Sandra Dick: Exploring the exploits of our greatest adventurers

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Ahead of a major new series on Scots explorers, presented by Mark Beaumont, Sandra Dick asks what is left for the modern adventurer

WHEN Ernest Shackleton braved Antarctica on board the Nimrod in 1907, he did it while wearing a rather baggy polo neck sweater, sensible mittens and with a splendid “crack on in the face of adversity” attitude. Deep in Africa, David Livingstone ploughed through unchartered territory, battled a lion and disappeared for six years, mostly with just a bible and a medicine chest as his most vital pieces of equipment.

And when 18th century explorer Mungo Park embarked on his second journey to the Niger, it was with a hastily built boat created from two canoes, some firearms, a handful of slaves and a few soldiers, one of whom was, unfortunately, quite mad.

Looking back, some might wonder if anyone venturing out into the undiscovered corners of what was a much bigger world than seems to exist today, was also at risk of being declared slightly insane.

Later this month, tales of Scots’ daring expeditions hits BBC Scotland as the broadcaster brings the giants of exploration and daring modern adventurers together in a major season of programmes that record the exploits of some of Scotland’s most determined characters.

They include Antarctic pioneer William Speirs Bruce, pictured above, – far less well known than Scott and Shackleton but who returned with more scientific data than the other expeditions put together – and Thomas Glover, an Aberdonian who became a key figure in moulding the modern industrial landscape of Japan.

Their accomplishments are simply staggering. All the more so when put into a modern context: after all, if our generation can barely make it along with M8 without a dashboard automated voice telling us which exit to take, how on earth did Edinburgh-educated John Rae walk 1200 miles in two months across frozen Canadian forest lands, en route to establishing the vital trade lane that became known as the North West Passage?

Perhaps more astonishing is that they did it knowing they’d receive little more in the way of recompense than the glory of being able to brag of being the first to put a sensible leather brogue shoe on a slice of previously untouched territory.

Today’s modern equivalent, in a world with nowhere left to explore, instead embark on physically challenging expeditions to be rewarded with book deals, television programmes and high profiles, leading to the awkward question of whether it’s of any real benefit to anyone other than themselves?

Round the world cyclist and Arctic rower Mark Beaumont, who co-presents the BBC Scotland Explorers season with history detective Neil Oliver, argues that while modern adventurers may not be venturing into unexplored territories, their efforts do help us understand more about the endurance levels of the human body, other cultures and countries.

“I’m definitely not an explorer,” he says. “I see myself as more of an athlete, trying to push myself physically.

“The age of exploration was when we didn’t know what was out in the big, bad world. Now most of the world has been explored. While there are definitely people still doing exploration, going to the depths of the jungle or the seabed, but it’s harder and harder. And I’d never claim to be in exploration like any of these characters.”

According to modern explorer and adventurer, Dorset-based Colonel John Blashford-Snell, whose exploits include navigating the 2700 miles of the Congo River, there is a fundamental difference between yesteryear’s explorers and today’s adventurers.

“Explorers are people who bring back information that’s of value. Adventurer tends to be someone who wants to challenge themselves and to find out more about their own ability. There’s a subtle difference.

“There are places waiting to be explored but there are barriers to movement in the world now that weren’t always there, political barriers. So adventurers look for new ways of doing things. They want to reach the North or South Pole in a bath or on roller skates.

“People like Bear Grylls who got to nearly 30,000 ft with a paraglider. It’s still tremendous but it’s not quite exploration.

“What the likes of Stanley Livingstone did is quite incredible. People like him took their lives in their hands and battled their way through.

“These days we have satellite and radio navigation. I think it’s a shame people no longer read the stars.

“That said, I remember one expedition where we spent all night in the Darien jungle trying to establish our position by the stars. Next morning I asked the intelligence officer where we were.

“He said, ‘100 miles south of Hawaii’.”