Journeying to the ends of the Earth …

There are few places left where no one has gone before — but to Mark Brazil, that's no reason to stop 'traveling in the footsteps of heroes'

by Mark Brazil

Travel is an addiction for which there seems no cure. Once under its sway, it is best just to ride out the alternating fevers and chills and see where they take you.

Around nontravelers or infrequent travelers, I find that my tales of far-flung places lead quickly to my listeners’ eyes glazing over, or a faint green tinge of jealousy appearing. Either way, the subject is soon changed to something more mundane. Yet when I’m around frequent travelers, I feel out of my depth, like an inexperienced novice explorer who has barely tapped the well of the remote regions of the world.

Between journeys, I pore over maps, imagine foreign landscapes and dream of distant destinations. Yet, Hokkaido, where I live today, was for me, as a teenager in England, once one of those far-flung places. Perhaps even our furthest travels only serve to bring us home, though that home may move with us during our lives.

Each of us travels so differently, some as passive observers, some as active participants, some with passions for the destination, some to escape from aspects of ourselves or our home lives. For me, wherever I travel I delve into the past, and I feel always that I am traveling in the footsteps of heroes.

As explorers in space, the crew of the Starship Enterprise was on a split-infinitive mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Their dreams and aspirations were essentially to enter the void; to literally go beyond the known realm of human exploration. Doing so on Earth has become increasingly difficult, such that even after voyaging to what seem to be the remotest spots in the world, it’s almost inevitable that others have been there before.

So, just where are the ends of the Earth, and where does the known world begin?

Rather than striving to be first, today’s explorers may find pleasure in knowing in whose footsteps they are treading when following their trails to the ends of the Earth.

On the great white continent of Antarctica, perhaps one’s hero is either the British naval officer Capt. Robert Scott or his successful rival in their respective 1910-11 bids to be the first-ever people to reach the South Pole, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, or perhaps that consummate leader of men: Anglo-Irish polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Reading of their dramatic exploits just over a century ago in that overwhelmingly harsh landscape brings that remote and readily lethal region somehow much more dramatically to life; knowing what they endured in such a place is in itself chilling, and that’s before experiencing one’s first landing on the southern continent or feeling one’s first supercold katabatic wind come flowing down from mountains and across the ice cap. There is nothing to stop them, so they form sheet-like rivers of air and blowing snow.

For me though, it was reading about the winter journey (June 27-Aug. 2, 1911) to Cape Crozier on Ross Island in Antarctica made by the British explorers Edward Wilson, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Henry Robertson Bowers to collect eggs from an Emperor Penguin colony — as described so powerfully by Cherry-Garrard (one of the youngest of Scott’s team) in his dramatic account of the almost ill-fated research journey, which brought the continent to life.

In his book, “The Worst Journey in the World,” Cherry-Garrard details their slow and hazardous journey in winter’s darkness, through severe and extreme weather conditions, and cruel privations; his writings not only made a deep impression on me, but they have since always made me appreciate deeply the luxury of sailing to the continent in a modern expedition ship, and the ease with which we now land there, albeit temporarily.

How many visitors to the far south each Antarctic summer (for that is when most visitors go there) realize that the knife-edge between luxury and life-threatening disaster in such a dangerous environment is such a very thin one?

However, travel is all about being exposed to the unfamiliar, about taking risks; and the further one travels the greater are those risks. Travel to the remotest spots in the world — to the ends of the Earth (in the words of a 1980s trilogy of novels by William Golding) — and the risks only multiply.

As a young traveling naturalist growing up in England, I was inspired by the furthest reaches of the world that I could then imagine, particularly Kamchatka and Chukotka — the furthest eastern extremities of my nearest continent, Eurasia. Little did I realize that one day I would follow in the footsteps of early heroes who visited there, such as the Russian explorer/navigator Semyon Ivanov Dezhnyov (1605-73), the Danish commander Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741) and the German physician/naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller (1707-46).

I have made multiple journeys by ship that have allowed me to visit remote coastal areas of northeasternmost Russia and to experience first-hand the Chukchi Peninsula, where people still build walrus-hide boats (umiak), and where I have met Siberian Yupik people, seen their walrus-tusk carvings and visited them in their yurt-like yaranga.

I’ve also been able to land on uninhabited Cape Dezhnev itself (the easternmost point of Eurasia), where I encountered what was then the supercontinent’s most northeasterly Brown Bear, and I have visited the isolated islands of the Bering Sea, where I witnessed Bering Strait Inupiat children catching seabirds with their bare hands. In each case, what had to me seemed outlandishly far off and remote before I visited was, of course, familiar, and “home” to local people.

This surely is the fundamental learning point achieved by travel: Everywhere, no matter how strange and unusual it may seem to us, is familiar to someone.

Perhaps the greatest experience of travel is not so much to do with learning about geographical locations, but more about personal growth and learning to know oneself for the first time. After all, it is the traveler who is changed by the experience, while the location visited remains essentially the same.

Contemplating the capacity and ability that Siberian Yupik and Bering Strait Inupiat peoples have to survive in a frozen landscape for more than half the year at one end of the Earth is to ponder a skill set unattainable here in Japan.

Meanwhile, imagining the innate skills of the peoples of Central Asia to survive at high altitude in a punishingly tough environment, or considering the capacity of the Cinta Larga to survive enmeshed in the web of life presented by the western Amazon rain forest is, from our perspective, no stranger than it is for such people to imagine how we can possibly live in an energy-hungry, overcrowded island nation.

On the vast open steppe beneath the seemingly endless blue sky of Mongolia it is difficult to look at a horse-herders’ laths-and-felt ger (another mobile, yurt-like dwelling) without imagining the mounted soldiers of the Mongolian empire following the great Genghis Khan (1162-1227) to create the greatest continental empire ever known — and essentially shape the modern world.

This high, cold place, where semi-arid grasslands ripple under each breeze much like the surface of the ocean, is overarched by the clearest night sky on Earth. There is no light pollution on the steppe, so planets, stars, shooting stars and man-made satellites are all brilliantly bright in the blackest of night skies swept across by the broad Milky Way. Sitting outside my ger at a beautiful camp at Jalman Meadows, with my telescope trained on the moons of Jupiter, I cannot escape from thoughts that the Great Khan and his people looked up into exactly the same sky, navigating by it as they set off to conquer the known world.

Such musings bring to mind the physical endurance of the peoples who live in the stone desert of the Mongolian Gobi or the sand deserts of the Malian, Moroccan or Algerian Sahara — and of those mapless traders who pioneered routes across these inhospitable lands.

Learning about travel is as much about history as it is about geography, and early travelers were often the makers or chroniclers of both, as was the Moroccan-born Saharan explorer and writer Ibn Battuta (1304-69), who traveled and wrote about much of the known world from Tangiers east to Assam, Sri Lanka and China and south to West Africa.

Point a finger at a world map, or drop a needle onto a globe when planning ones travels, and the challenge is not just to find out how to access each “remote” destination, but to discover who was the first to travel there, and when.

In recent years, I have visited what, by my own standards, have been remote locations in the Brazilian Amazon in search of river dolphins, sloths, monkeys, bats and birds. Indeed, on my most recent adventure to the Rio da Duvida at the end of September, I reached perhaps the remotest place I have ever been — or can ever imagine.

A traveler needs only to take a few paces off a trail into any patch of South American tropical rain forest to feel remote, even completely disoriented and lost. Stray far from the trail into the jungle and the chances of being found are slim. Surrounded by some of the densest vegetation on Earth, with light filtering only weakly through a canopy spreading 50 meters up above, there is no view, no landscape — in fact nothing by which to orient yourself.

The sun rises quickly from darkness into brightness and sets as rapidly into night, and between dawn and dusk the soporific heat and skin-soaking humidity are relentless and oppressive. The surrounding forest is alive with the unfamiliar sounds of insects, frogs and birds — yet it soaks up those sounds and a human shout seems to barely carry at all as it is muffled by the natural soundproofing of layers upon layers of living leaves. Meanwhile, the forest floor is a maze of roots and rootlets carpeted with fallen leaves and every surface, horizontal or vertical seems to be the hiding place for ants or biting insects. Tread cautiously for there are many things here willing to take a meal from an imprudent visitor.

Imagine then how I felt traveling by air over such a forest at high speed for more than an hour, watching as unbroken forest unfolded below, above lines of low forested hills, over meandering rivers and enormous isolated oxbow lakes glinting in the sun and reflecting light like streaks and pools of mercury.

Yet upon dropping in closer just before landing, the forest took on an entirely new texture — like an immense crop of towering, densely sprouting broccoli. We skimmed down to tree-top height, saw the river winding across our flight path, then at last a broad clearing opened just below us and moments later we were bouncing to a halt on a short, jungle airstrip.

The noisy flight by small aircraft from Porto Velho, capital of the Brazilian state of Rondonia, had taken 80 minutes to transport me and my friends from a modern city into the heart of the forest — but that was just the last leg of a long roundabout route.

To reach Porto Velho, I had passed through Alta Floresta, before that Cuiaba, and before that Sao Paulo. The very first leg of my journey to Sao Paulo from Hokkaido via Incheon, South Korea, and Los Angeles, had taken me nearly 40 hours. I could not have felt further from home. As I traveled on that journey, I reflected on why I travel, and as I peered down into the forest below throughout the last 300 km or so of my journey, I had in mind the travails of the first non-native explorers to this region — who had reached the very same river just one century earlier.

Today, the dramatically named Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt) is known as the Rio Roosevelt (Roosevelt River) in honor of the 26th U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who set off with his son, Kermit, to explore this barely known waterway during the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition of 1913-14 — just as Cherry-Garrard’s explorations in Antarctica with Scott were ending.

Roosevelt, unfamiliar with the region, was in the supremely capable company of the great and extraordinarily energetic Brazilian explorer Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon (1865-1958), a marshal in the army who was renowned for his exploration of Mato Grosso — now a state in the country’s west.

However, despite all Rondon’s experience, and all the planning for the expedition, the journey down the river Rondon had previously named the Rio da Duvida after locating its headwaters, was to turn into a life-threatening, and life-taking, expedition of great dangers and tribulations.

The survival of the expedition team seems at times to have verged on the miraculous, and having visited one of their campsites and seen the enormous expanse of the rapids just above and below it, I doubt that I could have endured such a journey — especially lacking, as they did, modern equipment.

The River of Doubt rises west of Mato Grosso, in the small state of Rondonia, which is named after the great explorer. It then flows northward some 640 km before joining the Rio Aripuana, and thence into the Rio Madeira and finally the Amazon.

It was the goal of the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition to follow the river, map it and determine by which route it reached the mighty Amazon. The Rio Roosevelt is by most standards a large river, though it is dwarfed by those into which it empties. It was my goal merely to visit it, to stand where Rondon and Roosevelt had stood, to imagine their journey and witness a little of what they passed through.

The immediate region of the river seems unchanged, the forest still seemingly endless and overwhelming (though the forests of the Amazon basin have been drastically reduced in the intervening century), the river is still powerful and surges over waterfalls, is hemmed in by canyons and cascades across almost impassable or completely impassable white-water rapids.

Navigating close to one of those rapids in a small, motorized aluminium-hulled boat, during a period of relatively unrampaging low water, I was impressed even then by the immense power of the river and simply could not imagine it in spate following heavy rains. Rondon and Roosevelt’s navigation of this route using heavy dugout canoes was nothing short of miraculous — though why they didn’t use rafts is baffling.

As my friends and our Brazilian guide Frederico Tavares looked out on the river one afternoon, a Neotropical River Otter played in the shallows, flocks of large, ungainly Hoatzin rose from riverside vegetation and flocks of colorful and noisy Orange-cheeked Parrots gathered by the river to chatter and squawk. My thoughts, though, kept turning to those explorers whose minds were so much on survival that they could barely enjoy the scenes I was reveling in.

Yet even Rondon and Roosevelt were not the first; they were shadowed throughout their expedition by members of the Cinta Larga, people indigenous to the western Amazon, who may have lived in the forest for unknowable millennia.

To me, the River of Doubt, and the tropical forests through which it runs, is rich in wildlife and history. For Rondon and Roosevelt the same area was ripe for exploration. Yet for the Cinta Larga, the forest represented a familiar homeland, proving only that the concept of remoteness and the distance from “here” to “the ends of the Earth” is merely a matter of perspective.

Mark Brazil is a British travel and natural history writer, photographer and eco-tourism consultant based in Hokkaido. A long-term contributor to The Japan Times, his “Wild Watch” column has been running since 1982. For more details, visit www.japannatureguides.com.