First in their field — the men and women possessed by the spirit of adventure

Alexander Maitland’s passion for discovery comes alive in this illuminating, yet uneven book, about the dauntless men and women who have explored our planet.

Explorer Freya Stark in Jebel Druze, Syria. Credit: Royal Geographical Society / Alamy Stock Photo.
Explorer Freya Stark in Jebel Druze, Syria. Credit: Royal Geographical Society / Alamy Stock Photo.

Exploring the World: Two centuries of remarkable adventurers and their journeys by Alexander Maitland. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2022, 400pp, £25.

Exploring the World catalogues more than eighty intrepid adventurers who have been awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s (RSG) prestigious Gold Medal. All were worthy recipients whose stories deserve to be told, and that is both a strength and a weakness in this book.

It is a strength because we hear stirring tales of exploration and hardship undertaken by people unfamiliar to many readers. Although Livingston, Rasmussen, Thesiger, Cousteau and other well-known figures are covered, so too are many names mostly long forgotten after their era of adventures had passed.

It is a weakness though insofar as, with so many explorers to cover, there is often not enough space given to each individual. Some have as few as three or four paragraphs and almost as soon as they are introduced it’s time to move on. It’s a case of more is less, and the best parts of the book are when an individual comes alive over several pages explaining their own hinterland and where it led them.

The RSG gold medals are awarded annually to recognise excellence in geographical research, fieldwork, teaching, policy, and public engagement, and are approved by the British monarch. The first, in 1831, was awarded to Richard Lander ‘for important services in determining the course and termination of the Niger’. Lander is afforded almost ten pages which allows the reader to establish the context of the time and geography of his travels as well as tales of derring-do, love affairs, and epic treks through what is now Chad and Niger.

The book is divided geographically with sections titled Africa, Australasia, North America and the Arctic, South America, Asia, Arabia and the Middle East, Europe, Antarctic, and Oceans. Maitland is careful not to overuse the term ‘discovered’ which, he explains, he replaces ‘with phrases such as ‘first sighted by a European’. This is to make it absolutely clear that a lake, river or mountain has been known to the indigenous peoples living in its vicinity, for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years’. He applies the same logic to the naming of features in the explored regions. In the cases where they have reverted to their original names Maitland follows suit and so we learn that Thompson’s Falls in Kenya is now again called Nyharuru.

He also accepts the moral complexities of exploration and its relationship to commercial enterprises. Some of the voyages detailed were funded by companies seeking to profit from new trade routes and resources. This does not, however, detract from the often-powerful personal stories told of years away from families, frequent bouts of illness, exhaustion, sun stroke, gangrene, and frostbite, many of which end in death.

The protagonists are not all heroes; some come across as arrogant, bullying, selfish, and possibly mentally ill. Competition between them is often intense and there are examples of ambition overcoming morals. Not everyone can rise to the last moments of Captain ‘Titus’ Oates on March 16, 1912:  knowing his physical condition was a hinderance to Scott and his companions, Oates walked out of their tent and into an Antarctic blizzard to die. His last words are still known to most British people – ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

Henry Morton Stanley’s famous ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ gets the obligatory mention in the entertaining pages on David Livingstone (1813-73). What might be new to some readers are a series of interesting snippets. Livingstone was the second of seven children born to poor parents. He shot and wounded a lion, which then attacked him and broke his arm leaving him partially disabled for the rest of his life. He was a dedicated opponent of the slave trade, and said he wanted to discover the source of the Nile in order to have a more powerful voice with which to ‘remedy this great evil.’ We also learn that although he died near Lake Bangweulu, his remains were carried more than 1,000 miles to the East African coast to be brought back to Britain — his funeral service was in Westminster Abbey where the remains of his remains were interred. His heart, however, belonged to Africa. It was buried under a Mvula tree in what is now northern Zambia.

Eight pages are devoted to Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003), a friend of Maitland. He wrote a well-received biography of him titled Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer. His warmth towards, and understanding of, a complex character comes through. There are also fascinating snippets about Thesiger’s life, such as his service with the newly formed SAS in North Africa in the Second World War.

It’s a shame more space wasn’t given to Bertram Thomas (1892-1950). In 1931 he became the first European to cross the vast southern desert in Arabia known locally as Rub’al Khali and internationally as ‘The Empty Quarter’. T.E. Lawrence had pronounced it uncrossable by Europeans saying that ‘Nothing but an airship can do it’. Thomas proved him wrong but there is no detail about his epic journey in the four paragraphs devoted to him.

It is refreshing to see some of the modern explorers of the oceans included, among them Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-97). Older readers will remember his ground, or perhaps water-breaking, TV series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which ran from 1966 to 1976. Most viewers had never seen the mysteries of the deep portrayed in such a vivid manner, nor with such enthusiasm. Cousteau was a ‘guardian of the oceans’ and a pioneering conservationist.

He also pioneered the first ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’ or SCUBA as the world learned to call it. Before the Second World War he was a junior officer attached to Naval Intelligence and was in the French Resistance. His brother, Pierre-Antoine, was a communist turned fascist who edited an antisemitic newspaper and after the war was sentenced to death, though the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released on grounds of ill health in 1956, but refused to recant his views despite efforts by Jaques-Yves and was shunned by the family.

Details such as this help us better understand the characters of these explorers, and remind us the dramatic stories that made them famous played out at the same time as the dramas of their private lives. More flesh on the bones of fewer characters would have helped the book.

Indeed, many of those covered are worthy of a book in their own right, and Maitland has written some of them, including those on John Hanning Speke (1827-1864), and Dame Freya Stark (1893-1993).

Maitland ends with a postscript noting that there is a new age of exploration underway – ‘further manned and unmanned missions to the depths of the Earth’s oceans, and to the stars and planet in our galaxy and beyond’. It is a recognition of how the spirit that drove the book’s characters never dies, and a reminder of the author’s passion for discovery.


Tim Marshall