For those aspiring to undertake original geographical field research the options are limitless, so the first hurdle is often how to begin. Fortunately, each November the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) hosts Explore. Now in its 43rd year, Explore is the Society’s longest standing event for the expedition and fieldwork community. Those that attend Explore attest to it being a life-changing experience, and the majority of attendees will return on average three times, with even more coming back as Explore regulars for a decade or more.
Those attending for the first time often don’t know what to expect – they may be curious about what it means to be an explorer or just seeking adventure, some have a project in mind but want to feedback on their ideas. For whatever reason, not all those dreams will immediately become reality but when they do, returning to Explore to share their experiences feels like a rite of passage, and often leads to a life-long association with the Society and future geographical endeavours.
First Time at Explore
Arzucan Askin, a recent geography graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, first came to Explore in 2018 and left with her ‘head buzzing with ideas for fieldwork and expeditions following inspiring conversations with researchers, expedition leaders and filmmakers’. Re-assured about one of her own research proposals, she then made a successful application for a RGS-IBG Geographical Fieldwork Grant and led an interdisciplinary field project on women and climate change in Cuba this summer.
Together with two other LSE students, Caitlan Read and Marta Santivanez-Fernandez, she researched the gendered dimensions of climate change in Cuba and their contribution to the country’s plan for climate action: Tarea Vida (‘Life Task’). With a background in social policy, international relations and geography, the team sought to challenge conventional understandings of climate change governance and provide insights into women’s experiences of climate change in the small socialist state facing the end of the Castro era.
As citizens of a Small Island Developing Nation (SIDN) subject to natural disasters, an economy debilitated by the US embargo and political isolation from the international community, Cuban women face a uniquely multifaceted vulnerability to climate change. At the same time, the very historical and political factors that have left the country weakened have also endowed Cuba with an outstanding approach to climate change, natural hazards and disaster risk reduction. As one of the first nations to name climate change adaptation and mitigation as a ‘Life Task’ to be achieved, and the establishment of the Federation of Cuban Women under the revolutionary government, Cuba provides a unique framework for research that is unlike any other Small Island Developing Nation.
Cuban women have played an integral role in the formation of government in the state-building years following the Revolution and are at the forefront of climate action today. Moving away from a one-dimensional focus on female vulnerabilities to climate change in island nations in the Global South, Project Mujeres Tarea Vida aims to highlight the contributions Cuban women make in adapting to climate change.
A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY
When Oliver Beardon first attended Explore in 2015, his ambitions were modest. Now he leads Sail Britain, an interdisciplinary arts, sailing and ocean research project. He has a particular interest in the collaborative social space of a sailing vessel. ‘Like many coming to Explore for the first time, I came with an idea up my sleeve,’ he says. ‘I had recently left my job, taken some time away sailing in wild places and had come home with a growing realisation that sailing had the potential to be more than just a passion – it had purpose. The incredible social environment of a sailing boat was becoming a fruitful ground for inspiring projects and I wanted to pursue this towards positive change for the oceans.’
But where could Oliver start? A friend suggested attending Explore to get a bit of advice, inspiration and encouragement. ‘It was to be a turning point in the often bewildering journey of being young with big ideas,’ he says. ‘I came away from my first Explore with bucketloads of encouragement that what I was dreaming was not only possible, but also found that there was a kind of family to whom I could return as things progressed – as it was not going to be easy either.’
And progress they did. Oliver returned the next year with a tested pilot project and some new discoveries from the ocean. By the time he came for a third time, he presented what had by now become Sail Britain on the main stage, along with Kate Baker with whom he had run a microplastics research trip in Cornwall with the Exeter Marine Biology department.
‘Explore is a must for any budding adventurer, field researcher, those wishing to join a project, or simply to hear some inspiring stories,’ says Oliver. ‘For myself it’s a punctuation mark in Sail Britain’s year, and a chance to contribute my expertise in what I do and inspire others in navigating the challenges presented by adventurous projects. It is a very friendly event where sound advice is given openly and with a genuine passion rarely found at conferences. Perhaps the soundest advice I ever got was that no one else but you will make your dreams come true, and it’s this combination of solid experience with boundless encouragement which continues to make Explore a very special weekend.’
Second Year University of Oxford students Matthew Jones and Rosalie Wright attended Explore 2018 where their expedition idea was founded. Joining with fellow team members Maryam Jamilah, Azamuddeen Nasir and Pouvalen Seeneevassin, the Usun Apau Retraced expedition was formed, following in the footsteps of the Oxford expedition to the same region 64 years ago.
‘We can safely say that the success of this expedition lies in our initial planning and talks at Explore last November,’ says Rosie. ‘It’s been quite the year of planning and we were slightly in shock to have actually made it to Sarawak after all this work.’ Just recently, the team returned from their expedition and are now recovering after a challenging yet rewarding trip. The team of five (representing both the universities of Oxford and Nottingham Malaysia) successfully completed a three-week stint of jungle living, and have come out with a great respect for one of Sarawak’s most remote National Parks – and an unfortunate dislike of packet noodles. ‘During our time spent on the plateau – based just above the Julan Waterfall, reportedly Sarawak’s tallest – we managed to conduct rapid assessment camera trap studies and complete our vegetation surveys, similar to those of Gordon Pickles 64 years previously,’ says Rosie. ‘We very much look forward to producing our final research reports and more visual outputs so we can share this experience with you as best we can, and once again to thank Explore for assisting us! We’ll also be updating our website and Facebook page regularly so get excited for lots of Usun Apau Retraced content coming your way!’ The team will be reporting back on the expedition at Explore 2019, as well as in the pages of Geographical.
Twenty Years of Explore
Jessi Tucker first came to Explore twenty years ago. She is now an emergency medicine doctor, writer, spoken word artist and conservationist:
‘I first heard of Explore just after I started university, in 1999,’ she recalls. ‘One of my tutors was a Fellow of the Society (not a place I had heard of before) and keen explorer and, in a wave of enthusiasm, swept a group of us down to London on a coach for the Explore weekend. Fresh from my gap year, and with a thirst for adventure and the unknown, I remember being blown away by the experience. The RGS-IBG seemed an extraordinary place, one of old-library atmosphere, ancient maps and even more ancient portraits of severely-bearded gentlemen, heroic and stern in equal measures. Intimidating and inspiring as the location initially seemed, above all I remember the energy, enthusiasm and willingness to help of everyone at Explore. I so wanted to be part of it.
‘I went back to Explore for the next couple of years with fellow students, managing to persuade my way onto an expedition to Myanmar; going to look for bats in Myanmar just before my university finals was, naturally, one of the best decisions I ever made. Out of that expedition, I wrote an article which won runner-up for the Daily Telegraph Young Science Writer of the Year. The following year I attended Explore again, for the first time as a volunteer (helping behind the scenes, making tea and running the cloakroom); with at least a little bit of writing experience, that year I was able to land myself a six-week internship at Geographical through meeting the then editor.
‘Some of my best experiences have come about through Explore. Expeditions to the Sinai Desert, bat research in Malaysia, exploring Borneo, sailing round the Outer Hebrides, writing for the Daily Telegraph and interviewing Bear Grylls and Michael Palin for Geographical; absolutely none of it would have happened had I not plucked up the courage to keep returning to Explore and keep chatting to people I didn’t know in the bar.
‘More than that, the friendships I have made and sustained over the years are special. Some people I only see once a year at Explore – we always enjoy a drink and a catch-up in the bar. Others have become part of my life in different ways; maybe I met them as a friend-of-an-Explore-friend (which is how I became involved in the women’s adventure community, Adventure Queens), maybe they’re expedition buddies and some have simply become good mates.
‘In some ways Explore has changed over the years – it’s refreshing and timely to see so many more women speaking than there were 20 years ago, and there have been some interesting debates about our colonial past. What hasn’t changed and what ultimately keeps me coming back, is the passion, enthusiasm and desire to go out into the world and do something good; these things have always permeated the weekend. Whether you have never been anywhere outside the UK, or whether you have been to every country, if you want to become involved in expeditions this is the place. The heartbeat of Explore is people willing to share their knowledge, their passion and their belief that you can make a difference and inspire you to do the seemingly-impossible.’
Explore 2019 takes place over the weekend of 8-10 November at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London, SW7 2AR.
Weekend tickets to attend both Saturday and Sunday:
• Standard Weekend ticket: £150
• Student/Under 25 Weekend ticket: £90
One Day only tickets to attend either Saturday OR Sunday:
• Standard One day ticket: £90
• Student/Concession One day ticket: £75
For full details and an up-to-date list of speakers and sessions taking place, please visit: geog.gr/rgs-explore2019