New Welsh Review
Expeditions Unpacked: What the Great Explorers took into the Unknown
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The book itself is large and heavy, filled with thick, glossy paper. It is the sort of coffee table book that screams to new houseguests, I am an explorer and these are the people I look up to. I don’t doubt that legends such as Fiennes, Wood, and Outen would showcase this book in their dining rooms.
Expeditions Unpacked talks about both the more famous explorers (Bly, Amundsen, Fawcett), and the lesser-known ones (Stinnes, Dickson, Slessor), covering both male and female explorers from all modern eras. Of course, it also talks about Stafford and his wife, Laura Bingham, along with several of their friends.
The book isfilled with stories and tidbits to whet the curiosity of the average reader. For example, everyone knows of the polar explorer Captain Scott, but most may be unaware that, as he was taking his final breaths, he wrote in his diary, ‘The end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more…. For God’s sake look after our people.’
There is a lot of debate surrounding the age-old question: who is the ‘better’ explorer, Scott or Amundsen? Expeditions Unpacked delves a little more into it, pointing out the contrasts between the two – and I am now even more certain that it must be the former. Scott had it so much harder than Amundsen, witnessing things that no man should ever have to live through – and yet he was brave, strong and kind until the end. He took a boy from my hometown on his infamous expedition – Edgar Evans – but all of the men slowly succumbed to weakness, hunger, and exposure. The men died: some walking out into the cold to unburden the team, never to return, some slipping head-first down cliffs and suffering aneurisms – until Scott was the only one left.
In contrast, Amundsen decided to walk to the South Pole merely because he had been beaten to the North Pole. He was much better prepared and had a drastically larger budget, ordering 3,000 books, a gramophone, and endless instruments to take on the trip out there. He had much better food (whereas Scott’s team suffered with malnutrition), and had learnt from previous expeditions to ski at night, take cocoa rather than coffee to drink, and to wear clothes loosely during the day while wrapping them around himself at night. His men already knew how to operate skis (Amundsen was Norwegian, after all), whereas Scott’s had to be trained en-route. Amundsen also made his dogs eat one another.
Scott may have lost the race, but as he once said:
It is the work that matters, not the applause that follows.
The book includes chapters on the lives and tales of many explorers that I was already familiar with, such as Colonel Percy Fawcett. Having read excerpts of his memoirs and accounts from historians, along with conducting my own university project on the mystery surrounding his death, I felt as though I was already relatively well-versed on everything Fawcett. But this book pointed out otherwise.
For example, I never knew the tale of one team member being ambushed by a 7ft bushmaster (a rare but highly venomous snake), ‘striking him in the chest at close range. Leaping into the air he managed to draw his Webley revolver and put two rounds into the head of the creature, before collapsing.’ As it happens, ‘on closer examination he realised that the viper had actually sunk its fangs into his tobacco pouch; soaked in venom it seemed that, this time at least, smoking had saved his life.’ Who knew?
It is very well documented that Fawcett was incredibly kind to the locals whose lands he was trespassing, treating them with gentleness and openness, unlike other Victorian-era explorers who would shoot them all on sight, no hesitation. This book talks a little about one particular incident where Fawcett rounded a bend in a canoe to find themselves with arrows raining down on them, coming from an encampment of screaming women, shouting men, and barking dogs. ‘Unable to move and short of options, the ever resourceful Fawcett ordered one of his men to play the accordion as loudly as possible to try and defuse the situation. It worked, the bemused natives stopped firing, and a few minutes later Fawcett was greeting the tribespeople and exchanging gifts of friendship.’
After years of being in the Amazon, Fawcett, his son, and his son’s friend disappeared, never to be seen again. However, less than sixty years after the expedition, Westerners explored the area where he was rumoured to have disappeared, discovering the remains of pottery from a large advanced civilisation that had lived in the jungle many centuries ago. Evidence of this complex town and village system, which may have once housed 50,000 people, was right there, at the foothills of Fawcett’s presumed death site. Could it be true that Fawcett was right, that he had finally found the lost city of gold that he had always been searching for? Unfortunately, not even Ed Stafford knows the answer.
Several chapters in, I read about Eva Dickson for the first time. Initialy renowned for being a feisty racing car driver, entering the men-only events under the pseudonym of Anton Johansson, she quickly became a media celebrity. But she really came into public view after the following conversation with one of her male dinner guests, which she immortalised in her diary:
‘Women are impossible nowadays! They paint their nails red, bleach their hair, they drink champagne or smoke cigarettes until the fingertips are brown from nicotine. They don’t even have children anymore. Look at yourself, Madame, what is good enough for you?’
‘I can drive,’ replied Eva.
‘Drive a car! Every educated person can drive a car, play bridge, and go dancing,’ exclaimed her dinner guest haughtily.
‘But I’ll drive all the way from Nairobi to Algiers.’
‘I bet you cannot do it!’
‘The bet is accepted. The loser invites everyone to champagne,’ Eva laughed.
Eva became the first person to single-handedly drive across the entire silk road by car. She spent the rest of her nine-month trip driving through Germany, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, taking a detour through Afghanistan to India as the Afghan mountains were ‘far too dangerous’ for a solo female traveller. However, Eva suddenly fell in ill Calcutta, and as such was treated with arsenic, which only made her worse. And then the Sino-Chinese War broke out and Eva ran out of money, so she decided to drive back to Europe.
Eva decided upon a quick stopover in Baghdad to have dinner with a friend, before continuing out on the perilous journey in almost total darkness by herself. On an incredibly bumpy and treacherous road, she missed a curve and went flying down the edge of a cliff. She died on impact.
Expeditions Unpacked is one of the most interesting, engaging, and beautiful books I have ever had the pleasure to own, and I am certain that I will continue to thumb through it for decades. Knowing exactly what drove them, as well as which dresses and books they took on their travels, makes the heroes behind the history books more human. This book is already a prized possession of mine.
Amy Aed lives in Aberystwyth.