Exploring beyond frontiers – Part 2

Posted by on Mar 24, 2015 in In search of
Exploring beyond frontiers – Part 2

Compared to the achievements of Isabella Bird, most of our so called adventurous travels are easy walks in the park.  The independent-minded Bird (1831-1904) was the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. She visited Australia, the USA and Asia, the extensive travels of this nineteenth century explorer, traveler, writer and photographer might be considered to be the greatest in the Victorian era. In 1897 her last journey began, travelling up the Yangtze river in China and river Han in Korea. Her adventures were unique, as were her writings, the most famous book probably being ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’ (1879). Taking into account the absence of modern technology and communication facilities, these journeys are even more daring and adventurous. It would make a great film script.


Maps, navigation and location

Detailed information provided by those who travelled to unknown regions always has been the stepping stone for further development and new expeditions. Summed up, this has let us know the continents as we do now. As a consequence, the history of cartography follows the history of man’s discoveries. Unlike the adventurers of the Victorian age, when the art of travel began to spread, attracting an elite who could afford to go abroad, visiting the colonies or staying away for months retreating in a Tuscan villa, the travels of the great discoverers were initiated by something else. Apart from genuine curiosity, they were motivated by the wish to find new lands which undoubtedly would serve their countries as new markets in the future. The not to underestimate influence of this ‘need and greed’ factor, felt and pursued by many, let them go aboard their ships or saddle their horses, heading into the unknown.

When we are planning a tour, whether it might be for a day or two weeks, the first thing to do is study a detailed map of the area. It will provide the necessary information on distance, terrain, camp sites and more. Preciseness is something we depend on although verifying the map’s accuracy of facts by means of using a compass obviously is highly recommended when in the field. One might say that the nature of adventure has changed because of the availability of these navigation instruments and the knowledge how to use them. The emphasis is now more on personal achievement, extraordinary performance or to succeed in doing something, whether it might be crossing the Atlantic or climbing the highest peak in no time, or going on a solo hike in the Norwegian Hardangervidda. What is needed and what is discovered by those actions is perseverance and willpower, the great test of stamina being rewarded with the victorious feeling of conquering over one’s self. Certain dangers and hazards are the same as they have always been, but we are so much more able to ascertain risks, acting accordingly.

By way of illustration let us go back a couple of centuries, to the great explorers of all times, those who set foot on new land, reaching new frontiers. Getting lost was a more common phenomenon in those days, the unexpected mainly but not only caused by the absence of information on location. Maps were the key factor in bringing about problems as well as solving them.



Great explorers: Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, James Cook

Kings and queens, The Pope, aristocracy: they provided the funds needed to journey into unknown worlds. Venture capital was raised for numerous expeditions, the investors hoping for new markets. The world as we know it today was not theirs, as many water passages were still unknown. The opening of the oceans which would lead to new water highways, could only be of consequence because of the ability to come home again. The enterprise of discovery in the Middle Ages proved to be a difficult task. At that time the Christian theologians were in charge of drawing up charts and mapping the world. Because the universe and man’s destiny were their domain, not  surprisingly The Garden of Eden headed their maps. Furthermore, according to the Scripture (2 Esdras, reckoned among the Biblical apocrypha), the seas should be only a minor part of the whole. At this point one was sent barking up the wrong tree….

2 Esdras 6:42

“Upon the third day thou didst command that the waters should be gathered in the seventh part of the earth: six parts hast thou dried up, and kept them, to the intent that of these some being planted of God and tilled might serve thee.” (King James Bible “Authorized Version”, Cambridge Edition)


The Ebstorf Map, ca. 1235

The Ebstorf Map, ca. 1235


Marco Polo

Marco Polo, although not being the first European trader heading to the East, has become the most famous by far on account of his detailed journeys, which became known as The Travels of Marco Polo. His journey over land followed the Silk road through Eurasia and  took him to China, where he met the Mongol Emperor of China, Kublai Kahn. Returning to Venice in 1295, which was at war with Genoa at the time, Polo ended his 24 years of travel. Whether or not Polo must be acclaimed for having discovered America, some 200 years before Columbus did, is doubtful. The ‘Map with Ship’ which shows the Alaskan coast (seemingly drawn up by Polo’s daughters after his death, and claimed to be a copy of Marco Polo’s sketch)  and the other maps and texts on parchment which only recently are heavily studied, do provide however something that his narratives lacked: the maps. But these do not fit in the era’s known map styles, thus making the documents’ claim of authenticity dubious at the very least.

Christopher Columbus

With the fall of Constantinopel in 1453 there came an end to the safe and by then well known route over land to Asia. The Silk Road now closed, India and China more far away than before, and the valued spices, silk and opiates difficult to obtain. Portugese navigators therefore tried to find a sea route to Asia by sailing round Africa, with Bartholomeu Dias in 1488 reaching the Cape of Good Hope. The Columbus brothers followed another pitch, a suggestion made in 1470 by astronomer Toscanelli, that sailing west would be a quicker way. And despite of the wrong estimation of the distance that separated Europe from the Far East, Columbus sailed and reached land, his successful navigation over the Atlantic was accounted for by the trade winds, the so called ‘easterlies’. Not Japan it was where he set foot in 1492, a new continent was discovered. Columbus himself denied the fact that it was not Asia where his fleet had anchored by the way.


Ruysch World Map, 1507

Ruysch World Map, 1507


James Cook

And the last continent to be discovered by Europeans was Australia. The first navigator to land there was, already in 1606, the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon. It were also the Dutch who, following the shipping routes to the Dutch East Indies, contributed remarkably to the steadily growing knowledge of the Australian coasts and waters. Abel Tasman reached Tasmania and New Zealand, mapmaker Joan Blaeu incorporated the detailed information in his maps. But the colonial claims to the new territory were made by James Cook, who charted the East Coast for the UK, in 1770.


Again: the 7R-gene variant calling for adventure

Returning to present-day adventures one may come to the conclusion that almost all circumstances have changed. We have maps and other navigation instruments, our outstanding technical equipment and clothing, and above all another approach towards faraway regions. We come to visit, not to claim. An exception has to be made for the territorial claims in the Arctic: new lands are now becoming within reach due to melting ice, underneath the promising treasures of raw materials.

Weather conditions did not change but our forecasts are so much more precise. And we are aware of the positive impact of keeping up an active life, acting accordingly (please note that the 7R gene-variant only recently has been linked to longevity, more research is on its way to confirm or reject!).

Maybe the decisive difference between now and then, strongly affecting the female adventurers, has been in the realms of convention and, in the wake of these rules, opportunity. It means that now anyone can go, there is no such thing as going against the accepted norm. Let us take a look at the figures: if the 7R adventure gene is present in twenty percent of us, that would make ten percent for the female group. Now, although childcare is not anymore the exclusive domain of women, a major part will temporarily give up risky sports or strenuous activities. So, from the female group that is most likely to fit the characteristics of the adventure seeker, fifty percent is not available. Therefore men outnumber women here, making it even more obvious that there are less adventure movies featuring women. But should it be declared an issue? Not for me. Because I do like watching these kind of films, the story is more important than the protagonist. It is not the other way around. The film has to be interesting and enjoyable, that’s all.




  • Adventure gene and longevity: Scientists link gene variant to human longevity (link). The main article by D.L. Grady to be found in The Journal of Neuroscience: DRD4 Genotype Predicts Longevity in Mouse and Human (link).
  • Hints to Lady Travellers, by Lillias Campbell Davidson. First published in 1889, and quickly becoming a bestseller amongst women planning to go abroad, is available in reprint now( Elliot & Thompson publishers). Fun reading.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.