In a recent rant bemoaning the demise of
the world's great wildernesses, explorer Robyn Davidson recounts
a telling story. Crossing Warburton's Desert in Western Australia,
she reached a point where there was nothing and nobody for a 500
mile radius. Suddenly the track divided. In the wedge of sand between
the two trails a sign was thrust. It said, "Keep Left."
She was outraged, furious that "her"
desert had been desecrated by some well-meaning knuckle-head. It
was, she records, "further evidence of the grotesque need humans
have to lift their legs and pee on everything they come across."
Only later did she appreciated the irony of her resenting everybody
who invades the wilderness…everybody except herself and her 4X4
V8 turbo diesel Land Rover.
Thanks to modern technology, a journey that
would take the Aboriginies several weeks took Robyn several days.
Where the native would scoop up a few essentials and walk, the explorer
arms themselves with sophisticated survival gear, state-of-the-art
fuel and supplies, not to mention a raft of recording devices to
prove she was there, packs them into thirty grand's worth of powered
aluminium, slips into first and trundles off. The trail she blazes
is more an achievement of corporate technology than human resource
The romantic view is that aboriginal people
live/d pure lives in a virgin landscape, unblemished by the hand
of Man. At the Dawn of Time, maybe, but by dinner time all that
changed. Spear-bearers hunted animals to extinction long before
the 19th Century discovered how to eradicate them with lazier, more
powerful weapons. As soon as we cleared the jungle and planted crops,
humankind mucked about with nature. But that was ok. We were nature.
Aboriginal peoples had two things going for
them. Firstly, there weren't very many of them. In a bountiful environment,
where there was plenty to go round and plenty of space, the natural
destructiveness of our delightful species wasn't a big problem.
Secondly, they had time to learn from their mistakes, to develop
codes and practices that would protect their resources and future.
They evolved a symbiotic relationship with nature that was about
them and within them.
In the over-populated 20th Century, that
same species with those same instincts lives in a global economic
system that can't balance the books. When consumption totally outstrips
the capacity of the planet to supply, the system goes looking for
new hunting grounds. It sends probes into space. It moves into hostile
corners of the planet, into wildernesses, and mines diamonds in
the Namibian Desert, sucks oil out of the Mongolian steppes and
plunders the Amazon basin.
What enables the multi-nationals to go where
no human has been before is modern technology, the appliances of
sciences that Robyn Davidson and the rest of us employ to fly round
the world or just go shopping at Sainsbury's. The problem is, in
such a raw setting, we don't like seeing it. It reminds us of our
destructiveness. It brings home how alienated we are from the system,
from each other and from our natural world. We enter the wilderness
seeking to escape the inescapable, ourselves.
These days the term is used guardedly, particularly
in an island as chocker as Britain. There is nowhere left undiscovered,
but it is still possible to find rampant isolation and make-believe
we are trans-navigating virgin territory. The Scottish Highlands,
the Welsh mountains and parts of the North Pennines are obvious
places where rough riders can lose themselves for a few days, but
even in the sardine sandwich of southern England there are routes
where skylarks and rabbits are the only living souls you will encounter.
Whether your expedition is across Salisbury
Plain or the Sahara Desert, the sudden 'emptiness' presses home
human vulnerability in the face of omnipotent nature. It is this
that triggers the change in consciousness we are justifiably there
to find. But the longer and harder the crossing gets, the deeper
explorers seem to delve inside themselves. Maybe this is why so
many professionals are egotistical, self-centred and intolerant
when they return to the real world?
And wild riding ain't what it used to be.
In 1884 San Franciscan journalist Thomas Stevens set off around
the world on a Columbia Expert penny-farthing. He carried a poncho,
a spare shirt, a .38 Smith & Weston and a leather bag with a
few medicines, writing materials, money, matches and a map. A hundred
years later, cousins Nick and Dick Crane rode custom-built Raleighs
and replaced the handgun with sleeping bags and a few bike tools
for their Journey to the Centre of the Earth across the Gobi Desert.
What these adventurers shared was a willingness
to surrender almost everything to the unsympathetic environment,
to be both mentally and physically open to the possibilities (however
small) presented by an alien world and its occupants. Essentially,
they went native.
It is unreasonable and possibly dangerous
to expect the average bod on three weeks vacation from their line-manager
to enter the unknown so minimally equipped. No SAS Handbook or Ray
Mear's World of Survival can adequately prepare the domesticated
homo sapien for the hardships Mother Nature will sling at them.
But as soon as you pack your Katadyn water filter, Therm-a-Rest
and MSR Jet Stove you give up the right to moan about the disappearing
The great empty spaces of the world have
become theme parks for those of us who live in the greatly overcrowded
spaces of the world. We are entertained in them and by the films,
books and yarns of those who professionally venture into them. Maybe
we should just ring-fence them and lay down a law about how much
modern technology explorers can take in? Human powered transport
would definately get through, but mobile phones, camcorders and
GPS gizmos will be incinerated at the gate.