Each year, on the cusp of Christmas as temperatures drop and scarves are donned, a gathering of adventure and discovery has been taking place in London for decades. In the same building from which the fictional Phileas Fogg began his journey around the world (and from where Michael Palin began his own actual circumnavigation for the BBC), a tingling excitement hangs in the air. Within venerable wood-panelled halls, such esteemed explorers as Livingstone, Everest, Scott and Murchison have spoken of their trials and tribulations, in pursuit of scientific discovery, geographical description, colonial expansion and personal growth. For all these renowned historical figures, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London has been the first port of call for expedition planning, and so it remains to this day.
In November of 2013, the RGS (with the Institute of British Geographers) staged its annual flagship expedition planning event; Explore 2013. Conceived as an open expertise-sharing forum, the event gathers experienced field experts, conservation practitioners, equipment providers and commercial explorers for three days of planning, collaboration and experience sharing. Through a programme of talks, expedition sales pitches, funding opportunities and organised networking opportunities, prospective expedition teams gather ideas, resources and potential collaborators. In addition, landscape-specific workshops (rainforest, dessert, Arctic, montane, etc…) are given, as well as methods development panels to hone skills in qualitative or quantitative data collection and media outreach while in the field (and upon returning safely!). And importantly, Explore also provides a forum where funding opportunities can be presented and negotiated. Having completed 12-months of field work in Rwanda, I was invited to sit on the human sciences panel, offering methodological and logistical advice on qualitative research.
The atmosphere throughout the three days was electric. In conversation with some hopeful expedition leaders, their bubbling ambition ranged from an undergraduate geological survey in Greenland, to a PhD assessment of pastoral systems in Afghanistan by bicycle, to bird conservation initiatives in South American cloud forest. Coffee breaks were had next to the model of Mount Everest, used to plan Edmund Hillary’s successful climb in 1953, at the doors of the theatre where George Everest once spoke, before ‘Peak XV’ had a name.
Explore, however, is strictly not a gap-year planning event, nor is it limited to scientific endeavours, but also spans commercial filmography and personal exploration. Yet perhaps the most admirable aspect of Explore is that all who offer their hard-won expertise do so as volunteers, from media experts and scientists to project managers and grizzled explorers. The theme of the gathering is not self-promotion or personal gain, but the encouragement of the next generation of ambitious geographical leaders.
On my way out, I glanced at a large world map in the foyer, especially hung for the occasion. Decorated with drawing pins and colourful sticky notes scrawled with contact details and appeals for expertise, it showed just how varied geographical research has become and how strong geography remains as a subject.
Explore runs every year around the third weekend of November. Watch the RGS website for more details on next year’s event.