The Faber Book of Exploration by Benedict Allen - review by Christopher Ondaatje

Christopher Ondaatje

Boldly Going

The Faber Book of Exploration


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No one has been excluded without good reason from this anthology of the writings of the world’s greatest explorers, past and present: in his sensitive and thought-provoking introduction Benedict Allen has taken a great deal of trouble to explain how he made his choices. To elucidate his own understanding of what exploration is, he quotes some of today’s best-known explorers. The enigmatic Ranulph Fiennes, the first man to reach the North and South Poles overland, defines an explorer as ‘someone who has done something that no human has done before – and also done something scientifically useful’. Chris Bonington, a leading mountaineer of the postwar generation, says simply: ‘You have to have gone somewhere new.’ And the aged Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed the Empty Quarter in 1946, points out: ‘If I’d gone across by camel when I could have gone by car, it would have been a stunt.’ For him, ‘exploration meant bringing back information from a remote place regardless of any great self-discovery’. Allen admits that, being a writer, his interest is ‘skewed towards the exploration of ideas’. Nevertheless, he concludes sensibly that ‘exploration is about pushing back a frontier of knowledge, mental or physical; crucial to the process is the reporting back of that new information.’

How lucky we are that so many have brought back accounts of their journeys, for where would we be without these writings? In the six sections (Seas and Landfalls, Plains and Foothills, Hot Deserts, Cold Deserts, Forests, and Mountains), Allen has included fascinating excerpts from the journals of all the

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