. In Generation Z students, however, these are rare qualities. Earlier this year, Lewis took her second year undergraduates on a field trip to a mosquito-infested atoll. The spartan hotel lacked air conditioning and an internet connection, the students were fed field rations, and everyone spent five hours each day snorkelling under a blistering sun in order to count fish. ‘It was the first time the students had done anything like this,’ she says. ‘Most of them said, “Wow, this is the best thing I have ever done.” But it took a little while for them to find their feet.’
There are exceptions. Lewis cites conservation biologist and citizen science champion James Borrell as an example of what can be achieved by an undergraduate student determined to organise his own expedition: ‘James received 95 per cent for his dissertation. It was published without a word being changed. He is both adventurous and academic, which is a powerful combination.’
Shane Winser echoes Lewis’ compliments about Borrell, and remarks on Gregor MacLennan and Hugh Doulton, two other accomplished undergraduate expedition leaders from the annals of Explore who organised standalone expeditions to Peru and the Comoros respectively that blossomed into multi-year projects involving local communities and NGOs.
The question does remain: how can a student justify the time and financial investment of mounting an expedition to undertake fieldwork under the shadow of university fees and a precipitous job market? Shane Winser remains unapologetically upbeat: ‘I had a conversation with a student who is passionate about leading expeditions and who is also interested in renewable energy,’ she says. ‘I told him to do an expedition with a renewable energy focus that would make him interesting to employers. You might have a brilliant academic degree and loads of theory, but what people want to know is that you have real-world, practical experience.’
And don’t get Winser started on the off-quoted cliché that there is nothing left to explore: ‘Yes, the blanks on the map are few and far between. But never has there been more urgency to understand how the world works. Ocean acidification, deforestation, climate change – it’s all happened on our watch. It has never been easier to give purpose to your expedition. With guidance and training, there is plenty of knowledge that a team – especially a young and energetic one – can bring back from the field.’
This was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.