Monday, July 30, 2012

2012 Book 19: The Last Explorer

While reading The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, Hero of the Great Age of Polar Exploration by Simon Nasht, it struck me that if you gravitate towards reading books on topics you love then I am a sucker for real-life adventure.

I found the historical account of Sir Hubert Wilkins to be fascinating. This man lived through so many near death experiences – from being on the front lines as a photographer during World War I to being in numerous plane crashes as a pioneer in aviation. He even walked out of the Arctic after a crash landing and was the first to lead a dive in a submarine under Arctic waters. He was also the first to fly over the North Pole from the USA to Europe. The Australian born man explored on behalf of the Australians, the British and the United States of America.

He was ahead of his time in how he viewed the need for exploration and the need to understand weather patterns. I really loved learning about this last great, private citizen who was the last explorer.

Excerpts from the book:
His near suicidal dedication (to photographing WWI) defies belief. If it had not been witnessed by all around him, and visibly evident from his photographs and films, Wilkins’ exploits would seem the loftiest of tall stories.

The wise men of the Meteorological Society acknowledged his proposal, honoured him by electing him a fellow of the society, and then reacted like all practised bureaucracies when faced with difficult questions—they appointed a subcommittee to investigate.

He had fantastic plans, so ambitious that no one else had dared to dream them.

Wilkins intended to establish once and for all whether there was land in the unexplored frigid heart of the Arctic. Since the beginning of recorded history this mission had been making fools of smart men and widows of their wives.

While the Empire had lost its taste for exploration, he soon discovered the United States had a huge appetite for adventure—and the money to bankroll it.

Wilkins summed up his two years of struggle in his typically succinct way: “We begged for money, bought machines, flew them and smashed them, rebuilt them and smashed ourselves."

“Is it the primitive thirst for adventure,” Wilkins asked, “the desire to penetrate the unseen and the unknown; to experience the thrill that comes from the presence of danger and the satisfaction one feels at facing and narrowly cheating death that takes me again and again to the polar regions? Yes, it is, to a certain extent, but the experienced know there is a thrill greater than that of adventure. It is the thrill of worthy accomplishment.”

The man was a dreamer, and dreamers are important. They think things that other people would reject immediately as not being possible.

In all Wilkins had made thirty-three expeditions in polar regions and explored every continent. He had sledged and flown, sailed and walked across more unknown land than any man in history. He had been knighted by the kings of England and Italy, awarded by the great societies, honoured by Stalin and U.S. presidents. The other giants of the golden age of polar exploration considered him without peer. But the great achievements had ultimately been overshadowed by one sad misadventure aboard a decrepit submarine which had put the lives of twenty men in the gravest danger.

Wilkins was unmoved by working-class revolutions, unshackled by dogma; his optimism was left unbroken by the ferocity of wars or the blind cruelties of nature. His talent was to see beyond the horizons of our limitations or the vicissitudes of fate. He sought a licence to dream, to imagine, to go where we had not ventured with our feet or our minds. Ultimately he believed in the power of the human spirit to walk into unknown territory and make good, for ourselves and our world. His legacy was this sanguine, unshakeable faith in our power to progress. Where would we be without his kind?

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