British reserve and the sense of being completed overwhelmed by what lay ahead soon broke down into an excited buzz as delegates made new friends and probed speakers like myself for information. I was at the Royal Geographical Society’s annual Explore expedition and fieldwork planning weekend at their London headquarters in Kensington.
Settled into one of the deep black leather armchair-like seats in the 350 seat Ondaatje Theatre as Explore began on Saturday morning I had already spoken to several people planning expeditions across the globe, from Greenland to Papua New Guinea. The Society’s illustrious past members and fellows, the likes of Livingstone and Shackleton, cast a dark shadow of expectation over the 200 delegates and 50 or so speakers, as did the photographs of David Attenborough in the corridor leading to lunch.
Some delegates were planning expeditions with specific scientific objectives, while others just had the desire to travel sometime in the future. The weekend quickly brought a dose of reality to anyone with designs at being the next Michael Palin. Explorer and television presenter Paul Rose (the Society’s vice president) introduced the weekend by mentioning just how hard he had had to work to turn his dreams into reality. It’s easy to panic about the future in such circumstances. Delegates have to match the desire for exploration with the very real need to earn a living. Through the morning it became clear that though hard it is definitely possible, often with just a touch of luck along the way. Luck, we are told again and again, is a combination of hard work and circumstance.
The talks continued with a mix of reports on completed expeditions and how to plan future expeditions. Professor David Warrell’s discussion on health in the field was received well by delegates, combining humour with the very serious issue of preventing life-threatening disease.
Saturday afternoon saw the first workshops of the weekend, where delegates divided into smaller groups to discuss issues more relevant to particular forms of expedition. I joined the vehicle dependent expeditions workshop, though it was tempting to attend those dealing with cycling, river, and polar journeys too.
The official part of the first day of Explore ended with a fantastic hour talk by Ed Stafford. His talk on being the first man to walk the length of the River Amazon was staggering and inspirational in achievement. Ed, a former army captain, can be seen as arrogant and immodest, but in fact he was thoughtful and caring, telling the delegates he wasn’t interested in a bigger expedition. Instead, he ‘just wanted a family’.
Day two of the weekend saw talks on funding opportunities and communication, before delegates broke for more workshops. More than once I heard phrases like ‘it’s great to be among like-minded people, who don’t think I’m crazy’, as delegates approached others with required expertise. The day seemed a little calmer and less frantic than day one, perhaps as delegates began to realise the weekend was not about competing with one another for funding and publicity, but was a ‘unifying factor’ – a key phrase from the weekend. A weekend I was happy to be asked to contribute to.
P.S., you can see the remainder of my chosen Encircle Africa photographs on flickr now: