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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012


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'

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.

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Bogoslov Island, Cukotka, Russia

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.

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Sea-ice off Baffin Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago

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.

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River of Doubt (Roosevelt River), Rondonia, Brazil

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).

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Prince Leopold Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago

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.

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Iony Island, Sea of Okhotsk, Russia

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.

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