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The Search for the Modern Explorer

Expedia are looking for The Modern Explorer ( – and sorry, people, the competition is now closed…) and they’ve asked me to be one of the judges. The winner will retrace the journey from Portugal to India made by Vasco da Gama some five hundred years ago. One of the ideas behind Expedia’s competition is that the reasons we travel, and what we (and others) gain from travel has not changed much over the centuries – it’s just that we communicate in different media these days.

It’s my long-term relationship with this guy Image that has got me on to the judges panel, I think. In the words of the interviewer on Woman’s Hour, ten years ago now, I’m a Sir Walter Ralegh groupie, not least because he was not only an explorer – and supporter of explorers – but a superb writer as well. Thinking about Sir Walter, which is no hardship, one of the many things that made him exceptional for his time was his realisation that new media – in his case, print – was his friend. He, in effect, created a PR campaign for his quest for El Dorado – no matter that he completely failed to find the golden city (he didn’t even find a workable gold mine), his inspiring, eloquent account of the expedition up the Orinoco was designed to finance the next expedition – and the next. Compared to Francis Drake who did, I acknowledge, circumnavigate the globe (but couldn’t and didn’t write anything worth repeating about it) there’s no contest. Sir Walter may have failed to finish pretty much every project he turned his hand to (from finding El Dorado to completing ‘The History of the World’ – incomplete, but still 1400 big pages long), but, not only did he travel hopefully, he had vision and the ability to communicate that vision to others.

What of the prospective Modern Explorers? I’ve been enjoying learning more about the finalists – it’s quite interesting to see that the vast majority are female, even though the publicity for the competition focuses on the male explorer tradition (as does this post – and what follows…so, just for the record, I’m not throwing stones from my glass house here, just noticing…) and it’s exciting trying to find the perfect mix of engaging personality, great communicator, and intrepid traveller.


Judging the entries has made me think about the writers who influenced me when I was younger. The single most important book was Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy. It redefined the art of the possible for anyone reading it – but particularly a girl from the London suburbs. You could just get on your bike and keep going. On your own. And rely on the kindness of strangers. I have continued to read Dervla Murphy over the years, but it is an earlier writer (more writer than explorer really, although with a huge courage all of his own) who, in one of his earliest books, articulates what, for me, are some central truths about travel. This is Robert Byron, in First Russia, then Tibet, recording journeys made in 1931-2.

As a member of a community, and an heir to a culture, whose joint worth is now in dispute, I would discover what ideas, if those of the West be inadequate, can with greater advantage be found to guide the world.

It’s a far cry from Vasco da Gama’s motives for exploration – one recent book about him is simply called Holy War. Byron continues:

And to this end, I would also know, in the language of my own senses, in whom and what the world consists. […] it is only from the sum of isolated journeys that even the shadow of an answer to [these questions] can ever be expected.

Byron knows that most of us are unlikely to gain much insight from our travels – his cynicism fuelled by being an adolescent in the first world war, and witnessing as an adult the slide into the second. But he has hope. To those who say that travel is pointless

the traveller can only reply that at least he desires to know more and more about more and more.

And he also knows that travel is not all about gaining profound insights and stopping wars – it’s about travelling with your friend on ancient roads – although they are new to you – in a beat up old car with that all-important crate of whisky at your side. Inspirational.

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