Are the planet’s wildernesses really disappearing?
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 and endurance.
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 wilderness.
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.