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The Great Explorers


Thames & Hudson, London. 2010. 304pp, 204 photographs and illustrations. Hardback, 196mm × 253mm. £24.95

ISBN 978-0-500-25169-0

The Great ExplorersPICK up The Great Explorers and you will be immediately struck by not only its weight (1.2kg) but also its production quality. Can books emit pheromones? It oozes something almost tangible, from the printing to the tactile paper. This is not a book that can be ignored.

So The Great Explorers looks good and feels good (I didn’t taste it), but what of the content? When I first heard of the project, the title made me think of Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s existing work The Oxford Book of Exploration, Richard Sale’s Explorers with its photographic bias (see Descent 172) and Mick Conefrey’s very different A Teacup in a Storm (Descent 186), and thus expected a blend of historical quotes and biographies covering a range of explorations. Here would be Nansen and Amundsen, Burton and Thesiger; adventurers of yore whose tale has been told countless times. I was right, but I was also so wrong.

Yes, Nansen and the rest are all here with a chapter devoted to each, but there are also explorers that I had barely heard of or, tellingly, knew of but had not considered in a wider sense, within their field of endeavour. The Great Explorers is themed by environment (oceans, rivers, ice, deserts ...), within which an opening introduction sets the scene, then a series of forty well-illustrated essays look at the men (mostly – there are two women) who made history.

These are potted biographies, set into the context of the world they inhabited. In this, Robin is the editor: each protagonist’s story is written by a different author, but Robin has drawn these together into a cohesive whole (not always an easy task). What comes through well is their motivations: how ruthless these spirits sometimes were in their search for adventure. Let nothing stand between a mother rhino and her young – or an explorer with a goal.

And so we have within our more usual list of explorers the lesser known likes of de Soto and Elias, Stein and Garnier; Herbert and Philby and Bagnold. Read here of expeditions on foot and by vehicle, forays as a spy and a naturalist and be led to the closing section: New Frontiers. Now we have Gino Watkins (flight), Yuri Gagarin (space), Jacques-Yves Cousteau (underwater) and finally, the reason for this review in Descent, Andrew James Eavis for cave exploration.

That might make some cavers stop and blink – why is Andy Eavis in such august company? That he was asked to contribute meant that someone had done some research and reckoned that on the basis of his involvement in the total of cave passage discovered in the world, he was a forerunner. In modern exploration, of course, given the many team efforts rather than an individual’s discoveries, that might stretch a point, but it is certainly true that Andy is known for his involvement and continued (and extensive) support of the series of expeditions to Mulu and China. Indeed, he is no doubt embarrassed by his inclusion – the more so as he is the only living person represented and thus the only contributor writing first-person.

Andy has been an ambassador for and the public face of British caving for many years and it is excellent to see this representation – that he is included here is a true bonus for caving and there is a feeling that without his involvement, our sport might not have reached the page. It is easy to see that in the context of such a book, it is a perfect idea to end with ongoing exploration – proof positive that the drive still exists to go places that other humans cannot reach.

Yet, it would have seemed so appropriate to add an earlier, historical perspective – to detail some of the former great names in cave exploration for the general public. For example, while Stanley was exploring Africa, Martel was on his ‘campaigns’ to seek the secrets of the earth, and he is only one of many. Caving remains one of the last, great frontiers for exploration and The Great Explorers could so easily have remedied, within its existing framework, this lack.

In his chapter Andy details how he became interested in caving and, potted biography-wise, how his career developed and he has spent forty years living his dreams. In truth, the hard facts of cave discoveries related here are a matter of record within the caving world and it is only a pity that the text is an example of brevity forced by a lack of space into eight pages, precluding the flesh that we cavers would like to read more of. Beyond these pages, if you are a caver you are already hooked on exploration and you will utterly enjoy the whole volume, expanding your horizons as you do. At £24.99, it is astoundingly good value.

Chris Howes

First published in Descent (217), December 2010