Why should Ranulph Fiennes have all the fun? If you’ve ever wanted to venture forth and improve our understanding of the planet, step this way, says Shane Winser
Every year, several hundred expeditions leave the UK to explore, survey or learn about the most remote and challenging corners of our planet. Some of these adventurers are specialists – scientists, geographers, doctors – but many are ordinary people who want to discover something new about the place they visit, and about themselves, and share this new-found knowledge with others.
“Going into an area of tropical forest which had never been explored scientifically, and had few if any visitors before, was an extraordinary experience,” says 32-year-old Eleanor Ashton, who recently returned from her first expedition, to the interior of the Philippine island of Negros (www.rainforestexpedition.org).
“The expedition was testing both physically and mentally, but the feeling of pride in what we achieved in those three weeks is overwhelming.” A teacher from Nottingham, Ashton was part of a joint British-Filipino team trying to demonstrate that a rare, bio-diverse and previously unsurveyed area of forest was more valuable alive than destroyed.
Modern-day expeditions take many forms – scientific, adventurous, educational and charitable – but most are motivated by three age-old aspirations: commerce, curiosity and fun. Anyone with time and commitment can plan an expedition; it doesn’t have to be big or expensive. Indeed, if it is your first expedition, there is huge merit in keeping it small. Success first time round will give you the confidence and credibility to go on and plan more ambitious projects in future.
The range of expeditions being organised today by small teams covers many different disciplines in all corners of the world. This year, students from St Andrews University have got together to work in a new Tanzanian national park to provide baseline mapping and begin a tourism monitoring programme, while another student group has forged links with the Barito Ulu research project, deep in the forests of central Borneo, to document elusive primates and other species. Meanwhile, a number of projects are trying to give voices to local Inuit people who are witnessing the effects of climate change in the Arctic first hand. There is much to do, so there is no shortage of ways you can make a contribution.
The hardest step is deciding what you actually want to achieve with your expedition. The best leave a legacy for the local community that the participants are proud of ten years on. It is your belief in the primary purpose of your expedition that will keep you motivated. This is where the ‘back of an envelope’ approach to planning – favoured by explorers Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton, the original proponents of lightweight expeditions – comes in. Both were meticulous planners, but believed that every plan starts with a simple proposal which can be easily communicated to those who might support your venture.
Having drawn up a list of things you might want to achieve with your expedition, reality kicks in. Do you have the time, money, skills and resources to do this? Is it too ambitious for a first attempt, or can you gain the skills needed by getting further training or going on someone else’s expedition as an assistant first? You may need to involve others with specialist skills – such as researchers or trek guides. Consider partnering a local organisation that shares your ambitions. Slowly that first ‘big idea’ will start to take shape and a plan will emerge.
Remember you are not alone. There are plenty of people to help who are willing to share their hard-won experience. Among them are the 100+ members of the Royal Geographical Society who, every November, help run workshops and advice desks at Explore, the RGS’ expedition and fieldwork planning seminar. But there are also myriad websites and books to help you get started, not least the searchable RGS-IBG collection of past expeditions at www.rgs.org/expeditionreports.
Understandably, many people think the biggest hurdle will be funding. The simplest way to overcome this is to pay for it yourself. This route has the big advantage that you are beholden to no-one else, unlike sponsorship, which commits you to give something in return for financial support, equipment or clothing. Commercial sponsorship is extremely competitive, and the sponsors will almost certainly want a significant return on their investment. Even a simple request from a sponsor, for photographs of their equipment being used in the field, may take precious time and creative skill to deliver.
Depending on the type of expedition, there may well be grants available through charitable trusts that you can apply for to help defray your costs. However you intend to finance your expedition, begin by drawing up a realistic budget, and update it as your plans develop. If you believe in what you are doing, others will too.
As Eleanor has found out, it is a real privilege to be a member of an expedition; with that privilege comes both responsibilities and opportunities. Teacher Jamie Buchanan’s first expedition presented him with a dilemma: of 2,000 pupils at Eastbury Comprehensive, where he taught, he could take only 14 to Mt Toubkal in Morocco. So he decided to share the expedition experience with the whole school by using Google Earth (http://toubkal06.d-eblog.com). Jamie’s advice is: “Don’t forget you have the power to inspire others through your expedition, and encourage them to take their own actions.”
As a result of the expedition, the school saw a greater participation in fieldwork, and Jamie has gone on to set up a business, Digital Explorer, which advises other expeditions on ‘geo-blogging’ and other forms of digital storytelling.
Now it’s your turn. If you’d like to run your own expedition, take that first step. Sketch your ideas on the back of that envelope and start turning your dreams into reality. You never know where your journey might end.
Sources of support if you’re considering…• Geographical research RGS-IBG Geographical Fieldwork Grants: www.rgs.org/GFG