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Adventures, adventurers, and the desert

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I have recently become obsessed with the idea of going on an adventure. For years, my Dad has been planning to go cycle-touring, and for years, I have dismissed this as something for wackos. But, a month after starting a 9 to 5, I find myself craving a big journey; into the desert, or across a glacier, or up a mountain. I don’t really care. I’ve been reading about adventures for a few weeks now. I’m hoping to cycle the west coast of America soon.

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Ben Fogle is probably the most famous adventurer in the UK. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a two man rowing boat, with Olympian James Cracknell. I’ve been reading Ben’s book, ‘The Accidental Adventurer’, as well as watching his famous crossing and also, a tackier show called ‘Extreme Dreams’, in which Ben guides ordinary Brits to Incan ruins and mountain peaks. Ben is an interesting character, because he is sensitive, kind, even at times timid. When his boat is deemed unsafe for the Atlantic crossing, poor Ben gets upset about the inspector’s ‘manner’. During the crossing, Ben seemed dominated by the more competitive Cracknell. But Ben is evidently hugely ambitious. He has completed the Marathon Des Sables, a 150 mile run through the Sahara desert. After contracting a tropical illness, Ben had to undergo two months of chemotherapy. But he continued adventuring.

Two qualities: sensitivity, and ambition. I wonder if this is what disposes people to adventure. There is the ambition, which calls people to do amazing things. But whilst most ambitious people get well-paying jobs, or start businesses, some are too sensitive for this kind of success. I for one cannot imagine lovely Ben telling an employee they need to work overtime. So what do these people do, who are called to big things but not to big money? Perhaps they climb up mountains, cross oceans, trek through deserts, and eat fish in the North pole. 

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Adventuring has a curious relationship to history. I am also reading ‘The Immeasurable World’, by Ben Atkins. The book documents his travels through the deserts of the world. He masterfully weaves personal anecdotes with tales of the history of the landscape. His writing makes it clear that adventurers have to know some history, else the significance of their travels are totally lost on them. The Australian desert, like all deserts, is peaceful. Only a few kinds of shrub survive there, and no dune is remarkable compared to any other. So it all stretches out, into a kind of stillness.

But it has the peace of ‘a battlefield, once the war is over’. The Australian desert was once home to thousands of first nation peoples, who were displaced by whites. The Australian dunes are not all natural, because Britain used the deserts to test nuclear weapons in the 50s and 60s. So the land was not merely taken, but also utterly ruined by white settlers; even after clean-up attempts, huge swathes of the desert are too radioactive to live in. The Australian desert is a ruined, stolen home.

History informs what it is like to be somewhere. Knowing the Australian desert’s history, I suddenly recognise how unthinkably naive it would be to have called it peaceful without that qualification: ‘like a battlefield’.

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Adventures are goal-oriented. You aren’t adventuring if you cannot say a sentence of the following form: ‘I’m going to…’ This is brought into stark relief when watching Extreme Dreams. The show splits up the adventure into two sections: the gruelling trek, and the beautiful reward. Once the contestants make it to the Incan ruins, they say ‘it was all worth it’. The goal is reached, the finish line is crossed; the adventure is done. There is a memorable line from Atkins: ‘the world has been done’. Again, this might be why it appeals to ambitious people. An adventure is an achievement, something you can tick off a list.

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This is also how adventuring can become problematic. Adventurers can take things which ought to be respected, and reduce them into a personal achievement. The fury of the desert simply becomes yet another reason why I, adventurer, am great. Earnest Giles crossed Australia from East to West, famously saying: ‘we are now in the worst desert on the face of the earth, but that fact should give us all the more pleasure in conquering it.’ The beautiful world becomes all about me.

Early desert explorers described the desert as a woman to be conquered; the desert is not companion or home, it is simply a rebellious woman who is yet to reveal herself to a man. Atkins writes of early desert explorers: ‘The metaphor of sexual conquest was near ubiquitous: time and time again, the feminine desert was unveiled, exposed, vanquished and finally penetrated.’

The early explorers even treated the unexplored desert like a virgin woman, who is supposedly ruined the moment someone ‘unveils’ her. Harry Philby was utterly furious when Bertram Thomas crossed the desert before him, as though the desert was somehow ruined by someone travelling there first. Philby wrote: ‘Damn and blast Thomas! I have sworn a great oath not to go home until I have crossed the desert twice! and left nothing for future travellers!’ What exactly the desert loses once it is explored is just as mysterious to ordinary people as what a woman supposedly loses when she has sex. The attitudes are nonsensical in all the same places.

Bertram Thomas, the actual first man to cross the Arabian desert, had different motives: ‘I have every intention of being the first man to cross the [Arabian desert], and to live the rest of my life on the proceeds’. For Thomas, then, adventuring is a way to monetise the desert. The desert cannot be turned into a farm, it cannot be made into property and sold, because no one wants to live there. So what do you do with it? You create stories there, and sell the stories. 

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This is no indictment of adventures. All sorts of things can be reduced to achievements. All sorts of things get reduced in this way by people with something to prove. We have all met someone who has turned a lovely experience into a box-ticking exercise. ‘Oh, you like the Killers? I’ve been to every concert of theirs since 2008, one in every continent.’ Turning things which are mysterious and powerful into a story of personal grandeur is evidently a human trait.

I’m tempted to think that adventurers get it right when they strike a balance. Some people are simply not interested enough in the world to consider exploring it. This was me, for most of my life. These people lack an adventurous spirit. Others are obsessed with the world, to the point that they want to own it; their adventures become a way to possess the places they visit. Somewhere in the middle is the perfect balance, where people adventure to embrace the unfamiliar, but not conquer it. The goal is simply to go to amazing places and wonder in amazement at what is out there.

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